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Culture

Strange China: The Most Bizarre Attractions in China

Most tourists to China try to get themselves to the Great Wall or the Forbidden City and with good reason. Since China opened up to the foreign travel market in the 1980s, people haven’t limited themselves to the most well known spots and traveled to the grasslands of Inner Mongolia and the more remote towns of Yunnan. But sometimes, it’s nice to see something completely different, whether it’s China’s best museum on sex or even a downward hill that sends objects rolling upward. Read on intrepid China traveler to see some of the odder spots in the Middle Kingdom.

China Sex Museum, Tongli

Retired Shanghai University professor Liu Dalin, a pioneer in the study of sex in China, raised eyebrows and garnered the attention of travelers and locals alike with the China Sex Museum, a collection of ancient artifacts of a sexual nature, some as much as 3,000 years old. After the museum was deemed too sexy for Shanghai, Professor Liu moved his saucy collection to the wooded grounds of a former all-girls school in Tongli. The China Sex Museum in Tongli was close enough for a Shanghai weekend trip, but today is in the process of moving to Hainan Province.

Bizarre Tower, Zhouzhuang

The water town of Zhouzhuang prospered during the Ming and Qing dynasties and many of the buildings from those periods remain, even some from the Yuan Dynasty. Despite the waves of tourists washing over the town during holidays, its known for its serene canals as well as its historic architecture. Occupying a building that at least appears old, the Bizarre Tower offers up strange and sometimes slightly morbid photo ops that give you pictures of yourself doing a handstand in a classical Chinese office or your head placed in a basket on a table in the corner of a room.

Stone Skin Lane, Xitang

Another Jiangsu water town, Xitang’s most unique feature is probably the long, canopied walkways formed by the joining of several extended roofs in areas where waterside merchants once sold their wares and goods from their boats. One of the town’s most popular sites is a narrow lane—part of it just wide enough for a single person— that stretches 40 m (44 yd) between larger streets. The name Stone Skin Lane, etched on a stone at one end of the lane, comes from the thin stones that pave the tight walkway.

Strange Slope, Xiamen

Less a tourist attraction than, well, an incline, the Strange Slope was spotted by a taxi driver in 2003 who noticed the bizarre spot where things appear to move uphill. Peddlers in the area offer RMB 1 bicycle rides where you, too, can experience appear to go up what appears to be downhill. The slope is part of the Dongping Shan scenic area, about 15 minutes outside of Xiamen proper.

Thames Town, Shanghai

Completely copying neighborhoods from British towns and transplanting them in the suburbs surrounding Shanghai sounds like a good idea, right? Turns out for the developers, not so much. While the surreal British-facade ghost town got attention in the international media, that didn’t translate to buyers for the development.

As the British pubs and restaurants around town are only that on the sign with nothing inside, Thames Town remains a curiosity on the outskirts of town where the locals are showing up to take wedding photos but not to buy property. The good news for foreign-country-theme-town enthusiasts is that Thames Town is just one of several including a Spanish Town and a Dutch Town.

Strange Tales

Sometimes the weirdest thing is the story behind a place.

Orchid Pavilion, Shaoxing

The first odd thing about the Orchid Pavilionisn’t terribly unusual. Chinese history is long and complicated and the original site of the Orchid Pavilion, somewhere around Shaoxing, is not actually known—this is just a tribute.

In the Jin Dynasty-era work “Preface to the Poems Composed at the Orchid Pavilion,” calligrapher Wang Xizhi describes what may be the oldest recorded drinking game wherein Wang and his fellow assembled literati floated cups of liquor down a man-made stream. The player standing nearest where a cup came to rest would have to drink.

Today, Chinese tourists and Jin Dynasty drinking game enthusiasts float plastic cups down a replica of the original waterway. The story of what happened to the text Wang’s “Preface” itself is even more bizarre; see our Orchid Pavilion attraction guide for more.

Milu Park, Beijing

Generally the trafficking of animals into different countries doesn’t go so well. However, it worked out pretty well for the Père David’s deer. French missionary and naturalist Jean Pierre Armand David spied the strange deer on the other side of the massive walls around the the Imperial Hunting Park in Beijing from atop a pile of sand in 1865. Father David (Père David in French) managed to bribe soldiers to get several skeletons and skins and he was eventually able to get live specimens to Europe.

His timing was lucky for the deer; 39 years later, floods damaged the wall and all but 20 escaped (most likely to be eaten) or drowned. Long dead in the wild (estimates range from 200 to 2,000 years), the population of milu in China was reduced again to two after the rest ended up killed during the Boxer Rebellion.

After those two died, the only remaining milu were scattered around Europe. Herbrand Arthur Russell, the 11th Duke of Bedford, succeeded in gathering up many of these animals and running a successful breeding that eventually resulted in the species being reintroduced to the Beijing Milu Park.

Underwater China

Plenty of China’s attractions have been lost in the country’s rapid development. While many of those attractions are now parking lots or high-rises, some can still be visited by travelers intrepid enough to head below the waves.

Lion City, Zhejiang

Named for the nearby Five Lion Mountain once-prosperous Lion City is surprisingly well preserved. Founded over a thousand years ago during the Eastern Han Dynasty, the town is still surrounded by its 2.5-kilometer-long (1.5 mi), 2-meter-high (7 ft) city walls, only broken by the five gates. Despite the rapid development of much of Zhejiang, city’s ancient memorial archways, ancestral temples and temples still stand… under some 30 m (98.4 ft) of water.

In 1959, the city’s 5,371 residents (and even more from the surrounding areas) were relocated and the nearby Xin’an River was dammed and the flooded area became Thousand Island Lake (Qiandao Hu). The city can still be explored along with diving companies like Shanghai’s Big Blue SCUBA Diving.

