Q&A: Our favourite places in... China
Speaking to Far East expert Michael Allford, we uncover some of China’s most exciting destinations. Having had an interest in China from a young age, Michael has not only spent a lot of time in the country, but was also once a tour guide here.
Q: Michael, you're quite an expert on China by all accounts, so what would you say are the broad qualities that give it its appeal among travellers?
A: It just has everything for everybody really. You have that ancient history and culture, you have the stunning scenery that's out of this world, you have the modern cities that are bustling and busy, and you even have little beaches. As one country, I know it's very vast, but it really does have everything to suit everybody's needs.
Q: I don't think most people would associate China with beaches – are they worth visiting?
A: Yes. There's one particular area for beaches, really, called Hainan Island, which is in the south of China. It's often called the Hawaii of China, and has the most luxurious resorts - the service is just unbeatable. The only problem is that it's quite an expensive destination compared to nearby places like Thailand - but you certainly get an exceptional standard of hotels and resorts to match that price, as well as the beautiful beaches.
When you're having a long trip around China, it's nice to relax on the beach a bit before travelling home and getting back to your normal day-to-day life. And it really is so tropical – lots of wild flowers, brilliant for snorkelling. It would be great if more people stayed in China for the beach.
Q: It certainly sounds lovely! While China's a huge country and that might make this question difficult, what would you say your favourite individual destinations are?
A: The Great Wall of China, the Terracotta Warriors – these are things that take your breath away. And they even have this effect after many years and many visits.
But for the last trip for Cox & Kings I was able to visit some other areas of China, like the Yunnan Province and what they call Shangri-La, which is the foothills of Tibet, and that really did have a long-lasting influence on me. The culture, the people, the sights – it really was so beautiful and so I think that people should stray a little from the main tourist route.
Q: So your personal favourites are the Terracotta Warriors, Yunnan Province and Shangri-La - what would you say makes each of those places so special?
A: For me, always when I'm travelling around China it's the people that you meet. Because the people in Shangri-La, they're so friendly. I've never met such friendly, warm people, and they really want to learn about the outside world and things like that. And it just feels very safe to wander around and you can easily make friends with people there.
Q: Moving on to when to visit – when do you think is a good time to visit each of those places?
A: The best times are spring (so March, April and May), and September and October and possibly early November, because you've got nice long days, bright blue skies, the weather's not too hot… During the summer months, temperatures can go up as high as 40C in Beijing, and then in July and August the south has heavy rainfall and sometimes flooding – so spring and autumn is the nicest time to be going to China, for sure.
Q: What would you say the key reasons to visit China are, or the most memorable experiences you can have there?
A: I think the sights are just outstanding – the experience of seeing the Great Wall or the Forbidden City. But also one thing that everybody I've taken to China has said is that the people you meet are what made their trip particularly memorable.
Q: Are there any destinations that are particularly well suited to travellers hoping to meet local people?
A: Yes, places like the Chinese Silk Road, which starts off in the very north of China, then shoots down to Xian, certainly has a lot of interesting people and culture. And around the heartlands of China, which is what we call Pingyao and that area, places are less busy than Beijing and Shanghai – this is where you'll meet real Chinese people who are friendly, warm and welcoming. It's not unheard of that if you're walking around in a small village that you'll be invited into someone's home and offered some local food. And the one thing that China is is very, very safe.
Q: Looking back on your own travels in China, which single destination do you have the fondest memories of, and why?
A: I would say probably Shangri-La. When I went to Shangri-La, it really had a long-lasting effect. I don't know – it's very very remote, it's a long drive to get to, you're high up in the foothills of Tibet, with all these wild flowers, it's very windy, you can only go there for a certain period because of the harsh winters and things like that. But the people were just so friendly. It's hard to explain how or why, but they just were so relaxed, so calm – no rushing, everything was very relaxing. And everywhere I went I could hear this lovely chanting music from the monks in monasteries, so I just felt on top of the world. It really had a lasting effect on me. I'd love to go back.
Q: What sort of things can you do while you're out there? Is it mainly trekking, meeting the locals, visiting monasteries…?
A: Yes, I mean there's a lot of scenic places, like the meadows etc that are good for walking. You can also go and have lunch with a Tibetan family, learn about their home and things like that. But it is mainly you're going there for the scenery.
Q: What advice would you give to someone who's planning a trip to China and who wants to get the best overall feel for the place, so a first-time visitor, for instance?
A: Be open-minded, and don't do too much. Of course, because of the size of China many people may have the attitude that they want to go and see the highlights and try and cram in as much as possible – and it becomes tiring I think. That's why it's much nicer to make several visits.
You should also wander around and explore on your own, don't be afraid – you're not going to wander into any trouble, apart from people wanting to practise their English on you and things like that!
Q: Given that there are so many choices of places to go, how would you recommend people whittle down their options?
A: That is hard – I think it's impossible to put together the perfect itinerary to China in one go. I always recommend that people who are going on a first-time visit just do Beijing, Xian, Shanghai and Guilin, because that way you're going to get all the history and major sights. You obviously have to see the Terracotta Warriors in Xian if it's a first-time visit to China, and then Guilin gives you an insight into some of the very beautiful scenery of the country, where you've got those limestone outcrops. Then you can visit Shanghai, because there you have the modern China. I think Shanghai is going to overtake even Hong Kong in the future, perhaps. So by going to these places, you'll get to see China from ancient times to the future.
View Cox & Kings' tours to China here.
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