Colossal, dizzying and fiercely foreign, China isn’t easily compared to anywhere else on the planet. Home to approximately one fifth of the human race, it variously dazzles, befuddles, frustrates and thrills. The key visitor attractions are renowned around the globe – think the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, and the Terracotta Warriors – but it’s the sheer scale and off-kilter energy of the place that leave the most lasting impression.
The economic drive of recent times means many of China’s cities are as shaped by modernity as anywhere you care to mention, but it’s also somewhere underpinned by dearly held customs and a near-unfathomable amount of diversity. China’s landscapes unfurl across the map in vast swathes of territory, and its sights, sounds and infinite oddities collectively amount to one of the world’s truly great travel experiences. The food’s fantastic too, and getting to grips with the different regional cuisines can be hugely enjoyable.
In other areas, tradition only counts for so much. The pace of development in its key cities – Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou and increasingly others – has thrown up skylines to rival almost any in the world. They’re emblematic of the ‘new’ China, a powerhouse both economically and politically; somewhere eager to make the rest of the world sit up and take notice. Even the ego-driven rulers of the past, from Qin Shi Huang through to Mao, would surely be amazed at just how influential their country has become.
Shift away from the urban sprawl and out into China’s rural areas, however, and you’re confronted with a very different reality. The scenery veers from lush terraced rice paddies and the harsh peaks of the Himalayas to the gorges of the UNESCO-protected Yangtze River. In some of the rural heartlands, indeed, the tableau of life can seem little changed from 50 years ago, at least on the surface. China is full of endless quirks and contradictions, but that’s half the charm.