The Underwater Great Wall

It turns out not even the Great Wall is safe from the effects of dam building. A few hours north of Beijing, the wall is submerged under the waters of the murky Panjiakou Reservoir. The Panjiakou Underwater Great Wall isn’t a dive for just anyone. The waters get very cold and visibility is quite low. But for those ready to dive in, this difficult section of the wall hasn’t seen the light of day since 1977.

Luckily for us chickens, Mathieu Meur put together these amazing photos of the Underwater Great Wall and William from Imagethief made this video of a dive to the Great Wall.

Weird China Attractions No Longer With Us

Alas, some attractions are too weird for the world. But not hunting. The hunting culture has been sustained by elites occasionally in mainland China, but more often outside China. The Adrenalin rush experienced when wearing hunting gears, chasing and aiming AR-10 rifles or bow rifles, cannot be shared, only experienced.

Space Flight Spectacle, Guangzhou

Part science, part science fiction and filled with good intentions, the fabulously named Space Flight Spectacle in Guangzhou was a campy educational theme park where you could learn about space flight out of China. If space didn’t do it for you, you could cool off at the Spectacle’s water park, stroll the manicured gardens where you could find a huge model of a NASA space shuttle or head to the Hall of Volcano and Earthquake where you could experience the the destruction of an ancient Roman city via amusement park ride. Why? Just because.

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Culture

Photo: On the shores of Xinjiang’s Tian Chi

Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhh. Can you feel it? The cool breeze, the sunshine? The old brick walkway under your feet, the grass ambling upwards between the cracks and in between your toes? You must be on the shores of Heavenly Lake, or Tian Chi, breathing deep under the whitewashed clouds and reveling in the beauty of the world. That, people, is the power of Xinjiang’s majestic landscape. Deserts, mountains, lakes, lamb skewers; they have it all. Now, this lake isn’t to be confused with the other Heavenly Lake, the Tian Chi of Jilin. The two lakes are on opposite sides of the country, one hovering near the border of North Korea, and the other (seen above) in far northwest China. Don’t make the mistake of taking a cab across the country, wondering the whole time why it’s taking so goshdarn long to get to a lake 48 km (30 mi) east of Urumqi. It is expensive, and the cab driver will be pissed. Trust me. More after the jump…. The Tian Chi of Xinjiang is fed by snowmelt from the Heavenly Mountains, or Tian Shan, a belt of jagged peaks that stretch north from Urumqi before heading north into Kyrgyzstan. Pine-covered hillsides that rise from the water’s edge reach towards epic, snow-covered peaks that see more than their fair share of snow in the winter, and offer visitors a chance to work their quads as they trudge up the mountainside in the warmer months. If hiking isn’t your thing, rent a horse (for real), and clip-clop your way around the lake. Only an hour and a half outside of the bustling, middle-eastern tinged Urumqi, Tian Chi is a great way to get your nature fix. Things slow down in the winter, tourism wise, but that might all change someday soon—there’s a yurts and cumin-heavy cuisine, and it provides a unique look into the far reaches of China

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Culture

Tibet to reopen to foreigners beginning April 2012

The Tibetan travel permits are currently only being issued to foreign groups of three or more travelers, and every member of the tour group must be either of the same nationality or part of one family. As traveling in Tibet can be an expensive trip (all foreigners are required to travel by private vehicle, with a personal guide/driver), it is common for solo- or duo-travelers to scour message boards for like-minded adventurers from all over the world to cut down the cost of a personal tour guide. This can still be done of course, but for now your travel buddies are limited by country of origin. This nationality/family based limitation is hopefully temporary (as it has been in years past), and as of now the restrictions are due to end 15 April 2012. It is also very possible they will be extended—we’ll be sure to keep this post updated with the most recent information we have.Earlier this winter, the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) was closed to foreign visitors while the province celebrated it’s annual Politically-Sensitive-Anniversaries Holiday*, a yearly vacation from foreigners that is often cloaked in vague, contradictory statements. To my knowledge, this year’s closure was not accompanied by any official explanation or press release from the relevant government organs; the information was disseminated by travel companies who had been instructed not to issue any Tibetan travel permits to foreigners between 20 Feb and 30 Mar 2012. In the last few days, it has been indicated that portions of the province will reopen to foreign guests at the Lhasa and most of the TAR (with the exception of Chamdo prefecture). Since the closure, there has been much speculation on travel forums about whether or not April would actually see the region open to foreign travelers, and the lack of transparent discussion or official announcement about the conditions in Tibet has contributed to the uncertainty. The same uncertainty goes for the Tibetan regions of Sichuan and Qinghai, which have also seen intermittent travel restrictions—regions which, unlike the TAR, don’t require a formal travel permit but have seen both an increased police presence and restrictions on foreign eyeballs—but about which no reliable travel-restriction information is consistently available. More on the current situation in Tibet after the jump…. On travel forums it is not uncommon to see individuals suggesting that the travel restrictions in Tibetan regions of China are not to be taken seriously, and that it is easy to enter and explore closed regions at your leisure. While that may or may not have been true years ago, it is no longer the case and do not imagine that you are somehow sneaky enough to do it. You are not. Entering closed regions as a kind of adventure tourism or amateur activism will only result in serious problems for you, and more importantly, the locals. The last year has seen an alarmingly high number of self-immolations related to the Tibetan unrest (Sichuan and Qinghai, respectively), have been the most volatile, and there have been Labrang Monastery in Gansu. So while the “Tibetan problem” is indeed still a problem, the actual province of Tibet has been comparatively stable and will reopen to tourists in April. Reports indicate that the permit process will begin again on 2 April 2012, which means that the first wide-eyed foreign travelers should be stumbling into Lhasa and beyond the following week. Ctrip will resume tours in Lhasa on 15 April 2012. So most of Tibet will again be the recipient of tourists seeking breathtaking vistas, rugged beauty and a unique, ancient culture. Eastern Tibet will remain off-limits to tourists, and regions of Sichuan and Qinghai continue to be under immense scrutiny and security, so those traveling in any Tibetan area should anticipate roadblocks and security checkpoints. Indeed, there are reports of even locals being turned away from Tongren, making it highly unlikely that any foreigners will be allowed to travel in the region if unrest persists. These sorts of closures cannot be anticipated, and therefore any travel plans should be made with room for flexibility. The Tibetan unrest is an extremely sensitive subject and reports of the situation can conflict wildly. It is important to remember that however you feel—whoever you think will stand on the righteous side of history—exercise your best judgement and travel responsibly. *This holiday has a number of names, including but not limited to: We’re-Out-of-Hotels-Anyway Annual Celebration; Protection-of-Tibetan-Culture-from-Corrupting-Western-Influence Spring Break; Indeterminately-Long-Celebration-of-Politically-Sensitive-Anniversaries-and-Vacation-to-Protect-Tibetan-Culture Long Weekend; There-is-Nothing-Happening-Here Holiday; It’s-Much-Too-Cold-For-Tourism Month-Long Week and more.

