The term shikumen is used to describe a type of traditional building that appeared in Shanghai during the 1860s. They are classified as a type of linong residence, because they are located along narrow lanes known as linongs or nongtangs. In essence, they are Shanghai’s equivalent to the ancient hutongs in Beijing. With their perfect blend of Western and Chinese elements, shikumen act as a true testament to Shanghai’s cosmopolitan nature. At the height of their popularity, shikumen-style buildings comprised approximately 60% of the total housing stock in Shanghai, with over 9,000 of them spread throughout the city! Nowadays, many of them have been tragically demolished to make way for large apartment blocks, corporate buildings, and shopping centres. 

Although you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, you can judge a shikumen by its name! A shikumen development will typically end with the suffixes Li (neighbourhood), Fang (ward), Nong (lane), or Cun (village), while the first part of its name should tell you something about its background. Some are named after their original developers or landowners, such as Meilan Fang, which was constructed by the brothers Wu Meixi and Wu Silan. 

Others are named after a nearby road or landmark, while some are simply given propitious names, like Jixiang Li or “Auspicious Neighbourhood” and Ruyi Li or “Happiness Neighbourhood”. The stone arch above the linong’s entrance is usually inscribed with the name of the shikumen development, along with its year of construction. Shikumen are separated into two types depending on their layout and when they were built: old-type and new-type. The old-type can be further subdivided into early period and late period.  


The shikumen residences themselves are two- or three-storey townhouses that are arranged in a terraced structure, with each one adjoining the next. The term “shikumen” (石库门) literally translates to mean “stone warehouse gate” and is derived from the characteristic stone gateway that leads into each house. With their thick wooden doors and heavy bronze knockers, these gateways cut an imposing figure along the narrow linongs.  

Decoration on the gate’s lintel is usually a stunning blend of Western and Chinese architectural influences. While older shikumen boast traditional Chinese bricks and black tiles, newer ones feature triangular, circular, arc-shaped, or rectangular patterns that were common in Western-style architecture. These artistic lintels often indicated the social status of the occupants, with more elaborate engravings bedecking the homes of wealthy families. 

Each shikumen building has a front and back yard, both protected by a high wall. The two yards were meant to be smaller equivalents of the traditional Chinese courtyard, thereby maximising space but still providing each house with an “interior haven” where residents could escape the commotion of the streets. The main gate leads into the front yard and faces the living room, which is flanked by two wing rooms that house staircases leading to the upper floors. On the other side of the living room, the back yard contains the well, the kitchen area, toilets, and storage rooms.   

Old-type shikumen were predominantly built from the 1860s through to the end of the First World War (1914-1918), with the early period ranging from 1869 to 1910 and the late period from 1910 until 1918. Early period shikumen were normally two storeys high and three- to five- bays wide. Of all the types of shikumen, they typically possessed the most traditionally Chinese features, but the lintels of their stone gateways were the least elaborate. Since many of them were built quickly, little attention was paid to the houses’ orientation or the organisation of the linongs that they were constructed along. Most of these early period shikumen neighbourhoods have been destroyed or rebuilt, such as Mianyang Li and Jixiang Li

Late period shikumen were smaller than their earlier counterparts, with only one- to two-bay wide living rooms and a single wing room. The back yard was also much smaller, but more attention was paid to natural lighting and the laneways between houses were widened. It was at this point that many Western architectural features became popular, with doors, staircases, and lintels being intricately decorated with typically Western-style motifs. A number of late period shikumen have been well-preserved, including those on Shude Li and Bugao Li (Cité Bourgogne). 

New-type shikumen are usually classified as any built after the First World War. Like late period shikumen, they were much smaller and sometimes didn’t even have wing rooms. The main structural difference between new-type and old-type shikumen is the addition of a third storey. New-type shikumen were also built using reinforced concrete instead of brick veneer, and were typically fitted with modern indoor plumbing. Emphasis was placed on natural lighting, so most of them were orientated towards the south and had an internal skylight or atrium. Overall, they were also the most Westernised in terms of decoration. Numerous shikumen of this type have survived intact, such as those on Jianye Li and Siming Cun. Some of them have even been renovated into boutique hotels. 


Towards the end of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912), the country was wracked by a brutal revolt known as the Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864). According to the Treaty of Nanking, Shanghai was classified as a treaty port at the time and therefore its foreign concessions were under international protection, meaning they were much safer than other parts of China. When rebel armies started making their way east, masses of refugees from the eastern provinces of Zhejiang and Jiangsu fled into Shanghai’s foreign concessions. Many of them were businessmen, civil servants, or people from similarly wealthy backgrounds, so local property developers rushed to accommodate them. It seems that money doesn’t just talk, it builds too!

With the sudden upsurge in demand, developers had to act fast. They initially erected simple wooden buildings, which were cheap and quick to construct. These were the first linong residences in Shanghai. In order to maximize space, they were built as terraces and had a much smaller footprint than traditional Chinese courtyard houses. Within the space of 10 months, over 800 of these wooden dwellings were built. That works out to about 80 every month, or nearly three houses each day!

