Top 10 Places to Visit in China - Travel Documentary
Welcome to China A vast country with an immense history. And easily one of the most captivating travel destinations in the world. From the ruins of the Great Wall to vibrant megacities.
From surreal mountain landscapes to charming riverside villages. Today's China is a beautiful, complicated, and fascinating place. I traveled to China independently for more than a decade, on several occasions.
And in this video I will share with you my personal top 10 places to visit. We begin our journey in Fenghuang, a beautiful riverside village in central China. Fenghuang was built more than 300 years ago. As a border town between Han civilization and minorities living in the nearby mountains. With its strategic location, Fenghuang quickly became a center of trade and cultural exchange. Residents started using profits to build unique wooden stilt houses, stone towers, bridges, and a defensive city wall.
Some of these structures are still intact, while others have been restored or rebuilt. One of the best ways to appreciate the village is from the water. Countless boats are sailing down the river every day, operated by seemingly tireless workers. In recent years, Fenghuang has become a major tourist destination. And the arrival of Chinese tour groups is quickly changing the character of the town.
As a foreign traveler, it can sometimes be overwhelming to deal with these crowds. But if you pick the right moments, you can still enjoy some of Fenghuang's old world charm. The next destination is Harbin, a city of over 5 million people in the Northeast of China. Just a small backwater at the turn of the 20th century, Harbin started to expand with the arrival of a Russian railway line, which connected the town to Vladivostok. The Russian influence is still visible today, perhaps most notably in the Orthodox church of Saint Sophia.
Harbin is a popular place year round, but things really get busy in Winter, When millions of people usually flock to the city, to visit the famous Ice and Snow festival. Thousands of workers prepare for many weeks in bitterly cold conditions, building temples, sculptures and palaces, all made from ice and snow. Except for admiring the artwork, there are also many Winter activities on offer. And as you walk around, you will see people sledding, skating, using ice bicycles and colorful tubes.
While spectacular during the day, my favorite time to visit the festival is around sunset. At twilight, the ice sculptures are lit up with beautiful neon lights, creating a magical atmosphere. Temperatures also drop dramatically, so be sure to wear enough layers. After Harbin, we travel to Yangshuo in the South of China. The region between Yangshuo and Guilin boasts some of the most breathtaking landscapes in the country.
With otherworldly limestone hills and mountains, mixed with green farmland and charming villages. Many travelers plan a few days in this area, but end up staying longer, captivated by the natural beauty and relaxed vibe. Coming here also provides a good insight into rural life in China. While China's urbanization is continuing at breakneck speed, around 40% of the population, almost 600 milllion people, still live in the countryside. Life can be tough here, as much of the work is done by hand, even if more communities are able to afford machinery.
One of the best things to do in Yangshuo, is to rent a bicycle and simply start paddling. Another popular way to get around is by bamboo raft, floating down some of the many rivers in the region. Yangshuo itself can feel a bit crowded, but the surrounding countryside is quintessential rural China. I recommend staying in one of the nearby villages, waking up to a view of rice paddies, and the sound of chirping crickets. Next up is Beijing, the nation's capital. Beijing has a history that reaches back more than 3,000 years.
It's the political center of China, but also brims with culture and creativity. A good place to start exploring the city is Tiananmen Square, where Mao Zedong proclaimed the People's Rebublic of China, an event that changed the course of the country drastically. These days the square is a hotspot for Chinese tourists, and gets especially busy on national holidays.
Across from Tianamen lies the Forbidden City, arguably the most interesting historic site in Beijing. Off limits for 500 years, hence its name, this is the largest and best preserved cluster of ancient buildings in China. Two dynasties of emperors lived here, who only left the walled city when they really had to. Other landmarks in Beijing include the Summer Palace and the Temple of Heaven park, a beautiful complex of religious buildings in the South of the city. Watching the daily life in the parks and some of the remaining hutongs, narrow alleyways in traditional neighborhoods, is perhaps equally rewarding.
