Highlights of the Tour

Pingyao Old Town

pingyao01 

With its old-fashioned black-tile roofs and simple flagstone streets, Pingyao may seem humble now, but it was once China’s financial centre. The city was built over 2,700 years ago, although it didn’t reach its prominence until it was expanded during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). By the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912), it was home to over half of the financial institutions in the whole of China. Residents in Pingyao were so wealthy that they were literally laughing all the way to the bank!

Nowadays the city is a popular retreat for tourists and is home to over 300 historic sites, the most famous of which is arguably Rishengchang. This ancient building is thought to have been the first bank ever established in China and, in its heyday, it once controlled half of the silver trade in the country. Its establishment was integral to China’s economic development, so it’s definitely worth investing a little time in it during your visit. After all, it’s sure to generate interest! Read more about Pingyao Old Town.

Shanxi Grand Compounds

shanxi compound

Shanxi Grand Compounds were colossal mansions masterminded by wealthy merchants during the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1912) dynasties. These bizarre castle-like structures were built according to the architectural style of northern China and feature many small courtyards that were in turn surrounded by high walls for defensive purposes. The layout of each compound is symbolic and has a deeper meaning based on the wishes and desires of the family who built it.

For example, the Wang Family Compound is made up of five main courtyards, which were designed to represent the five lucky animals in Chinese mythology: the dragon, the phoenix, the tortoise, the qilin (Chinese unicorn), and the tiger. It was believed that these animals would watch over the family, protect them from misfortune, and bring them good luck. Being the largest grand compound in the whole of Shanxi, you could almost say it’s a real beast to get around! Nowadays over 100 of the smaller courtyards and 1,000 rooms are open to the public, giving visitors an insight into the lavish lifestyle of the rich and famous in ancient China. Read more about Shanxi Grand Compounds.

Tunxi Old Town

Tunxi

Resplendent with white-washed walls, coal black roofs, horse head eaves, and a level of ornamental decoration befitting a palace, the buildings that flank the Old Street of Tunxi Old Town are some of the finest in Anhui province. This street, one of the last remnants of a bygone area, sits at the centre of Tunxi District in Huangshan City and was originally established during the Song Dynasty (960-1279). Though a handful of buildings reflect this dynastic style, the most famous ones were built during the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1912) dynasties.

This town rests at the heart of the ancient Huizhou region and its rapid expansion during the Ming Dynasty was largely thanks to investment from a local Hui merchant. Since it was virtually founded by merchants, it comes as no surprise that the town’s main attraction is shopping! Many of its old stores have retained their original characteristics and still peddle their time-honored wares, such as delicately carved ink stones, locally picked tea, and traditional Chinese medicine. Their dedication to preserving these ancient methods of production and trade is a testament to the old saying; if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it! Read more about Tunxi Old Town.

Traditional Hui Architecture

Anhui

Like the merchants of Shanxi, traders from the ancient region of Huizhou began to thrive financially during the Song Dynasty (960-1279) and swiftly found themselves with more money than you could shake an ink stick at! Unfortunately the size and majesty of residential buildings was largely dictated not by wealth but by social status and, since merchants were considered of a low social standing, they were not permitted to own the kind of grand dwellings that were afforded to government officials or aristocratic families.

Yet the wily Hui merchants weren’t about to let this stop them, so they found a way to show off their immense wealth without breaking social etiquette. Instead of focusing on size, they turned their attention to decoration and adorned their mansions with the finest brick-sculptures, woodcuttings, and stone carvings money could buy. From the doors to the roofs, Hui mansions are a true work of art. Many of these ancient buildings date back to the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1912) dynasties and are still in excellent condition, serving as proof that money doesn’t just talk, it speaks beautifully! Read more about Hui Architecture.

Chengkan

chengkan

The ancient study of Bagua or the Eight Trigrams is a part of the Taoist religion that has been a staple of Chinese culture for hundreds of years. You may know it best for its iconic Yin and Yang symbol, which rests at the heart of the octagonal Eight Trigrams emblem. While some of us have at some point in our lives probably owned a piece of clothing or an ornament with this symbol on it, the Luo brothers took their religious fervor a step further and decided to build an entire village based on its shape!

