Exploring the Forbidden City's Forgotten Corners (Beijing)
No one fails to be impressed by the grandeur of the Forbidden City's central axis, which is all most visitors see. But the quieter maze of pavilions, gardens, courtyards, and theaters to either side have the greater charm.
Getting Lost in the lanes around Beijing's Back Lakes
No other city in the world has anything quite like the hutong, narrow lanes once "as numberless as the hairs on an ox." Now rapidly vanishing, the best-preserved hutong are found around a pair of man-made lakes in the city center. This area is almost the last repository of Old Beijing's gritty, low-rise charm, dotted with tiny temples, hole-in-the-wall noodle shops, and quiet courtyard houses whose older residents still wear Mao suits.
Walking on the Great Wall from Jinshanling to Simatai (Beijing)
The Great Wall, winding snakelike through the mountains, was meant to be walked. This magnificent 3-hour hike follows China's greatest monument through various states of repair, from freshly restored to thoroughly crumbling, over steep peaks and gentle flats, and through patches of wilderness and rugged farmland, with over two dozen watchtowers along the way.
Strolling Past the Old Russian Architecture in Harbin
At the heart of the Russian-built city, Zhongyang Dajie's unexpected cupola-topped Art Nouveau mansions are reminders of the 1920s and 1930s, when Harbin was the liveliest stop on this leg of the Trans-Siberian Railroad.
Cycling the City Wall in Xi'an
The largest city walls in China have been much pierced for modern purposes and can be tackled in a modern way, too, with a breezy, traffic-light-free ride above the rooftops on rented bicycles and tandems. Behold views of remnants of vernacular architecture, clustered around small temples.
Gazing at the Sea of Terra-Cotta Warriors at the Tomb of Qin Shi Huang (Xi'an)
The first sight of the tomb, in a hangarlike building, leaves many visitors stunned and awed. This destination is at the top of almost every visitor's list, and it does not disappoint.
Strolling the Old Neighborhoods of Kashgar
Spending hours watching how citizens of Kashgar live is one of the most rewarding experiences along the Silk Road, but government plans to redevelop most of the old city are in action and soon this will all be gone. For now the dusty alleys, colorful residential doorways, and mud-brick walls remain as they have been for decades. Kids with henna-dyed feet and fingernails will approach you speaking a few words of Chinese and English; men with donkey carts trudge down narrow passages; bakers arrange round large slabs of naan in coal ovens built into the ground. Get there while you can!
Dining on Shanghai's Bund
The most widely known street in Asia, with its gorgeous colonial buildings that were the banks, hotels, trading firms, and private clubs of foreign taipans (bosses of old Shanghai's trading firms) and adventurers past, deserves to be walked over and over again. After you've seen it by day, come back again at night for a different perspective.
Strolling in Shanghai's French Concession
This is the most interesting of the colonial districts left in Shanghai, filled with the gorgeous villas, mansions, and apartment houses of the 1920s and 1930s when the French made their mark here. Plenty of Art Deco gems abound, hidden behind years of grime and buried beneath webs of laundry poles, awaiting discovery, so keep your head up.
Riding the Star Ferry (Hong Kong)
The subway between Kowloon and Hong Kong Island may be quicker, but it doesn't hold a candle to the historic Star Ferry, offering one of the most dramatic -- and cheapest -- 5-minute boat rides in the world. The trip is a good reminder that Hong Kong, with its breathtaking skyline, is dominated by water, with one of the world's busiest harbors.
Exploring the Karst Scenery around Yangshuo
The cruise down the Li River between Guilin and Yangshuo may be overexposed and overpriced, but the scenery remains absolutely captivating. Avoid the pricey taxis and motorbike rentals and explore instead in traditional Chinese style, by bicycle. Both the Yulong River and the Jin Bao are still relatively peaceful as they flick lazily through serrated hills like dragon's teeth.
Exploring Lijiang's Old Town
Built over 800 years ago and partly rebuilt after a massive 1996 earthquake, Lijiang's old town, with its maze of cobblestone streets, gurgling streams, and original and reconstructed traditional Naxi houses, is one of the most atmospheric places in China -- hordes of tourists notwithstanding. Rise before the sun, then watch its golden rays filter through the gray winding streets, lighting up the dark wooden houses.
Unwinding in a Sichuan Teahouse
One of the great pleasures of being in Sichuan is drinking tea at a neighborhood teahouse. On any given afternoon at Qingyang Gong in Chengdu, for instance, seniors can be found playing mahjong with friends while their caged songbirds sit in nearby trees providing ambient music. As patrons eat watermelon seeds, nuts, dried squid, or beef jerky, attendants appear at regular intervals to refill their cups from copper kettles. For an afternoon of perfect relaxation, stop by and forget about sightseeing for a few hours.
Taking a "Peapod" Boat Tour (Yangzi River)
The best of the Three Gorges cruise excursions, a 2-hour journey through a long, narrow canyon takes passengers to one of the famous suspended coffins of the Ba people, then returns downstream in a fraction of the time. Along the way, howler monkeys may be spotted swinging through the trees, small waterfalls appear from the rocks, and swallows and other small birds flit about. The water in this small tributary is surprisingly clear, and the scenery and silence are thoroughly calming.
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