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A Beginner's Guide to China - Everything You Need to Know For Your First Visit

Forbidden City, Beijing

When I tell people that China is my favourite country to explore, nobody seems to understand why. Even when I've met people when travelling, the general consensus always seems to be, 'It's just never been on my list.' To which my response is, 'WHY?!' It's one of the biggest countries in the world, with an unbelievable and fascinating history, incredible food, and a unique and varied culture.

A Beautiful Japanese Lunch at Tsuru, Shanghai

Yorokobi Kaiseki lunch set

The fact that I've never been a huge fan of Japanese food, especially sushi, goes down as well with people as when I tell them I don't like avocado or lemon drizzle cake. I get looks of 'who even are you?' when I turn it away. However (and here's a pretentious warning alert), some foods taste better the closer you are to their origin.

Cycling the City Walls of Xi'an, China

Hire bicycles on Xi'an city walls

I knew precisely zero about Xi'an, the city closest to the Terracotta Warriors, before arriving there. With some basic research, I realised there were two things I needed to experience: the Muslim Quarter for dinner, and the surrounding city walls.

Dinner in Xi'an Muslim Quarter, China

Muslim Quarter market, Xi'an

Xi'an was an unplanned part of my Chinese itinerary, but as I'd been to Beijing before it seemed to make more sense to head there for a few days before leaving for Seoul and visit the Terracotta Warriors. I wasn't sure what else the city had to offer aside from being the gateway to the famous world heritage site, but a bit of guide book snooping made it clear that eating at the Muslim Quarter was top of the list.

Visiting the Incredible Terracotta Army, China

Terracotta Warriors, China

Let's get this out of the way up front: Terracotta Army, bucket list, once in a lifetime blah blah. You'll have heard all those cliches before when it comes to one of the world's most famous manmade wonders. I was skeptical about visiting but I was damn curious, and although it wasn't on my original itinerary, I decided to make a detour to Xi'an and drop in on those infamous soldiers.

A Day in the French Concession, Shanghai

French Concession, Shanghai

The French Concession area of Shanghai is a bizarre contrast of traditional Chinese life within a setting that looks distinctly European. Aside from Macau, which used to be Portuguese, I haven't been anywhere in China that actually resembles anything western, so this totally threw me. Interspersed within the characteristic browns and greys I was becoming accustomed to, there were sudden pops of colour, and a whole day of exploring the area revealed so many hidden gems.

Steak and Whiskey at The 1515 West Chophouse, Shanghai

Review of The 1515 West Chophouse and Bar in the Shangri-La hotel, Shanghai

I rarely cook steak at home, but then I often feel it's a wasted order in a restaurant too. Very few places do steak perfectly and I certainly didn't expect to find somewhere that would nail such a challenge in Shanghai.

A Day at the Chengdu Panda Sanctuary, China

Baby panda at Chengdu Panda Sanctuary, China

I've never had a bucket list (partly because I find the whole thing a bit morose), but also because I basically want to do and see everything. However there has been one place that I've wanted to visit for so long, and finally, after years of watching an inordinate amount of YouTube videos of the place, I made it to the famous Chengdu Panda Sanctuary.

The Incredible Giant Buddha of Leshan, China

Giant Buddha of Leshan, China

China's big, isn't it? I'd never even heard of Leshan before planning this trip, but even this 'small' city has a population of almost two million. We drove for over three hours from our base in Chengdu to get there and visit the thing Leshan is most famous for: a giant Buddha carved in to the cliff face at the confluence of the Minjiang, Dadu and Qingyi rivers.

Dinner at Di Shui Dong, Shanghai

Crunchy prawns, cumin ribs, aubergine, mapo tofu

I found it surprisingly difficult to find affordable, good quality Chinese food in Shanghai. It is definitely the most multicultural city I've been to in China, which means there are some amazing European restaurants to be found, but I was in China for goodness sake!

Like most accessibly priced restaurant in China, there's no airs and graces at Di Shui Dong and certainly no fancy decor.

Traditional Chinese Hotpot in Chengdu (or How I Survived the Spiciest Meal of My Life)

Chinese hotpot with vegetables and raw meats

When I went searching for culinary adventure in Chengdu, I didn't expect to find a food experience quite like this. Chengdu is in China's Sichuan province - the area of the country known for its peppercorns, chillies and fiery oils. The city itself is the home of hotpot, the Chinese dish where you essentially cook your own food at the table.

Serenity in Shanghai: Staying at the Shangri-La

The view from Shangri-La Shanghai's 34th floor

When I'm travelling, I feel this constant need to be busy. I feel guilty if I'm not utilising every minute to explore, discover and immerse myself into my new surroundings. Which is why, by day 16, I was shattered. I was half in a daze when a car with blacked out windows, driven by a man wearing white gloves pulled up to take me to the Shangri-La Hotel in Shanghai's Jing'an area.

A Bad Pollution Day in China

pollution mask china

The whole thing about China being covered in smog always seemed like a bit of a fabrication to me. Sure, it's a huge country with an insane amount of people, but the air couldn't be much different to rush hour in London. When I went to Beijing in 2014, I saw how the sky could be grey and the sun looked smudged out on a couple of days, but aside from that we had beautiful blue sky.