However, concession authorities were worried about the potential fire risk that these houses posed, and they were eventually banned. To save money, developers simply adapted them by covering the wooden frame in a load-bearing brick veneer. Although externally they looked like Western-style townhouses, they followed the traditional courtyard layout of China’s Jiangnan region, which would be more familiar to their new Chinese residents. These were the original shikumen buildings. They were cheaper to build than Western-style houses and, since they were sturdier than the wooden dwellings they replaced, they could also command higher rents. The substantial profit that they represented made them particularly attractive to property companies, and they soon became the dominant form of housing in the city.

From 1910 onwards, innovations were made to the shikumen that resulted in the width of lanes between terraces being increased, although the width of each dwelling was subsequently decreased. Decorations became more elaborate and the main doors of houses finally acquired their characteristically elaborate lintels. By 1919, in response to population pressures and the demand for modern conveniences, the new-type shikumen were developed. Shikumen neighbourhoods became larger, with a trunk lane leading off of the street and further branch lanes leading off of the trunk lane. As cars became more popular, the trunk lanes were widened to accommodate them. The 1920s represented the heyday for the shikumen residences, as their popularity began to decline during the 1930s. 

They underwent another major change during the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945), when refugees once again surged into Shanghai. Many families could no longer afford to rent a whole house, so head-landlords would rent the entire house out to one family, who would then sub-let the rooms out to other families. These people, known as “second landlords”, often lived in the shikumen with their tenants. To increase their profits, these second landlords began sub-dividing rooms in order to accommodate more families. This led to shikumen residences becoming notoriously crowded and chaotic, with some housing dozens of families at a time! It was such a widespread problem that there was even a satirical comedy made about it, known as “The House of 72 Tenants”. 

Many of these shikumen buildings weren’t just residential, but were the site of various enterprises. Money-lenders, traders, restaurants, grocers, inns, factories, and even schools all hid deep within these linong developments. Their secluded nature made them the perfect place to hide from prying eyes, and even the Communist Party of China utilised this to their advantage. Their first and second conferences were both held in shikumen residences on Shude Li and in the French Concession respectively. Unfortunately, this privacy also lent itself to the practice of more unsavoury trades, with brothels, gambling rings, and opium dens springing up throughout shikumen neighbourhoods. In fact, Shanghai’s red light district was once centred in Huile Li and Qunyu Fang

After 1949, the building of shikumen residences ceased completely, although existing shikumen neighbourhoods remained virtually unchanged until the 1980s. From then onwards, many of them were demolished, although nowadays a select few have been designated as heritage sites in order to preserve this fascinating part of Shanghai’s history. 

In the Xintiandi area of the Huangpu District, you’ll find the Shikumen Open House Museum, which is located inside a refurbished shikumen-style building. The museum’s seven rooms have all been furnished with period furniture in an attempt to replicate what Shanghai life was like during the 1920s and 30s. The Xintiandi area also boasts several shikumen buildings that have been converted into high-end bars, restaurants, and shops. 

Macanese Cuisine

Blending together the flavours of the Portuguese Empire, Macanese cuisine was one of the earliest types of fusion cuisine in the world. During the 16th century, Portugal paid tribute to the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and, in exchange, they were allowed to establish a permanent settlement in Macau, which they used as a central trading hub. This allowed them to transport spices from across their vast empire, from colonies in South America and Africa right through to India and Southeast Asia. These foreign settlers brought with them wives and servants from far-flung regions, whose responsibility it was to try and re-create traditional Portuguese dishes for the household.

Unfortunately, while the Portuguese Empire continued to advance, the world had yet to experience the joy of modern-day refrigeration technology! Therefore the only ingredients available to these colonists were non-perishables, such as spices, preserved meats, chillies, oils, and wine. Coconut milk from Malaysia, turmeric from India, piri piri chilli peppers from Mozambique, bacalhau (salted cod) from Portugal, soy sauce from China, and numerous other exotic ingredients became staples of Macanese cuisine. This dizzying combination of flavours has made this style both mouth-wateringly delicious and difficult to define.

Complementing this diversity of ingredients, traditional Chinese cooking techniques such as wok-frying and steaming were used in tandem with European methods like baking and roasting. These multifarious influences combined over a period of 450 years to eventually form the signature dishes we find in Macau today. Much like the city’s architecture, its cuisine seamlessly blends elements from the East and the West, gradually evolving into a style that is celebrated by gourmands the world over.  

Galinha à Africana (非洲鸡)

Galinha à Africana, which literally translates to mean “African-style chicken”, is one of the most emblematic dishes when it comes to the cultural diversity of Macanese cuisine. The dish consists of chicken that has been marinated in devilishly spicy piri piri sauce and is either barbecued or roasted until blackened. It is also popular throughout Portugal and other former colonies, such as Brazil and Mozambique, although the recipe differs from place to place. The dish is believed to have been created by a chef named Americo Angelo, who developed the recipe while working at a small hotel known as Pousada de Macau. 

Like many intrepid explorers, Angelo was inspired to create the dish after a trip to one of the Portuguese colonies in Africa. The chicken is served on a large plate, slathered in thick, red piri piri sauce, with a garnish of black olives and pickled cucumbers. A heaping helping of thinly sliced fried potatoes form the perfect accompaniment to the tangy chicken. The inclusion of paprika, turmeric, chillies, coconut milk, and red bell peppers all add to the cosmopolitan nature of this unusual dish, forming a symphony of flavours that will simultaneously remind you of countless cuisines without strictly belonging to a single one.  

