Some destinations are special due to their vastness. How can a traveller truly expect to see China in a month or two? How can that be done while keeping the appearances of a leisure trip, without transforming the experience into forced labour? Achieving that may be impossible, but the traveller can successfully get the illusion of having accomplished just that. The trick is not concentrating in one area but in the travel methods.
China is a roughly circular country with its geographical centre at Lanzhou; however, the main travel hub is a bit eastwards of there in Xian, one of the country’s old capitals. China’s shape hints to a radial approach; thus, every attempt to travel around the country must take this last city into account and preferably as the trip’s focal point. A trip around the country borders is still not feasible.
The huge distances among Chinese cities forced the creation of a very efficient and comfortable network of trains between the main cities. This is the best way of moving around, no other transport offered equal accessibility, comfort, speed and close contact with the land and its people.
However, other transports are also handy. The Hoover speedboats connecting Hong Kong with Macao are an exhilarating experience and the over one hundred years old tram still working in Hing King offers a glimpse into a long gone Victorian Era. Buses are the main transport method south of Kunming in Yunnan.
An ancient capital of the Middle Kingdom, Xian is the central transport hub of the country, has the best preserved walled city, and an intriguing army of terracotta warriors. Beginning the trip here is possible but not recommended; yet, beginning the trip plan from here is certainly helpful. Can flexibility be kept, while attempting to cover up just a vast region in a limited time? With some limitations, the answer is positive.
Draw a line on the map from Xian to the west, passing through Lanzhou. This city offers great views of the Yellow River – the cradle of the Chinese culture - and a glimpse into the people of Central Asia. The railway continues west to Urumqi on the far west; the farthest city from the oceans offers a fascinating mixture of Chinese, Central Asian and Russian features. South of there, Kashgar is a city on the Silk Road with a weekend market that has changed very little since Marco Polo visited it.
Draw another line to the south, connecting Xian with Yunnan, a most colourful province in the boundary zone between the Chinese culture and the Southeast Asian ones. Kunming and Jinghong are two major attractions, the last being in Xishuangbanna, the cradle of Thai, Lao and other peoples. It is possible to travel from Kunming to Hong Kong via Nanning, which offers some of the most beautiful natural sights in the country. This is important since if adopting the plan proposed here and wanting to avoid flights within the country and to trace back the way to Xian, then at least one trip connecting the north-south axis with the east-west one must be performed.
The third line would connect Xian to the southeast, to Guangzhou, Hong Kong and Macao. The former British territory is a dizzying twister of activity, beautiful bays, green mountains and shopping malls, while the former Portuguese territory offers a startling blend of Sino-Portuguese cuisine and architecture. From this area is possible travelling to Shanghai, on the northeastern axis of this plan.
Draw the fourth line to the northeast, reaching Beijing and Shanghai. The last imperial capital is nowadays one of the main world’s cities, where the Forbidden and Summer palaces coexist with sturdy Communist plazas and monuments. The Mao Zedong Mausoleum, the nearby Dashalan Market and the rapidly disappearing Hutong neighbourhoods offer a very local flavour to such a visit. Nearby, is Badaling – a wonderfully restored stretch of the Great Wall. The economical engine of the country, Shanghai has a beautiful European quarter just in front of ultra-modern skyscrapers.
Planning in such a fashion, most of the main attractions would be covered. Now all that remains is transforming it into a feasible plan. Place the desired arrival point at the end of one of these lines; from there, advance to Xian and explore other two lines. The last line should lead to the departure point from the country. The east-west and north-south lines can be connected through one of the loops proposed if time allows. This plan is not perfect, but is feasible in a tight month since all the locations are excellently connected through the railway. Moreover it allows a vast degree of flexibility; it can be begun by land from Southeast Asia, or by a direct flight to Shanghai.
Snow covered dunes, wild camels, the original ravioli, thousands of terracotta warriors, colourful pagodas and a million types of dumplings covered in a month? A month and a half would be better. This can be achieved using the regular thirty-day visa, while taking advantage of the fact that Hong Kong and Macao issue visas on arrival, or by buying the more expensive long-term multi-entry visas.
"Sacrilege!" some readers may be thinking. "What about hotel reservations! I have my member card! I must plan and book ahead!" Over time I visited China several times. I always reached my destinations without making hotel reservations. I never booked trains in advance. Except for the Chinese New Year season, I never had trouble finding suitable rooms; even during the holidays I never was left without a bed to sleep on.
Exploring the large distances between attractions in a vast country is possible even for a traveller with limited time. All it takes is some strategic planning and being ready to treat this plan lightly, only as a base for changes, since, in such a vast enterprise, serendipity would for sure play its role.