China Holidays - Then and Now

A view of Pudong from across the Huangpu River on The Bund in Shanghai, China will mark the beginning of many great China holidays.

China tourism continues to boom. There’s so much to see and so many incredible China holidays to experience across this remarkable country. Here's my tips on photographing China.

As my own travel experiences will attest, China holidays weren’t always so easy.

It’s time to take a peep behind the bamboo curtain.

China Public Holidays

China celebrates 7 public holiday periods throughout the year, which usually fall on or around the following dates.

  • New Year’s Day from December 30 to January 1

  • Chinese New Year (Spring Festival) from February 4-10

  • Qingming Festival (Tomb Sweeping Day) from April 5-7

  • May Day from May 1-4

  • Dragon Boat Festival from June 7-9

  • Mid-Autumn Day from September 13-15

  • National Day from October 1-7

China On World Map

To understand China, in both historical and contemporary terms, it’s helpful to place China in relation to its surroundings.

Hopefully showing China on the world map will be useful in that regard.

China is a massive country encompassing wide and varied landscapes and megacities that showcase both historic with contemporary architecture.

With a population of over 1.4 billion people, including the majority Han Chinese and 55 ethnic minority peoples, a wealth of opportunities for amazing adventures photographing China await.

When Was China Founded

One of the world’s four ancient civilizations China is regarded as one of the cradles of civilization.

What we know of China prior to 1600 BC is steeped in myth and legend.

But with a written history dating back as early as 1250 BC, during the Shang dynasty (c. 1600-1046 BC), we’re able to form a good picture of the political, cultural a military power that emerged out of the Yellow River valley.

The imperial era lasted from 221 BC–1912 AD and included the unification of China under Qin rule.

Peoples from the steppe, such as the Mongols, occasionally dominated China until they were, to varying degrees, assimilated into the Han Chinese culture and population.

China’s last dynasty was the Qing, which ended in 1912.

Rule under the Kuomintang followed from 1925 until 1949 when the Communist Party took control, marking the beginning of the modern China era.

Soldiers faces, carved into stone along The Bund in Shanghai, China. The Bund is one of many great opportunities photographing China opens to you.

Shanghai Things To Do

China tourism often includes a visit to Shanghai.

Shanghai is a large and heavily populated city. Actually it's one of the most densely populated cities in the world.

While that can be a little overwhelming for first time visitors, the amount of things to do and sites to photograph make Shanghai a great travel destination.

The photo at the very top of this post was made looking across the Huangpu River from the historic riverside region called The Bund.

Just off The Bund is Nanjing Road, a shopping paradise for anyone wanting to bring a bit of glitz into their China travel experience.

But Nanjing Road was behind me when I made this photo. What we see here are some of the more futuristic buildings, on the other side of the Huangpu River, in the Pudong business district.

Shanghai is interesting in so much as it provides a great mix of historical and contemporary, east and west.

If ever you get the opportunity to visit Shanghai I’d recommend you include it into your own China holiday adventure.

  • Take a long walk along The Bund

  • Experience the glitz and glamour along the busy, but pedestrian friendly Nanjing Road

  • Enjoy an evening in the historic Jazz Bar at the famous Peace Hotel

  • Visit the Oriental Pearl Tower and the Shanghai Tower

  • Explore the former French Concession

  • Take a cruise along the Huangpu River

  • Shop at the South Bund Soft Spinning Material Market

  • Relax in the Ming Dynasty Yu Garden

  • Visit the Jade Buddha Temple

The image of the soldiers carved in stone was made along the Bund on my second trip to Shanghai back in 2011.

I think I first visited Shanghai in 1996 when I travelled to Chengdu and Shanghai as a guest lecturer for Kodak.

I used the opportunity to make my own photos either side of those particular teaching gigs.

I'm not sure how many times I've been to China. It must be on four or five occasions since 1988, and it's hard to describe the phenomenal changes that have occurred in China during that time.

Shanghai has been a prosperous and relatively outward looking economic zone for many years.

I can remember that Japanese electronic products and white goods were available in Shanghai long before they reached other parts of China, including Beijing, the country’s grander and more conservative capital.

Red walls and orange tiled roofs, against a deep blue sky, on a spectacular winter's day in the Forbidden City in Beijing, China. One of many sites China tourism offers visitors.

Visit Beijing For History And Culture

There are so many big cities in modern day China. But when it comes to impact I think Beijing reins supreme.

I first visited Beijing in 1989. While a huge city it was a much quieter and less crowded place back then.

Pollution and diabolical traffic have replaced my memories of bicycles and identically clothed blue suited comrades, both men and women, dressed very much in the Chairman Mao mould.

Photographing China will reveal many gifts to you like this image of light creating interesting shapes on a freshly painted window shutter in The Forbidden City in Beijing, China.

Trading On The Black Market

My first trip to China was actually in 1988. It's incredible to think that was over 30 years ago.