This village was built during the Tang Dynasty (618-907) and was originally known as Longxi, although it has since been renamed Chengkan. The “Yin” part of the village is made up of fields, while the “Yang” part consists of residential housing, with a long winding river conveniently separating the two. Nowadays it is considered the finest example of Feng Shui architecture in the country and is about as auspicious a location as you could hope to find. So, if you’re currently enduring a spot of bad luck, you best take a trip to Chengkan! Read more about Chengkan.

Xi’an

xi'an

Prior to the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), Xi’an was known as Chang’an, which means “Long-lasting Peace”. This noble city was one of the Four Great Ancient Capitals of China and served as the country’s capital for 13 feudal dynasties, so no wonder peace was their main concern!

Nowadays it’s earned great fame as the starting point of the Silk Road and the site of the legendary Terracotta Army. Yet Xi’an has a few more surprises up its sleeve! Its Muslim Quarter is home to the Hui ethnic minority, whose unusual culture and delicious cuisine have delighted locals and visitors for years. From the Great Wild Goose Pagoda and the Da Ci’en Temple to the Bell Tower and the Great Mosque, Xi’an boasts so many wonderful attractions that a lifetime may not be enough to discover them all!  Read more about Xi’an.

Mount Hua

mount hua

Listed as one of the Five Great Mountains of China, Mount Hua has a pretty big reputation to live up to. Standing at an altitude of just 2,100 metres (7,070 ft.), it is nowhere near as tall as several of the other mountains in the country. Yet it is its spiritual significance that has earned it such fame and, once you set foot on one of the many mountain paths, its mystical quality is palpable. Taoists believe that the god of the underworld lives inside the mountain and historically it has been a site of pilgrimage for monks of various religions.

From Immortal’s Palm Peak, where the deity Juling reputedly descended from heaven and tore the mountains in half, to the Jade Spring Temple, where the Golden Fairy Princess supposedly lost her jade hair clasp, this mountain range practically exudes spirituality. Only the hardiest of hermits, with the strongest wills and most spiritual of natures, were believed to be able to conquer the mountain, so don’t be too disappointed if you end up having to use the cable car! Read more about Mount Hua.

Mount Huang

Mt. Huangshan04

According to legend, the mythical first emperor and progenitor of the Han ethnic group, known as the Yellow Emperor or Huang Di, once travelled to this majestic mountain in order to refine his Pills of Immortality. During the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC), it was known as Mount Yi, but was renamed Mount Huang in 747 AD in honor of the Yellow Emperor. Evidently it wasn’t enough to just make himself immortal, his name had to be immortalized too!

Although it is not classed as one of the Five Great Mountains of China, a famous Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) geographer named Xu Xiake once wrote: “It is not worth seeing other mountains if you have been to the Five Great Mountains; and it is not worth seeing the Five Great Mountains if you have been to Mount Huang”. We’ll be visiting both Mount Huang and one of the Five Great Mountains on our trip, so feel free to put Xu Xiake’s words to the test! Read more about Mont Huang.

The Forbidden City

北京

Construction of this colossal palace began during the early 15th century and was masterminded by the Yongle Emperor of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). It took over 100,000 artisans and one million laborers 14 years to complete and was home to 24 successive emperors over a period of 491 years. This means that, for every year it took to build, it got over 35 years of use. Talk about getting your money’s worth!

Since each emperor believed himself to be the son of heaven, the palace was built to imitate the legendary Purple Palace of the Jade Emperor (the King of Heaven). This is why it’s occasionally referred to as the Purple Forbidden City and why it originally had 9,999.5 rooms, as the Purple Palace supposedly had 10,000 rooms and it was considered improper for the Emperor to try and outdo his father! Nowadays the palace’s smooth red walls, yellow glazed-tiles roofs, and intricate decoration have become a symbol of Beijing and one of the most recognizable relics of imperial China. Read more about The Forbidden City.