You might come across people playing jianzi, best described as a mix of badminton and football. Or mahjong, the classic Chinese tile game. Don't leave the city without tasting, or at least smelling, Peking duck, a dish first served to emperors. And watching a show of Beijing Opera. A must do when in Beijing is visit the Great Wall, a series of fortifications that were built along the borders of ancient Chinese states, and later imperial China.
These stretches were linked when China was unified in the Qing Dynasty, more than 2,000 years ago, and became known as the Great Wall of China. While possible as a day trip, you do run the risk of extreme crowds at Badaling, a restored part closest to Beijing. With more time it pays off to do an overnight trip to, for instance, Gubekou or Jianshanling, where you will find quiet stretches of unrestored wall. The next spot on my list is the incredible Zhangjiajie national park, which features some of the most surreal natural landscapes in the world. The mountains in this region contain more than 3,000 pinnacles, peaks, and spires, and can be found in many ancient Chinese paintings.
More recently, they were the inspiration of Hallelujah Mountains of Pandora, in the immensely popular movie Avatar. Zhangjiajie is actually part of a larger national park called Wulingyuan Scenic Area, and it's easy to spend a couple of days here. Getting around the park is relatively straightforward, With a dense network of walkways, stairs, buses and cable cars. If that wasn't enough, there are also glass elevators, electric monorails, and escalators cutting right through some of the mountains.
A recent addition to all the manmade attractions, is the Zhangjiajie Glass Bridge, which is designed to hold up to 800 people at a time. Walking the bridge can be an exhilarating experience, as you stare down the 300 meters deep canyon underneath. Welcome to Lhasa, the spiritual heartland of Tibet. Arriving here feels like stepping into a different world. The first view of the magnificent Potala Palace are unforgettable. This is the historical seat of the Tibetan government, and former Winter residence of the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of the Tibetan people, who is currently living in exile in India.
Tibet has had a tumultuous history dating back to the 7th century, and has known periods of independence and occupation, by Chinese and Mongolian dynasties. More recently, in 1950, it was invaded by Communist China, which has ruled the region ever since. Much has been written about the Tibetan issue, and it's a good idea to read up before you travel here.
And note that foreign travelers can only visit Tibet as part of a tour. A good way to start exploring Lhasa, is by joining pilgrims making a traditional kora, as they walk around the Potala Palace turning prayer wheels and mumbling mantras. Kora is a combination of pilgrimage, and meditative practice in Tibetan Buddhism.
It's also possible to climb the Potala Palace, but make sure to take your time, as Lhasa is located at an altitude of over 3,600 meters. Another spot not to miss is the Sera monastery, one of the largest in Tibet, and an important center of education. Come here for the daily debating session, when monks discuss philosophical and religious topics inside of their courtyards. My favorite area to visit is called Barkhor, essentially the spiritual center of the city. Countless pilgrims walk around the Jokhang temple, where they perform prostration, a ritual meant to purify negative thoughts and bad karma. Some prostrate all the way from their villages to Lhasa, a journey that can take several months.
But most take part in shorter versions. After Lhasa we travel to Eastern China, to visit Shanghai, a city like no other in the country. Its iconic skyline is one of the main drawcards, and often touted as a symbol of China's immense economic growth. But it's not all glitz and glamour here, as the city also boasts some incredible historic architecture, beautiful parks and laidback neighborhoods. Most travelers start their trip to Shanghai on the Bund, a waterfront promenade lined with former Western consulates and financial institutions.
Many of the buildings are now used as restaurants, bars and fashion stores. And provide a stunning contrast with the modern skyline of Pudong, Shanghai's business district. Mostly farmland only three decades ago, this spectacle of fancy skyscrapers has become a major financial hub.
Some of the buildings have observation decks, from where you can get stunning views over the city. Shanghai is a city of commerce, which is best seen by walking Nanjing Lu, a pedestrian shopping street in the heart of the city. More traditional neighborhoods still exist, but you have to look closely these days to find them. Walking some of the narrow alleyways of this old Shanghai is an adventure on its own. And it's easy to get lost, both in time and place. This authentic Shanghai, however, is disappearing fast, as many buildings are replaced by apartment towers and shopping malls.
