Chinese culture is rich, diverse, and will hit you like a ton of bricks. Keep an open mind while you're traveling, because this will be an experience of a lifetime.
Art for Art's Sake
China may be careening through the 21st century at breakneck speed, but the Chinese are immensely proud of their artistic heritage and traditional folk arts have not been forgotten. Every region of China is rich in local arts and craft traditions. In the north, delicate designs are painstakingly cut from rice paper and hung from windows and doors during festivals and weddings. In the east, Suzhou is as famous for its elegant silk embroidery as it is for its gardens, and nearby Huang Shan is a wonderful place to discover bamboo weaving. Yunnan is known for its painted clay figurines, Chengdu for its sweet sugar paintings, Fujian for its colorful hand puppets. Everywhere you go you’ll see fluttering overhead one of China's oldest pastimes: kite flying, dating all the way back to 475 BC.
Getting there is often half the fun, and in China there are limitless ways to travel from point A to point B. China already has the world's longest high-speed rail network, and has plans to add many new lines in the coming years. But there's more than just trains. Sightseeing in Chongqing? Cross the Yangtze or Jialing rivers in an old-school cable car. Horses are the best way to get around in the beautiful countryside surrounding Songpan in Sichuan. If you're flying into Shanghai's Pudong Airport, take the superslick maglev train into town at speeds of more than 260 miles per hour. China's crown jewels of passenger transport belong to Hong Kong, where it's normal to get around by light rail, bus, taxi, trolley, boat—it even has the longest covered outdoor escalator system in the world.
China Beyond the Han
The Han are far and away the dominant ethnic group in China, but there is surprising ethnic diversity, from the Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang to the Dai and Hani of Xishuangbanna. Officially there are 56 ethnic groups, including the nomadic Mongols, that make up the great Chinese nation. Though small in number relative to the Han, the minorities have historically been a force to be reckoned with. Rulers of the last dynasty (the Qing) were Manchus. Though Chinese history is rife with examples of intertribal war and Han incursion into non-Han territory (Tibet being the latest and most famous example), the revolution, in theory, leveled the playing field. Traveling through areas less dominated by the Han Chinese offers views of the country far different from the usual Beijing-Shanghai–Three Gorges tour.
All the Tea in China
For a vast majority of the Chinese people, the day begins and ends with tea. Whether it's being savored in a delicate ceremonial porcelain cup or slurped out of a glass mason jar, you can bet that the imbiber takes tea consumption seriously. Ask a Chinese person about the best tea and the answer will very likely depend on where they're from. The highly prized Pu'er tea has a dark color and heavy, almost earthy flavor. It gets its name from the region of southern Yunnan Province where it's grown. Fujian produces the best oolong teas, thanks to the high mountains and favorable climate. Oolong is usually served with much ceremony. Perhaps the most expensive tea in China is a variant of green tea from the Longjing ("Dragon Well") region of Hangzhou. Longjing tea is served in clear glasses, so one can watch the delicate dance of the long, thin leaves as they float to the top.
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