If your visions of Beijing are centred around pods of Maoist revolutionaries in buttoned-down tunics performing t’ai chi in the Square, put them to rest: this city has embarked on a new-millennium roller-coaster and it’s taking the rest of China with it.
The spinsterish Beijing of old is having a facelift and the cityscape is changing daily. Within the city, however, you’ll still find some of China’s most stunning sights: the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace, Temple of Heaven Park, the Lama Temple and the Great Wall, to name just a few.
Hong Kong has the big city specials like smog, odour, 14 million elbows and an insane love of clatter. But it’s also efficient, hushed and peaceful: the transport network is excellent, the shopping centres are sublime, and the temples and quiet corners of parks are contemplative oases.
Hong Kong has enough towering urbanity, electric streetscapes, enigmatic temples, commercial fervour and cultural idiosyncrasies to utterly swamp the senses of a visitor, and enough spontaneous, unexpected possibilities to make a complete mockery of any attempt at a strictly organised itinerary.
Macau may be firmly back in China’s orbit, but the Portuguese patina on this Sino-Lusitanian Las Vegas makes it a most unusual Asian destination. It has always been overshadowed by its glitzy near-neighbour Hong Kong - which is precisely why it’s so attractive.
Macau’s dual cultural heritage is a boon for travellers, who can take their pick from traditional Chinese temples, a spectacular ruined cathedral, pastel villas, old forts and islands that once harboured pirates. A slew of musuems will tell you how it all came about.
Although the lights have been out for quite some time, Shanghai once beguiled foreigners with its seductive mix of tradition and sophistication. Now Shanghai is reawakening and dusting off its party shoes for another silken tango with the wider world.
In many ways, Shanghai is a Western invention. The Bund, its riverside area, and Frenchtown are the best places to see the remnants of its decadent colonial past. Move on to temples, gardens, bazaars and the striking architecture of the new Shanghai.
Xi’an was once a major crossroads on the trading routes from eastern China to central Asia, and vied with Rome and later Constantinople for the title of greatest city in the world. Today Xi’an is one of China’s major drawcards, largely because of the Army of Terracotta Warriors on the city’s eastern outskirts. Uncovered in 1974, over 10,000 figures have been sorted to date. Soldiers, archers (armed with real weapons) and chariots stand in battle formation in underground vaults looking as fierce and war-like as pottery can. Xi’an’s other attractions include the old city walls, the Muslim quarter and the Banpo Neolithic Village - a tacky re-creation of the Stone Age. By train, Xi’an is a 16 hour journey from Beijing. If you’ve got a bit of cash to spare, you can get a flight.