A Tour of China's Cities

Chongqing: China's gateway to the west. (Daniel Sanderson/Flickr)

China is a country of immense variety in its terrain and geography, but the story of modern China is often told through its cities. According to Public Radio International, for the past two decades China has built twenty new cities each year. These urban centers draw people from China’s countryside and from around the world to take advantage of new economic opportunities. Click on any city on the map and start your trip around fifteen of China's most important cities.

China map


Harbin: Next Stop, Ice City!

The northern city of Harbin grew as a railway town when the Russians linked their western outpost, Vladivostok, to the city of Dalian in China. More than 100 years later, this industrial city in northeast China is known for its beauty. Visitors can walk the cobblestone streets and enjoy the elegant spires and cupolas of Orthodox churches and other buildings constructed by the many Russians who settled in Harbin after fleeing the civil war of 1918. Just outside the city, magnificent Manchurian tigers are on view at the nearby Siberian Tiger Park conservation and breeding center. 

Visitors and locals alike cheerfully brave Harbin’s long and cold winters to see the world-famous Ice Lantern Festival. Teams from all over the globe come to recreate architectural wonders or themes from history and fairy tales—all in ice and many several stories tall. At night, the sculptures are illuminated with (some say beautiful, others say gaudy) colored lights. Back to map

Beijing: On Top of the World
Beijing was born to be a world capital.  After being burned to the ground by Chingghis Khan in 1215 CE, Beijing was built anew as the capital of the vast Mongol Empire under Chingghis’ grandson, Kubilai.

Today, Beijing is the capital of China.  It is home to top universities, numerous museums, and national treasures such as the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven, and the Summer Palace.  Many fear, however, that Beijing’s most distinctive treasures, like the winding hutong alleyways, are being lost to progress.  Lined with noodle stands, markets, and doorways to private courtyards, hutong ring with the sound of the distinctive Beijing accent known for ending words with an "r”-sound.  It used to be said that in Beijing, the hutong were more numerous than the hairs on an ox.  Today, though, most have been razed.

In their place, world-class architecture such as Herzon and de Meuron’s Beijing National Stadium, the seat of the 2008 Olympic Games, has arisen.  Beijing worked hard to win the Olympics and Beijingers look forward to 2010 as the year when their city will be on top of the world. Back to map

Xi'an: Buried in the Heart of China
One could easily say the heart of China is buried in Xi’an. The countryside around the city holds treasures from China’s Neolithic beginnings and from some of its greatest empires.  For over 2,200 years almost nine thousand terracotta troops have stood guard over the elaborate tomb of China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang.  The army was first discovered by farmers in 1974, opening a great treasure to the world. Excavation of the elaborate tomb, said to have been built by the labors of 700,000 people, is still continuing.  The great Chinese historian, Sima Qian, writing 100 years after the tomb’s construction, told of rivers of mercury and ceilings dotted with constellations of gems. 

During the Tang dynasty (618-907 CE), the network of trade routes now called the Silk Roads linked Xi’an to South and Central Asia as well as Europe.  With over a million inhabitants, Xi’an was the world’s most populous city.  It boasted goods, fashions, and music from the world over and was home to diverse religions such as Buddhism, Nestorian Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.  Visitors today can see numerous Buddhist temples, such as the Big Goose Pagoda, built in 652 CE. Islam arrived via the Silk Roads and today Xi’an is home to one of China’s largest mosques. Back to map

Wuhan: Three Bridges and a City

Straddling the juncture of the Yangzi and Han rivers, Wuhan is actually a marriage of three towns—Wuchang, Hankou, and Hanyang.  Three bridges cross the rivers and unify the towns into the largest city in central China.  River traffic and tourism are staples of Wuhan’s economy and will only grow with the completion of the Three Gorges Dam.

In Wuhan, people admire the tall and graceful form of the Yellow Crane Tower, originally constructed around 220 CE, and rebuilt in 1981.  In summer, they strive to beat the heat, perhaps diving into the small street restaurants to enjoy the local specialty regan mian, “hot and dry noodles.”  Wuhan is considered the hottest of the sanlu or “three furnaces” of China, the other two being Chongqing and Nanjing.  The humidity pushes down while the temperature soars to 104°F in summer.  

While Wuhan further up the Yangzi River is considered the hottest of the sanlu or “three furnaces” of China, it is Nanjing that has the reputation for boiling over.  In the fourteenth century, a peasant named Zhu Yuanzhang led a rebellion that toppled the Mongol Yuan dynasty (1279-1368).  He established Nanjing (literally “Southern Capital”) as the seat of the Ming dynasty. Back to map

Nanjing: A Pressure Cooker
In the nineteenth century, the Taiping Rebellion took control over southern China and established their capital in Nanjing. And China and Japan still spar over acknowledgement of Japan’s massacre of over 300,000 residents of the city during World War II.  The wounds still feel fresh at the city’s Memorial of the Nanjing Massacre.