I can remember being obliged to change currency into a special kind of local money, designed for foreign tourists, called Foreign Exchange Certificates (FEC).

USD $100 would get you FEC $100, but you could only use the FEC's at more expensive hotels and restaurants.

Needless to say the lack of local money provided very little opportunity for foreign tourists to experience the real china. It also made it very difficult to disburse their tourist dollars more widely through the burgeoning Chinese economy.

However, it was possible for tourists to trade USD $100 into the equivalent of $170 in local Yuan/Renminbi currency on the black market.

That probably seems like strange and dubious behavior for most tourists.

However, my understanding is that, back then, the only way most Chinese citizens could purchase foreign made white goods and Japanese electronics was at a large city Friendship Store.

These establishments were, theoretically, created as places where foreign tourists could dispose of large amounts of FEC's to buy Chinese and Japanese goods at extremely inflated prices.

The system was a rort because the only way ordinary, everyday Chinese people could get access to FEC's and buy good quality washing machines, televisions and fans was through the black market.

And it cost them dearly to do so.

China Economics For Backpackers in 1986

Of course as the FEC's were only recognized at a small selection of larger city hotels and Friendship Stores, a tourist’s opportunity to travel independently within the country was impeded.

I remember meeting several tourists who traded money on the black market.

They railed at the reality of being charged up to three times as much as local people staying in the exact same type of room in the same hotel.

Likewise, they complained that, while locals could enter public city parks for free, foreigners would often have to pay a (nominal) fee.

I remember, on my return to Melbourne, discovering that different price structures for ethnic Chinese also existed in certain Chinese restaurants.

I made no judgement and believe this was simply a kind of cultural practice that may have existed in lower prices restaurants at that time.

I have no idea if the same practice also occurred in restaurants run by other non Anglo ethnic groups, in this or other countries, or what the current practice is in Melbourne these days.

It really doesn’t bother me.

I suspect some backpackers traded money on the black market as a way to even up the score under what they believed was an inequitable system, both for them and for everyday Chinese citizens.

No doubt they would have helped to justify their actions with the understanding that they were making it easier for local folks to purchase, what was then, luxury white goods and electrical appliances like tv’s and fans.

I'm also glad that, these days in China, costs for local Chinese and foreign tourists alike are much more equitable.

The Chinese are a hard working and industrious people. It's incredible to see how they've lifted themselves out of economic hardship into a prosperous and modern economy in such a short period of time.

The economic juggernaut that is modern day China has been hard earned and should be applauded.

A massive red door adorned with big, brass studs is just one of the sites you’ll find photographing China in the grounds of the Forbidden City in Beijing, China.

Placing China Tourism into An Historical Context

In one respect backpackers, like all other tourists, fall into one of two categories: good and bad.

While I backpacked during my early travels I was never one of those penny pinching backpackers who expects to get everything at local prices.

If a local is prepared to spend time with us, speaking a language that's not native to them, I think it's okay that we pay a bit more for the convenience that delivers.

And that's certainly the case when we're paying for higher quality.

But I also remember the time an old granny sold me a bottle of water after filling it up in a local farm dam.

I was on a short trek and, when I discovered the seal on the water bottle had been broken, my travelling companions and I walked back and found her.

I’m normally extremely respectful when dealing with older folk, but this particular individual felt the full wrath of my wagging finger, I can tell you.

Who knows what bugs I could have ingested if I hadn’t had my wits about me.

As the Central government began to release the shackles from enterprising individuals, allowing them to make money, shortcuts were clearly taken.

Some were so intent on bringing in as much money as possible they probably didn't give a whole lot of thought to how badly tourists were treated along the way.

Is this a common experience in quickly developing countries? I know not but, as you know, ripoffs can occur anywhere.

Many high paying group tourists wouldn't be aware of these kinds of shenanigans. Sadly, independent budget travellers are probably more likely to come into contact with dodgy operators.

However, to understand this kind of treatment it's important to place it into an historical context.

For many years people in China were brought up to hate westerners, particularly those from the colonial powers. As a result they were xenophobic and extremely suspicious of westerners.

And that's not unreasonable given the way China had been exploited by colonial powers.

I’m sure this was the reason why I was chased down an alley and stoned by a crowd of enraged locals in Chengdu back in 1988.

My crime was being seen strolling, hand in hand, with a local girl. Yikes!

China tourism is full of beauty such as this colorful and highly textured architectural detail at the Temple Of Heaven in Beijing, China.

On other occasions I was spat at; yelled at (probably daily); and sort refuge inside a cable car while an angry crowd tried to get at my friends and I near the top of Emei Shan, a famous Buddhist mountain.

The crowd was enraged by the fact that, in fading light near the end of a very arduous two day trek, my little group of Western visitors had been invited to the front of the queue for the final leg of the trip up the mountain.

I thought they were trying to push us off the mountain. Fortunately the police showed up and, after a bit of push and shove, the ring leader was taken away.

Do I have any grudges? Not at all. I think, even back then, I had some understanding of why some local folks behaved the way they did.

