China - Ancient to Modern

Whether you’ve got a penchant for the past or are always riding the wave of the latest tech trend, here’s why china has you covered.

A country of contrasts

No matter where in the world you are, tension exists between history and modernity. The pull of tradition draws us back to customs our ancestors practiced hundreds of years before, while the search for an easier, neater, better life has us worshipping at the altar of technology. But if you really want to see this contrast at its clearest, make sure China is on your bucket list. This is the most populous country in the world, with an economy that’s fast catching up to America’s. It’s one of the greatest world superpowers there is, and its influence is only set to grow. But even in the shining, futuristic beacons that are Beijing and Shanghai’s financial districts, you can’t escape the old ways for long here.

Moving forward

Speaking of Shanghai, this is a good time to dive into what makes this megacity of around 26 million people such a shining example of China’s fascinating old-meets-new quality. A place’s relationship with technology is often highlighted by its approach to transport. What should we make of Shanghai, then? Jump on the ultra-fast Maglev Train (the first commercial magnetic levitation train in the world) and you could think you’ve travelled forward in time as well as distance.
Meanwhile, in the streets of the Former French Concession neighbourhood – lined with old-fashioned, low ‘lane houses’ – you’ll see people transporting everything from livestock to furniture on bicycles and tricycles, just as their grandparents did. In these traditional neighbourhoods, much of life is lived outdoors, and people chatting as they play board games or share dinner in front of their houses will be the soundtrack to your wanderings.

A tale of two cities?

Head over to Shanghai’s waterfront Bund district and you’ll see how the Huángpǔ River appears to serve as a dividing line between the city’s old and new faces. On the western bank, along The Bund itself, grand colonial buildings serve as a reminder of the control European interests had over the city in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Look across the river to the financial district, however, and you’ll be overwhelmed by a jumble of hyper-modern skyscrapers, including the unmistakable Oriental Pearl Tower, which pierces the sky high above its neighbours.The view is particularly impressive after dark, when the buildings are awash with fluorescent lights.

Art in all forms

Of course, if you’re in search of historic China with a hearty side of modernity, Beijing is likely to be your number one priority.

The Chinese capital is a great place to access the remarkable Great Wall of China, one of the most famous historic structures on the planet and a breathtaking work of art. And in Beijing itself, the sprawl of royal buildings housed within the vast Forbidden City complex reveal the wealth of the Ming and Qing dynasties who held power for hundreds of years. Alongside these mighty artefacts of the past, a cutting-edge arts culture is flourishing in Beijing. Immerse yourself in it in Dashanzi, also known as the 798 Art District. In this collection of former factories, Beijing’s up-and-coming artists display their work, and coffee shops and cafés buzz with a youthful energy.

Miles of discovery

Some say that to see the ‘real’ China you need to get outside the major cities. Of course, there is no ‘real’ China – only different ways of doing things. But there’s no denying that the more remote areas can feel a million miles away from the hectic cities. To really grasp the extent of the differences that make this country such an endlessly mesmerising place, it’s hard to beat a cruise on the Yangtze River.

At close to 4,000 miles, this is the longest river in the country. So there’s room for huge variation in the sights you’ll discover as you make your way along it. One day you might find that you’re the focus of attention as you stop off at a little village where visitors are a rarity. The next day might be spent communing with the past at a spiritual historic site like Fengdu Ghost City, packed with shrines. And at any time, the river could take you by surprise by bringing you to an astonishing example of technological achievement such as the Three Gorges Dam, the world’s largest hydroelectric dam.

Our number one tip for travelling in China? Expect the unexpected. Oh, and be prepared to pick your jaw up off the floor a thousand times a day.