China’s Historic Wonders

Old meets new in this vast country, where ancient civilizations and modern constructions blend together for a vivid, one-of-a-kind experience

By: By Gary Bowerman

Destination Resources

By Susan Shuo Dong and Christine Trang

Peninsula Shanghai Opens
This September, one of Shanghai’s oldest hotel companies is returning to the city with brand-new, 235-room The Peninsula Shanghai. The property, which sits on a newly redeveloped part of the famous Bund area, represents a 10-year, $361 million project. It also promises to be one of the most technologically advanced Peninsula properties, as well as offer five signature restaurants and bars, a two-story lobby, a Salon de Ning lounge and The Peninsula Spa by ESPA.

World Expo 2010 Shanghai
With "Better City, Better Life" as its theme, Shanghai is set to host the next World Expo, set for 2010. Numerous exhibitions, events and forums will take place during this five-month international fair, which clients can attend while visiting the Shanghai area. From May 1 to Oct. 31, approximately 200 participants will contribute to Shanghai’s efforts to build sustainable urban living. For those who cannot travel to China for the event, the World Expo 2010 will feature an online version called Online Expo Shanghai.

Raffles Beijing Hotel: Built in the 1900s, Raffles Beijing Hotel is an icon of Beijing’s historical heritage. Ideally situated at the crossroads of famous Chang An Avenue and the district of Wangfujing, the hotel is minutes away from the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, the Silk Market and other famous sights of Beijing. The hotel was named one of the top hotels in the world by readers of Conde Nast Traveler in 2008. In 2009, the magazine placed the Raffles Beijing Hotel on its fifth annual Gold List.

The Great Wall
Commune by the Great Wall: Recognized for its award-winning architectural designs, this resort offers 42 themed villas dispersed along the slopes of the valley, offering private access to unrestored and non-commercial parts of the Great Wall. After a long walk across the wall, clients can indulge themselves at the hotel’s Anantara Spa, a three-level facility with 15 luxurious spa suites.

Shangri-La Hotel, Hangzhou: Located just five minutes from downtown Hangzhou, this 382-room hotel offers views of West Lake and nearly 40 acres of manicured gardens. Guests can enjoy Chinese dishes, as well as Western dishes, at the hotel restaurant. The surrounding area is home to a number of temples and pavilions, allowing travelers to embark on a journey through history. Guests of the Shangri-La Hotel have access to bicycle rentals, an indoor swimming pool, a mahjong room and a health and fitness center.

Banyan Tree Lijiang: The design and furnishings of Banyan Tree’s luxurious villas reflect the rich cultural sites in the resort’s immediate surroundings, including the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Old Town Lijang, also sometimes referred to as the Venice of the East for its numerous bridges and canals. Majestic Jade Dragon Snow Mountain can be seen from one side of the resort. Guests also receive exclusive handicrafts as souvenirs, each telling a story about Lijiang.

Pingyao Yunjincheng Hotel: Located in the famous Ming and Qing streets in central Pingyao, this hotel showcases 18 elegant and unique courtyards featuring luxurious suites and standard apartments with an old-city charm. Pingyao became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997.

Sheraton Suzhou Hotel & Towers: This Sheraton property boasts a unique architectural style with ancient Chinese and Suzhou garden features. Located in downtown, the 484-room hotel
offers guests easy access to some of Suzhou’s most famous sites. For dining options, the hotel has two lounges, a Western-style Garden Brasserie and a Chinese-style Celestial Court.

Liaoning Provincial Museum, Shenyang City
This museum is considered one of northeast China’s largest museums and is home to some 3,000 historical Chinese treasures. The museum’s biggest attraction are the skeletons of two mammoth dinosaurs which are displayed on the building’s first floor. Other artifacts include classical Chinese painting, pottery, porcelain, copperware and embroidery, many of which date back to ancient times. Some of the museum’s most prized possessions also include small, polished bones that are etched with inscriptions — signs of China’s earliest forms of writing.