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Culture

Escape to Hainan by plane, train, bus or boat

Spring Festival is just around the corner, and from east to west, north to south, folks all over China are checking their calenders and making travel plans. Whether it be to visit the homestead or sink into some body of tropical water, Chinese New Year is a time to get away from the day-to-day, and if you haven’t yet planned your Chinese New Year getaway, there are still great China flight and hotel deals to be had on Ctrip. In the meantime, read on for one China traveler’s tale of a journey south last winter.>>> Hainan Island is one of the cheaper destinations to travel to this Spring Festival, and that’s good news for those of us who want to escape the dreary cold weather that reigns almost everywhere across central and northern China. On my search for China destinations for under RMB 5,000, I found a round-trip flight to Sanya for about RMB 3,500, which made me want to repeat an arduous yet awesome trip I took last winter. Let me paint you a picture of my Sanya vacation last year: It was January 8. Classes had just finished at the University of Science and (lack of) Technology where I worked, and my boyfriend and I figured the coast would be clear to head from Ganzhou to Hainan, since Spring Festival wasn’t until February 23. We were wrong. By the time we got to the Guangzhou train station there were already 5-10 hour long lines and the natives were getting rowdy. It didn’t take long until we reached our queuing limit and gave up on the crammed station.

Picture the “You wanna buy a watch?” trope from movies

Unsure of our next step, we were approached by one of the never-far-away touts who opened his trench coat and pulled out a collection of Hainan brochures. Desperate times called for desperate measures and we followed him to his office to find loads of students and migrant workers in the same situation: ticket-less and desperate. After some hard bargaining, walking away and a dramatic chase scene, we finally got our tickets down to a reasonable price (just RMB 150 each including a 1.5-hour ferry ride from Haian. Of course everyone else paid less, but TIC (This is China). We waited for hours until our overnight bus to Haikou finally arrived. It had three rows of double decker beds which was a relief and things were looking up… until the first stop at the side of the road where dozens more people loaded onto our 50-capacity bus, followed by dozens more at the second stop. Each person claimed a spot on the floor and crammed someone else between their legs, all the while boards were being noisily being hammered into place between the existing rows of beds. I like to think of myself as an adventurous person, enjoying every minute of the freedom traveling gives me, but this was too much for me. With the kung fu movie playing at full blast, various cell phones ringing off the hook, the smell of feet filling the air and too many elbows to the ribs, I had had enough. The tears started rolling down my face, and as soon as I thought things couldn’t get any worse, my a tear shorted out one of my iPod headphones. It was a truly, truly sad moment, and valuable life lesson for me: things can always be worse. Luckily, my better half is more calm and collected than I and after some time, talked me into not getting off the overly crowded bus in the middle of nowhere, in the dark. Not soon enough, our overcrowded bus hit the road again arriving about 10 hours later.

Haikou. Think Chinese Florida.

We arrived at the ferry pier around 4:30am, and made it to Haikou (the capital of Hainan) in just over an hour. I appreciated the pastel colored buildings, palm trees and coconuts, but a cold shower and a bed at the Sanya (cost RMB 200-300; journey time 82 minutes -2 hours). We stayed on the Luhuitou Peninsula between Sanya Bay and Dadonghai Bay at what was then called the Oh Yeah Beach Hostel (USD $8) because of its non-touristy location outside of town which came complete with chickens, building rubble and stray dogs. (We recently visited again and discovered it is now called Lover’s Bay Beach Cafe Hostel and has lost a little of it’s charm, lacking the hammock pictured to the left, but it’s still enjoyable. More options exist next door which look a little more lively.

Sanya

Never have I been so grateful for a beer on the beach (not to mention some great the Vietnamese coffee). Local buses ran into the more happening part of Sanya and at night we tracked down jazz at the Li minority people since the Betel Nut Ethnic Minorities Park was all fake and filled with hordes of other tourists. By the end of the trip we had already forgotten the trials and tribulations of the harrowing journey from the Mainland, but as things came to an end, we did get nervous about the return… Luckily, the way back to the Mainland was MUCH more enjoyable. We took the Coconut Princess cruise ship—a 17-hour boat ride from Sanya to Guangzhou, I highly recommend it. If you get your own room you can avoid being knee-deep in sunflower seed shells on the floor of the dorm rooms (do bring snacks though because the food was gone after the first meal). An alternative route is the train from Sanya to Shanghai which is a mere 37 hours for RMB 500 (hard sleeper). Or of course, you could take a flight from Sanya and cut down your travel time and your funds. But however you get there, and whatever you do, always remember: you’re on vacation. Relax. Enjoy. Treat yourself. And if you find yourself traveling in some harsh conditions, remember, it could always be worse.

