Dragon well tea is so good that the harvest is usually reserved for China’s wealthy elite, but you can sample it too if you head straight to the source at Longjing Village. The Imperial Tea Garden there is a beautifully tranquil compound flanked by a giant teapot with narrow stone paths twisting alongside creeks where smiling, straw-hatted harvesters pick each leaf by hand.
A stay at a rural guesthouse in one of the remote villages along the Great Wall is a priceless lesson in understanding traditional Chinese culture. Don’t expect luxury: they’re basic, but clean. Do expect to learn about proper Chinese cooking, help tend to the rice fields and watch the skill with which locals wash their clothes against the rocks.
Housed in a former munitions factory, 798 is Beijing’s contemporary art district. The building was constructed by East Germans is the 50s before being taken over by artists in the 90s and is now a pretty subversive space where artists explore climate change and other political issues, which the rest of China prefer not to shout about.
Rural southeast China is a surreal and dramatic landscape of towering limestone karsts and locals fishing from bamboo rafts beside flocks of nosy cormorants. The market at Patao Village is a sight to behold; you will see fruit you never knew existed, hear what your future holds from seriously old soothsayers, and no doubt hear them relay their ailments to the mobile doctors on hand.
Back in 1420, the Temple of Heaven was a place of sacrifice and prayer for a good harvest and though the building itself is an architectural gem, the parkland that surrounds it is its trump card. A peaceful place of contemplation, you can watch locals perform tai chi, or see elders that sound like they’re arguing, but are just having a chinwag over a game of chess.
You cannot talk about China without mentioning the Great Wall. The further you go from Beijing, the more authentic and less crowded sections you’ll see, and when you do reach it you’ll quickly realise that this incredible series of fortifications, strung out over 13,000 miles along a twisting, dipping east-west line simply must be seen to be believed.
Considered the 8th Wonder of the World, the Terracotta Army are a series of three accidentally discovered underground pits in Xi’an containing 8,000 life-size terracotta figures that stand guard at the tomb of China’s first emperor. The detail is astounding: each warrior wears body armour, the soles of their shoes display tread patterns, and each of their heads and hands are unique.
Despite their exalted status, threats from humans have left no more that 1,600 giant pandas in the wild and Chengdu was created with the sole purpose of rearing and breeding the hallowed creature. 96% of its 92 acres are verdure and bamboo to provide a natural environment in which the pandas can thrive and prepare for release into the wild.
West Lake in Hangzhou used to be regarded for its shimmering waters, but the once alluring body of water has now been choked by the addition of waste water and is just a small piece of China’s growing pollution puzzle. Not only does it smell like a cesspool, but the area around the lake is being further polluted by coaches that carry huge Chinese tour groups to the once peaceful spot.
The smog levels in Beijing regularly exceed levels considered hazardous by the World Health Organisation and can reach more than 10 times the internationally accepted safety limit. Add to this the 5.5 million cars spitting out fumes on the city’s roads and you have a major problem; find your way round on foot instead of hopping in a taxi.
Despite claims that the exotic lotions and potions sold in China under the umbrella heading ‘Traditional Chinese Medicine’ can cure all ills, the animal parts used in them such as bear bile, tiger bones and rhino horn, involves inhumane treatment of thousands of endangered species. Plus, they don’t work. Two very good reasons to steer well clear.
The treatment of animals at this cramped and squalid self-titled ‘park’ is nothing short of barbaric. Live chickens can be bought by tourists to feed to hungry dogs, live buffalo are fed to captive tigers who are unskilled at dealing with prey, and bears are tormented by the prospect of food dangled out of reach on fishing rods. Sadly, that’s the tamer stuff. Three words: do not go.