As well known today for its turbulent modern history as its ancient and proud culture, this once mysterious country has lately reemerged onto the world stage, and in recent years, embarked on a rapid evolution that has made it one of the most important players in world economics and politics.
This dichotomy – being simultaneously old and new – is reflected in China’s landscape. From the ultramodern skylines of Shanghai to the imposing imperial palace in Beijing; from the bustling shopping district on Nanjing Road to the tranquil canals in Suzhou; from the trendy 798 Art Zone to the Great Wall that has been guarding the country for millennia; some Chinese live in soaring high-rises, while others live in traditional courtyards. These two radically different faces of China are equally fascinating, and both are as true as the other.
Beijingers take pride in the capital’s history, its revered temples, palaces, and proximity to the Great Wall. This historic appeal is enlivened with creative dining and nightlife, and edgy contemporary art scene. Beijing was the capital of China as early as the 13th century when imperial commands were issued from the Forbidden City and sent to the remotest outposts of the Chinese Empire. Today, China’s ponderous political directives are composed in neighboring Zhongnanhai. But stroll through Tiananmen Square, and you will instantly sense the continuing significance of what is arguably China’s greatest city.
Beijing provides access to both reconstructed and “wild” portions of the Great Wall, superior opera companies, the most delectable roast duck, the most elegant palaces in China, and one of the world’s largest public squares, to name just a few of its rich historical and cultural treasures. The grounds of the former imperial capital envelop the Forbidden City, which is also surrounded by the pure soul of Beijing: the city’s grid of charming hutongs. Lose yourself in these narrow old alleyways – where whole communities still thrive – and you will see Beijing at its more authentic.
Younger, brasher, more hedonistic, Shanghai is often defined by its futuristic skyline. The view from the ground, however, reveals exceptional heritage and art deco architecture alongside China’s most eclectic and progressive fashion, restaurants, and clubs. Perhaps the least Chinese city in China, Shanghai has been molded since the mid-1900s by the cosmopolitan influence of European, American, and Japanese residents.
Formerly a sleepy fishing port, Shanghai – which means “on the sea” in Chinese – has always been associated with water. Over the years, this watery setting has brought Shanghai prosperity as a port. The city is split in two by Huangpu River – the area to the west is called Puxi, while the area to the east is called Pudong. Puxi is the older central part of the city, where the Bund and other attractions from the city’s colonial past can be found, while Pudong is the rapidly developing area across the river, where most high-rises and the Special Economic Zone is located.
Xi’an is the capital of the Shaanxi Province, which is considered the cradle of ancient Chinese culture. The city of Xi’an, or Chang’an as it was known then, with more than 3,000 years of history, was the capital city of 13 dynasties and home to 73 emperors, starting from the Zhou Dynasty dating back to 1046 BC.
The ancient city was also the starting point of the Silk Road. Traders from as far as Ancient Rome brought goods and ideas to Xi’an, and took away Chinese goods and ideas back to their native land. Unfortunately, constant wars in recent centuries have destroyed much of the city’s heritage, but the city remains one of the most popular tourist destinations in China, if for the famous Terracotta Warriors alone.
The city of Suzhou is as beautiful as a classical Chinese painting, with ample water running through the city and stunningly arranged classical gardens that line the canals. In 1997, the classical gardens were inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
This ancient city dates back to the Kingdom of Wu, from the 12th to the 4th century BC, before even the time of the first emperor of China. After the kingdom was conquered, the city continued to be the center of the Wu culture, which flourished in these parts. Today, Suzhou is a core city of the Yangtze River Delta Economic Zone. It is an epicenter of China’s silk production and trade as it was in ancient China, and its beautiful canals and tranquil gardens continue to inspire scholars, artists, craftsmen, and travelers every day.
Chengdu is the capital and largest city of the province of Sichuan in southwest China. It is located on the fertile plains of the Red Basin and has had a long history of prosperity. It is sometimes known as the “Land of Milk and Honey” for its agricultural wealth.
The city contains five urban districts, four suburban districts, nine counties, and is home to 14 million people. The culture of Chengdu is considered relaxed and highly livable, unlike other major Chinese cities. The foothills of the mighty Tibetan Plateaus are just an hour to the west of Chengdu, making the city an access point to Tibet.