Galinha à Portuguesa (葡国鸡)

Much like Galinha à Africana, Galinha à Portuguesa or “Portuguese-style chicken” did not originate from Portugal, but is in fact a fusion dish that was developed in Macau. The dish was invented sometime between the 16th and 18th centuries and is thought to have originated either from Malaysia, Japan, or India. When local Chinese people first made contact with the Portuguese settlers, they came across the dish and believed it came from Portugal, hence the name. 

Juicy pieces of chicken, thick cubes of potato, and boiled rice are all blanketed in a mild, coconut-based curry sauce before being baked until golden brown. While the staple ingredients are predominantly of Asian origin, it still retains features of traditional European cuisine, such as olives, tomatoes, and saffron. By comparison to Galinha à Africana, which is a mainstay of Macanese restaurants, Galinha à Portuguesa is more of a home cooked dish, with each family having their own unique recipe and method for making the distinctive curry sauce. After all, there’s no place like home, even if that home might be made up of people and customs from across the globe! 

Macanese Bacalhau (澳门鳕鱼)

When it comes to traditional Portuguese cuisine, the most iconic ingredient is undoubtedly bacalhau or dried and salted cod. It’s so integral to many of the local dishes that it has replaced the Portuguese word for “cod”, with “fresh cod” being referred to as “bacalhau fresco” or “fresh salted cod”! Bacalhau dishes abound throughout Portugal and its former colonies, from Cape Verde right through to Goa and Brazil. In fact, there are rumoured to be over 1,000 bacalhau recipes in Portugal alone! 

Over 500 years ago, bacalhau evolved out of a need to preserve supplies of cod for long journeys. By drying and salting the cod, its essential nutrients were retained, and it became an invaluable and cheap source of protein for travellers and colonists alike. Macanese Bacalhau involves soaking and then flaking the salted codfish before preparing an aromatic sauce made from coconut milk, saffron, olive oil, chopped shallots, and garlic. The codfish is then added to the fragrant mixture, seasoned with salt and pepper, and gently stir-fried with chilli oil. Once the fish is thoroughly cooked and a little dry, it is served either with mouth-watering buttery rice or a light salad.

Minchee (澳門式免治)

Also known as minchi, this emblematic dish is a comfort food favourite in most Macanese households and supposedly earned its unusual name from the English word “to mince”, as the dish is primarily made of minced or ground meat. Beef mince, pork mince, or both are used, with the beef mince typically being accompanied by Chinese lap cheong sausage to retain that delicious porky flavour. Chopped onions, mashed garlic, and a bay leaf are first stewed in olive oil until the onions start to turn a rich golden brown. 

The minced meat is then added, along with a pinch of salt, a sprinkling of pepper, a drop of soy sauce, and a dollop of molasses. Once the meat is seasoned and the pan is covered, it’s left to stew until it is thoroughly cooked and the sauce has thickened. It’s then served with crispy deep-fried potato cubes, steamed rice, and a fried egg on top. In many local kitchens, minchee is made simply with leftover meats, much like British bubble and squeak or American meatloaf. It’s a hearty dish with a salty tang, designed to tickle the taste-buds, fill the stomach, and warm the heart.  

The Mukden Palace

If you thought the Forbidden City was the only imperial palace in China, think again! While the Mukden Palace in Liaoning’s provincial capital of Shenyang is only one twelfth of the size of its Beijing cousin, it’s certainly no less grand. It was constructed in 1625 by a Manchu leader named Nurhaci not long after he conquered the city. His son, Hong Taiji, expanded the palace and went on to found the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912). From 1625 to 1644, it served as the living quarters for the Qing emperors, until the Manchu conquered the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and moved their capital to Beijing. However, the Qing Emperors would routinely return to Mukden Palace and spend some leisure time there each year. As the old saying goes, there’s no place like home! 

When imperial rule collapsed, the palace was converted into the Shenyang Imperial Palace Museum and, by 2004, it had been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was originally built to resemble the Forbidden City in design, but is unique in that it also exhibits features of Manchurian and Tibetan style architecture. The complex itself covers over 60,000 square metres (71,760 sq. yd.), incorporating more than 300 luxuriously decorated rooms and 20 vibrant gardens. The front part was built on the ground, while the rear is suspended on 4-metre (13 ft.) high supports, simulating the Manchu custom of living on mountain slopes. 

It is divided into three sections on a north-south axis: the eastern section being the oldest and boasting the most distinctly Manchurian buildings; the western section containing the theatre and the palace library; and the middle section consisting of the main residences for the Emperor, Empress, and the imperial concubines. High walls not only surround the palace but also divide the site so that each section, courtyard, or garden is blissfully private. With only three entrances, all located on the southern wall, entry was heavily restricted. Although Beijing’s palace may be known as the “Forbidden City”, public access to Mukden Palace was actually under much stricter control!

In the oldest section of the palace, the most outstanding structures are undoubtedly Dazheng Hall and the Shiwang or “Ten King’s” Pavilions. The hall is a colossal octagonal building where the high throne of the Emperor is located. A long road leads from the hall’s entrance to a gate in the opposite wall, with the ten pavilions flanking either side. The two pavilions closest to the hall, known as the East King’s and West King’s Pavilions respectively, belonged to the Emperor. However, the other eight pavilions served as the official offices for the leaders of the Eight Banners, the main administrative and martial organ of the Qing Dynasty. Even in ancient times, having your own office was the height of career success!

