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China’s transforming urban landscapes are helping to diversify tourism interest across this vast country. Improved transport infrastructure, burgeoning hotel portfolios and access to stunning natural attractions are aligned with intriguing histories that contribute toward explaining the innate complexities of modern China.
WuxiLocated beside Lake Tai, Wuxi is, by Chinese standards, a relatively small city of 6 million people. Eighty miles from Shanghai (or 45 minutes by train), this expanding industrial city is a stop-off on the busy high-speed rail corridor linking the former capital of Nanjing and the east cost metropolis of Shanghai.
Today, Wuxi is the engine of China’s booming solar industry, but it’s easy to forget that Wuxi is an ancient city. Neolithic cultures flourished here around 4,000 years ago. The construction of the Grand Canal in the sixth century, linking Hangzhou in the south with Beijing in the north, and which flows through Wuxi, established the city as a strategic trading center. Surrounded by fresh water and fertile hills, it is also famous for its agricultural produce, notably the sweet Wuxi peaches, whose colorful blossoms invigorate the lakeside each April.
A 10-minute taxi ride west of Wuxi’s fast-developing downtown takes clients to Huishan Ancient Town, a well-preserved time capsule of Wuxi’s past. Lying at the foot of Mount Hui (Huishan) and Mount Xi (Xishan), it offers Chinese gardens, temples and atmospheric lanes to wander. Overlooking the town is the octagonal Longguang Pagoda, considered by locals to be an iconic symbol of Old Wuxi.
Xihui Park’s fine gardens are as splendid as the famed gardens of the neighboring city of Suzhou, but are less visited. Perhaps the most impressive is Jichang Garden, which dates from the Ming Dynasty. Sweeping stone walls enclose large reflective ponds, elaborate rockeries carved into tunneled caves, zigzag bridges and ornate pavilions with dragon-carved roofs.
XiamenThe coastal city of Xiamen in southeastern Fujian province looks toward the island of Taiwan, located 112 miles across the Taiwan Strait. Previously called Amoy, Xiamen was one of the five Chinese treaty ports — along with Shanghai, Ningbo, Fuzhou and Canton (now Guangzhou) — forcibly opened to foreign trade after the Sino-British Opium War in 1842.
Today, this affluent city’s subtropical climate, picturesque beaches and historical architecture make it one of China’s favorite tourism destinations. It also boasts excellent infrastructure, with a new Terminal 4 at Xiamen Gaoqi International Airport opening in June, several new hotels and ambitions to become a major regional cruise port and meetings destination.
A five-minute ferry ride from Xiamen is the tiny, yet atmospheric, Gulangyu, or Piano Island. The name is significant, because a walk along the quiet lanes and streets is regularly infused with piano music melodies emanating from open windows. Gulangyu only counts a population of 25,000, but there are said to be around 500 pianos here, plus a large piano museum. The island also hosts a piano festival.
Gulangyu is a car-free island and is home to several quaint cafes and seafood restaurants. Many of the restaurants are housed in beautiful European-style mansions and townhouses, which are the enduring legacy of Gulangyu having been an international settlement of 14 different countries during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Chongqing“A megacity on steroids” is just one description that has been applied to Chongqing’s high-speed urban development. The city has a population of nearly 30 million people and is one of the most populated cities in China. Situated in central China, approximately 875 miles inland from the Pacific Ocean, the metropolis is built into steep mountains overlooking the confluence of the Yangtze and Jialing rivers. This geography gave Chongqing its nickname of the Mountain City, and it became China’s provisional capital during World War II because of its distance from the invading Japanese army, although it was not saved from a concerted aerial attack by Japanese fighter planes.
The mighty Yangtze River has historically been China’s primary east-west trade artery, and Chongqing’s giant port features an eye-catching line up of container ships viewable from several vantage points. Passenger cruise liners also dock here to collect tourists for the scenic journey along the Three Gorges river route.
Overlaid onto Chongqing’s natural backdrop and ancient template is some highly experimental modern architecture. The Guotai Arts Center, Chongqing Chaotianmen towers (which somewhat resemble Singapore’s Marina Bay Sands resort) and Chongqing Tiandi — a 38 million-square-foot office, residential, shopping, dining and hotel complex developed by the company behind Shanghai’s Xintiandi district — are projects of considerable scale and largesse.
Equally cavernous is the Chongqing Planning Exhibition Gallery near the riverside, which narrates the city’s ongoing transformation via virtual video presentations, 3-D renderings and interactive exhibits. The centerpiece is a 9,700-square-foot scale model of Chongqing as it is projected to look in 2020. It’s a pretty futuristic vision.
