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(2017 - Fall Issue)


China can be overwhelming for the first-time visitor. It is a subcontinent full of wonders, which leads many visitors to try and cram in too much.

The language barrier here is more challenging than in most other major destinations. And the teeming 1.3 billion people of China are now intent on seeing their own country, which can lead to crowded, exhausting experiences for out-of-towners.

What to do? Here are my tips, based on personal experiences, for the perfect, independent, first-time trip to China.


You can’t do it all! There are so many wonderful places to see in China, but better by far to choose your top two and experience them properly, rather than sign up for a packaged tour which whizzes you around a dozen so fast that you will need another vacation to recover. You may want to select two from these top seven: Beijing and The Great Wall, Chengdu and its Giant Pandas, Hong Kong, Xian’s Terracotta Army, Shanghai’s 21st-century cityscape, a Yangtze River cruise, and the Guilin limestone landscape. I picked the first two of these for my recent trip.


Once you have chosen your dream destinations you should work out the best time of year to plan your visit. As China is such a vast country, different regions can be frigid or boiling, wet or dry, at risk of typhoons or choking smog. Look at each of your destinations and time your visit accordingly. I travelled to Beijing and Chengdu in September, as this promised the best likelihood for moderate temperatures and sunshine.


Assuming you enjoy travelling at your own pace rather than that of a tour group, you will need to consider the best combination of airline and hotels for your trip to China. Look for the optimal mix of price, regional expertise, reputation, features and ease of booking. For all these reasons, I flew with Cathay Pacific and stayed with Swire Hotels at their House Collective group of hotels. Both airline and hotel group are based in China and so are the perfect hosts for a journey to China.


I flew direct from Toronto to Hong Kong. Economy Class on Cathy Pacific is excellent, however I wished to experience their renowned Business Class on this 15-hour flight—and I was pleased I did. It was like stepping into China the moment I boarded the plane—food and service were both tinged with Asian magic and their award-winning lie-flat seats ensured I was well rested and ready to hit the ground running when I landed in Hong Kong. Within China, I flew on sister airline Cathay Dragon. This ensured seamless service, one-stop shopping and use of the airlines’ very civilized airport lounges. In particular, The Pier lounge in Hong Kong Airport is a luxurious haven for connecting flights.


You are in China and your hotels there should reflect this. What’s the point of flying halfway round the world to stay in an international mega-brand tower block that could be anywhere? The House Collective is a group of smaller, personal hotels that combine modern luxury accommodation with a real sense of place. In Hong Kong, I stayed at The Upper House where natural materials used in the 117 studios and suites provide a zen serenity. The views over Victoria Harbour are spectacular. My base in Beijing was The Opposite House in the heart of the trendy Sanlitun District. This elegant 99-room boutique hotel mixes dramatic contemporary style with Chinese traditional designs creating soaring spaces within a striking green cube exterior. The Temple House in Chengdu was my personal favourite. A beautifully restored traditional Qing dynasty courtyard leads to a very contemporary hotel. This 100-studio hotel has landscaped hills, a subterranean pool, a sumptuous spa and a teahouse inspired by a traditional Chinese apothecary. In short: the perfect combination of traditional and modern chic. Both hotels feature sophisticated restaurants that reflect the Chinese regional cuisine that is so much a part of the travel experience in China. Peking duck in Beijing and Sichuan hot pot in Sichuan simply do not get any better.


Twenty-one million people call Beijing home and it seems all of them have taken to its streets. It’s traffic mayhem! So it’s a relief as well as a thrill to stand in the middle of Tiananmen Square. It’s the world’s largest public square, with plenty of space to soak up the surroundings on all four sides: the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong, the National Museum of China, the Great Hall of the People and, of course, the Gate of Heavenly Peace leading into The Forbidden City. This is the most immense palace complex in the world, hidden from public view for 500 years while the emperors of two Chinese dynasties ruled their empire from its ancient buildings.

The borders of this empire were guarded by China’s most iconic monument—The Great Wall. This is one of a handful of sites across the world (think Machu Picchu and the Taj Mahal) that simply have to be seen to be believed. Remnants of the wall extend over 20,000 kilometres across all terrains. It was first built by the Northern Qi dynasty more than 1,400 years ago, then rebuilt and strengthened during the Ming dynasty.

There are a number of options to visit the wall from Beijing, the most convenient (and also most crowded) of which is at Badaling. I was advised to see the Mutianyu stretch of the wall, 70 kilometres north of Beijing. The experience was breathtaking. In the literal sense. As I stood atop the wall for the first time, I forgot to breathe. The sense of immense and stirring history was palpable. The wall curved up and away over the mountains in both directions, punctuated by great watchtowers. The sky was a flawless indigo blue, the wind whistled through the battlements and I was truly lost in the history and landscape of China.


How to top one of the greatest monuments of humankind? By viewing one of the greatest creations of nature: the giant pandas! I flew from Beijing 2,000 kilometres southwest to Chengdu, a city of 14 million people, famed for its teahouses, spicy Sichuan cuisine, face-changing theatre and giant pandas. These are—in order—charming, fiery, bizarre and enchanting.

The heart of giant panda country is just 70 kilometres from downtown Chengdu. At elevations up to 5,600 metres above sea level, it is the only region in the world with both wild and captive giant pandas. And the greatest number of individual pandas in one place is at the Chengdu Research Centre of Giant Panda Breeding, located just 10 kilometres north of Chengdu. Here wild bamboo forests and woods, lakes, brooks, grassy glades, man-made dens, rocks and caves simulate the panda’s natural environment.

Over 100 pandas out of a total worldwide population of around 2,000 reside in four reserves established in the giant panda habitat. The Research Centre has finally cracked how to persuade pandas to reproduce successfully and they are now rehabilitating young pandas into the wild.

For visitors, the experience is entrancing. I was childishly joyful to see so many pandas up close and personal in their natural environment. When a nursery of seven baby pandas were brought outside from their den for the first time, my happiness was complete. As I was standing there in Chengdu with a soppy smile on my face, the giant panda was officially being taken off the ‘endangered’ list and upgraded to ‘vulnerable.’ A heart-warming news story I was privileged to see unfolding with my own eyes.

Travel Planner

Swire Pacific is the name behind Cathay Pacific, Cathay Dragon and Swire Hotels; it employs over 50,000 people and operates throughout the Asia Pacific region. Cathay Pacific flies daily from Toronto and Vancouver to Hong Kong while Cathy Dragon connects many centres in China and the rest of Asia. Swire Hotels features three properties (listed below) in their House Collective in China.

For more information, visit:

China National Tourism Office: tourismchina-ca.com; cnto.org

Beijing Tourism: en.visitbeijing.com.cn

Cathay Pacific: cathaypacific.com

The Opposite House, Beijing: theoppositehouse.com

The Temple House, Chengdu: thetemplehousehotel.com

The Upper House, Hong Kong: upperhouse.com

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