Qingning Palace, located in the middle section of the complex, was the place where the Emperor and Empress used to live. It was split into two halves, the east side serving as living quarters and the west side for use during sacrificial ceremonies. Nearby Chongzheng Hall was where the Emperor would attend to his political affairs, while the tower behind it, known as Fenghuang or “Phoenix” Tower, is where his concubines lived. Evidently being locked up in a high tower isn’t just for princesses! 

Though one of the “newer” structures in the complex, the Wensu Pavilion is no less spectacular and is certainly the highlight of the western section. It is the only building in the complex with a black roof because, according to Chinese tradition, black is the colour of water. Since the pavilion acted as the palace library and contained several priceless literary works, it was believed this roof would protect the building from fire. 

In ancient times, these halls and pavilions would be bustling with action, as royal family members, government officials, and military officers rushed to fulfil the Emperor’s every order. Nowadays, they house over 10,000 relics from the Qing Dynasty, from fearsome swords and wooden bows to intricate paintings and delicate works of calligraphy. Notable among these artefacts are the Tiger-Veined Double-Edged Sword of Nurhaci and Nurhaci’s Imperial Jade Seal. Wandering through the halls and admiring these beautiful relics, you’re sure to be transported back to an ancient time, where Emperors decked in splendour secluded themselves behind the walls of their opulent palaces.

The Forest of Ten Thousand Peaks

A landscape unlike any other awaits those who are curious enough to wander deep into the lesser-known countryside of Guizhou province. Known poetically as Wanfenglin or “The Forest of Ten Thousand Peaks,” this breathtaking landscape is so-named because the verdant Karst mountains scattered across its expanse are so plentiful that they give the appearance of a strange and beautiful forest. From February to April, the area is blanketed in rich golden hues as the rape flowers blossom, which adds an extra layer of beauty to the region. As far back as the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), the renowned geographer Xu Xiake decided to pay a visit to this unusual landscape and praised it highly, stating: “There are many peaks and mountains in this world, but only here can the peaks be truly called a forest.” If anything, Xu Xiake’s praise might be an understatement, as this stony “forest” is made up of nearly 20,000 peaks!

Nowadays, the Forest of Ten Thousand Peaks forms a major part of the larger Maling River Canyon scenic area and has been divided into two core regions: West Peak Forest, which is made up of a typical Karst plateau landscape and is open to the public; and East Peak Forest, which is characterised by clusters of Karst peaks and is currently closed to the public. This mountainous forest is located about 7 kilometers (4.5 mi) away from the city of Xingyi and takes up a colossal area of 2,000 square kilometres (772 sq. mi). To put that into perspective, it is nearly twice the size of the entire city of New York! 

Within the “forest” itself, there are a few highlights that have been given special names based on their appearance. For example, the densest part of the peak forest is known as Liezhen or “Array-Like” Peak Forest, because it contains a large peak known as General Peak that is surrounded by his smaller array of soldiers. There are even two shorter peaks directly to the left and right side of General Peak, which represent his body-guards! Much like the Liezhen Peak Forest, there is another smaller peak that is surrounded by other miniature peaks, which is known poetically as A Myriad of Stars Surround the Moon.

Another area, known as the Dashun Peaks, is considered to be widely representative of the average type of peak that can be found in Wanfenglin, as it is made up of six tall cone-shaped peaks. Since the Chinese word for six (六) sounds like the word for “to flow” (流), six is considered a lucky number, so these six peaks were given the auspicious name of “dashun” (大顺), which comes from the Chinese idiom “Everything goes smoothly” (六六大顺). After all, when you’re surrounded by such beauty, it’s easy to see why the locals who live here feel blessed! 

At the foot of West Peak Forest lies a shimmering strip of water known as the Nahui River, which acts as a natural string connecting several villages belonging to the Bouyei ethnic minority, such as Erzhai, Leli, Shuangsheng, and Yulong. The area has been home to the Bouyei people for over 300 years and the remote location has meant that they’ve been able to preserve their cultural customs throughout their long history. After a rewarding hike through the mountains, these villages represent the ideal place to rest and engage in authentic Bouyei culture. 

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Explore the Fantastical Karst Landforms of Southwest China

The Wudang Mountains

In the northwestern region of Hubei province, the mysterious Wudang Mountains rise up in a sea of clouds. Resplendent with dense forests, trickling streams, and vast caves, it is a mountain range of unparalleled natural beauty. Yet it is more well-known for the Taoist temples and monasteries scattered throughout its expanse, which are considered so exemplary that they were collectively designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994. While the Shaolin Temple in Henan province is heralded as the source of Chan (Zen) Buddhism and Shaolin Kung-Fu, many regard the Wudang Mountains as the legendary birthplace of Taoism and the practice of Tai Chi. In fact, the three “internal” martial arts, known as Tai Chi, Bagua, and Xingyi, are classed as Wudang styles. 

Building began on the mountains as early as the Tang Dynasty (618-907), when Emperor Taizong commissioned the construction of the Five Dragons Temple, and further religious structures were added during the Song (960-1279) and Yuan (1271-1368) dynasties. However, it wasn’t until the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) that the mountain range was finally recognised as prime piece of spiritual real estate! The Yongle Emperor claimed to enjoy special protection from the Taoist deity Zhenwu or the “Dark Warrior” and, since Zhenwu supposedly attained immortality while living on the Wudang Mountains, the Emperor felt this would be the ideal location to build a temple complex dedicated to him.