Ocean Park Hong Kong
Aside from a variety of thrill rides, this aquatic theme park in Hong Kong also offers an Ocean Theater, where dolphins and sea lions entertain visitors, and a variety of aquariums. Other attractions include a panda habitat, a bird theater and a jellyfish exhibit — perfect for introducing clients to China’s animal civilizations. The park is built over two sides of a mountain, allowing visitors to have panoramic views of the South China Sea. The park also provides a popular cable-car system, taking visitors from one side of the park to the other.

Wulingyuan Scenic Area, Hunan Province
Wulingyuan is a popular scenic and historic area located in Hunan Province, China. It is split into four parts, consisting of the Zhangjiajie National Park, the Suoxiyu Nature Reserve, the Tianzi Mountain
National Reserve and the newly added Yangjiajie Sceneic Area. Wulingyuan is a quartz and sandstone structure with more than 3,000 peaks, all surrounded by streams, brooks, springs and waterfalls. This scenic area is also home to more than 3,000 species of plants and approximately 116 different types of animals.

Yuyuan Gardens, Shanghai
These gardens, which sit in the heart of Shanghai’s Old City, were originally built in 1559 by Pan Yunduan as private gardens for his father, a high-ranking Ming Dynasty official. Over the years, the gardens have borne witness to many different struggles and challenges: The British army occupied the gardens during the Opium Wars in 1842, and the Japanese army damaged them severely in 1942 during their occupation of Shanghai. The Shanghai government repaired the gardens from 1956-61 and today, the Suzhou-style courtyards are a favorite among tourists and locals alike.

China National Tourist Office

Suzhou Museum

Pillars Of Civilization

Pillars of Civilization 2009 CoverPlease visit our Guides & Brochures page to browse a full version of our Pillars Of Civilization supplement.

China has had such a long history that "more than 5,000 years old" is a phrase routinely recited by locals when talking to visitors. Although today’s Chinese cities are rapidly reconfiguring themselves into soaring glass-and-steel tributes to an urbanized future, the country’s link between history and tourism is widely recognized as commercial gold. For this reason, everyone, from tour guides and silk-market traders to hotel chambermaids, dutifully displays China’s pride in the perspective of its historical longevity.

This time-honored interaction can work two ways, however. Perhaps the most frequent question asked of foreign visitors is "What do you think about China?" The questioner is seeking more than a simple reply of "very interesting" or "really beautiful." Neither does justice to a historically complex nation that trades on its vast, timeless landscapes, myriad cultures and cuisines and bewitching imperial palaces and temples.

The Great Wall of China is, perhaps, the country’s most iconic historic landmark. // (c) istockphoto
The Great Wall of China is, perhaps, the country’s most iconic historic landmark.

For historians, answering this question means linking ancient Buddhist, Taoist and Confucian philosophies with communist orthodoxy and market economics. For travelers, the task is much simpler. Just a map and an inquisitive mind are all that is required to explore China’s magnificent physical and natural landmarks that bring alive its extraordinary historical timelines.

UNESCO World Heritage Sites
China currently boasts 37 UNESCO World Heritage Sites — 26 cultural, seven natural and four of mixed cultural and natural significance — ranking third globally behind Italy and Spain.

These 37 attractions are geographically dispersed across China. They include the Peking Man site where the remains of a Homo sapien dating back to 11,000 B.C. were unearthed, just southwest of Beijing, the remarkable tulou open-courtyard roundhouses of eastern Fujian province, the ancient Portuguese ruins of Macau and the giant Buddhist rock carvings at Dazu, near Chonqqing in western China.

In addition, since 1996, China has submitted 89 other sites for UNESCO consideration. Among these are the 1,121-mile Grand Canal between Hangzhou and Tianjin, the Sakya Tower at the Fogong Monastery in Shanxi province and the ethnic minority Hani people’s intricate mountain terracing in southwestern Yunnan province.

Perhaps, the two most trumpeted examples of ancient Chinese civilization are the Great Wall of China and the Terra-Cotta Warriors of Xian.