Despite its tragic past, Nanjing today is a beautiful and welcoming city.  One of the many pleasures it offers is a chance to see its city walls. While modernization and development have demolished the defensive walls of other cities across China, Nanjing’s tall, thick stone walls and gates are still a living part of the city’s history. Back to map

Shanghai Superstar
Shanghai is located on China’s eastern seaboard, where the Yangzi River meets the Pacific.  This important juncture has made Shanghai the busiest port on the planet.  With the completion of the Three Gorges Dam opening the Yangzi’s 3,700 miles to heavy barges, Shanghai will become the true gateway between central China and the rest of the world.  As the city continues to grow, officials aim to make it China’s “green capital” with parks and other quality of life projects.

Shanghai is called the “Head of the Dragon” for good reason. At the forefront of China’s commerce, finance, art, and fashion, it is also home to 10 million people, making it China’s second most populous city. Back to map

Fuzhou: City of the Future
Fuzhou was the launching point for the seven voyages of the navy of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644 CE).  These were led by one of China’s most famous adventurers, Zheng He.  Between the years of 1405 and 1433 CE, Zheng He led several hundred ships to India, Sri Lanka, Kenya, and Arabia.

Fuzhou has also long been called Rong Cheng, “the city of Banyan,” for the many large trees with an exposed lattice of roots. Just outside of the city is the famous Gu Shan, “Drum Hill.”  Rising above the Min River, Gu Shan is topped with a rock that is said to throb like a drum during storms.  With hot springs and thousand year old Yongguan Si Buddhist monastery, Fuzhou boasts riches from nature as well as from history. Back to map

Hong Kong: Rising from the Water
Only two hundred years ago, no one would have bet that a few steep mountains jutting out of the South China Sea would become a powerhouse economic force. China ceded Hong Kong to Britain in 1843 after the Opium Wars and the British established a port for trade there. With the closure of China during the decades after the establishment of Communist Rule in China in 1949, Hong Kong’s population and business community swelled with people and corporations fleeing China. Over the next decades, Hong Kong grew like gangbusters and was even referred to (along with Singapore, Taiwan, and South Korea) as one of the Four Asian Tigers.

Hong Kong was returned to China in 1997, but still has a certain degree of autonomy in local affairs. Today, its graceful green peaks are still frequently cloaked in fog, but the lowlands are often marred by smog wafting over from the industrial mainland. Hong Kong harbor is constantly morphing as land is filled into the harbor so skyscrapers can rise. The shiny new Hong Kong International Airport has been built on landfill on Lantau Island. Connected to the city by a high-speed train, it has wide runways that can handle sixty airplanes an hour. This smooth efficiency replaces the nerve-wracking landing between peaks on the old Kai Tak Airport’s lone runway. As the city grows into its new role as an extension of south China, Hong Kong will continue to enjoy a smooth ascent as an international center, proving that geography is not always destiny. Back to map

Hainan: Flight to Paradise
Imagine being punished by paradise.  Throughout Chinese history, outspoken politicians and thinkers were exiled to the island of Hainan just off the southern coast of mainland China.  The most famous exile was Su Dongpo, the eleventh century poet, painter, and statesman.  Of course, despite the natural beauty of the island, exiles had to endure the monsoon season and the lack of creature comforts such as fruit buffets and golf courses.

Today, Hainan has flourished into a destination for tourists, who flock to enjoy the sweet fruits, warm weather, lush forests, clear air, and pristine beaches.  A new rail and ferry link to Guangzhou will make it convenient for even more tourists impose upon themselves a voluntary exile, now known as a vacation, in Hainan. Back to map

Guangzhou: Look to the Money
This port at the mouth of the Pearl River has always been a lively center of trade and internationalism.  Set apart by both its southern location as well as its distinctive Cantonese dialect, Guangzhou has a reputation for self-sufficiency. 

It is from Guangzhou, and the surrounding province of Guandong, that many Chinese people emigrated to other countries in Asia as well as to Australia, the United States and Canada. Its proximity to Hong Kong has made it a center of manufacturing and a magnet for investment.  While Guangzhou’s metropolitan population ranks third in China, its per capita wealth leads the nation. Back to map

Changsha: Springboard to Fame
Changsha has launched many to fame.  Lady Dai was catapulted to international recognition in the 1970s when her Han dynasty tomb at Mawangdui in Changsha was discovered.  The tomb not only yielded Lady Dai’s 2,200 year-old mummy, but also a silk banner depicting Lady Dai and her journey to the netherworld.  The Mawangdui banner is one of the most beautiful and well-known examples of Han dynasty painting.  Both mummy and banner are on view at the Hunan Provincial Museum in Changsha.

