Travelers who enjoy the kinetic energy of change will find it in Beijing, China, as the city prepares to assume its duties as host of the 2008 Summer Olympics. Hotel construction and infrastructure development are proceeding at a blistering pace, not only in preparation for the Olympics, but also because of sustained growth in the travel and tourism sector.
But beneath the modern face of Beijing beats an ancient heart. There are a number of places in and near Beijing that it is almost a duty to visit, because they're historical or cultural touchstones.
First-timers should consider visiting at least these six places: Tiananmen Square; the Forbidden City (former residence of the emperors); the Temple of Heaven (where dynastic rulers in China used to worship); the Summer Palace (an archetypal Chinese garden, ranked among the most noted and classical gardens of the world, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site); the Ming Tombs (mausoleums of 13 emperors of the Ming Dynasty); and a section of the Great Wall that's within reach of Beijing.
The destination of Xian and its awe-inspiring repository of ancient, life-sized terracotta warriors can be seen during a day trip from Beijing, but you may prefer a schedule that provides for at least one night in the area so you can take in other sights in a more leisurely manner.
One China component that provides transportation and is a destination in its own right is a cruise of the Yangtze. Choices are on the rise, and it is not uncommon to see packages that include at least a segment of the upstream or downstream journey as a component of the trip. Even if you are not an avid cruiser, you may enjoy the ease and novelty of cruising as a way to explore China. And even if you're working to stretch your dollars, with your travel agent's help you should be able to book an itinerary that won't add too much to the overall cost of your vacation.
Another metropolitan must-see is Shanghai, known for its gardens and the Bund. Bund comes from an Anglo-Indian word for an embankment along a muddy waterfront, and that is what it was when the first British company opened a office there in 1846. Located on the west bank of a bend in the Huangpu River, the Bund became the site of some of the earliest foreign settlements after Shanghai was opened as one of five "treaty ports" in the Treaty of Nanjing in 1842. Because of its proximity to the Yangtze River, Shanghai grew rapidly as the economic center of foreign interests. And, if your schedule permits, consider allowing time to visit China's pandas. The Wolong Nature Reserve is home to a number of these endangered, endearing animals. The Olympic Effect
Even if the focus of your first trip to China is on such destinations as Beijing, Xian and Shanghai, you should tack on a few days in Hong Kong. You've likely heard about the new Disney park and about the excellent shopping, but truly even a full week in Hong Kong would leave you wishing your time there were longer. Among the highlights for first-time visitors are Victoria Peak (try riding the funicular tram) and traversing the harbor on a Star Ferry vessel.