The Terracotta Army

Terracotta Army01

The legendary Terracotta Army has captivated audiences across the globe ever since they were discovered in 1974. In fact, when the British Museum held an exhibition of just a small selection of real figures from the excavation site, it resulted in the most successful year they had had since the King Tutankhamen exhibition in 1972. So if the opportunity to see just a few of these magnificent statues was enough to send the British public into a frenzy, imagine seeing over 6,000 of them arranged in their original military formation!

Emperor Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China and founder of the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC), began building his mausoleum in 246 BC at the tender age of just thirteen. Talk about starting them young! This colossal necropolis took 11 years and over 700,000 laborers to complete, and perhaps its most exceptional feature is the Terracotta Army. Boasting approximately 8,000 soldiers, 130 chariots with 520 horses, and 150 cavalry horses, this army is impressive enough in of itself, but what makes it so fantastically unique is that every single soldier is different. From their height and hairstyle to their uniform and facial features, each figure is unlike the one before it. Read more about The Terracotta Army.

The Mutianyu Portion of the Great Wall 

mutianyu great wall 03

This portion of the Great Wall was originally built during the Northern Qi Dynasty (550-557) but, since it protected one of the gates that gave access to Beijing, it was repaired extensively throughout the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and is now considered one of the most well-preserved parts of the Great Wall. Its important defensive position meant it was once the site of numerous legendary battles. If only walls could talk, and then we could hear about them first-hand! Thanks to its tough exterior, which is predominantly made of granite, it is considered virtually indestructible and has survived in beautiful condition to this day.

Shuanglin Temple 

Shuanglin Temple

Shuanglin Temple has been nicknamed “The Museum of Coloured Sculptures” and, when you set foot inside and marvel at the collection of over 2,000 painted statues that decorate its halls, you’ll soon see why! Currently, due to lack of historical documents, researchers do not know exactly when the temple was built, but a stone tablet stating it was rebuilt in 571 AD during the Northern Qi Dynasty (550-577) and two huge locust trees that were planted during the Tang Dynasty (618-907) attest to its ancient origins.

Although it is estimated that the temple is about 1,400 years old, it underwent large scale restoration throughout the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1912) dynasties and so its appearance reflects those architectural styles. After all, when you’re over 1,000 years old, you need a little extra help to keep looking good! Its name literally means “two woods” and makes reference to one of Buddha’s teachings, which states that “nirvana is between two trees”. Buddha may not have specified which two trees they were, but Shuanglin Temple’s peaceful atmosphere is sure to make you feel more enlightened.

The Giant Wild Goose Pagoda

The Giant Wild Goose Pagoda01

With a history of over 1,000 years, the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda stands as a monument to the beginnings of Buddhism in China. Its illustrious backstory began during the Tang Dynasty (618-907), when the famous monk Xuanzang took over as abbot of Da Ci’en Temple and beseeched Emperor Gaozong to allow him to build a pagoda. Yet its fascinating and unusual history goes back further than that. According to legend, there were once two factions of Buddhism: one that permitted the eating of meat, and one that did not.

One day, members of the meat-eating branch were strolling through the city searching for some meat to buy. As they looked up to the sky, a flock of geese flew past them and, in their hunger, they prayed that the merciful Buddha provide them with some meat to eat. Suddenly the lead goose broke both its wings and tumbled out of the sky. The monks believed this was Buddha’s way of remonstrating them for focusing on worldly pleasures, so they renounced the eating of meat and marked the sacred spot where the goose fell. This is where the Great Wild Goose Pagoda was supposedly built; so don’t go in there dreaming of a meaty feast or Buddha will surely cook your goose! Read more about The Giant Wild Goose Pagoda.

The Presidential Palace

The Presidential Palace in Nanjing

The Presidential Palace is one of the more unusual tourist attractions in Nanjing, as its history spans both imperial and modern China. This has resulted in a hectic mixture of traditional dynastic and contemporary architectural styles, with a post-colonial flair added in for good measure! The palace was originally established during the early Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and was used primarily by royal princes.

