World ? Asia ? China

China: Regions in Brief

Beijing, Tianjin & Hebei

While there's much talk of getting to the Three Gorges on the Yangzi River before the area's partial disappearance, the real urgency is to see what little is left of old Beijing , with its ancient housing and original Ming dynasty street plan. Thanks to new construction, whole city blocks can vanish at once, sometimes taking ancient, long-forgotten temples with them.

But while Beijing suffers from being communism's showpiece for the outside world and a victim of ersatz modernization, it still has far more to offer than several other Chinese cities put together, including some of China's most extravagant monuments, such as the Forbidden City. In addition, there's easy access to the surrounding province of Hebei with its sinuous sections of the Great Wall and vast tomb complexes.

The Northeast

Even if the Chinese no longer believe civilization ends at the Great Wall, most tourists still do. The frigid lands to the Northeast, once known as Tartary or Manchuria, represent one of the least-visited and most challenging regions in China, and its last great travel frontier.

Despite industrialization, the provinces of Liaoning, Jilin, and Heilong Jiang, and the northern section of Inner Mongolia, still claim China's largest natural forest, its most pristine grasslands, and one of its most celebrated lakes (Tian Chi). You'll also find architectural remnants of the last 350 years -- early Qing palaces and tombs, incongruous Russian cupolas, and eerie structures left over from Japan's wartime occupation.

Around the Yellow River

As covered in this book, this region comprises an area of northern China that includes Shanxi, Ningxia, parts of Shaanxi, and Inner Mongolia, roughly following the central loop of the Yellow River north of Xi'an. One of China's "cradles of civilization," the area is home to most of the country's oldest surviving timber-frame buildings, its oldest carved Buddhist grottoes, and Pingyao, one of its best-preserved walled cities.

The Silk Routes

From the ancient former capital of Xi'an, famed for the modern rediscovery of the Terra-Cotta Warriors, trade routes ran in all directions, but most famously (because they were given a clever name in the 19th c.) west and northwest through Gansu and Xinjiang, and on through the Middle East. Under the control of Tibetan, Mongol, Indo-European, and Turkic peoples more than of Chinese, these regions are still populated with Uighurs, Tajiks, Kazakhs, Tibetans, and others, some in tiny oasis communities on the rim of the Taklamakan Desert, which seem completely remote from China. The Silk Routes are littered with alien monuments and tombs, and with magnificent cave-temple sights such as Dunhuang, which demonstrate China's import of foreign religions and aesthetics as much as the wealth generated by its exports of silk.

Eastern Central China

Eastern central China, between the Yellow River (Huang He) and the Yangzi River (Chang Jiang), is an area covering the provinces of Henan, Shandong, Jiangsu, and Anhui. Chinese culture developed and flourished with little outside influence here. Luoyang was the capital of nine dynasties, Kaifeng capital of six, and Nanjing capital of eight. The hometown of China's most important philosopher, Confucius, is here, as are several of China's holiest mountains, notably Tai Shan and Huang Shan, as well as that watery equivalent of the Great Wall, the Grand Canal.

Shanghai

Shanghai is the city China boosters love to cite as representing the country as a whole, but it in fact represents nothing except itself -- the country's wealthiest city, and with (if government figures are to be believed) the highest per-capita income. Look closer and you'll see many of its shiny new towers are incomplete or unoccupied. But the sweep of 19th- and early-20th-century architecture along The Bund, which looks as if the town halls of two dozen provincial British cities have been transported to a more exotic setting, and the maze of Art Deco masterpieces in the French Concession behind the Bund, make Shanghai the mainland's top East-meets-West destination, with the restaurants and a more relaxed and open-minded atmosphere to match. Nearby Hangzhou and Suzhou offer some of China's most famous scenery.

The Southeast

South of Shanghai and the Yangzi River, the coastal provinces of Zhejiang, Fujian, and Guangdong have always been China's most outward looking. These areas, which boomed under the relatively open Tang dynasty and which were forced to reopen as "treaty ports" by the guns of the first multinationals in the 19th century, are also those most industrialized under the current "reform and opening" policy. Remembering that this is a guide for travelers rather than businesspeople, we have focused on areas of great natural beauty such as Anji and Yandangshan, rather than so called "developed" coastal cities where modern multinationals have offloaded their most substandard industrial plants and their most polluting industries. A bit inland, the impoverished pottery-producing province of Jiangxi shows the two-speed nature of China's growth.

Hong Kong & Macau

Two sets of pencil-slim towers jostle for position on either side of a harbor, close as bristles on a brush. Between them, ponderous oceangoing vessels slide past puttering junks, and century-old ferries waddle and weave across their paths. The mixture of Asia's finest hotels, territory-wide duty-free shopping, incense-filled working temples, and British double-decker buses makes this city-state worth flying to Asia to see in its own right. Macau, a little bit of misplaced Mediterranean, is a short ferry ride away.

The Southwest

Encompassing the provinces of Yunnan, Guizhou, Guangxi, and Hainan Island, this region is home to some of China's most spectacular mountain scenery and three of Asia's mightiest rivers, resulting in some of the most breathtaking gorges and lush river valleys in the country.

Even more appealing: This region is easily the most ethnically diverse in China. Twenty-six of China's 56 officially recognized ethnic groups can be found in the southwest, from the Mosu in Lugu Lake to the Dai in Xishuangbanna , from the Miao around Kaili to the Dong in San Jiang , each with different architecture, dress, traditions, and colorful festivals.

The Yangzi River

In addition to shared borders, the landlocked provinces of Sichuan, Hubei, and Hunan and the municipality of Chongqing have in common the world's third-longest river, the Chang Jiang ("Long River," aka Yangzi or Yangtze). The home of five holy Buddhist and/or Daoist mountains, this area contains some of China's most beautiful scenery, particularly in northern Sichuan and northern Hunan.

Sichuan deserves exploration using Chengdu as a base, and the Hunan should be explored from Changsha. If you're taking the Three Gorges cruise (available indefinitely despite what you may have heard), try to at least leave yourself a few days on either end to explore Chongqing and Wuhan. And a day trip from Chongqing to the Buddhist grottoes at Dazu is well worth the time.

The Tibetan World

The Tibetan plateau is roughly the size of western Europe, with an average elevation of 4,700m (15,400 ft.). Ringed by vast mountain ranges such as the Kunlun range to the north and the Himalayas, the region offers towering scenic splendors as well as some of the richest minority culture within modern China's borders. Lhasa, former seat of the Dalai Lamas, is dominated physically by the vast Potala Palace, and emotionally by the fervor of the pilgrims to the Jokhang Temple. Fewer than half of the world's Tibetans now live in what is called Tibet -- much Tibetan territory has now been allocated to neighboring Chinese provinces, particularly Qinghai, where the authorities are less watchful and the atmosphere in both monasteries and on the streets more relaxed.

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