While some people have shopping sprees, it seems the Ming emperors were wealthy enough to have building sprees! At its peak during the Ming Dynasty, there were a staggering 9 palaces, 9 monasteries, 36 nunneries, and 72 temples located on the Wudang Mountains, most of which were built under the instruction of the Yongle Emperor. Unfortunately, due to their precarious location, maintaining the temples was extremely difficult and they frequently had to be repaired or rebuilt. Nowadays, only 53 of these ancient buildings and 9 architectural sites remain.  

Situated on the southern side of Tianzhu Peak, the Golden Hall is part of a much larger complex known as the Palace of Harmony, which also contains the Forbidden City and Gutong Hall. Standing at 6 metres (20 ft.) in height and 3 metres (10 ft.) in width, the Golden Hall is so-named because it is entirely made of bronze. Within the hall, you’ll find a bronze statue of Zhenwu, which reputedly weighs over ten tonnes. To put that into perspective, that’s nearly twice the weight of an African elephant! 

The nearby Purple Cloud Temple, which is perched on Zhangqi Peak, was built in 1413 and is another highlight of the mountain range. Covering a colossal area of 6,850 square metres (73,733 sq. ft.), it consists of the Dragon and Tiger Hall, the Stele Pavilion, Shifang Hall, the Grand Hall, and numerous other structures. With its blue glazed-tile roof and intricate wood-carvings, the Grand Hall is particularly magnificent and is considered emblematic of wooden structures from the Ming Dynasty.  

Nanyan or “South Cliff” Palace, which is named simply because it faces south, was built during the Yuan Dynasty and is said to be the most sacred place on the mountain range, since it was rumoured to be where Zhenwu attained immortality. Tianyi Zhenqing Hall within the palace is considered particularly spectacular, since all of its beams, pillars, doors, and windows were carved from stone. So don’t be offended if you get a stony reception during your visit!

Although many of the oldest buildings have now been lost, the temples and palaces of the Wudang Mountains represent over 1,000 years of artistic and architectural progress, and are considered some of the finest examples of Yuan, Ming, and Qing (1644-1912) Dynasty style architecture in the country. They provide an insight not only into the historical periods during which they were built, but also into the progress of Taoism as an indigenous religion in the country. While the range’s historical connection to the imperials is palpable, its designation as the birthplace of Tai Chi is the subject of heated debate.

According to legend, a Taoist hermit named Zhang Sanfeng came to live in a monastery on the mountains and supposedly invented the concept of neijia, which encompasses the art of Tai Chi. In Chinese martial arts, the term neijia refers to styles that train and harness the power of the three internal treasures: “Jing”, the essence and inner energy of the physical body; “Qi”, the natural energy that flows through all things; and “Shen”, the original spirit of the body. While Shaolin Kung-Fu focuses on improving the strength and power of the body through physical exercise, neijia-style martial arts employ meditative exercises to enhance the body’s three internal treasures.

Since Zhang Sanfeng was purported to have lived for over 200 years, it is unsurprising that historians doubt the accuracy of the records surrounding him. However, even if the stories aren’t strictly true, the spiritual nature of the Wudang Mountains and the temples that populate them is undeniable. Whether it be strolling through the forests on a dusty afternoon, wandering the temple halls in the pale light of morning, or simply sampling a cup of locally grown tea in a mountain teahouse, a visit to the Wudang Mountains is guaranteed to be time well spent. 

The Three Gorges Dam

The Three Gorges Dam has been the subject of controversy in China ever since its conception. This colossal engineering project, which stretches across Xiling Gorge of the Three Gorges in Hubei province, is 2,335 metres (7,660 ft.) long, approximately 185 metres (607 ft.) high, and was constructed from 28 million cubic metres (37 million cu. yd.) of concrete and 463,000 metric tons of steel. To put that into perspective, that’s enough steel to build the Eiffel Tower 63 times over! Construction began in 1994 and, at the time of its completion in 2006, it was the largest dam in the world. 

The idea for the dam was first discussed by Sun Yat-sen during the 1920s, but wasn’t seriously considered until Chairman Mao Zedong ordered detailed planning for the project in 1955. In fact, Chairman Mao was so enamoured with the idea of the dam that he wrote a poem dedicated to it, which he entitled “Swimming”. However, lack of funds and heavy criticism of the project meant that Chairman Mao was unable to achieve his dream. In short, he just couldn’t give a dam! 

It wasn’t until 1992 that Premier Li Peng, who was himself trained as an engineer, was able to convince the National People’s Congress to ratify the decision to build the dam. Nearly one third of congress members either abstained or voted against the project, which represented an unprecedented level of resistance from a typically compliant government body. With so much opposition facing the project, it’s difficult to see exactly why anyone would want to build it in the first place. 

The main impetus driving the construction of the dam was two-fold: to produce electricity and to help prevent flooding. The dam functions as a hydroelectric power-plant and is able to produce as much energy as 15 coal-burning power stations. This has reduced the need for coal mining in northern China, lessened pollution in the region, and provided nine provinces with clean energy. It has also created a deep-water reservoir, which allows oceangoing vessels to safely navigate a path from Shanghai on the eastern coast to the inland city of Chongqing. This means that freighters can now transport goods where trucks would otherwise have to be used, which has heavily lessened harmful fuel emissions. 

