MEETING PRINCESSES IN THE DISNEY WORLD PARKS Who doesn’t’ want to meet a Disney Princess or ten at Walt Disney World? Seeing the excitement in your child’s eyes when they meet a Princess is part of t...Read more
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These days, it's quite jarring to walk around parts of old Beijing. Although old women can still be seen pushing cabbages in rickety wooden carts amidst huddles of men playing chess, it's not uncommon to see them all suddenly scurry to the side to make way for a brand-new BMW luxury sedan squeezing through the narrow hutong (a traditional Beijing alleyway). The same could be said of the longtang-style alleys or a bustling marketplace in Sichuan. Modern China is a land of paradox, and it's becoming increasingly so in this era of unprecedented socioeconomic change.
Relentless change—seen so clearly in such projects as the Three Gorges Dam and its relocation of more than 1 million of people—has been an elemental part of China's modern character. Violent revolutions in the 20th century, burgeoning population growth (China is now the world's most populous country) and economic prosperity (brought about by a recent openness to the outside world) have almost made that change inevitable.
China's cities are being transformed—Beijing and Shanghai are among the world's most dynamic cities. And the country's political position in the world is rising: Beijing hosted the 2008 Olympics, despite widespread concern about how the government treats its people.
China has always been one of the most attractive travel destinations in the world, partly because so much history exists alongside the new. The rice paddies may have sprouted cities and manufacturing centers, and the streets may be clogged with cars and pollution, but the people remain rooted in a rich cultural heritage. They still burn joss sticks for good luck in an enterprise—even as they iron out the details of that enterprise on the Internet.
China's rapid rate of urbanization is matched only by its pace of social transformation, which is driven in large part by the government. As recession grips the globe, the country has shifted its export driven economy toward a consumer driven model, upturning the typical communist model as shopping malls now dominate most major cities.
Late in 2013, the government announced a relaxation of its decades-old one-child policy, allowing 10 million people to have a second child, while pledging to limit the number of people sent to labor and re-education camps as an attempt to clean up its human rights record.
China's growing economic clout, cultural juxtapositions and growing status as major world player makes this a fascinating time to visit. Now more than ever, as the old adage goes, when China sneezes, the whole world catches a cold.
China is one of the oldest nations in the world. Its recorded history dates back 5,000 years. For most of that time, China was ruled by a succession of dynasties, and each left its mark on the country. For instance, the Qin began construction of the Great Wall and Xi'an's army of terra-cotta warriors, the Sui built the Grand Canal, and the Tang period is known for its artistic achievements.
The first Europeans to reach China were the Portuguese, who began trading at the port of Macau in the 16th century. The British soon followed, but their efforts were largely unprofitable until they began pushing opium in the mid-1800s. The Opium Wars eventually led to British control of Hong Kong, a place that was not returned to China until 1997. (Macau was handed back to China in 1999.)
The last dynasty officially ended in 1911. The ensuing years devolved into a struggle between the urban, capitalist forces of Chiang Kai-shek and Mao Zedong's rural Chinese Communist Party. Chiang Kai-shek held control through the 1930s, but after World War II, Mao's guerrilla army began winning the battle. In 1949, the People's Republic of China was born and Chiang Kai-shek fled to Taiwan.
Led by Mao Zedong, the new government transformed China into a communist nation. Land was redistributed, industries were absorbed by the state and political opposition was not tolerated. Tibet was brought under Beijing's control in the 1950s. Thousands of writers, artists, teachers and others were persecuted during the Cultural Revolution of 1966-70. In 1989, 13 years after Mao's death, students demonstrating for democracy in Beijing's Tiananmen Square were overrun by soldiers and tanks.
Although Mao's legacy of intellectual oppression remains intact, China's recent leaders have embraced free trade. The country was admitted to the World Trade Organization in 2001, officially opening China for global business. Seven years later, the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing put China at the center of the global stage.
China's main attractions are the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, the Terracotta Warriors, acrobats, shopping, Hong Kong, Tibet, pandas, ancient instrumental music and Chinese opera, food and a diverse landscape.
China will appeal to open-minded travelers interested in visiting an important culture that is truly different from their own—they'll have the experience of a lifetime. China will not appeal to travelers who have respiratory problems (many of the cities are rather polluted), who demand impeccable service and accommodations at all times, or who don't like Chinese food. Outside of the major tourist areas, creature comforts can be few and far between.
For many travelers, group travel will be the best way to go; in some parts of China—politically sensitive areas such as Tibet, for instance—group travel was once the only way to visit. However, as Tibet and other areas of the country increasingly open up to tourism, that is changing.
It is certainly possible to travel individually, although the services of a local guide are still useful as language barriers present challenges for non-Mandarin speakers. Given that access to parts of the country requires special permits and can be denied to foreigners without advance warning, it's best to have a flexible schedule and to keep abreast of news developments.
The Kong Family Cemetery in Qufu is the world's largest clan cemetery. The great sage Confucius and more than 100,000 descendants spanning 76 generations are buried there. There are now 4 million Kong family members in China and overseas. A China-wide Kong family tree record is maintained in Qufu. The most recent update started in 1998 and took more than five years to complete.
The last eunuch of the last emperor died in 1996, closing the chapter on one of the stranger aspects of imperial China. Aside from the emperor, eunuchs were the only men trusted to enter the inner courtyards of the royal palace where the emperor's concubines resided.
Although the country's minority groups make up only 8% of the population, their traditional homelands cover more than half of China. In addition to the majority Han Chinese, there are more than 50 minority groups, the largest of which is the Zhuang, numbering more than 17 million. Yunnan province is home to 26 minorities.
The written Chinese language is expressed with a series of characters in which one character or a series of characters together express certain meanings or things. Although there are upward of 40,000 characters in the language, most people know only a few thousand.
Those interested in Buddhism may want to visit shrines in the four sacred mountains of Chinese Buddhism: Emei Mountain (Sichuan), Wutai Mountain (Shanxi Province), Jiuhua Mountain (Anhui) and Putuo Mountain (Zhejiang).
Martial-arts fans may want to make a pilgrimage to the Shaolin Temple in Zhengzhou (465 mi/750 km south of Beijing), birthplace of kung fu.
Despite its vast size, all of China observes Beijing Time, which means that no matter where you are in the country, it's the same time zone.
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