Running from west to east across northern China, the Great Wall was first completed in 220 B.C. to repel Mongol army raids on the Chinese capital, Beijing. It was later rebuilt between 1368 and 1644 as the world’s largest military defense structure. Today, the Great Wall, which meanders across photogenic, mountainous scenery, is accessible by day trip from Beijing.

Three other UNESCO sites in the Chinese capital also merit a visit. The grandiose, formerly gold-roofed imperial palace known as the Forbidden City is the most famous, but the Summer Palace, a landscaped, lakeside retreat of Chinese emperors and empresses, and the 15th-century Temple of Heaven, an architecturally inspiring complex of circular Taoist shrines, also yield fascinating insights into Beijing’s multi-layered past.

The ancient capital city of Xian, formerly known as Changan, in central China’s Shaanxi province, was once the largest and most powerful city in the East. Comparable in size and power to Rome, its central location made it a gathering place for traders from north, east, south and west China and the starting point for the notoriously treacherous Silk Road trading route across the mountains and deserts of Asia and on to Europe. Xian’s most popular attraction is a museum housing several thousand life-sized Terra-Cotta Warriors that once guarded the underground tomb of Emperor Qin Shihuang, acclaimed as the first leader of a united China from 2010 B.C.

Beyond the Qin tombs, Xian remains a multi-faceted city for history buffs. Encased by a sturdy, nearly 40-foot-high fortress wall first built in the Tang Dynasty, it features two of China’s best archaeological museums, the Xian Banpo Museum and the Shaanxi History Museum, plus the enchanting Great Mosque that blends Persian and Chinese courtyard architectural styles.

Suzhou and Hangzhou
"In heaven there is paradise. On earth, there is Suzhou and Hangzhou" is an oft-quoted Chinese eulogy to two of the nation’s most cherished cities.

Another of China’s seven ancient capital cities, Hangzhou, now the capital of Zhejiang province, is built around the mystical West Lake. Fringed by hills, tea plantations and temples, the lake has been a retreat for the reflection and inspiration of emperors, philosophers, artists and writers across the centuries. West Lake hit the headlines in late 2008, when the government announced that the buildings surrounding it, including the Shangri-La Hotel Hangzhou, must reduce their height to "clear the skyline and restore the lake’s natural and historical features" in order to support a renewed bid for UNESCO World Heritage status.

Hangzhou also boasts a lesser-known site of ancient civilization. Opened in late 2008, the Liangzhu Culture Museum was designed in Iranian travertine stone by British architect David Chipperfield, and it houses lacquered pottery, jade carvings, utensils and jewelry sculpted by the Liangzhu people. This little-known Neolithic culture farmed this region of the fertile Yangtze River Delta around the same time as the pharaohs ruled Egypt. To date, archaeologists have unearthed approximately 135 Liangzhu settlements, including ceremonial tombs and the remains of a palace, of what has now become known as the Jade Culture.

The former Wu Kingdom capital of Suzhou, in eastern Jiangsu province, is laden with historical and aesthetic interest as well. Just a 30-minute train ride from Shanghai, Suzhou is adulated for its splendid Chinese water gardens, eight of which are inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list. Clients are advised to properly time their visits, however, as the gardens can get rather crowded on weekends with microphone-toting tour guides disturbing the carefully landscaped tranquility.

Suzhou is also noted for its eye-catching, whitewashed scholar cottages bearing upturned gray slate roofs and intricate, brick-carved doorways that line the canals and narrow streets of Ping Jiang district in the picturesque old city. Nearby is Chinese-American architect I. M. Pei’s masterful two-story Suzhou Museum, which opened in 2006. Designed in Pei’s signature geometrical style, the museum adapts Suzhou’s white and gray traditional architecture and has been widely acclaimed as China’s finest — and most historically reverent — new building of recent years.

So, you see, it’s still possible to see both the old and the new in today’s China. You just have to know where to look.

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