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Culture

To be fair, there’s more to Guangzhou than the Canton Fair

It’s that time of year and the Canton Fair is here! And sure, the company’s sending you there to source another shoe supplier, but that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy your Guangzhou trip. When you’re not doing business in Guangzhou, there’s plenty to enjoy along the city’s tree-lined boulevards, from historical sites to delicious Cantonese dining.

Whatever the reason for your trip, don’t forget to plan ahead. Book a cheap Guangzhou flight, pick out the right hotel in Guangzhou and check out what to do when you’re not working the aisles of the China’s biggest trade fair….

Canton Fair

Guangzhou (a.k.a. Canton) has long been a center of China’s trade with the rest of the world. Until the mid-19th century, the Qing Dynasty kept trade with Europe limited not only to the city, but to a single merchant guild referred to by Westerners as “the Cohong.” Even after the Treaty of Nanjing, which ended the Opium Wars and forced China to open additional ports to European trade, old Canton continued to be a key trading hub as one of the five Treaty Ports established by the treaty.

Today, the massive China Import and Export Fair, more commonly known as Canton Fair, occurs twice yearly, in spring and autumn at the Canton Fair Complex. This year marks the 110th Canton Fair, 54 years after the first Canton Fair took place in the spring of 1957 and since then $900 billion has been made in business transactions, according to China Daily. What began as the China Export Commodities Fair, meant to increase sales of Chinese products with the rest of the world, has become the most important trade fair in China. It was the later introduction of an import exhibition that gave the Chinese trade fair its current name.

Cantonese food

Cantonese food is one of the eight main divisions of Chinese food, and one many Westerners are familiar with—the large number of immigrants from Guangdong Province has made Cantonese cuisine one of China’s greatest exports. Though the food shares some similarities with its Americanized counterpart found in restaurants like Panda Express, do not be fooled: it is a whole different beast. A word of warning to travelers with food allergies in China: The cuisine found in Guangdong, as in Hong Kong and many other southern parts of China, commonly contains peanut oil, so watch out. Eating dishes that aren’t fried may be an alternative, but be sure to communicate with your server (try using a card describing your allergy in Chinese or use a helpful smartphone app, like China Menu). Unlike the heavy flavors of northern Chinese food Cantonese cuisine tend to be more subtle. And unlike the spicy fare in Sichuan, the Cantonese prefer to let the main ingredients do the talking, rather than the spices. Dishes are often boiled or stir-fried, and a number of largely sweet sauces accompany many of them. One of the most well-known Cantonese treats is dim sum—a variety of small portioned food, often served via food cart. Good as a snack or for breakfast, lunch or whenever, dim sum stalls can be found in fine restaurants and little corner spots around the city.

What to do in Guangzhou

Once you’ve taken care of business and are ready to relax and enjoy Guangzhou, a city full of culture and history awaits you. So put on your sunglasses, Personalized Sunglasses if you like, and step along. Luckily, the city is Guangzhou tourist spots. To go back to the old days of trade in Guangzhou, head to Shamian Island, where the French and British placed their Treaty Port settlements not far from the old “Thirteen Factories” where they were once forced to trade. The island has gone through a number of renovations, and, with limited traffic, makes for a lovely stroll among the restored colonial buildings including the two main churches, the British Our Lady of Lourdes and the French Christ Church Shamian. North of Shamian Island in Liwan district, the Xiguan Residences tell the Chinese half of the Guangzhou trade story. These homes were built by successful Cantonese merchants during the Qing Dynasty. Scattered about the district and in various states of repair (or disrepair), the courtyard homes are more for the traveler looking to explore a bit. Try walking south from the Metro Line 1 Changshou Lu Station along Baohua Lu.

Traveling farther back in time, you’d be remiss to skip one of the best preserved ancient tombs in China, the Mausoleum of the Nanyue King. This roughly 2,000 year old tomb is accompanied by a museum displaying the artifacts found within, as well as some from another excavation site discovered while building a mall not far away. The king in the tomb ruled over the semi-Sinetic Nanyue Kingdom that stretched across parts of Guangdong, Guangxi and Vietnam, and was considered the first imperial dynasty of Vietnam. The king’s burial suit, made of plates of jade sewn together, is one of the highlights of the museum. While the tomb itself was damaged when the roof partially collapsed and caused flooding in part of the tomb, it’s still in great condition considering its age and the harshness of Guangzhou’s climate. Paintings on the walls are still visible, though faded, and tourists are able to explore the tomb, meant to be the king’s abode in the next life.

Come back to the beginning of the 20th century, and Guangzhou was a hotbed of political activity. The man considered the father of modern China, Sun Yat-sen, was based out of the city during some of his efforts to modernize China. Though he was forced to flee, the Nationalist government under Sun (and later, Chiang Kai-shek), based itself out of Guangzhou as they began the Northern Expedition—an effort to unite a China fractured by areas of control carved out by competing warlords under a single banner. The Sun Yat-sen Memorial was built on the site of the former presidential palace. The beautiful blue-tiled building is worth exploring and periodically features live musical performances in its large auditorium. The memorial is situated in Yuexiu Park, the largest green space in Guangzhou. When you’ve finished touring the memorial, take some time to enjoy a boat ride, hunt for the famous Five Goats statue or check out the ancient Zhenhai Tower. These are just some of the things to do in Guangzhou; visit our Guangzhou travel guide for more!