It is estimated that every year the dam reduces air pollution by 100 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions, millions of tonnes of dust, one million tonnes of sulphur dioxide, 370,000 tonnes of nitric oxide, 10,000 tonnes of carbon monoxide, and a significant amount of mercury. If that wasn’t enough, the dam is also primarily designed to protect millions of people from periodic and devastating flooding that takes place annually on the banks of the Yangtze River. However, as with all large-scale projects, these benefits have come with a heavy price.

Upon its construction, the dam flooded over 500 cities, towns, and villages, which displaced approximately 1.3 million residents. Relocating all of these people consumed over 45% of the project’s budget alone! While some of them were moved to places within Hubei province and nearby Chongqing, others were sent much further afield to the provinces of Hunan, Sichuan, Jiangxi, Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Guangdong, and Fujian. The social impact of the dam has been immense, as local businesses were forced to close and many of the displaced are still struggling to recoup their losses while simultaneously adjusting to the local culture in their new homes. 

Yet these social problems pale in comparison to the environmental damage that the dam continues to cause. It currently blocks the natural flow of sediment down the Yangtze River, which has resulted in sediment build-up above the dam and severe lack of sediment downstream. The absence of this sediment could potentially make downstream areas more vulnerable to flooding and weakens the bed on which Shanghai is built, while the build-up of sediment upstream is harmful to aquatic wildlife. Much of this sediment is created by erosion from rising water in the dam’s reservoir, which also frequently results in major landslides.  

Over 6,300 species of plant once populated the area surrounding the dam, the majority of which were classed as endangered and were used as ingredients in traditional Chinese medicine. However, since the dam was built, the percentage of forested area in the region has dropped from 20% to 10%, which has had an enormous negative impact on the resident plant species. It has also changed the water temperature and flow of the Yangtze River, which has affected the 361 freshwater fish species that populate it. Numerous scientists believe that the dam was the direct cause of, or at least a major contributor to, the extinction of the baiji or Chinese river dolphin. Talk about a damming testimony! 

As if the catastrophic environmental affects weren’t enough, the dam’s reservoir flooded over 1,300 archaeological sites, some of which could not be salvaged or moved. Historical treasures such as the hanging coffins of Shennong Gorge were tragically lost under the cascading waters. Although river cruises are now able to explore areas of the Three Gorges that were previously impenetrable, the dam itself has altered the appearance of this glorious natural site forever.

In 1997, the Three Gorges Dam Scenic Area was opened to the public and includes: the Exhibition Hall of the Three Gorges Project, where visitors can learn about the history and construction of the dam; Tanzi Ridge, the 185 Platform, and the Dam Viewing Point, which offer panoramic views of the dam and the surrounding countryside; and the Memorial Garden, a large open-air museum featuring machinery used to build the dam. While curious visitors flock to the dam in their thousands, debate rages on as to whether it should have ever been built in the first place. 

Wulong Karst National Geology Park

Time has taught us that, in spite of man’s best efforts, nature will always be the greater architect, and never has this been truer than at the Wulong Karst National Geology Park. With its echoing caves, plunging sinkholes, stony ravines, and breath-taking natural bridges, it represents an integral part of the karst landscape in southern China and was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2007. Located in Wulong County of Chongqing Municipality, the park is divided into three major areas, which each encompass a notable attraction. The first section is home to the Three Natural Bridges; the second contains Qingkou Tiankeng; and the third boasts the magnificent Furong Cave. These spectacular works of nature are proof that three truly is the magic number!

Not far from the delightfully named town of Xiannushan or “Fairy Mountain”, the Three Natural Bridges are a series of three limestone bridges that were formed naturally over time. They are known as Tianlong or “Sky Dragon”, Qinglong or “Azure Dragon”, and Heilong or “Black Dragon” respectively. As the largest natural bridge cluster in Asia, they certainly live up to their grand names! Each bridge rises at an average height of around 200 metres (656 ft.) and spans approximately 400 metres (1,312 ft.) in length. Tianlong Bridge, which features an ancient military outpost directly within its vast arch, is arguably most well-known as the set of Zhang Yimou’s epic Curse of the Golden Flower. The caves nestled within its expanse are maze-like, with the largest stretching to over 400 metres (1,312 ft.) in length. 

Qinglong Bridge is considered to be at its most impressive after rainfall, when a waterfall pours over the arch and forms a light mist. As the sunlight reflects on the mist, it creates a miniature rainbow within the bridge’s arch that is said to appear like a dragon ascending to the heavens. Similarly, Heilong Bridge is so-named for the long, dark ravine running under its arch, which resembles a black dragon winding its way out from under the mountains. On top of the bridge, wide tracts of farmland and four delicate springs support an abundance of lush greenery. These bridges are matched in beauty only by the nearby Xiannu or “Fairy” Mountain, a national forest park made up of snow-capped peaks, verdant forests, and alpine meadows. From the fresh greens of spring to the burnished hues of autumn, Fairy Mountain is a popular resort throughout the year for those Chongqing city-dwellers yearning for a taste of nature. 

