Guest Post: Jim Byers' Insider's Guide to China

Jan 22, 2016

China is one of Travelzoo's Top Wow Deal Destinations for 2016. Simply put, it's one of the countries we think will offer the most bang for your buck when it comes to travel this year.

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But China is a massive country with so much to do that planning a trip there can seem overwhelming. We asked Canadian travel expert Jim Byers to give us his tips on where to go and what to see!

Jim Byer's China

China is such an enormous and varied country that it’s hard to pin down. But here are two cities in China proper and two special administrative regions governed by China that you definitely should check out.

The skyline of Shanghai is something to behold.

SHANGHAI This city has been growing by leaps and proverbial bounds, even by Chinese standards. The Pudong area that was rice fields and farming land a couple decades ago is now layered with fanciful highrises and giant hotel towers with stunning views and wild lights. Luckily, you can still find some of the old Shanghai in areas such as the city’s famous Bund, a stretch of land along the river that has gorgeous buildings that look like something out of Berlin or London. That includes the famous Fairmont Peace Hotel, where they have a legendary jazz band that’s been cooking along for years.

Be sure to stroll along The Bund in Shanghai and check out the Fairmont Peace Tower Hotel jazz band. (Photo courtesy of Fairmont Hotels)

The Shanghai Museum might be the best in China, with free admission and displays that range from 7,000-year-old jade pieces to fascinating Tibetan masks. Be sure to check out the city’s Memorial to the site of the first National Congress of the Communist Party of China. It’s located in what’s now the super-trendy Xintiandi area, replete with fancy Western shops and a Starbucks. The fact that such a capitalist enterprise is steps from the founding spot of the Communist Party is proof of how things have changed in this country. Also, don’t miss a stop in the city’s Old Town for lovely gardens and for the famous pork dumplings at Nanxiang Bun Shop. Bite into the dumpling, slurp the juices/soup inside and then chew the tasty pork with Chinese spices. Yum and a half.

The Forbidden City is one of the top sights to see in Beijing.

BEIJING The Forbidden City might be the quintessential Beijing experience, partly because it’s home to the Imperial Palace; home to 24 Chinese emperors in the Ming and Qing dynasties. Just to the south lies Tiananmen Square, where brave Chinese protestors took on the government in 1989. Be sure to arrange a tour; these sites deserve a full explanation from a proven guide. And don’t rush! Sports fans will enjoy touring the gorgeous (but seriously underutilized) Birds Nest stadium, part of the Olympic complex from 2008 on the outskirts of town.

The ancient hutongs of Beijing are a great way to explore family life in the city.

Be sure to arrange a tour of some of the city’s rapidly disappearing hutongs; small alleyways/streets with small homes and courtyards where folks have mingled and cooked and chatted and kids have played for centuries. It’s a great way to get a feel for Chinese urban life before the hutongs are all gobbled up by government-approvd shopping malls and high-rises.

Beijing makes a great base of operations for exploring the amazing Great Wall of China.

Beijing also is close to the Great Wall of China, which is near the top of my list of most amazing places I’ve visited. To stand on the wall and gaze out at the endless gates and turrets and parapets that march along the mountains for thousands of miles is a very humbling and awe-inspiring experience. You’ll find plenty of touristy bits at the various wall sites, including men dressed as ancient warriors wanting their photo taken and downhill slides that the kids (and many of us adults) will love. The Badaling access site might be the most striking, but it’s also the most visited. My guide took me to the Mutianyu site, which was still touristy but hugely impressive.

Hong Kong is filled with gorgeous temples, including this one on the island of Cheung Chau.

HONG KONG I’ve been here several times now and absolutely love it. The food is some of the best on the planet, with treats from all around the world and, of course, sensational Chinese cuisine. Tim Ho Wan (there are now several outlets) has been dubbed the world’s least expensive Michelin-starred restaurant for it’s super-reasonably priced dim sum. The har gow shrimp dumplings are heaven; with a sheer, thin dough that’s unlike most of the thick, glutinous stuff you sometimes find in North American dim sum places.

Line ups outside Tim Ho Wan.

The Kowloon location doesn’t have much in the way of décor, but the food is out of this world. It’s considerably more expensive, but the dim sum at the stunning Peninsula Hotel might be even better than Tim Ho Wan. Located at the gorgeous Langham Hotel in Kowloon, the Cantonese cuisine at T’ang Court recently was given a precious third Michelin star. There are a million places to buy watches and other gear you often find at duty free shops, but I don’t find prices that great in Hong Kong (excepting the markets, where the quality can be rather dubious). Better to my way of thinking is a trip to PMQ, a new shopping area in the central district with small, individually owned enterprises or start-ups that often focus on original, local designs.  Be sure to take the city’s famous trams for a cheap (about 50 cents) view of the city’s dynamic streets. And don’t miss the phenomenal hiking.

The skyline of Hong Kong is fantastic from the walkway around VIctoria Peak.

You can do an easy walk around the top of Victoria Peak, but more adventurous souls should try the Dragon’s Back hike, with simply sensational views and some pretty serious elevation changes. Be sure to check out the surfers at Big Wave Bay while you’re in the area. Yes, there’s a definite surf culture in parts of Hong Kong. Hong Kong still has something of a British feel and an orderly way of doing business, making it a great introduction to Asian culture for folks who aren’t sure how deep they want to dive.

There are many great hikes to be had in and around Hong Kong, including the famous Dragon's Back hike. (Photo courtesy of Hong Kong Tourism)

MACAU This former colony of Portugal is famous for its thriving casino culture, as more money is gambled every year than in Las Vegas. The shows aren’t as big here as in Nevada, but there are some pretty wild structures to check out, including the Venetian complex with its gondoliers from around the world. Far more interesting in my book is the old town, with its black and white Portuguese style street tiles and bustling markets selling everything from strips of beef to fried scorpions and pungent Chinese spices. The ruins of the church of St. Paul’s make a fine tour.

The ruins of St. Paul's Church are a great place to explore in Macau.

On the south side of Macau you’ll find a nice beach called Hac Sa. The Westin Hotel is next door and has a nice resort feel. There’s also a nice golf course (the tee box for one of the holes is on a section of the roof of the Westin) and easy, enjoyable walking trails in the area. Restaurant Fernando is a fun, casual spot on the beach for seafood that feels more like Malibu than Macau.

Take a walk past Hac Sa Beach in Macau and admire the beautiful coast.

Be sure to wander through tiny Coloane village and stop at Lord Stow’s Bakery for fresh natas; Portuguese custard tarts with a blistered, charred exterior and creamy goodness all the way through.

JIM’S FOOD TIP: The sensational tarts at Lord Stow’s Bakery in Macau also are sold at the Expresso coffee shop inside the Excelsior Hotel in the Causeway Bay area of Hong Kong. Arrive early as they sometimes sell out by late afternoon.

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