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A country with as much history and land as China cannot be comprehensively absorbed in a single journey. From the great cities in the east to the sprawling wilderness of the west and its Silk Road routes and the mountainous tropical southwest, China offers travelers a complex immersion into its classical past as well as a breathtaking glimpse of what promises to be an equally impressive future. First-time travelers usually explore a combination of Beijing, Shanghai, Xian, Guilin, Hong Kong and the Yangtze River.

Beijing’s Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven and Summer Palace demonstrate the elegance of China’s dynastic past while visits to the Great Wall of China demonstrate its grandeur. In Shanghai, travelers wander the European architectural esplanade of the Bund as across the river they marvel at Pudong’s futuristic skyline. Daytrips to Suzhou and its classical gardens complete the experience. The greatest archeological find of the 20th century was uncovered in Xian where the army of Terra Cotta Warriors offers as epical a work of art as the world has ever known. Victoria Cruises gives the Yangtze River one of the world’s finest river fleets. The river runs through some of the country’s most dramatic scenery. The highlight of Guilin are the day cruises on the Li River which pass the wind carved mountains that have inspired Chinese painters for centuries.

Hong Kong, often called the New York of Asia, has become a favorite place to spend a few days before you board your homeward flight. Great hotels and restaurants, and superb shopping combine with an easy transit system. That English is spoken almost universally make a visit to Hong Kong an experience that almost any American will feel comfortable with.

Though Chinese food has become a staple of American eating, you won’t find the same dishes in China that are popular here. Almost every Chinese province features its own cuisine, but basically there are eight top regional Chinese cuisines from Cantonese to Sichuanese. While diners in Beijing revel in the ritual multi-course serving of Peking Duck, in Shanghai they delight in the soup-filled dumplings the city is known for.

Beijing’s most popular venue for the Peking Duck dinner is the 800-seat Quanjude Roast Duck Restaurant. The restaurant hails back to 1864.

Shanghai, Beijing and Hong Kong are the top gateway cities into China. Several airlines, both American and international, offer frequent service to those cities and to others such as Seoul, Tokyo and Taipei that serve as convenient stopping off points into China. There is a full network of air connections between China’s cities and then there’s the new bullet train, featuring the world’s fastest average speed. Right now it connects Guangzhou to Wuhan, but it’s just one of 42 high-speed lines recently opened or set to open by 2012. China invested more than $100 billion in stimulus for the projects.

The summer, almost everywhere in China, is warm and rainy, while winter climates vary from region to region. The best times to travel to China are in the autumn and the spring.

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