Ever since the world discovered China through the writings of adventurer Marco Polo more than 700 years ago, we've come to regard this large Asian country as the embodiment of all that is mysterious and exotic. Even now, after decades of economic growth, this vast country has lost none of its fascination; indeed, the contrast between China's ancient customs and the new ultra-modern state that is developing has only increased our fascination with a culture that dates back many millennia. And it's a culture that is much celebrated by the Chinese themselves, as evidenced by the preservation of such important historic sites as the Forbidden City and the Summer Palace in the capital of Beijing, each of which magnificently recall the days of China's emperors. And then, of course, there's the famous Great Wall, winding for 6,700 kilometers from the Yellow Sea to Central Asia, while its countless shrines exude the spirit of age-old Eastern religions. As big as a continent, China offers limitless scope for adventure, and whether you choose to travel aboard a luxury cruise ship through the picturesque Yangtze gorges, visit a bustling city, or seek out the tranquility of an ancient temple, China has something for everyone.
1 Editor's PickThe Great Wall of China
"Nobody can be a true hero unless he has been on the Great Wall" goes the popular saying, one that clearly demonstrates the importance that the Chinese place upon this unique ancient monument. The magnificent Great Wall of China - known in Chinese as Changcheng, or the Long Wall - stretches more than 6,000 kilometers from the fortresses of Shanhaiguan in the east to Jiayuguan in the west, passing through Hebei, Tientsin, Beijing - where the best preserved section of the wall can be visited - Inner Mongolia, Ningxia, and Gansu along the way. Averaging six to eight meters in height but rising as high as 16 meters in places, and wide enough for cavalry to pass, the wall boasts numerous battlements and watchtowers, some dating back as far as the 7th century BC, with the best-known areas added around 210 BC when its various sections were joined. Today, the most visited section of the wall is near Badaling Pass
northwest of Beijing, easily reached by public transport or organized tours. Other restored sections worth a visit include the section near Gubeikou
, 130 kilometers from Beijing, and in Mutianyu
, just 70 kilometers northeast of Beijing.
2 The Forbidden City and the Imperial Palace, Beijing
China's largest and most important building, the Forbidden City - also known as the Imperial Palace - is in the heart of Beijing and is a must-see when visiting the country. Started during the Yuan Dynasty between 1271-1368, much of the complex seen today (it's really many splendid palaces in one) was built between 1406 and 1420 as the residence of 24 Ming and Qing Emperors, whose presence forbade the entry of anyone other than the imperial family and their courtesans. Covering some 720,000 square meters and protected by a 10-meter-high wall with watchtowers and a wide moat, this massive complex consists of areas set aside for ceremonial and administrative purposes, as well as a private residence used by the emperor. While it can take many hours to see everything, highlights include the five white marble Golden River Bridges; the Hall of Supreme Harmony, a 35-meter-tall building housing the imperial throne; and the exquisite emperor's banquet hall (the Hall of Preserving Harmony), to name but a few.
3 Editor's PickThe Terracotta Army
It was while digging wells on the outskirts of Xi'an in the 1970s that farmers stumbled across what was undoubtedly China's most important archeological find: the Terracotta Army. Distributed over three large underground pits and built to guard the First Emperor's tomb were more than 8,000 life-size warriors, some 520 horses, and more than 100 chariots, along with numerous other non-military characters dating from around 280 BC. Although some were severely damaged due to the passing of time, many of the statues unearthed have been painstakingly re-assembled and stand as testament to the importance bestowed upon the emperor and the afterlife. The site - part of the Emperor Qin Shi Huang's Mausoleum Site Park - is one of China's most important tourist destinations and offers the unforgettable experience of standing in front of this assembly of soldiers and horses as if inspecting a centuries-old parade.