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The Year of the Snake

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Inspired by Chinese New Year celebrations, we take a look at options for travel to China in the year ahead

It's a long time since my first and only visit to China - about 20 years ago actually. I'd just finished my first year of study at the University of Melbourne and I decided to go to China to visit my cousin Katrina who was studying languages at the University in Xiamen.

We met in Hong Kong and then embarked on an amazing journey that included stops in Guangzhou, Beijing, Nanjing, Shanghai, and then a long ferry back to Hong Kong.

There were so many amazing highlights - walking along the Great Wall, feeling like you were actually in a post card; marveling at the vastness of Tiananmen Square, just a few years after the protests and massacre that had shocked the world; the ancient history of the Forbidden City; epic train journeys across the county; the millions of cyclists that ruled the roads; and eating fried dumplings at every opportunity.

As students, we were doing this trip on a very tight budget - so there were plenty of lowlights too. Going to the toilet was always an adventure - always clutching your own roll of toilet paper and learning to cope with the extraordinary sights and smells that you inevitably encountered as a result of shaky sewage systems; the hostel showers often felt like some kind cruel and unusual punishment - cold water coming out at you hard and fast, "like a cow urinating" as my cousin described it; long train journeys in cramped conditions where people though nothing of spitting on the floor or clearing their nose out of the window.

The world has changed a lot in 20 years, but by all accounts China has changed beyond recognition.

In this, the year of the snake, I have begun planning my long over-due return to China.

One of the key lessons that I learnt on my last visit is that China is a vast and diverse country, so there's no point kidding yourself that you're going to see and do everything.

I'm giving myself ten days (which is about my limit for any sort of extended travel) so it's going to have to be targeted, there will have to be sacrifices and things will be missed. That's just the reality of travel.

I've decided to give the following a miss:
  • Hong Kong - although now formally part of China I've been there a number of times transiting through to various destinations, so it doesn't need to a feature of this trip;
  • Beijing - a massive city and a key part of the fabric of China, I've got such vivid memories of key attractions such as the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, and the Great Wall (accessed from Beijing) that I don't feel any strong urge to return at this stage;
  • The Terracotta Army at Xian - it does sound impressive, over 8,000 soldiers and assorted military figures, dating from the third century BC, created to mark the funeral of the first Emperor of China. But Xian isn't that easy to get to and if I'm going to have to make sacrifices then I can miss this.
  • Tibet - politically controversial as to how this is connected to China and worthy of a completely separate adventure. One for next time.
  • Guilin - meant to be one of the most beautiful and scenic parts of China, it is unfortunately right down in the South East corner of the country, better suited to a trip focused on Hong Kong, Macau, Guangzhou and the South East. One for another day.

Like a precision sniper, this time around my trip is going to focus on Shanghai and the surrounding area.

I'm feeling quite pleased with myself and have designed the perfect itinerary.

When to go:
  • I'm planning on the first week of September - the start of Autumn in China, temperatures will be mid-20C. Perfect for getting out and about and exploring.
How to get there:
  • I'm booking with Lufthansa.
  • Price is just under £1,000 for the return.
  • There is a change in Frankfurt, but the upside is that you can fly in and out of London City Airport which is worth a lot. Plus there's air-miles to be had.
What to do:
  • The Bund - the commercial heart of old Shanghai this area is now the most exclusive real estate in China, a strip of grand colonial edifices on the west bank of the Huangpu River, looking across to the skyscrapers of Pudong opposite. These days it is home to the flagship stores of the world's most luxurious brands and exclusive hotels.
  • Jinshan City Beach - a 1.3km long man-made beach just outside of Shanghai.  The open water events for the 2011 World Aquatics Championships were held here. The official tourism notes claim that 'the beach's golden sand has been imported from China's tropical paradise of Hainan Island, and a powerful water filtration system has been installed to turn the sea into a surprisingly appealing shade of blue' - sounds so surreal I've got to check it out.
  • Hangzhou - this emerged as a rich and thriving city during the Tang dynasy and became the imperial capital during the Song dynasty. Dominated by its large lake (complete with willow trees, ancient walkways, temples and pagodas), Hangzhou epitomizes the mysterious orient that images of China used to evoke.
  • Suzhou - famous for many centuries for its silk production, Suzhou is defined by the greenery of its gardens and its quiet canals. At night the canal network is lit by a galaxy of paper lanterns.

Where to stay:
Your choice of hotel can make or break a holiday, so I'm playing it relatively safe and going for quality.
Shanghai - Hotel Indigo, bang on The Bund and delivering jaw-dropping views
Hangzhou - Banyan Tree, I love Banyan Tree hotels and this one sits within the Xixi reserve - China's first national wetland park.
Suzhou - Kempinski Hotel, a hotel brand you can trust with a bit of lakeside luxury thrown in.

A lot to look forward to, and as long as there are plenty of fried dumplings to be had then I'll be happy.

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