It's the story of Shanghai, a city in constanst flux, changing all the time. And who dares to guess what it will look like in a few decades? After all this urban exploring, it's time to travel to the Yuanyang rice terraces, a rural wonderland in Southern China. For more than a thousand years, the local Hani people have been developing an intricate system of rice terraces, making use of the unique climate in the region. As water evaporates from river valleys below, it forms fog and clouds that are trapped between the mountains.
Rainfall then fills the terraces, and this cycle continues year round. You can stay in one of the many villages. Except for the incredible views, it's a great way to experience some of the rural life up close. I highly recommend visiting one of the neary food markets. They are colorful events with many people wearing their traditional dress, and provide a great opportunity to witness local customs, and taste some of the regional food. Next up is Qingdao, one of China's most beautiful coastal cities.
Set on the shores of the Yellow Sea, with rolling green hills as backdrop, it surely is a scenic place. Many Chinese tourists come here to visit the beaches, and eat some of the best seafood in the country. But it was the German architecture that caught my eye when I first arrived here. German naval officers invaded Qingdao in the late 19th century, and left their mark on the city, building railway lines, churches, villas, schools, and even a brewery. Tsingtao is now one of China's largest beer producers.
Perhaps the most striking building is Saint Michael's Catholic church. The church has a beautiful interior, but equally interesting is what often takes place on the outside. Soon to be married brides and grooms wearing Western style dresses, take orders from busy camera crews.
The wedding industry in booming in China, with a rising middle class able to afford more extravagant festivities. And pre wedding photo shoots are very popular. Qingdao also has a modern part, which feels like an entirely different city. It's only a short taxi or subway ride away from the old town. But I suggest using the waterfront promenade, where you can walk through some beautiful areas of the city.
Make sure to check out the marina, which hosted sailing competition of the Beijing Olympics. And stay around until the evening, when the skyline is lit up with a spectacular light show. We finish our journey in Hong Kong. Seen by many as the perfect fusion between East and West, and one of my favorite cities in the world.
It's a modern metropolis, but also a cultural powerhouse. It's easy to fall in love with Hong Kong at first sight, with its amazing skyline and backdrop of green mountains. But for many, this is only where the story begins. The city was part of Britain for almost a century, the result of negotiations with the Chinese empire after the infamous Opium Wars.
Over the years, the people of Hong Kong managed to build a flourishing society, with democratic freedoms and their own identity. Some of these freedoms, however, have come under pressure after the city was handed back to China in 1997. The city has seen massive protests with people voicing their concern and grievances over China's growing influence. It's a good idea to read up on the situation in Hong Kong before you travel here.
One of the best ways to start exploring Hong Kong is to visit the spectacular Victoria Peak. Here you can admire the jaw-dropping urban landscape of the city. You can reach the Peak by taxi or on a steep hike, but most travelers use the historic Victoria Peak tram, a gravity defying attraction that should not be missed. Another way to appreciate the city's skyline is to sail the classic Star Ferry across Victoria Harbor.
For just a few Hong Kong dollars this is probably the best valued trip in the city. Hong Kong is a breeze to get around, and boasts a very efficient public transport system. Including an extensive metro network, double deck trams, and even helicopters for those who can afford it.
For some travelers, Hong Kong is a shoppers' paradise. And sometimes it feels like the city is one giant shopping mall, as many buildings are connected by airconditioned walkways. Others come here for the Cantonese food, which is some of the best in Asia. From luxurious restaurants to street food markets and local eateries, there is something for everyone. For a different side of Hong Kong, head to some of the tranquil islands.
Or visit the Big Buddha statue, located in a major Buddhist center in the mountains. But it's the streets of Kowloon district and beyond that really make me love Hong Kong. This is the cultural heartland of the city, where traditional neighborhoods mix with bustling street markets.
It feels overwhelming in some parts, yet surprisingly peaceful in others. Visit one of the many temples, browse some of the markets, sample local cuisine, or simply walk around, and be surprised by this magnificent city. And that concludes my personal top 10 favorite places to visit in China. A country so vast that it can be explored for years. I hope this video gave you some inspiration, or at least provided a glimpse into a country that was closed for so long, but slowly opens itself to the world. Thanks for watching this video, and I hope to see you again next time.