Travel notes: The Chinese yuan travel guide
China is finally making some moves with the yuan. Heck, even United States President Barack Obama is happy. But the yuan isn't just good for purchasing things; the current fifth series Renminbi notes are also an awesome ready-made travel itinerary.
Depicted on the notes are six destinations Chinese authorities have deemed worthy of mass circulation, ranging from UNESCO-inscribed iconic architecture to the most stunning natural landscapes. Visit them all on a quirky, once-in-a-lifetime quest, literally following the money through the Middle Kingdom.
What’s depicted on the yuan: One of the famous “Ten Scenes of West Lake” (西湖十景) in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province. Referred to as the “Three Ponds Mirroring the Moon” (三潭印月), these two-meter high stone pagodas are located in the water on the south side of Xiaoying Island.
Why go: Summer is always a great time to go boating on the lake, but autumn is magical. A candle is lit inside each pagoda on the night of the mid-Autumn festival, allowing shafts of light to shine through five round holes on the bottom levels of each one. They cast reflections on the water’s surface that resemble little moons. It’s an absolutely stunning effect, especially with the moon glowing overhead.
Getting there: On a West Lake boat trip. Cruise boats shuttle frequently around the main spots on the lake, including Xiaoying Island. A more expensive option is to get onboard a six-person boat rowed by boatmen; look for them along the causeways.
What’s depicted on the yuan: A gorgeous view of Mount Tai (泰山) in the heart of Shandong province.
Why go: A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1987, a place of religious worship for over 3,000 years, and one of China’s “Five Sacred Taoist Mountains,” it has been scaled by everyone from Confucius to Mao Zedong. While it’s not the most gigantic mountain, measuring 1,532 meters at the Jade Emperor Peak, its historical, cultural and religious significance continues to pull in the visitors. Join the millions who make the pilgrimage to the goddess Bixia’s temple each year to ask for her blessings. It can’t hurt.
Getting there: The mountain is located north of the city of Tai’an, the jumping-off point for your trek. The main pedestrian route up is the Central Route, where it’s 7.5km from base to summit and almost 7,000 steps to the top, taking around four hours for the average climber. If walking is a problem, there’s also a minibus that goes halfway up the mountain (to the Midway Gate to Heaven), and from there, a cable car takes you up to Moon View Peak.
What’s depicted on the yuan: Qutang Gorge (瞿塘峡), the shortest yet most spectacular of the Three Gorges. Located in Fengjie county, Chongqing province.
Why go: With so much media attention focused on the namesake dam, we sometimes forget that the Three Gorges, rising high above the mighty Yangzi, rank among China’s most beautiful natural marvels. The vast chasms of rock are spectacularly breathtaking, especially Qutang Gorge, the first of the three gorges (the others being Wu and Xiling). Only eight kilometers in length, the Qutang adventure is over before it starts. What remains are deep impressions of an imposing canyon where dramatic slabs of rock jut out in jagged chunks. A trip through Qutang is not for faint-hearted claustrophobics, as it constricts to about 100 meters at its narrowest point.
Getting there: Luxury tour cruise ships, hydrofoils, and cheap passenger ships: there are numerous ways to float down the Yangzi. The principal route for these river trips begins in Chongqing, where ticketing services can be obtained at the Chongqing Port International Travel Service (18 Xinye Jie, Yuzhong District; tel +86 23 8662 2290; www.cqpits.com.cn).
Caption: The majestic karsts along the Li River.
What’s depicted on the yuan: A view of the otherworldly karsts along the Li River in Guangxi province.
Why go: If you want to indulge in scenes of rural China, this is it -- bamboo boats chug along the river, passing water buffalo and farmers toiling in the fields as the awe-inspiring limestone peaks soar high above. The most beautiful section of the Li is located along the 24-kilometer stretch between the towns of Yangdi and Xingping. This area is also an outdoor enthusiast’s dream, where hiking and biking are wildly popular options for exploring the picturesque Guangxi countryside.
Getting there: Most visitors arrive in Guilin, and then make for the gorgeous town of Yangshuo via Xingping by bamboo boat (easily arranged through your hotel). A popular hiking option that doesn’t stray too far from the water is the Yangdi to Xingping route, which takes around five hours and involves three river crossings.
What’s depicted on the yuan: The world-famous fortress-like Potala Palace, perched on the 130-meter high Marpo Ri (Red Mountain) in the center of Lhasa, Tibet.
Why go: The Potala Palace’s current incarnation as a state museum and the renovations it has undergone to attract foreign tourists have not diminished its historical and cultural significance. Once the seat of Tibetan government and chief residence of the Dalai Lama, construction of the building began in 1645 by order of the fifth Dalai Lama, and took over 50 years to complete. Over 1,000 rooms remain, as well as the original layout of the White Palace (living quarters of the Dalai Lama) and the Red Palace (once a spiritual center of Tibetan Buddhism). Interesting to catch a glimpse of what life was like within these walls before 1959.
Getting there: If you’ve gone through the red tape and made it to Lhasa, visiting the Potala Palace should be a breeze… sort of. Admission is strictly controlled: a day prior to your visit, show your passport to the ticket booth at the far southwest exit in return for a time-stamped ticket voucher. The next day, be at the southeast entrance with plenty of time to spare, in order to go through security and purchase your actual ticket.
What’s depicted on the yuan: The Great Hall of the People in Tiananmen Square, Beijing.
Why go: Because it’s the political hub of Beijing, and walking through it is a surreal experience. Used for legislative activities by the Chinese Communist Party, and home to the National People’s Congress, this 1959 structure is an imposing, intimidating presence on Tiananmen Square. Highlights include the Great Auditorium where a large red star dominates the ceiling’s galaxy of lights, and the State Banquet Hall where Richard Nixon dined in 1972.
Getting there: The closest subway is Tiananmen Xi (Tiananmen West). You can’t miss the Great Hall on the western edge of Tiananmen Square, south of West Chang’an Avenue. Cost of entry is RMB 30 for adults, and RMB 15 for students. Opening hours vary by season: 8:15am to 3:00pm from May to June, 7:30am to 4:00pm from July to August.