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Culture

The Mongols: The Ebb and Flow of the Pendulum of Power

Every nation on Earth, at some point or another, considers itself to be the baddest tribe out there. Maybe it’s a new sword technology or a particularly fantastic military victory. A scientific breakthrough might do it. Religious fervor. The emergence of a Great Leader… All you have to do to topple these pretenders from the throne is whisper this name: Genghis.It’s all over. Gold is taken, you’ll have to make do with silver because no tribe can touch the Mongols in terms of pure baddass-izm, breadth of influence, or sudden, brutal impact on world society. The Vikings come close. Alexander had a great run. The US shock and awe campaign, although explosive, lacks true warrior ethos IMHO. And the newest pretender, the PRC, knows better than anyone what the deal is.

It wasn’t just the piles of skulls left in the dust of thousands of horses. Or the vision of Mongol riders leaning down to suck blood from their steeds necks at full gallop. Or the ruthless bloody sieges and catastrophic defeats of the world’s greatest armies. It was what came afterward.

Europe can thank Genghis and his horsemen for the Silk Road caravans rolled from Chang’an to Venice unmolested, transferring fresh blood, ideas and goods across Asia facilitating a rolling golden age that brought China, India, Persia, the Muslim Caliphate and eventually Europe into a new era.

China, a realm constantly shifting between chaos and central control in an unbreakable cycle, was shocked by absolute defeat into unity and went on to build a cohesive nation that has (geographically) changed little since the Ming Dynasty overthrew the last of the Yuan Emperors. The Mongols came like the furious Hand of God and dispatched the tired husks left over from the Chinese, Roman and Persian high points, but not a man, woman or child standing in their way during their initial breakout spoke of anything but demons and death. If they spoke at all.

A Confederation of Tribes

Like most modern terms, “Mongol” fails to adequately describe the nomadic peoples of northeast Asia’s steppes. The Mongols were and continue to be divided into at least six different tribes, split more or less regionally into western, eastern, southern and northern Mongols. The tribes to the west have a closer relationship with the Turkic peoples (such as the Tartar, Uyghur and Tangut), whereas the eastern Mongols dealt more with Jurchens and Manchurians. These relationships have led to lighter-skinned, light-eyed “Yellow Mongols” in the west and darker “Brown Mongols” in the east. The southern Mongols are based around the Ordos Loop of the Yellow River, and have drifted from horses to plows throughout their centuries-long relationship with the Chinese.

The true origin of the Mongol people is lost to history and to Imperial Chinese oversimplification of the “barbarian horsemen” from the west and the north. The Mongols as we envision them were labeled as Xiongnu, Donghu or Xianbei and most likely stemmed from the Khitan.

But history is fluid and it is the Now that counts. Today the tribes of the steppes are known as Mongols, refer to themselves primarily as Mongols and share an identity based on the legendary horsemen of the past. Time honored traditions like good yurt living, wrestling your neighbor, clear brain-freezing liquor, a spirituality that retains both Tibetan Buddhist qualities as well as the ancient Tengris traditions and a reputation for being tough that persists to this day.

The Mongol nation is divided now both regionally, as above, but also politically. The independent nation of Mongolia is the heart of Mongol culture with the Chinese province of Inner Mongolia to the south and the Russian state of Kalmyka as foreign centers of the Mongol peoples. The tribes are scattered across a horizontal band that runs from Korea to the Caspian Sea, but the highest concentration of Mongols anywhere is in China, with roughly 6 million people. In contrast, the nation of Mongolia has a population of just over 2.6 million.

A Buffer

Inner Mongolia, Yinchuan Plain, the Yellow River and eventually the ancient Chinese heartland of Shanxi, Henan and Hebei provinces.

The settled, walled, farming towns of the south encroached ever north, trading cash, women and land in vain attempts to keep peace at the border. The nomads spent half the time fighting amongst themselves and other half raiding into the south for fat city booty.The relationship ebbed and flowed with the balance of power: when China was unified and rich, the land south of the mountains and the Gobi Desert was usually occupied by settlers and soldiers. When China fractured and the tribes united, then settlers were driven off and border towns were put to the sword.

Ruins of the Great Wall drift across the 1.2 million sq km (over 460,000 sq mi) territory of Inner Mongolia, crumbling signs of the pendulum that swung here for centuries. The situation changed most recently in 1947, when Communist forces in the Soviet Union and China cooperated to split and occupy Mongolia, ridding themselves of an independent-minded nation straddling the border and creating a buffer to help stave off possible conflict. Inner Mongolia today is more than 80% Han Chinese, which may include a large number of sinicized Mongols.

Inner Mongolia Today

Inner Mongolia is now one of China’s fastest developing regions and a popular tourist destination for bikers, hikers and campers. The capital, Hohhot, is the primary initial destination for first-timers to the province, but from there trips to the Inner Mongolian Grasslands or Baotou for a look at the Great Khan’s Mausoleum are common ways to get a taste of life in Inner Mongolia. Life is strange out there, in a land of massive, empty cities in the middle of dusty plains and crumbling ruins that see the occasional bike race and herding family. The buffer between the nomads and the cities is still in many ways a no-man’s land where two distinctly different cultures meet, fight, trade and intermarry.

Modern Mongols have moved to Beijing en masse as migrant workers—similar to Anhuifarmers to Shanghai and everyone else to the Pearl River Delta—and those that stay in the border lands alternate between the nomadic traditions of their forefathers and the alluring lifestyle depicted on the television set. For a more in depth look into the complex relationship between the settlers and the nomads, check out Jiang Rong’s novel Wolf Totem.

