By: Sarah Stone
On my nightstand sit three books I’m slowly working my way through: Popular Crime, by Bill James; Song of the Silk Road, by Mingmei Yip; and Soul Mountain, by Gao Xingjian. One I picked up because, come on, popular crime is super interesting!—and the other two I bought because exploring China has always been on my bucket list.
Every time I have a little cash saved up, I open up Google Maps and click on a few of the same cities, comparing airfare to each. Every time, I look at Beijing and Shanghai. I’ve been able to visit one so far (Shanghai!), and I keep pricing out the other to see if it’ll go under $1,200 round-trip.
I’m not sure exactly how my absolute need to explore China started, but I devour any film, book, or article I see about this incredible country. I took enough classes in Chinese history at my university to qualify for a minor if it had existed there. From ancient to modern, China has always been the subject of a particular fascination for me.
So! If I were to book a trip tomorrow to tour all over China, here’s what I’d put on it (and that I’d recommend you check out as well):
1: The Forbidden City in Beijing
For 500 years and two dynasties (the Ming and Qing), and 24 emperors, it was a royal palace and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s the world’s largest imperial palace, and among the world’s most famous and well-kept wooden structures. And yes—you can visit, despite the name! Situated in the middle of Beijing, this complex is a gorgeous historical and cultural landmark.
2: The Five Great Mountains (Wu Yue)
These include Mount Tai, Hua, Heng, Shanxi, and Song, corresponding to the east, west, south, north, and center, respectively. Photos and paintings of these mountains are the earliest things that piqued my curiosity in visiting China, and probably the first reason it’s on my bucket list. The mountains have been sites of pilgrimage and sacrifice for emperors over many centuries.
3: The Leshan Giant Buddha
This 233-foot-tall statue of the Buddha was carved directly out of the side of a cliff face of the Lingyun Mountain during the Tang Dynasty. Overlooking the Dadu, Minjiang, and Qingyi rivers, the Leshan Giant Buddha is one of the largest statues in the world, and is one of the Sichuan Province’s most popular tourism sites.
4: The Donghuamen Night Market
Back to Beijing—the Donghuamen Night Market is world-famous for its array of unusual and delicious food stalls. You can get centipede or scorpion on a stick, fried crickets…or more familiar foods like dumplings.
Update: Sadly this night market closed in 2016, but you can still visit many others, like the Wangfujing Night Market, the Shichahai Food Street, and the Guijie Night Market, all situated in Beijing.
5: The Bund
I’m lucky enough to have already visited The Bund, but it would be wonderful to go back and explore more—this strip in Shanghai overlooks the Huangpu River, on toward the more famous view of Shanghai, the Pudong District. The Bund is interesting for its Western-style Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, and other buildings, and it’s a short walk away from Yuyuan Garden, Nanjing Road, and other must-see places in Shanghai.