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At 3,704,426 square miles, China is the fourth-largest country in the world. And with a population of 1.35 billion people, it’s the country with the largest population. When speaking in numbers that large, planning a first trip to this storied country can seem overwhelming. For first-timers, we recommend not trying to do it all in one trip and focus on just a couple of cities -- we recommend Beijing and Shanghai. There is enough to see in these two Asian metropolises to keep travelers busy for well over a week on an Asian vacation.
Here are some top sites to visit along the way:
The Forbidden City: Once the Chinese imperial palace, this sprawling complex in Beijing served as the home to emperors and their families for more than 500 years until 1912. Although all parts of the city aren’t open to visitors, a stroll through can take a few hours and put visitors face-to-face with impressive architecture, art and history. The Hall of Supreme Harmony, accessible easiest from the south gate, is the largest and most iconic building. It is the ceremonial center of imperial power and the largest surviving wooden structure in China. Tiananmen Square is just outside the gates, along with the Chairman Mao Memorial Hall, which is the final resting place of Mao Zedong.
Great Wall of China: No visit to China would be complete without a walk along the Great Wall. The oldest portions of the wall were built in the 7th century B.C., although much of the original wall no longer exists, having been rebuilt throughout the centuries. Originally constructed to keep China safe from invading tribes, the wall is estimated to be 5,500 miles long, including all of its various sections. A quick day trip from Beijing will land visitors at the wall, but be prepared for a workout: Some looming portions of the wall have steps that are so large that they require climbing rather than stepping.
The Temple of Heaven: Seen on the cover of just about every Chinese tour guide, the temple, originally completed in 1420, was used by emperors in the Ming and Qing dynasties for ceremonies to invoke a fruitful yearly harvest. Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the temple, located in the center of Beijing, is recognizable for its three sweeping pagodas stacked on top of one another. The park surrounding the temple is used by seniors for daily activities including ballroom dancing, tai chi and chess.
The Pudong: While Beijing is known for its history and timeless architecture, the Pudong area of Shanghai is home to some of the tallest and most modern buildings in the world. The most recognizable -- at least for now, until something more impressive is inevitably built—is the Oriental Pearl Tower. Shaped like a space-age Eiffel Tower, this cream-and-pink colored skyscraper dominates the skyline of the Pudong. The Shanghai Tower, just a few blocks away, at 121 stories, is the tallest building in China and the second-tallest building in the world. It is expected to open to the public in 2015.
The Bund: For the most breathtaking views of the towering skyscrapers of the Pudong, take a walk along the Bund, a waterfront area along the Huangpu River in central Shanghai. A stroll along this pedestrian walkway not only affords a view of the modernity of the Pudong, but also a look at past in the Beaux Arts, Art Deco and Gothic Revival buildings built by colonialists in the early part of the 20th Century. Surrounded by these European-style buildings, it’s easy for one to forget they are in Asia and not in the center of Paris.
Suzhou: A two-hour drive from Shanghai sits the Venice of the East, called so because of the many canals that run throughout the city. Considered a “small city” by Chinese standards, 10 million people call Suzhou home. A canal ride though the city introduces visitors to the life of everyday Chinese citizens; markets with unusual offerings line the banks, and locals can be seen washing their clothes in the canals. Suzhou is also the silk capital of China, and a visit to the Silk Factory shows visitors how the fabric is made and offers the opportunity to buy clothes, bedding and accessories at rock-bottom prices.
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