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Culture

The (Once) Mighty Manchu

Once the Eight Banners of the Manchu military force ruled All Under Heaven. Today only small parts of the northeastern China can still be called “Manchu territory,” and they have largely assimilated and scattered over the last century such that for much of modern China’s history, most Manchu identified themselves as Han Chinese. However, the Manchu minority and its language have been enjoying a bit of popularity recently—Beijing has several schools that teach the language and people with Manchu ancestry are now more willing to claim their identity.

The Manchu—or their relatives the Jurchens—ruled over present day China twice: once in the 12th century as the Jin Dynasty, rivaling the Southern Song Dynasty and eventually succumbing to the Mongols. Then again from the mid-17th to the early 20th century as the Qing Dynasty, the ruling dynasty whose customs and dress foreigners most associate with ancient China.

But like the Mongols who once ruled over most of Asia, the pastoral warriors from the north have receded from world affairs, though the Manchu name still carries much mystique.

Legacy of the Manchu Minority

Much of what we in the West have seen of “ancient China” is actually Manchu. The qípáo or cheongsam, that tight-fitting, revealing-yet-not dress that usually comes in red and gold, is a Manchu idea (Thank you for that one!) and is still the dress of choice for elegant ladies hosting public parties, event hostesses and the girls standing sentinel in front of gaudy restaurants all over China and in many Chinese-speaking areas.

Unlike the qipao, the men’s fashion during the Qing dynasty has fallen out of favor with everyone but old intellectuals, foreigners trying to be “cultured” and tai qi masters in the park. But even so, the long robe with a vest and belt could look pretty cool if you were two of the above three examples. Also the hairstyle many Westerners remember from “old China” photos—the shaved in front, pigtail in the back style—is also no longer à la mode(except for on the occasional baby). This style is mostly associated with the migrant worker known as the “coolie” in the USA and in China—the guy in the old West who had a laundry and noodle shop with friends and relatives working the railroad.

The hútòng , one of the most elegant and beleaguered forms of housing in China today, is also a Manchu idea (Thanks for that one, too!). The hutong is a home with a courtyard, central buildings and two wings enclosed by a wall. In most cities across China, if the old town is still standing, then it is hutong-style. The Eight Banners, the military and political title given to Manchu soldiers, usually lived in hutong complexes such as those in Beijing and Chengdu’s Wide and Narrow Alleys.

Some of the greatest architectural structures still standing in China are Manchu buildings. The Forbidden City, although built by the Ming in the early 1400s, served as the Qing Imperial seat until the fall of the dynasty. The Summer Palace is a typical Qing Dynasty building, with the famous “flying eaves” and decorative flare that also influenced hundreds of Tibetan Buddhist temples and monasteries across China, the Lama Temple in Beijing being the classic example.

Some of China’s most important emperors and intellectuals are also Manchu. Cao Xueqin, the author of A Dream of Red Mansions , one of China’s four great epic novels, was Manchu and some of the most famous imperial names were Manchu Qing Emperors. Most notable among these were Emperors Kangxi, Yongzheng and Qianlong (ruling mid-17th to the mid 18th century), the poet-scholar-kung-fu-master-sages who are considered to be the greatest of the Qing emperors.

And of course, who could forget the Empress Dowager Cixi and her ill-fated successor, the Last Emperor Puyi. The images that have been passed down from that final era of China’s emperors influences the perception people all over the world have of China (until they have actually traveled here of course) and, if one takes the many Qing-era soap operas and films as evidence, this era still has a heavy influence on modern Chinese society.

Manchu People Today

Manchu people make up the third largest ethnic group after the Han and the Zhuang, with a population of approximately 13.3 million. The majority of Manchus live in the far northeast—known as Manchuria—primarily in Liaoning, Jilin and Heilongjiang provinces. There are also several Manchu Autonomous Regions in Hebei, as well as the homeland of the original northern Jurchen tribesman from whom the Manchu stem. The overwhelming consensus is that Manchus have basically “become Han” in the last 100 years as those who were not killed in the fall of the Qing, during the Japanese invasion of their homeland or who went underground out of fear during Kuomintang rule assumed Han identity.

The Chinese Communist Party has taken steps to protect and shelter the Manchus from racist or otherwise hostile sentiments and if the media is taken as a barometer of Party opinion, then Manchu (and imperial identities in general) are not only acceptable but encouraged.

In the 1980s and 90s the number of people who identified themselves as Manchu doubled from four to nine million. This jump is due in large part to Manchus becoming more accepted in the greater society, although skeptics say that benefits allotted to minorities—such as exemption from the one-child policy—have also led to an increase in numbers.

According to the Joshua Project, a Christian-based project that has the admirable side-effect of listing and categorizing the world’s minorities, the Manchu language is all but extinct:

The Manchu language is practically extinct. Various studies have listed ‘less than 20,’ ’70,’ and ‘1,000’ speakers of Manchu remaining among the entire ethnic group. Manchu speakers are located in a few villages in Heilongjiang – Sanjiazi Village in Fuyu County and Dawujia Village in Aihui County. Most of the Manchu speakers use Mandarin as their first language and speak Manchu ‘with a pronounced Chinese accent.’

It is currently “in vogue” for Manchu people to study their own language, part of a Manchu revival (link not accessible within Mainland China without a VPN) instigated primarily by the youth who either emigrated abroad or turned to their past identity as a way of differentiating themselves from the majority.

