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In a country with as many intriguing attractions as China, deciding what to pack for a first-time visit is somewhat of a quandary. To make it easier, we have rounded up the country's don't-miss destinations, from magnificent gorges to neon-lit cities, ancient monuments to modern skyscrapers.
Hike the Great Wall of China
This world-famous sight lives up to the hype and expectation. Stretching across an extraordinary 20,000km, the wall also stretches back in time. The first foundations were laid more than 2200 years ago, although many sections date back around 500 years. The most accessible portions of the wall are near Beijing, particularly the stretch near Jinshanling which dates from the Ming Dynasty. The wall here is impressive, standing seven metres high as well as seven metres thick, but be aware that the path is uneven and some of the stairs are very steep, so wear appropriate footwear. Among the wall's most striking features are the beacon towers, from which soldiers would send signals using flags and smoke signals – effectively the world's first telegraph system.
Explore the best of Beijing, old and new
China's lively capital is constantly reinventing itself, but there is also plenty of history to explore in this one-time imperial city. Make time to discover some of the city's seven UNESCO World Heritage sites, including the 1000-room Forbidden City, home to no fewer than 24 emperors. Another must-visit is the Summer Palace, a lovely complex of lakes, gardens and palaces. More modern monuments include the eye-catching Birds Nest Stadium and the Watercube, both designed for the 2008 Summer Olympic Games and set to be reused for the 2022 Winter Olympic Games. Other highlights include the 798 Arts District, where you can explore the city's booming arts scene, and the sprawling Panjiayuan Antiques Market, where you can pick up anything from Cultural Revolution memorabilia to jade dragons.
Come face to face with the Terracotta Warriors
Rulers around the world have traditionally organised grand burials for themselves, but few can match that arranged by China's first emperor, Qin Shi Huang, who commissioned an army made of terracotta to protect him in the afterlife. His tomb, which contained not just thousands of life-sized soldiers – each one with unique facial features – but also horses and bronze chariots, was discovered less than 50 years ago, and archaeologists are still working at the site. You will find it outside the ancient trading town of Xian; the town itself is also worth exploring, especially the atmospheric Muslim Quarter. A stroll on the 14th century city walls, among the best-preserved in China, is a highlight.
Cruise the Yangtze River
Rivers don't get much mightier than the Yangtze, Asia's longest river, which winds its way more than 6000km from the Tibetan peaks to the sea. More than one-third of China's population is said to live along its banks, and it is also home to some of the country's most spectacular landscapes. A cruise through the Three Gorges area is a chance to soak up the scenery as well as visit some of China's most historic temples. Don't miss the opportunity to visit some of the breathtaking smaller gorges, such as Dragon Gate Gorge and Misty Gorge, as well as visiting the Three Gorges Project. Completed in 2009, this is the largest construction project in the history of the world, and also the world's largest electricity generator.
Feel the buzz in Shanghai
To get a feel for the complexities of modern Shanghai, head straight for the waterfront boulevard known as The Bund. Stretching along the city side of the river, The Bund is home to some of the city's most glorious art deco architecture; on the opposite shore lies the futuristic skyscrapers of Pudong. Whenever you visit, whether at dawn or late at night, you will find plenty of locals – practicing tai chi, promenading, or admiring the night-time neon. Beyond the Bund, the narrow warrens of the Old City are a great place to wander back in time, while the picturesque streets of the French Concession are made for strolling. In the mood to shop? Head for the atmospheric Tianzifeng, a former residential district where the red brick lanehouses now contain inviting cafes and boutiques.
Be dazzled by Sichuan Province
With its distinctive cuisine and its tranquil countryside, Sichuan is one of China's most inviting provinces. What draws most international visitors is the giant panda research centres outside the city of Chengdu. There are fewer than 2,000 of these animals left, and these centres play a vital role in their continued survival. After your panda encounter, it is time to explore some of Sichuan's other attractions. Visit one of the area's charming heritage townships - Pingle, where the mazelike streets are lined with ancient teahouses, is a good option - or take a walk through one of Sichuan's picture-perfect bamboo forests.
Escape your world, Discover ours. Wendy Wu Tours are Australia's leading touring experts. For 25 years, they have been perfecting their range of tours to capture the very essence of Asia; so you're not just admiring the top sights but truly discovering them. With an incredible heritage and foundation across Asia, being one of the first companies taking Australian travellers into parts of China and Tibet, they have recently expanded their operations across South America. Offering unique experiences and comprehensive itineraries spanning China, India, Vietnam, Japan, Chile, Peru, Brazil, Argentina and more. For more information or to book, please call 1300 176 914 or visit www.wendywutours.com.au/china.