Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Photo-Only Attractions in China

As you may recall, I have decided that some famous attractions are worth visiting, and some are not.  I call the nots "photo-only attractions" because you can get as much joy from gazing at a picture as from actually visiting the site.  In this post, I will highlight a few such places in China.

1.  The Bund in Shanghai
I know I am doing a great disservice to Shanghai and all of Shanghai's admirers by yawning at its iconic river-side district known as the Bund.  This is an area within Shanghai's former international settlement that has lots of old embassies and financial centers, a great view of the river, and many interesting wharves and buildings.

I once read an author who said the Bund at night was his favorite place in China, period.  So you can imagine the anticlimax when I arrived to be greeted with endless construction sites and smog.  The construction was the worst part, but it's probably mostly finished now that the World Expo has come and gone.

Someday I'd like to give the Bund another try, and I believe it has the potential to wow me out of my current indifference. Until then, enjoy the photos and visit this attraction at your own risk. 

View across the river to the famous Oriental Pearl Tower and the Pudong district.  Also, street repairs.

Historic buildings, hazy skies
 Recommended alternative:

If you find yourself near the Bund, save your feet and opt for some tasty treats at Dunkin' Donuts

2.  The Terra Cotta Warriors in Xi'an
A king dies and builds an army of thousands of individually unique clay soldiers to guard his tomb, which he has booby-trapped so elaborately that experts to this day cannot figure out how to get in.  Sound awesome?  Yes.  It's an awesome story, but the actual site is not that cool.

(Once again, I'm probably offending all the people who loved this attraction, and I know many.)

There are two things I disliked about this attraction.  First, all the soldiers are just lined up in a couple warehouses where excavation is supposedly ongoing.  There's not that much to look at -- a glance will do the trick.  That's good, because all I could get was a glance, which brings me to the second thing I disliked: the crowds.  Any tourist attraction in China will be crazy on a holiday, and this place was no exception.  You had to fight your way to the railing to even get close enough to snap a picture.

October holiday crowds in the ladies' room
October holiday crowds swarm around the somewhat creepy giant terra-cotta warrior puppet that appeared at the Olympics

October holiday crowds swarm around the periphery of the warehoused soldiers

There they are!

Recommended alternative:  The Terra Cotta site has a Subway restaurant, which was the highlight of my visit.  If you're fresh from America and thus not dazzled by American fast food, skip the site altogether and take a bike ride around the Xi'an city wall at sunset:


3.  Window of the World in Shenzhen
Picture this: Your town goes from fishing village to one of China's hottest economic zones in 30 years flat.  You have absolutely nothing to offer in the way of cultural or historic attractions, because your city is only 30 years old and most people are mostly interested in making money.  The solution?  Build a bunch of theme parks.  This is Shenzhen, China, across from Hong Kong, and the theme park pictured below is called Window of the World.  It has small replicas of more than 130 famous places around the world.  I didn't actually visit this attraction, but we went in far enough to get a taste and a picture.

Now that I think of it, this is probably more of an "even a photo is not that cool" attraction.

Fake mini-Louvre
Recommended alternative:

How about dessert at the mango place in the mall?

4.  The Forbidden City, AKA the Imperial Palace, in Beijing
This is a must-see on everyone's Beijing itinerary, and it doesn't need to be.  Yes, it's cool that emperors lived here for hundreds of years and no one was allowed in except family, concubines, and eunuchs (or something like that).  The problem is, now they allow everyone in.  This is another destination where the crowds are oppressive, elbowing you at every photo opportunity and forcing you to wait in long ticket lines.

Another problem is that every building starts to look the same after awhile.  They are all built in the same traditional style, and they are all nearly bare on the inside except for eclectic museum displays and ornate thrones that are really hard to see (because of the crowds and because you can't actually enter many of the buildings to explore them).  

Finally, there aren't nice places where you can just sit and rest, taking in the view and soaking in the history.  Overall, a nice photo book with some good articles would probably be just as good as the real thing.  Here are photos of my three visits:

2006, on a cold January day with my travel crew from Iowa

2009, on a sweltering day where I waited over an hour in line and kept getting jabbed in the head by people's sunbrellas

2010 with my family, just outside the entrance
Recommended alternative:  Go to the public park behind the Forbidden City, pay $1.50, climb the little hill, and enjoy the birds-eye view of the whole complex without the crowds or the ticket price:

There you go!  I've just knocked four attractions off your China to-do list.  But I can almost guarantee you'd still go, and that's OK.  I could be wrong.

Have you visited China?  Would you add or subtract any attractions from this list?   


  1. I agree with the Bund. I was there after the Expo construction. They turn off the city lights in Pudong so at 10pm we couldn't even see the famous skyline on the other side of the river. Shanghai is becoming one of Asia's great cities, but it has a LONG way to go to compete with Hong Kong, Tokyo, or Singapore. I like Dunkin Donuts too, but you should have put Shanghai's soup dumplings as the top alternative!

  2. I love that many of your alternatives involved going out for food. :-) I'm curious what the dunkin donuts in China taste like. I'm guessing they're not like the ones here. I enjoyed reading your travel commentary and seeing the photos!