By comparison to the lofty heights of the Three Natural Bridges and Fairy Mountain, the Qingkou Tiankeng Scenic Area may seem like a bit of a downer! It is centred on unique karst landforms known as “tiankeng”, which roughly translates to “sinkhole” or “doline”. These are large depressions or chasms in the earth that have been caused by the surface layer either collapsing or being eroded away. The scenic area is unsurprisingly named after its most esteemed resident: the Qingkou Tiankeng. The tiankeng cluster found in this area is thought to be the only one in the world that was formed by surface water erosion. Each of the five sinkholes in this area has an average diameter and depth of around 300 metres (984 ft.), so watch your step and be careful not to fall in! 

Located on the bank of the Furong River, the final scenic area revolves around Furong or “Lotus” Cave. The cave itself is a whopping 2,846 metres (9,337 ft.) in length, with numerous vertical shafts, stalactites, and stalagmites dotted throughout its hollow expanse. These strange rock formations are said to look like frozen waterfalls and petrified palm trees, creating a labyrinthine fairy-tale world populated by grotesque and alien figures. Alongside limestone, the cave also boasts numerous red coral and calcite crystal deposits, which sparkle like precious jewels in the darkness.  

Zhijin Cave National Geopark

With its ethereal splendour and strangely beautiful rock formations, Zhijin Cave has often been described as a vast underground palace and appears to have been torn straight from the pages of a fairytale. In fact, the name “zhijin” literally translates to mean “weaving gold,” which should give you some idea as to how beautiful this cave system is. Located in the small village of Minzhai, Zhijin Cave is a karst cave that is 173 metres (568 ft.) wide and 150 metres (492 ft.) tall at its largest point. To put that into perspective, you could fit the entire Statue of Liberty into its largest cavern with plenty of room to spare! The cave itself is contained within a national park, which also includes Zhijin Old Town, the Jiehe Gorge, and the Hongjia Ferry.

What makes this cave system particularly special is that it is home to a dizzying array of karst formations and has even earned the nickname of the “Karst Museum.” Over forty different types of karst formations can be found throughout the cave system, which makes it reasonably unique amongst karst cave networks. In particular, it is home to rare karst formations made from semiolite, prehnite, and bloodstone, which endows the interior of the cave with a variety of magical shapes and colours. The sharp stalactites hanging from the ceiling and the piercing stalagmites rising from the floor give the interior of the cave an entrancing alien appearance. The average height of these rock formations is around 40 metres (131 ft.), although many of them reach heights in excess of 70 metres (230 ft.).The most notable of these is known poetically as the Silver Rain Tree, a rare transparent crystal that is 17 metres (56 ft.) in height and is said to resemble a flowering tree. Its sparkling beauty is sure to capture the imagination of anyone who sees it, although we wouldn’t recommend trying to eat its fruit! 

The cave itself was originally known as Daji or “Hit the Rooster” Cave, which you may be surprised to hear goes back to the cave’s history as a playground for young children! Local children from the Miao ethnic minority used to gather in the cave to play a game known as “hit the rooster,” where participants hit a colourful feathered shuttlecock back and forth. Although these Miao communities would enter the cave from time to time, it wasn’t officially discovered until 1980, when the Zhijin County Tourism Resources Exploration Team delved deeper into the cave system. To date, they have already led expeditions as deep as 4 kilometres (3 mi) into the 12 kilometre (7 mi) length of the overall cave system. According to their findings, they have determined that the cave system is made up of 2 main caves and 4 branches caves, which have been divided into 4 layers and 47 chambers. Within each cave, the average height of the rock formations is around 40 metres (131 ft.), although many of them reach heights in excess of 70 metres (230 ft.).

When it comes to touring the cave system, it has been conveniently divided into 10 scenic zones: Yingbin Hall, the Sutra Hall, the Pagoda Forest, Wanshou Palace, Wangshan Lake, Jiangnanzeguo, Xuexiang Palace, Lingxiao Palace, Guanghan Palace, and the Shiwan Mountain. The first and arguably most magnificent sight you’ll be greeted by is the Yingbin or “Reception” Hall, which is over 200 metres (656 ft.) long. What makes this cavern particularly special is that its ceiling contains a large round hole that allows sunlight to pierce right into the bottom of the cave. This means that the entire hall is covered in thick green moss, which thrives in the damp conditions. The sunlight glistening off of the many water droplets that fall constantly from the ceiling of the cavern creates a scene like a thousand gold coins trickling down the rock. In fact, the hole in the cavern’s ceiling is even known as Luoqian or “Dropping Coins” Hole. Money may not grow on trees, but it seems that in Zhijin Cave it falls from the sky instead!

To the side of Yingbin Hall, there is a smaller cavern known rather darkly as Mushroom-Cloud Hall, because its main feature is a 10-metre (33 ft.) tall stalactite that supposedly resembles the shape of the mushroom cloud formed after a nuclear explosion. In-keeping with this hall’s gloomy aesthetic, there is also a small pond that has been aptly named Shadow Spring, because of the way that the shadows of the stalagmites dance eerily on the surface of the water.  

