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Over the first part of November I took our older two kids on a 10-day trip to China. We spent 6 nights in Beijing and then three in Hong Kong. Both cities were incredible in their own way. The Chinese capital is sprawling and busy, filled with culture and a rich history spanning many centuries. We were able to tour a number of the historic sites, wander the hutongs, and make a day trip to the Great Wall (SEE: [VIDEO] Great Wall Mutianyu Toboggan Ride Review). Hong Kong is worlds different, but an amazing city as well. I don’t know of anywhere quite like it.
China is a vast country, and our two destinations within it only scratched the surface. But the trip left me wanting to return and explore other cities and regions in the future. If China isn’t on your list of places you must visit, I highly suggest you add it. Here are 5 reasons why:
Rich history and culture
Coming from America, I love visiting places where history spans more than a couple hundred years. One of the hallmarks of traveling to Europe is walking back in time along streets and amid buildings that are centuries old. These are the moments where I don’t need to have anything planned at all to enjoy a place. Simply being there and taking in the sights, sounds and smells is enough.
China offers a breadth and depth of culture with a history spanning more than two millennia. If experiencing history is why you love to travel, I highly recommend China. You will not be disappointed. So many things came out of China, including tea, paper, gunpowder and playing cards, among many others.
There are numerous UNESCO-listed world heritage sites in just Beijing itself, including the Temple of Heaven (pictured above), the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, and the Summer Palace (SEE: How to visit the 7 Beijing UNESCO sites). We had the great privilege of seeing all of them. But China is not simply Beijing.
Endless variety of a vast country
Coming from the United States, a large country with many regional differences and uniquely beautiful destinations, I can certainly appreciate the variety of destinations offered in China. On one hand, you have large cities with rich histories, vibrant culture, and plenty to keep you entertained. On the other hand, you can visit the incredible karst topography of Guilin, or maybe a panda sanctuary amid the forested peaks west of Chengdu. From the beaches of Hainan to the Great Wall snaking across the mountains north of Beijing, the country has a lot to offer.
The more I’ve researched China, the more I want to visit every corner. Much like the U.S., you can create an overly long list of the best to see. I’m not sure I will ever be able to fit it all in.
It’s *so* cheap
Unlike northern Europe, you won’t have to refinance the house or sell your firstborn child to pay for your transportation, food and daily activities. Everything is fine and dandy when you’re booking a flight to Switzerland for 30,000 miles and $5.60. But don’t forget to factor in the cost of everything you plan on doing once you get there. I’ve been amazed at how expensive it can be to visit some cities in Europe.
China presents an entirely different picture. Public transportation is cheap. I think most subway rides cost us $0.75. For all three of us. Food is cheap as well, not to mention delicious. If you’re traveling as a couple, you can eat at a run of the mill restaurant for 30-50 yuan ($4-7) per person. My two kids and I routinely ate lunch or dinner for $12 or less. I loved the food. They weren’t always so sure.
There are flight deals to a number of Chinese cities regularly. One of the best deals recently was a $300 round-trip from the Bay Area to Beijing on Air Canada. You can routinely find tickets to a few Chinese cities from the west coast for right about $500, which is already reasonable. Lodging is pretty cheap as well, if you don’t need to stay in a major chain hotel. You can spend $70 or less per night for a decent place. But I prefer to use points some things end up completely free.
Don’t think that travel has to be expensive. You could budget less than $1,000 for a solo 3-5 day trip to Beijing if you catch a good flight deal. Don’t let the price tag hold you back. If you can make the flights happen for free, China is an awesome place to visit on a budget.
It’s getting easier
China has rolled out more and more tourist-friendly policies over the last few years. One of the best is the Transit without Visa (TWOV) program that has a good number of participating cities. In a nutshell, China allows visitors to enter the country for tourism purposes as long as they are doing so as a “stopover”, and continuing onward to another destination. I’m not going to go into the details of the policy, but you can find a good amount of information online. Most ports of entry into China offer the standard 24-hour visa exemption, but there are a good number of others that now allow a 72-hour or even 144-hour visa exemption. This is how we were able to visit Beijing for 5 days without all obtaining Chinese visas.
If you don’t want to bother with figuring out the TWOV policy for the place(s) you want to visit in China and work out the onward ticket issue, a visa really isn’t all that expensive. United States citizens can now apply for a 10-year tourist visa, and it costs the same as a visa for a much shorter duration. So why not just spend the $160 and be able to visit the country as many times as you like in the next decade?
To get out of your comfort zone
Traveling around the U.S. is old hat for me. I’ve been on more trips than I can easily count, and have spent time in over half the states in the Union. Domestic travel is doesn’t push me very far. Travel to Europe is a step or two further, depending on where you visit, but you can generally find people who speak English and/or communicate with a few basic words from your phrasebook.
Our visit to China was a whole lot further outside my comfort zone, but in a good way. Besides numbers, I failed every time I tried to speak Mandarin. I got laughed at a few times. But this is what travel is about. I’m a guest in a foreign land, and I do my best to obey their customs, speak their language (even if I fail miserably), and just enjoy being in a culture different than my own. It is definitely outside my comfort zone, but I’ve also come to enjoy and appreciate it thoroughly.
U.S. State Department Travel Advisory
You may be aware that the State Department has currently issued a travel advisory for Americans visiting China. The warning provides info on an “exit ban” that Chinese authorities have used at times, sometimes keeping American citizens in the country for extended periods. Typically, those detained have been U.S. citizens with Chinese heritage, and the reason for the detainment has been related to Chinese investigations and disputes. In one recent case, China is holding the children of a former bank executive the government hopes to lure back to China to face criminal charges. They are unfortunate pawns in a larger game.
For the “normal” traveler without Chinese heritage or ties to China, I personally don’t think visiting the country poses any undue risk. In regard to general safety concerns, I have no worries. Beijing honestly felt safer than some American cities I’ve visited. For comparison, Great Britain, Germany, France, Italy and Spain are all on the “Level 2 – Exercise Increased Caution” list as well.
I had more than one person express to me that visiting China had no appeal to them. Things like that amaze me. Aren’t you a little curious, at least enough to consider going once? It surprises me where some people draw the lines for travel. But to each their own, I guess. For my part, I enjoyed China immensely, and I will still encourage anyone to add it to their destination list, for all of the reasons given above.
We probably spent less on a 10-day trip to China than on a 3-day visit to Disneyland. It’s really all about what you want to do. I was able to travel to Australia and spend a mere $320 out of pocket to see and do plenty (SEE: The Anatomy of a One Week Trip to Australia). It was a blast. Don’t let the distance, the new culture, or the cost keep you from visiting China. Add it to your travel list. You won’t regret it.