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Culture

48 hours in Shanghai (Part II) now on YouTube

Hope you enjoyed 48 hours in Shanghai (Part I), last week’s contribution to the Ctrip English YouTube channel. We feel pretty good about the community that is starting to coalesce around these videos, but we still have a very long way to go and every one we finish is a step along that path, so… Feast your eyes here on 48 hours in Shanghai (Part II). This episode has bikes and food and hip hop, as well as a couple of interesting tricks from videographer Stephan Larose that you might want to check out. We’re going to be taking a break from Shanghai after this one to show you some other parts of the country in our upcoming videos (Chengdu hotpot anyone?), but for now sit back and see Shanghai through our eyes, drop a comment or suggestion, insult the host and go ahead and VPN or proxy in China) so you don’t miss the next installment. Here’s a taste of what’s coming up…

Everyone begins with breakfast

The video starts with that most important of decisions: how shall we break the fast? Ham and eggs at a place like Element Fresh? Or deep fried dough strips and sweet, hot soy milk off the street? If only we could have two mornings… or perhaps soy milk in the wee hours and bacon for elevenses… Mmmmm my tiny brain frizzles and my little heart flutters at thoughts of a day full of fast breaks. I have to elaborate here a little because for anyone living, or traveling in China—be it a newcomer walking by the crumbling ruins for the first time, professionals capturing places they love before they fall under the hammer or an old timer lamenting funk streets—the real crush and blow of Progress is something that will be encountered here, the country of perpetual development. Architects move to China because this is where the work is, where buildings rise and fall daily. The first minute of our video tries to show this environment and its impact on casual, day-to-day living—it’s as common to sit in a shiny new glass and steel building beside tennis courts eating bacon and eggs as it is to walk across bricks and bent rebar to grab some hot soy milk. This is normality and for many Westerners, it is exactly what draws them to somewhere like Shanghai in the first place. The feel and mood of each video so far has changed with each different subject: In Shanghai Parks we showed you one of the wells from which Chinese society draws its strength, whereas Shanghai Seafood Extravaganza was just a lot of early morning fun with fishmongers (followed of course by good eats at Goga!). But what we are trying to engender with each video is the idea that all of this is normal, no matter how different and alien it might seem; all of the slices of life we portray are things we ourselves live through. It’s all real… basically,what I’m saying is, people all over the world put their pants on one leg at a time, no matter how different things might seem.

Shoppers and MCs

In the opening credits of the video, we talk about Shanghai as a “glitzy metropolis full of young hustlers on the quest for good times and great opportunities” and that is definitely a part of the whole. The city’s overall vibe for the newcomer is often one of business and pleasure and high-class luncheons, followed by wine on the Bund (or diamonds and models in our case). Shanghai really wants to be a party capital as well as a financial one and that desire is palpable—in the clubs, the bars, the streets, the cafe and especially the shopping centers. We elected to show you Yuyuan Gardens (a classical Chinese garden, now a key tourist site surrounded by shops and a carnival of color known as the Yuyuan Market) and the Qipu Lu Bazaar, a sprawling shopping complex that focuses on clothing and accessories. Any city with that kind of culture will have a hip hop temple somewhere, and Shanghai is no different. We hooked up with local emissary, producer and promoter Showtime who showed us around for the rest of the night. First to an invite only Nike-sponsored hip hop event and then to the raucous Iron Mike MC battle at the D10 club. It was a lot of fun and we hope you like what you see. If you do (or don’t) feel free to drop your thoughts onto this post or at the Ctrip English YouTube channel. We’d love to hear from you. You can check out the videos below (you’ll need that VPN if you’re in China!)

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Culture

China’s sexiest stays: Check-in at China’s top 10 romantic hotels (pt. 1)

you don’t immediately think “romance”. But a trip to the Great Wall needn’t be all bustling crowds, tour guides and cheap souvenirs. There’s gasp-inducing scenery, amazing dining and wonderful authentic culture to take in here as well, both in China’s great modern cities and off the beaten path. And near China’s most romantic destinations, there are always sublime suites or a romantic relais nearby just waiting to be discovered. These can be difficult to find given the cacophony of noise and information blaring from China’s rapidly rising mega-cities and the hotels proliferating among them, so we’ve taken the time to sift the rough and come up with a few diamonds. To create this list, we’ve gone over a year of hotel reviews on ChinaTravel.net and other sites, looked at hotel and travel awards lists and spoken to everyone from corporate public relations heads to the heads of family-run establishments. This list represents an exceptional group; hotels aren’t ranked from best to worst—they are one and all standout properties where you’ll find exceptional service, attention to detail, romantic atmospheres and indulgences, great creature comforts and amenities, as well as something unique in China. From sophisticated urban pieds-à-terresensibilities to secluded cultural retreats, these hot China hotels are sure to fan the flames of romance with experiences best shared a deux:

The Dali valley, Yunnan:

Owners/operators of TripAdvisor’s best China hotel 2010, the Linden family spent two years searching for the appropriate historical complex in which to house their hotel, and settled on the nationally-protected Yang family complex. The romance of the Linden Centre lies not only in the lovingly-preserved architecture, beautiful surrounds and year-long spring-like weather. This is a place where you can be immersed in the local culture like nowhere else in China and couples can go out to the morning markets, into the fields to pick local produce, or enjoy late afternoon horse cart rides to the lake shore for wine and cheese. Read more about the Linden CentreDali valley, Yunnan.

Guilin, Guangxi:

If you are looking for stunning scenery and something original look no further. Design pervades the HOMA Chateau inside and out, and offers a continuous visual journey in a stimulating, though tranquil setting. Situated in the Yuzi Paradise Art Park, an enormous sculpture park set among verdant hills, you can spend days appreciating the park’s displays and exploring the region’s photogenic karst tower and cave formations. The Chateau is within day-trip range of most of Guilin’s top attractions, but between individually designed rooms, a world-class Thai/acupressure spa with special treatments for two, art lessons, cycling, yoga, tai chi and al fresco dining in situ, there may never be reason to leave the premises.Read more about the HOMA Chateau, Guilin.

