This was my first time visiting China. I made stops in Shanghai and Beijing and a quick day trip to Shenzhen. I did not anticipate enjoying certain aspects from what I had heard and read about the country before. Most of it had to do with widespread pollution, lack of manners (public burping, spitting, cutting in lines), and massive crowds - all of which I did experience first hand. I did get to see important historical sights and finally had really good Chinese food.
The Great Wall in Beijing was the highlight of the trip. There are 3 entrances that are the most popular: (1) Badaling which is the most crowded as it is flat and the has the most restored path, (2) Jiankou which is more wild with mostly an unrestored path and good for someone looking for a hike but dangerous during unfavorable weather (there are many other similar entrances), (3) Mutianyu which is both restored and unrestored and is steep. I took the Mutianyu path as it came highly recommended to me and I would recommend it to others. It was not crowded, the views were astounding, and I was able to reach the peak of the Wall on this path. To get to the peak, you have to jump over the end of the unrestored section and climb up to the beginning of the unrestored part. So needless to say, you must be somewhat fit. On the Mutianyu path, you also have the choice of taking a Toboggan down - I did not partake.
A trip to Beijing is not complete without a visit to the historic Forbidden City. There is a difference between seeing the area at night (when everything lights up) versus the day. The lights at night make it seem commercial and flashy. I preferred seeing it during the day where you can see everything through the haze of the city. Standing in the middle of Tiananmen Square, you of course cannot help but think about what took place in 1989. Most people think about the unknown "Tank Man" who bravely stood in front of a line of tanks. Unfortunately, the Chinese government has censored much information from the massacre of pro-democratic protestors during the events of this time.
Shanghai is a new, sparkly city built on top of an old, and run-down one. It has gentrified and westernized itself greatly. However, I did come across the older and more poor part of the city as I walked from the upscale downtown area to the Jade Buddha Temple. I found locals selling street food and many local shops specializing in different industries. I found everything from cheap Xiao Long Bao to bubble tea along this path. Randomly, I also came across a furniture gallery/store/museum called the Design Republic. It impressively displays modern Chinese designs along with other contemporary designers like Denamark's HAY. This is its only location and occupies an old fire station. There is an equally hip and modern brunch restaurant connected to it.
Now to go back to the Jade Buddha Temple - it was a very nice temple. What it is known for is a Buddha statue made entirely of Jade, which cannot be photographed and is housed in its own building on an upstairs floor. What I found odd about the temple and other temples I encountered in China were that an admission fee is required and gift shops are located inside temples. Both are uncommon in my experiences visiting temples all over the world.
Shenzhen is not a major tourist destination. But it's one of the largest cities in China other than Shanghai and Beijing. Many of the worlds' retailers' factories are lcoated in Shenzhen so you will find an infamouse black market here. This is also where I had my favorite authentic, Chinese meal...