The name of the Sutra Hall, by contrast, is derived from the fact that it is home to a stalactite that reputedly resembles a type of saintly Buddhist figure known as an arhat. The cavern itself is around 200 metres (656 ft.) in length and 50 metres (164 ft.) in width, with a pool at its centre that covers an area of about 300 square metres (3,229 sq. ft.). This pool has been divided into two parts by the famed arhat stalactite, which has earned it the name Riyue or “Sun and Moon” Pool. From the Buddhist figure guarding the cavern to the Yin-Yang elements of the Riyue Pool, it would be hard not to feel enlightened as you wander through the Sutra Hall!

Following the Buddhist theme, the Pagoda Forest is home to over 100 stalagmites, which are golden in colour and resemble a glistening forest of real pagodas. Near to this cavern is Wangshan Lake, which is an underground lake that is a staggering 170 metres (558 ft.) long and more than 40 metres (131 ft.) wide. To put that into perspective, this subterranean lake is over three times the length of an Olympic swimming pool!

Once you’ve enjoyed the many splendid natural attractions to be found within the cave, you can pay a visit to some of the ethnic minority villages that are dotted throughout the region. Zhijin Cave itself is located in an area populated by the Miao ethnic minority, although there are also settlements of Yi people and Bouyei people nearby. In particular, the Miao people who live near to the cave are well-known for their craftsmanship and their delicious local style of cuisine. 


Over 300 years ago, during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), a simple dockworker named Chen Shifan made his fortune working at a port along the Yellow River. In order to celebrate this fine achievement, he decided to build himself a grand castle-like compound, which he carved into the side of a hill just one kilometre (0.6 mi) from the ancient town of Qikou. Generation after generation, his descendants constructed their own yaodongs or “loess cave houses” in the same area and eventually they formed the village of Xiwan. It may take a village to raise a child, but evidently it takes a family to raise a village! Sixteen generations of the Chen family have since called this humble village home and over 400 of its residents are descendants of Chen Shifan. Talk about keeping it in the family!

The village itself only occupies a narrow strip of the hillside, approximately 250 metres (820 ft.) in length and 120 metres (394 ft.) in width. The Chen’s Ancestral Hall is the centrepiece of the settlement, although the entire area is resplendent with beautifully constructed yaodongs. It functions less like a typical village and more like a large compound, with 30 small courtyards connected to each other by a row of five vertical lanes running from north to south. These secret lanes not only helped people communicate within the village, but also provided an escape route if it was under siege. They each represent the Five Elements of traditional Chinese philosophy: Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, and Water. However, they also signify the five branches of the Chen family and, historically, each branch would occupy their own personal lane. 

The village boasts over 40 well-preserved yaodongs, complete with their ancient courtyards, which are widely regarded as some of the finest remaining structures from the Ming and Qing (1644-1912) dynasties. Each residence is stacked on top of the other as they creep their way up the hillside, with the roof of the house on the lower stage forming the courtyard of its neighbour on the upper stage. With stone walls and gate towers, they are markedly fortified structures designed to protect the village from intruders. That being said, nowadays the only people invading Xiwan are curious tourists! 


Clinging to the cliff-face of a deep valley within Lijia Mountain, the ancient village of Lijiashan blends seamlessly with its natural surroundings. At first glance, you may not even notice that it’s there! It rests about 10 kilometres (6 mi) from Qikou, a town whose history is inseparably intertwined with Lijiashan. Over 500 years ago, Qikou flourished as one of the major port towns along the Yellow River. It was a vital trading hub located at an impassable stretch of the river, where goods heading north or south would be unloaded at the port and carried overland by caravans. Families in the town made a fortune running hotels, caravan services, restaurants, shops, warehouses, and a myriad of other establishments catering to the regular influx of wealthy merchants. Some of them even became merchants themselves!

Many of these newly rich businessmen decided that, in the interests of safety, it would be best to move their families and their homes elsewhere. They squirreled their families away in the mountains, constructing secret villages where they could live in comfort. Lijiashan is one such village and its name, which means “Mountain Home of the Li Family”, is a reference to the fact that the two most luxurious mansions in the village were constructed by the Li family during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912). In fact, the village is home to over 400 magnificent yaodongs or “loess cave houses”, which are buildings carved directly into the rocky outcrop of the mountainside. However, these aren’t just any old yaodongs!

These yaodongs are unique in that they were built by wealthy merchant families, rather than the other yaodongs in Shanxi province, which were typically the work of poor farmers. The yaodongs of Lijiashan are not humble earthen dwellings, but were constructed from the finest materials, including brick, stone, and tile. They are two or three storey affairs, complete with front courtyards resembling traditional Chinese courtyard houses. Resplendent with a plethora of stone carvings, brick sculptures, and woodcuttings, these yaodongs are more like mansions than simple caves.

In its heyday, Lijiashan was home to over 600 families, most of whom were from the Li clan. However, as the ancient port of Qikou gradually became obsolete so too did this venerable village. Dazzled by the opportunities on offer in China’s rapidly developing cities, many of its younger inhabitants have left in search of their own fortune. Nowadays, only 40 families remain and most of the residents are in their twilight years.

These locals depend upon tourism and allow visitors the unique chance to stay in their cave dwellings. In a stroke of luck, Lijiashan has risen to become a painter’s paradise. Every year, hundreds of artists flock to the village to take advantage of the stunning panoramic views. From the comfort of their rented cave rooms, they produce vivid images of the mountain valley and the picturesque yaodongs carved into its sides. After all, a picture paints a thousand words!