During the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912), it became the Office for the Viceroy of Liangjiang, a government official charged with the administration of modern-day Jiangsu, Anhui, and Jiangxi provinces. Most people are lucky enough to upgrade from a cubicle to their own office, let alone an entire palace! Yet its period of greatest fame came after the collapse of imperial rule in 1912, when Sun Yat-sen[1] decided to keep offices there. From 1927 onwards, it was the main headquarters of the Chinese Nationalist Party until their leader, Chiang Kai-shek, fled to Taiwan in 1949. Nowadays it is known as the China Modern History Museum and serves as one of the last remnants of the Republic of China, being one of the only places where the Flag of the Republic of China can be legally displayed.

The Hutongs of Beijing

life in hutong05

The beauty of Beijing’s hutongs is indefinable and, rather fittingly, there is no exact definition for the word “hutong”. The term is commonly used to refer to ancient streets and districts in Beijing that have remained largely unchanged. There is even an old Chinese saying in the city which states: “There are 360 hutongs that are named, but the hutongs without names are as plentiful as blackberries”. This may be something of an exaggeration but, like blackberries, hutongs are one of the sweetest parts of Beijing!

Many of them date back further than 800 years and act as a sort of time capsule, connecting this modern city with its ancient past. Yet, unlike many of Beijing’s illustrious historical sites, people still inhabit the hutongs and perpetuate a way of life that has long since been forgotten by the city’s urbanites. Walking down one of these ancient passageways and feeling the well-worn flagstones beneath your feet, with the trees rustling above you and the muffled cries of vendors in the distance, you’ll be thankful that this peaceful slice of history still exists. Read more about The Hutongs of Beijing.

The City God Temple District of Shanghai

301-0963

The locals consider this temple so integral to the history of Shanghai that there is even an old saying which states, “Anyone who fails to see the City God Temple, fails to see Shanghai”. So, if you’re braving that long flight to China and stopping off in the city, you surely don’t want to be accused of missing out! The temple is located in the ancient, walled part of the city and the name “City God Temple” is used to describe not only the temple complex, but also the surrounding commercial district. The term “City God” refers to specific immortals or deities who were believed to protect certain cities, and Shanghai happens to have three of them. Evidently it is true what they say; three really is the magic number!

The temple was originally known as the Jinshan or “Golden Mountain” Temple but was converted into the City God Temple in 1403, during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). It enjoyed a surge of popularity during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) and, eager to take advantage of this new business opportunity, hundreds of vendors set up shop in the surrounding streets, which swiftly became a busy marketplace. Many of these old stores have maintained their original characteristics and are over a hundred years old. After all, if your business strategy has worked for that long, why change it!

The Bund of Shanghai

shanghai bund

The Bund has become something of an emblem for the city of Shanghai and is widely considered to be its most well-known tourist attraction. The term “bund” derives from the Persian word “band”, which means embankment or levee, and is a testament to the city’s cosmopolitan nature. As a harbor city, Shanghai has seen more foreign merchants, visitors, and residents over the years than some Chinese cities will see in their lifetime. The numerous banks, trading houses, hotels, and consulates that line the Bund were built in the colonial architectural style and make for a stark contrast compared to the more traditional Chinese buildings found in cities like Beijing.

The Bund itself centres on a section of Zhongshan Road, which rests on the western bank of the Huangpu River and directly faces the towering forest of skyscrapers in the Pudong District. This futuristic scenery is a far-cry from the delicate eaves of the Forbidden City or the ancient majesty of the Terracotta Army, yet it has still managed to enchant visitors for decades. With its rippling waters, international vibe, and fascinating blend of architectural styles, it serves as the perfect symbol for modern China.

[1] Sun Yat-sen (1866-1925): A Chinese revolutionary who played an instrumental role in overthrowing the Qing Dynasty, abolishing imperial rule and founding the Republic of China. He became the first president of China in 1912.