Colossal, dizzying and fiercely, endlessly foreign, China is a destination not easily compared to anywhere else on the planet. Home to approximately one fifth of the human race, China 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 on the ground it’s the sheer scale and off-kilter energy of the place that leave the most lasting impression.
The rampant economic drive of the last decade 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 traditions and an almost unfathomable amount of diversity. China's landscapes unfurl dramatically across the map, its customs are as fascinating as they are numerous, and its sights, sounds and infinite oddities altogether amount to one of the world’s truly great travel experiences.
The pace of modernisation in its key cities – Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou and increasingly others – have thrown up skylines to rival any global city in the world. The skyscrapers of these cities are emblematic of the ‘new’ China – a modern powerhouse both economically and politically, and the eager to make the rest of the world sit up and take notice. China’s cities hum with an energy and pace so quick that even the metropolis-hardened of visitors will feel it. The flipside to this – levels of smog and pollution so severe you’ll feel like you’re walking through a cloud, and the indiscriminate pulling down of ancient architecture to make way for shiny new buildings, seem to be the unfortunate consequences of progress.
Shift away from the urban sprawl and out into China’s rural areas and countryside however, and the visitor is confronted with a very different reality. The sheer size of the country – where the landscape veers from the lush green terraced rice fields to the harsh mountain geography of the Himalayas, and the awe-inducing beauty of UNESCO-protected Yangtze river as it winds its way through the Yunnan province. In many of the rural heartlands, that tableau of life in China fifty years ago can still be found, with village life seemingly unchanged, on the surface. Still, for visitors to China the greatest reward will be scratching beneath it, to engage with a country that will contradicts and captivates in equal measure.