Travel and Dining

Short-Stay Trips to China

The night scene in Beijing on Sept. 22 before the grand celebrations on Tiananmen Square to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China. (Photo: Feng Li-Getty Images)

A short-stay trip anywhere is not long enough to allow you to see everything that you would like to, and it's definitely not long enough to get the true feel of a country, but with the limitations afforded by holiday periods, cost, and simply not wanting to spend too long away from home, short-stay breaks can provide an excellent vacation.

My aim here is to use one of the many short-stay tours to China available to highlight how a short-stay break can encompass some great sightseeing, while also allowing you to involve yourself in the culture and atmosphere of the place. This creates a very well-rounded trip, one that lets you sample many different aspects of wherever you're visiting.

The best-known and most popular attractions in China are probably the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, the Terracotta Warriors, and Tiananmen Square. Luckily, these are all within Beijing and Xian, or easily reachable from them, and short-stay trips to Beijing and Xian in one package are commonplace.

Within Beijing itself, the arrival destination in most of these tours, the first port of call, is likely to be Tiananmen Square. Holding the gateway to the Forbidden City, as well as Chairman Mao's mausoleum, and having a rich, often violent, history, Tiananmen Square is an icon for China. The setting for one of the most famous pictures in the world, this enormous, flat expanse of cement is a must-visit. It is too ingrained with China’s past to consider avoiding.

Standing in the midst of it, surrounded by other tourists, it's easy to forget the various protests and military displays that have taken place there. Invading armies have even set up camps there. Being able to say that you have trodden the same ground as the Chinese military and countless pro-democracy protestors is something to be proud of.

Mao's mausoleum itself is incredible. It is one of only two breaks in the flatness of the square (the other being the Monument to the People's Heroes) and is built over the site of the ancient Gate of China. Queues form daily to pay tribute to the embalmed corpse of the communist leader, lining up to peer through the quartz crystal coffin that houses the body, which is based on the coffin made by the U.S.S.R. for Lenin's corpse. There is no denying that to British tourists it can be an eerie experience. We haven’t experience anywhere near the cult of personality that accompanied Mao’s leadership, but this is half the reason it is so fascinating.

Tiananmen Square, though, even with its grand mausoleum, monument and size, cannot match the majesty of the Forbidden City. Initially constructed toward the beginning of the 15th century, it acted as the seat of power for both the Ming and Qing dynasties.

When the Republic of China gained control, the Palace Museum was set up within the Forbidden City and is now responsible for the entirety of it. Building on the wealth of art and artefacts already located in the palace from the Ming and Qing dynasties, the Palace Museum has continued to acquire exhibits as well as preserve the ancient wooden buildings themselves, listed as a World Heritage Site.

The Forbidden Palace's architecture alone is beautiful and staggering, but when combined with the museum aspect, it really is unmissable. Hours must be given to exploring this place. The more time you put in, the more gratifying you will find the experience. A vacation solely to the Forbidden Palace would not be a waste.

With all this located within the city itself, it may be tempting to write off stepping foot outside it during your stay and devoting your time to exploring all that you can of Beijing and its wonders. To do so would be a terrible mistake, as within easy reach of the city is one of the ancient world's greatest accomplishments.

The Great Wall of China needs no introduction. Walks along sections of the wall are available, and large sections of the wall around Beijing have been restored. What this means for you is that you can see one of the most amazing constructions that humans have created in its original glory. Standing on the wall and watching it snake into the distance, climbing up and down the slopes both in front and behind you, is incredible. China is incredibly lucky to have another site that is so ingrained in the minds of people worldwide.

We've described four major tourist attractions, three of which are among the best known and most visited attractions in the world, and we haven't even ventured out of Beijing yet. The second leg of your short-stay trip will take you to Xian, and the most remarkable feature of Xian is undoubtedly its collection of Terracotta Warriors.

The Terracotta army is almost too much to believe. Dating from 210 BC, and estimated to number at over 8,000 soldiers, 670 horses and 130 chariots, most of which remain to be excavated, the creation of these life-size, life-like figures must have been an astounding undertaking.

To look upon the rows and rows of figures, stretching away from you, and arranged as they were buried, in full military order, is awe-inspiring. Considering the period when this occurred makes it all the more impressive, and to then remind yourself that these were created for one man, and above all to be buried with that man, staggers the mind.

Your trip does not end there, though, as this list is not all that it encompasses. Even on a short-stay trip to just Beijing and Xian you will see other remarkable sights—the Summer Palace and Great Mosque, for instance, or the Ming Tombs and the Sacred Way, not to mention the rich and vibrant culture you'll be exposed to at every turn. There are numerous options to take advantage of, so bear these possibilities in mind when considering your next week off.