In this century, Changsha saw the start of the political career of Mao Zedong, the communist founder of the People’s Republic of China.  The young Mao was born in a town 80 miles outside of Changsha and came to the city for his formative school years.  Most recently, Changsha has become a center for television stations and programming.  The most popular show in China, “Super Voice Girl,” in which fans vote for their favorite female crooner, is produced in Changsha.  The city has become a popular weekend destination, known for its lively theater and entertainment.  Perhaps it is not surprising: during the Warring States period (fifth to third centuries BCE) Changsha was in the state of Chu.  Relics and legends from this period extol the people of Chu for their appreciation of lyric beauty, whether in poetry, song, or the arts.  Perhaps this explains Mao Zedong’s considerable talent for writing classical poetry and calligraphy.  From the Mawangdui banner, to Mao, to the modern day songstresses, Changsha has a touch for fame. Back to map

Chongqing: Gateway to the West
Chongqing is hot.  Not only is this city in the southwest province of Sichuan one of China’s famous sanlu (“three furnaces”), it is also a thriving industrial center, rich in minerals and natural gas fields.  While it opened to international trade in 1890, the treacherous 1,400 mile trip up the Yangzi kept it relatively isolated.  Now, foggy and mountainous Chongqing is China’s most populous municipality with over 30 million registered residents.  Located in the western province of Sichuan, it is behind the reservoir created by the huge Three Gorges Dam and will be newly accessible by ocean-going vessels.  The Chinese government is investing heavily in Chongqing’s development, hoping that this interior municipality will truly be the Gateway to the West.

Of course, there is a price to pay for progress: Chongqing has long been the jumping-off point for the three-day ship cruises that would take tourists downriver through the Yangzi’s spectacular Three Gorges.  The steep cliffs, villages, and archaeological sites are being submerged as the water in the reservoir fills behind the dam.  Entire towns are being moved up hillsides and over a million people are being forced to move.  The fresh water dolphin, the Yangzi River baiji, succumbed to the pressures of progress and was declared extinct in 2006. Back to map

Chengdu: Savoring Life by the Cup

The teahouses of Chengdu embody the good life. Locals relax at establishments such as the century-old People’s Park Teahouse in downtown. Over tea they watch an opera performance, play Chinese chess, mahjong, discuss current events, conduct business, or just gossip. They can unwind with a traditional ear-cleaning, done with narrow metal files and tongs, small bamboo scrapers, and feathers.

Surrounded by a fertile plain known as the “Land of Abundance,” Chengdu is the capital of Sichuan province in southwest China. Sichuan is known as one of the important birthplaces of tea cultivation and appreciation. While the frantic pace of life in other Chinese cities has resulted in the loss of local culture, Chengdu’s vibrant teahouse culture continues to thrive. Is tea a luxury easily supported by rising incomes? Or does Chengdu’s lack of sunshine spur people indoors (and the caffeine provides a shot of stimulation!)? Whatever the reason, Chengdu is dotted with thousands of tea houses and the saying goes: “Tea houses in Sichuan rank first in the world; tea houses in Chengdu rank first in Sichuan.” Back to map

Yumen: On the Frontier
Yumen Guan (or “Jade Gate”) is a narrow, rocky pass that marks the traditional frontier of China.  Located in northwest Gansu province, the Hexi Corridor would funnel travelers up 600 miles to pass, which marked the last outpost before leaving traditional China and entering the desert.  One such traveler was the Tang dynasty century monk and scholar, Xuanzang, who walked from China’s capital Xi’an, to India.  On the return trip he brought many Buddhist scrolls and texts that vitalized Buddhism in China.

Before arriving at the Yumen Guan, travelers would stop at the Mogao Buddhist cave temples near the town of  Dunhuang.  The first cave temple was carved in 366 CE and over the next four centuries it grew to a complex of hundreds of temples, many with flowing, colorful murals depicting scenes of the life of the Buddha or of paradises.  Travelers would make offerings before setting out on the dangerous Silk Roads, and would give thanks at the caves upon their safe return. Back to map

Urumqi: Landlocked
You won’t see a surfboard in Urumqi.  In all the world, it is located farthest from a coastline.  Urumqi is the capital of China’s western province of  Xinjiang and is located to the northeast of the Taklamakan Desert. One of the harshest desert environments on the planet, the name Taklamakan translates roughly to "Go-in-and-don’t-come-out.” 

While 80% of Urumqi’s population is Han Chinese, this is a rather recent development that was engineered by China’s government.  The biggest majority group in Urumqi, and in Xinjiang, are the Uighers.  These Turkic-speaking people practice Islam and chafe under Chinese rule.

While Urumqi itself has few charms and sights, visitors can savor kebabs, noodles with mutton, flat pancakes of nan bread, and the ever-present watermelons, while plotting their next jump to Xinjiang’s natural and man-made wonders.  In the mountains close by, Kazakh nomads live in yurts by the crystal blue waters of Heaven Lake.  The charming town of Turfan is famous for its grape-vine shaded streets, the Flaming Mountains that turn red at sunset and the Bezelik Buddhist cave temples, that were built in the heyday of the network of trade routes known as the Silk Roads. Back to map

Author: Heather Clydesdale