Beijing/Conrad BeijingHilton Worldwide has opened its flagship property in Beijing, the Conrad Beijing. The hotel’s 289 guestrooms are stylishly designed, featuring floor-to-ceiling windows with views of Tuanjie Lake Park, the CCTV building and the Beijing skyline. The property also includes a fitness center, a spa, a heated swimming pool, dining and entertainment options and banquet and board rooms for meetings and events.www.conradhotels.hilton.com
Shanghai/Twelve at HengshanThose seeking a unique retreat in Shanghai should consider Twelve at Hengshan, the fourth property in China for Starwood’s Luxury Collection brand. A residential-style hotel with its own private garden, Twelve at Hengshan claims to be the only five-star luxury hotel within Shanghai’s Hengshan Road neighborhood, and is designed to serve as an urban oasis within the city. www.starwoodhotels.com
Hainan Island/Shangri-La Hotel, HaikouHainan Island is quickly becoming a leading resort destination, and those interested in visiting now have the option of staying at the new 337-room Shangri-La Hotel, Haikou. The seaside property is located amid a sprawling tropical garden and offers sea views and a range of urban resort amenities. The provincial capital of Haikou is also the area’s tourism and cultural center and transportation hub, making it a convenient base for exploration. www.shangri-la.com/haikou
Yunnan Province/Anantara Xishuangbanna Resort & SpaLocated just north of the Laos border in the Yunnan Province, the brand-new Anantara Xishuangbanna Resort & Spa is an ideal option for those seeking unique experiences. Anantara Xishuangbanna is one of the first five-star hotel and pool villa destinations in the province and, in addition to its many modern comforts, the resortoffers a variety of indigenous guest experiences, such as a tea picking journey with the Jinuo tribe or tours of the Hani and Dai villages. www.anantara.com
Beijing and Shanghai Extend Transit VisasAs of this past January, transit passengers from the U.S. and Canada are permitted to stay up to 72 hours in Beijing and Shanghai without a visa. In Shanghai, transit passengers can enter through the city’s two airports (Hongqiao and Pudong), while in Beijing, they fly into Beijing Capital International Airport.www.cnto.org
New Private Tours to China from General ToursGeneral Tours World Traveler has introduced two new Private Tours in China, featuring five-star hotels, authentic dining and Private Touring Discoveries. Options include the Cities & Countries of China and the Pandas of Chengdu itineraries. For 2013-2014, the tour operator is also offering five “never more than 16 guests” trips featuring China, Tibet and the Yangtze.www.generaltours.com
Increased Flights Between the U.S. and ChinaThis year, three major airlines are increasing their offerings from the U.S. to China. This month, China Eastern Airlines began daily direct flights between Shanghai and San Francisco. In addition, Air China will begin nonstop service between Houston and Beijing in July, and Hainan Airlines will launch nonstop service between Beijing and Chicago in September.www.airchina.us; www.flychinaeastern.com; www.hainanair.us
New Hotel Properties From Jin JiangJin Jiang International Hotel Management Company is greatly expanding its hotel offerings throughout China. The Yulin Petroleum Hotel in Yulin City recently had its soft opening, previewing its 395 guestrooms and suites, 26 meeting and conference rooms and many restaurants. In addition, the company is planning to open new properties in Jianhu, Yancheng and Yangzhou City in 2013, as well as a luxury hotel in Taizhou City in 2016.www.jinjianghotels.com
Hangzhou, Zhejiang ProvinceAn up-and-coming China hot spot is Hangzhou, the capital of China’s Zhejiang Province, which is expecting to attract increasing American and Canadian tourism. Hangzhou is home to seven World Heritage sites, the start of the Grand Canal in China, many museums and more than 5,000 years of cultural heritage. Within the region, West Lake is of particular interest — it has inspired famous poets, scholars and painters as well as influenced garden design throughout China. Visitors can explore numerous temples, pagodas, pavilions, gardens, causeways and artificial islands.www.cnto.org
Longmen Grottoes, Luoyang City, Henan ProvinceThe grottoes and niches of Longmen, located approximately seven miles south of Luoyang City, contain one of China’s largest and most impressive collections of art from the late Northern Wei and Tang Dynasties (316-907). Housing tens of thousands of statues, these caves reflect the high point of Chinese stone carving. The works are entirely devoted to the Buddhist religion, featuring statues of Buddha and his disciples. In 2000, the Longmen Grottoes were added to the UNESCO World Heritage list.www.cnto.org
Zhangjiajie, Hunan ProvinceAccording to the China National Tourist Office, Zhangjiajie has been experiencing a rapid growth in tourism from the U.S. and Canada. The area served as the inspiration for the film “Avatar,” and the Zhangjiajie Tourism Board is aiming to continue the destination’s growing popularity. Home to several national parks in the Wulingyuan Scenic Area, a major draw of the region is its stunning natural beauty. Also of interest is the ancient Fenghuang Town, an example of what Chinese villages were like prior to the onset of modernization.http://english.zhangjiajie.gov.cn
Huangshan, Anhui ProvinceMount Huangshan, or “Yellow Mountain,” is part of one of China’s most celebrated mountain ranges and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Located in the southern Anhui Province, the mountain is known for its scenery, sunsets, granite peaks, pine trees, seas of mist and clouds, hot springs and views. A frequent subject of photography and traditional Chinese paintings, Huangshan has been inspiring Chinese artists and poets for centuries. According to UNESCO, Huangshan is “considered to be a prime example of classic Chinese scenery,” prompting generations of visitors to immortalize its beauty.www.cnto.org