Lhasa, Tibet:

2011 is all about Tibet and it is hot, hot, hot, having been named one of the hottest travel destinations of 2011 by both Travel + Leisure magazine and Kiwi Collections. It’s no wonder why, with its majestic top-of-the-world scenery, beautiful Tibetan culture and quiet seclusion, it is ideal for romantic getaways—a House of Shambhala specialty. Nestled in the maze of alleyways east of the Barkor, all nine uniquely-designed rooms in this delightful boutique guesthouse aspire to Lhasa luxury and exude the romance of a by-gone era. Here you’ll spend hours of languor enjoying Tibetan Tantric Spa treatments, and feasting your eyes on fabulous views over the Potala Palace; a fine locally-produced organic wine in hand… Read more about the House of Shambhala, Lhasa.

St. Regis Lhasa Resort, Tibet:

While lovers of boutique modesty and cultural authenticity will flock to the House of Shambhala, fans of great service and unparalleled luxury will want to check out St. Regis brand’s (famed for it’s top luxury property in New York) newest Lhasa location. For those who want to mix Lhasa’s rugged beauty with 5-star refinement, this is the place to go. Here you’ll enjoy signature St. Regis Butler Service, world class restaurants to please any epicurean taste, a long list of fine wines and access to the hotel’s expansive Iridium Spa, where you can experience “mystical Tibetan wellness” in their ornate gold-tiled pool. Read more about the St. Regis Lhasa Resort.

The Shangri-La:

Does any place fire the imagination more than Shangri-La? With its lush valleys, tempestuous rivers and jagged peaks, it’s a place that brings the fervor of mother nature’s creation vividly to life. That’s exactly what Banyan Tree wanted to share when they set up in China’s most alluring, mysterious locale—and that’s just what you’ll get. With a limited number of rustic log-house suites and villas you’ll enjoy plenty of privacy and comfort for those times alone, but once out-of-doors it’s not just the award-winning Banyan Tree Spa you’ll love, but the opportunity to explore the exotic, forlorn beauty of the area’s mountain lakes, rhododendron-carpeted forests, hot springs, gorges and karst terraces by way of pony trek, nature walk and botanical exploration. Read more about the Banyan Tree Ringha, Shangri-La.Continue to part 2 of China’s sexiest stays: Check-in at China’s top 10 romantic hotels

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Culture

Xiamen’s Gulangyu Islet: In a quiet car-free haven, cafe culture thrives alongside Fujianese seafood stalls

China, famed for its intricate teahouse culture, is fast developing its own coffee culture. Far beyond the doors of mass-markete Starbucks and Costa outlets in the big cities, China’s new generation of coffee lovers is giving rise to countless small cafes where you can relax over a perfectly brewed cup of cappuccino and an exquisite slice of cheese cake. Xiamen’s Gulangyu is a car-free island where “Sino-Mediterranean” villas, townhouses and gardens dating from the days of colonial-era European concessions line narrow twisting lanes. A perfect break from the hectic traffic-jammed frenzy of China’s big-city streets, Gulangyu has the feel of a laid-back art colony outpost where bed & breakfasts, mom & pop seafood restaurants and, of course, great little coffee shops make for hours of pleasant exploration.

Spend a few moments with the slideshow above for a taste of Gulangyu’s charm and click through the jump below for more on the island’s cafes, including two that come highly recommended based on our family trip over Christmas. We spent the better part of two days wandering about Gulangyu and barely scratched the surface. It seemed that around every corner (and there are a lot of crazy corners in the town’s labyrinthine street layout) another little cafe or seafood joint presented itself, and they all looked good. We were quite busy keeping up with our two-year-old daughter, who made the most of the street’s lack of cars (and scooters and bicycles and all other wheeled vehicles aside from pushcarts) to exhaust herself–and us–by exploring every nook & cranny at high speed (before crashing and burning in an epic episode of overtired-toddler tantrum-throwing).

When we could get the girl to finally slow down (or fall asleep), we managed to hit a few spots. Here are two that come highly recommended:

We pulled into Cantone hungry, tired and a bit cold after a morning of exploring on Christmas Day. We ordered cappuccinos and cheese cake. Then we waited… and waited. The wait was pleasant enough, sitting in one of the clean, simply decorated but artsy space inside an old Gulangyu townhouse. The staff were pleasant, and it’s not surprising to learn that Cantone is a labor of love shared by friends from Guangzhou with a passion for music, art and coffee. Our order arrived just after our daughter fell asleep in her stroller and we were in heaven. The best cappuccino we’ve had in five years in China, and pretty close to the best we’ve ever had. A thick foamy head led to a beautifully balanced cup. Strong but silky smooth. The cheesecake was just as good. Often, Chinese desserts are too sweet and airy for Western palates, but this dense slab of New York-style cheesecake was spot on.

When we first passed the entrance of the Yangtao Hotel and caught a glimpse of its courtyard cafe, we knew we’d wind up there. Sure enough, after a few hours of toddler-driven tourism, we found our way back to this hilltop retreat not far from the Xiamen Piano Museum. With our darling little tsunami of youthful energy finally sleeping (again) in her stroller, we sat down ready for something to calm the nerves. We opted to forgo caffeine this time, ordering a beautiful candle-warmed glass carafe of flower tea to go with a steady stream of well-made sandwiches, served in bite-sized sections (I have a big mouth; others might need two or even three bites). Try the club. Next time we visit Gulangyu, we’ll might just stay at the Yangtao Hotel, though there are so many great little places to stay on the island it’s hard to say.