More than ever lately, China has been in the headlines. Protests in Hong Kong have raged since last year. A controversial law to curb dissent in the city was unveiled at China’s parliament in June. Global condemnation followed.
When the coronavirus emerged in Wuhan last November, the city’s strict lockdown became a daily feature of dystopian intrigue until the virus spread beyond China’s borders and quickly transformed into a global pandemic.
China’s early response to the virus was criticised. The truthfulness of its origins questioned. Racism towards Chinese people exploded.
While their global relevance places these events at the top of the news agenda, I can’t help but feel that, alone, they present a one-dimensional, prevailingly negative view of a country I have to come to know well over the last seven years.
I first moved to China in 2013, and have lived there on and off ever since. Yet the things that have kept me, and many others like me, coming back seldom feature in our contemporary conversations about China.
Yes, China’s governance is important, but the country’s positive attributes are often entirely eclipsed by politics in our public imagination, to an extent rarely the case for other places. But beyond its portrayal as a rising geopolitical threat, China has a spellbinding number of other guises to quicken the pulse of overseas visitors.
So, with its epidemic subsiding and strict measures in place to guard against a second wave, consider China a budget-friendly candidate for a post-coronavirus trip when, of course, the science suggests it’s safe enough to travel.
British tourists tend to orbit the Middle Kingdom, visiting instead surrounding countries like Japan, Korea, Thailand and Vietnam, as if caught by China’s immense cultural gravity but unable to land on its surface.
For those who do awaits a continent-sized patchwork of landscapes, languages and traditions that make travelling throughout China’s 31 provinces an exhilarating (if at times confounding) experience.
In fact, there is so much choice facing a prospective traveller that the hardest part of any visit is knowing exactly where to begin. In a country known for its social, economic and political contradictions, there is no singular panoramic view.
In the arid northwest, a land of deserts and Islamic customs, mosques, camels and calls to prayer challenge traditional assumptions about Chinese culture. Buddhist grottoes, bazaars and ruined cities line the Silk Road as it winds to Xi’an, a former capital, itself replete with relics of China’s illustrious past.
Thousands of miles east, picturesque villages nestle between coastal megacities, elegant stone architecture mirrored by canals and crystal pools in scenes lifted from the canvas of a Chinese landscape. Mere miles away, cashless metro systems shuttle China’s millennial urbanites to cosmopolitan bars and high-end restaurants on sleepless city streets.
In the southwest, diverse wildlife and ancient landscapes replace the magnetic bustle of urban life. Elephants, pandas and endangered monkeys populate forests and river valleys, which fall away as the terrains slopes upward towards the Tibetan plateau and its limitless expanse of mountains and monasteries.
China’s natural beauty is often overlooked, but with 225 national parks it is one of the best outdoors destinations in the world if you know where to look. The country’s southwestern interior is a good place to start.
From here the Yangtze flows east towards central China and its showroom of engineering feats. Towering bridges span once impassable landscapes. Rice terraces cling precariously to secluded cliffs. Giant space telescopes and avatar mountains, the three gorges and their eponymous dam. A thousand wooden villages whose language, culture and traditions vary from one valley to the next.
Further north in Beijing, experimental modern architecture is woven into a ramshackle network of medieval brick lanes creating an urban tapestry of contrasting elements. In the centre, monumental Stalinist architecture jostles shoulder-to-shoulder with the forbidden city, home to China’s emperors for 500 years.
And yet still there is more to China than the arresting contradictions of lopsided growth. This is a country of music and opera, poetry and art. Distinct regional cuisines which have given us hotpot and dumplings, kung pao chicken and roast duck, tofu and tea.
China’s abundance of choice has been magnified by the breakneck growth of a high speed rail network that now covers most of the country. Journeys that used to take days are now condensed into explosive trips of just a few hours.
Unnamed cities flash by in the blink of an eye. Mountains rise and fall beyond the windows of space-age carriages in an acceleration of geological time. In a country as vast as China, this is an enormously fulfilling way to cover ground.
But fast is not always best. The joy of travelling in China is not in expediency, but possibility. Slow onerous journeys on lumbering sleeper trains are still a viable (and cheap) way to get around. A night on a bunk aboard one of these iron hulks, rumbling cross country just feet away from your sleeping neighbour is a truly authentic experience.
Whether by bus, train or plane, traversing some part of China is a good way to grasp its diversity. It is also a must for those seeking a genuine side to the country, far from the madding tourist crowds that often overwhelm the main sites in this nation of 1.4 billion. Here, at its most natural, China is an incredibly charming place to visit.
Once the pandemic passes, and it will, travel will become possible once again. China offers a continent’s worth of choice in a navigable whole, even if the headlines sometimes obscure its desirability as a destination for travel.
China figures more than ever in our public consciousness, in ways that are not always good. But once there, this kaleidoscopic country defies expectation. It eludes categorisation. China is a thousand places and one, all of them accessible to the traveller willing to go.