What I Ate in Beijing (Not Veggie Friendly!)

I've written about the incredible wedding I went to in China, and the top sights you must see if you visit Beijing, but there is so much more to this amazing city if you just walk around it. Everything about it is entirely different to London or anywhere in the UK. The atmosphere, the smells, the sounds - it's pretty hard to take it all in, especially when you're jet lagged! But the best bit for a perpetually hungry person like me? The food! Within our first few hours we'd sat in a street cafe and tucked into a bowl of tofu, miscellaneous meat and intestines. I can't say I was expecting that, but I was hungry and it wasn't actually that bad, if a little chewy.

Later on that evening we also had frog, which is slightly more accepted, but still not in my usual dining repertoire! Eating in China is a social affair and it's rare to order a dish to yourself, rather everyone orders together and shares.

We had traditional Peking roast duck, amazing Dim Sum from Din Tai Fung (a restaurant I'd previously visited in Hong Kong), and traditional Hot Pot. Don't get it confused with a stew from Lancashire, this is a pot of boiling water in the middle of table, heated with charcoal. We were then presented with plates of raw meat and vegetables which we had to hold in the boiling water until they were cooked - a real test of my chopstick skills!

We also got to explore local street food markets like Donghuamen Night Market, where the strangest food was on offer. There were numerous bugs on sticks, deep fried starfish and seahorses, testicles and squid. We tried snake, which was so chewy it made me gag. And then bought a pigeon on a stick, because how often do you get to try that?!

The best meal we had though was a night out with a friend of mine who is a Beijing local, born and bred. We let her and her friends order for us, and we had plates of grass roots with coriander, szechuan spiced fish, mushrooms with chilli flakes and dried tea leaves with shrimp (that one was my personal favourite). To top it off we had a strong spirit infused with snake and ants. Yep. When in Rome/Beijing...! Maybe not exactly a vegetarian-friendly visit, but I tried so many new things, and that for me is exactly what travel is all about.

Beijing: What You Must See

It's difficult to know where to start with writing about this trip, as Beijing is so vast. The city is sprawling, yet packed at every point. And it is loud! There's a lot of traffic and a lot of people. For the most part it is very cheap (we could buy beer for as little as 30p), and the Metro system makes it simple and easy to get around. We felt incredibly safe the whole time we were there too, despite the fact that there are very few people who speak English. We'd get a few weird looks if we went and sat in a random restaurant on a back street away from the crowds, but that didn't make anyone any less accommodating. There is so much to see that I've had to break my post into two parts, or you'll never wade through the photos to get to the end of it!

These are a few of my favourite sights from our trip:

Tiananmen Square

Probably the most well known tourist site in Beijing, the square is home to the tomb of Chairman Mao (where his body still lies preserved, free for you to view, and we did!). Around the edge is the Great Hall of the People, which acts as the meeting place for the Chinese government, the National Museum of China and the Zhengyangmen Gate Tower. It makes Trafalgar Square look like a drop in the ocean, and is impeccably clean. The security throughout Beijing is incredible, with every tube train and public place requiring you to put your bag through an X-Ray scanner and be checked by security personnel. There is a vast history around the Square, but you would never know. There are no memorial placards of previous troubles, just the Monument to the People's Heroes towering in the middle.

The Forbidden City

Everyone knows the name of Tiananmen Square, but you probably recognise the front of The Forbidden City with it's giant portrait of Chairman Mao more instantly. I didn't really know what was beyond the big red walls, but rest assured, it really is a city. For 500 years it was the home of numerous emperors and their families and was the political centre for the Chinese government. We walked through nine gates, each with their own homes, buildings, gardens and walls, making the most incredible fortress with views over Beijing's old and new sites. We walked for hours but all of it was fascinating and absolutely breathtaking.

Temple of Heaven

Another sprawling park that shows just how enormous the city of Beijing is. This was favourite outdoor space we went to. Unlike Hong Kong, I felt the temples in Beijing all looked kind of similar and it was the setting that made them stand apart. However, the Temple of Heaven really stood out and was surprisingly peaceful considering how many people were walking around it. It's gorgeous setting means it's been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, perfectly protected and wonderfully secluded.

Summer Palace

This was essentially all burnt down by the Anglo-French and rebuilt in the 40s. The fact that it is all replicas doesn't take away fro the fact that it's totally gorgeous, and everything you'd expect from a Chinese palace. It covers 720 acres so it's basically impossible to see the whole thing, although we did walk up Longevity Hill and walked part of Kumning Lake, which takes up three-quarters of the park. In essence, it is huge (which I feel is how I'm describing everything in Beijing!). It was roasting hot and we were completely overwhelmed by the sheer size of it!

I've got a couple more posts coming up about this trip as it can't all be summed up in one go. Check out any posts tagged 'Beijing' and follow me on Bloglovin' to make sure you don't miss out!
As of 20th November 2014, any products marked with an asterisk (*) have been provided as a sample for unbiased review