China has a large number of wonderful tour destinations from charming river to gargantuan mountains, from delicate water towns to solemn imperial palace, from splendid national cultural heritage to colorful folk custom. It will take years to visit these attractions, but it is more easily to get through the top attractions of China for a memorable trip.

Beijing, China
As a capital, Beijing casts a long shadow over the rest of China. Regardless of time meridians, Beijing time is followed nationwide; around the country, the Beijing dialect - Putonghua - is spoken; and places such as Tibet and Ürümqi are forced to refer to the central government on all matters. For Beijing, the dictum that a nation's capital doesn't reflect the nature of the country as a whole is especially true. Instead it's a People's Republic of China (PRC) showpiece and a city of orderly design, with long, straight boulevards crisscrossed by lanes. Places of interest are easy to find if they're located on these avenues - and nearly impossible to find if they're buried down the narrow alleys. The city's central core was once a walled enclosure, and it still maintains its ancient symmetry based on a north-south axis passing through the Front Gate (Qianmen).

Shanghai, China
Festooned with colourful nicknames like 'the Whore of the East', 'the Paris of China' and 'the Pearl of the Orient', Shanghai has long been symbolic of the West's rape of the East. In the years following 1949 its gaudy past and foreign appearance was a constant blot on the People's Republic of China's psyche. The city is divided in half by the Huangpu River, with most of the city's highlights located in Puxi. The city is said to have half the world's cranes in it (and judging by the skyline this can't be too far from the truth) but Shanghai's past still lingers. The best times to visit are spring and autumn - winter and summer here are merciless in their respective extremes. Shanghai is 15 hours from Beijing by train.

Xi'an, China
Xi'an was once a major crossroads on the trading routes from eastern China to central Asia, and once vied with Rome and later Constantinople for the title of greatest city in the world. Today Xi'an is one of China's major drawcards, largely because of the Army of Terracotta Warriors on the city's eastern outskirts. Uncovered in 1974, over 10,000 figures have been sorted to date. Soldiers, archers (armed with real weapons) and chariots stand in battle formation in underground vaults looking as fierce and war-like as pottery can. Xi'an's other attractions include the old city walls, the Muslim quarter and the Banpo Neolithic Village - a tacky re-creation of the Stone Age. By train, Xi'an is a 16 hour journey from Beijing. If you've got a bit of cash to spare, a flight will set you back about US$120.