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China: An Alternative to Backpacking in Europe

London, Paris, Venice, Rome, and more. These are the more popular places to go backpacking in the summer and they are all in Western Europe. However, there is so much more to the world than what all we can find there. Why not experience life and culture in a completely different sense from our lives back in Canada? I’m going to make a case that you reconsider your plans next semester off and visit a country that is developing faster than people can pack up at the end of class with a history that is nearly five thousand years old: China.

I know, I know, China doesn’t have the best reputation in some areas. It’s got way too many people, the air quality honestly is not the best, and the always present Communist/human rights concerns are a bit discomforting. China is also a country with amazing variety concerning historical culture. Other than the ‘main’ ethnic group—the Han Chinese—there are 55 different ethnic groups, each with unique customs and histories. China is the fourth largest country in the world, only slightly smaller than the United States, and it is one of the oldest civilizations still around with a history of nearly 5000 years.

With the recent push for modernization and for social progress, the country is an eclectic and super interesting mixture of ancient history and the newest technology. Whether you’re a history buff, an art geek, a science nerd, or if you just want to party, there is a bit of everything in China for you.

A Brief Guide to Backpacking Across China
There is so much to talk about when it comes to China and I would never finish if I tried explaining the complex and diverse cultures of the country. So, I’ll just give you a practical little guide so that you can see for yourself.

First, the three greatest parts of travelling in China are: 1) 1 Canadian dollar gives you 5 Chinese yuan, 2) the extensive (also super affordable!) bullet train system, and 3) Wi-Fi everywhere. While I was there over the summer, some of the best surprises were the cheap and delicious food (along with the cheap and delicious alcohol).

Tourist-y things you have to do in China
Beijing — the current capital of the country with history and culture (Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, 798 Art Zone, etc.), as well as great street food and markets at places like Donghuamen and Wangfujing. Wander through the hutongs where you can find fun souvenirs and yummy snacks.
For meat-eaters: visit Quanjude at Qianmen for the best Peking Roast Duck.
For veggie-lovers: Tuckahoe pie is the absolute best (lots of nuts though).

Shanghai — the Paris of the East. Super fancy and cosmopolitan downtown where you visit the Pearl Tower, delightful architecture along the Bund (waterfront area), and the French concession. Slurp on some Shanghai style meat buns and enjoy the view out at the Yangtze river, the longest in Asia and third longest in the world.

Hangzhou — take a boat through the delicately lovely West Lake or stroll through the huge surrounding garden/natural park area. Visit the awesome Xixi Wetland Park, which has a history of 1800 years and combines cultural history with beautiful scenery. Buy some Longjing tea if you’re into that kind of thing — it’s a healthy green tea and has a lovely light taste. 

Xi An — The Terracotta warriors. Need I say more? Actually, the Silk Road also started in Xi An, so you can go and see all these cool artefacts that are so important to that part of history. The Muslim quarter has some blessed mosques and fun markets. 
Food for meat-eaters: Yangrou paomo (flatbread and mutton soup).
Food for veggie-lovers: Capsicum and pickled cabbage rice.

 

Guilin — Guilin is one of the most naturally gorgeous cities in the world mixed with a dash of human engineering. You’ve got the Reed Flute stalactite caves, which are naturally super cool and but also lit up by multi-coloured lights. Guilin is famous for its national geoparks, ancient towns, and ‘hill’ parks.

Hong Kong — Hong Kong has an iconic skyline, and is also home to what is most often referred to as “Chinese food” over here in North America. Take the tram up to Victoria Peak and look down at the sprawling metropolis-island from the tallest point in the city. Also visit the old governor’s summer lodge while you’re there for pretty gardens and gazebos. Japanese soldiers sadly burnt down the actual lodge in WWII. Ladies’ market also has cheap and cute clothes and trinkets.

Other cool cities:
Hainan — a tropical island! Go cycling on the seaside roads, or go surfing at the beaches. Also there are mountains with hot springs and rainforests and rice-terraces all at the same time. Hainan is the most interesting collection of cool experiences.

Harbin — if you somehow swung by China in the winter (maybe because of co-op sessions?), this would be an awesome place to visit. At the very north of China, Harbin is a mixture of Russian and Jewish influence where you can see Buddhist/Taoist temples, old churches, and synagogues all at the same time. In the winter, a world-class ice and snow festival turns the city into a rainbow wonderland.

Tips about the nightlife:
There are a lot of bars and nightclubs in any city in China. Both Beijing and Shanghai have huge LGBT+ nightlife scenes. Check reviews on websites like “trip advisor” when you get into a new city and go wild. But remember, safety first!

…And while you’re there, you’ll also be right near Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and even India

 

Sources: Cover Photo, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5

Scarf collector and exotic foods connoisseur.  Toronto, uOttawa.  
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