Despite the adventures, fair and foul, associated with my first experience of China tourism I made a life long friend on that trip. Someone who's shown me great friendship and loyalty for many, many years.

I keep travelling back to China. It’s a fascinating country with an amazing history, a rich culture and an exciting future.

Needless to say the opportunities for amazing experiences photographing China are many and varied.

A family make their way into a subway on a cold winter's day in Harbin, China. China holidays provide so many glimpses into the Human Condition.

Being An Aussie Has It's Advantages

"Thank God I'm not an American". "They get the blame for everything."

That’s an expression I’ve used numerous times over the years, particularly when travelling.

It's no coincidence that I'd sometimes deliberately broaden my Aussie accent on my first China holidays.

I can only assume that, if I hadn't, then those stones might have become rocks.

Sometimes it's good to be small.

The colonial powers intrusions into China is an historical fact. I was first introduced to this knowledge as a child when I saw the movie 55 Days At Peking.

Later I became more aware of the Opium Wars and the tragic consequences they had for China.

But during my early visits I grew increasingly suspicious about how, according to the Chinese, everything was all so one-sided.

They'd go on and on about it, but became extremely defensive as soon as I raised an objection or pointed the finger back at them.

Inevitably I’d be accused of insulting them and their country. Apparently causing such a loss of face was inexcusable.

"What's good for the goose, is good for the gander" I'd often retort.

But I wouldn't blame them. They'd been indoctrinated all their lives, probably a little like what happened to Russian, American and other children during the years of the cold war.

None of us are perfect. Right!

A detailed image of goods for sale in a local butcher shop in the traditional village of Hongcun, China. One of many curious sights you can find photographing China.

What! No Peking Duck

But I was young and I've never tolerated bullies.

It's fair to say that I did get a little put out with all this talk of Western imperialism. And that’s not to say it didn't happen. History, and the consequences that have flowed from it, proves that it did.

I must admit feeling quite pleased with myself when, during lunch in a swanky, brand new restaurant back in, I think, 1989 I decided to put some old fool back in his place.

Now I was the guest and the restaurant had been booked out for our small group by a notable Beijing official.

He was an impressive and highly educated man who had spent many years living and working in Russia. I was friendly with his daughter and his daughter in law at the time.

However, during the lunch one of his friends was using every opportunity he could to boast about the glorious Chinese communist system and the evils of the decadent (Western) capitalist system.

And he used every opportunity he could, through an interpreter, to drop the terms imperialists and colonialists into his diatribe.

I mentioned that, while the terms imperialism and colonialism are usually associated with European powers, they could also be used to describe the USA.

I refer here to the USA expansion into California, Puerto Rico, The Philippines and numerous islands in the Pacific.

And, of course, the same could be said about the conquest of Australia, where I live, and the subjugation of the indigenous peoples.

These comments made him really pleased and he made a big deal about how intelligent I was and how he was looking forward to a mutually cooperative relationship with more good people from my country.

My own China holidays have involved many sublime moments such as when I made this colorful photograph of a pagoda rooftop and tranquil pool fed by a small waterfall near Huangshan, China.

I Make For An Interesting Dinner Guest

But I wasn't finished.

I then mentioned that my own country, Australia, had been conquered by Great Britain and, as a result, the indigenous population had been subjugated.

Indeed, we're still marred by this injustice and are not doing particularly well integrating many that have lost connection with their past traditions and beliefs.

I continued by drawing parallels with what had happened in China over the centuries and, in particular, since the Communist Revolution.

In particular I pointed to Chariman Mao’s failed Great Leap Forward and the atrocities that had occurred during the Cultural Revolution. 

Well, you could have heard a pin drop. This was 1989 and there were other events that I was careful not to mention.

The pain of those events would have been too recent and too deep for me to bring up.

Lunch ended soon after and, as I bid my counterpart farewell, he spat out something about a barbarian from a country of convicts.

Suddenly I felt quite proud to be an Australian. I also remember thinking, "What, no duck?"

A self portrait of Glenn Guy, the Travel Photography Guru, formed on a shinny set of lift doors in a hotel in Beijing, China. Not the most common China tourism experience, I grant you.

China Tourism and People In Glass Houses

I think it's true to say that I'm a typical Australian, from days gone by. We hate bullies, which is one of the reasons we've gone to war.

Aussies can be disrespectful of authority, particularly when it comes from a position of arrogance and ignorance.

The point that I was trying to get to was that, for better or worse, our world has been built upon conquest.

It is what it is but, to move forward, we need to find common ground and peaceful ways to progress the lives of everyday people in a way that makes them happy and brings purpose and meaning into their lives.

At the end of the day parents want a better and happier life for their children than what they experienced for themselves.

And that's true no matter our race, gender, politics, ethnicity or the country into which we were born or reside.

He who lives in a glass house shouldn’t throw stones.

I often think that whenever we criticize others, particularly when we travel, we first need to hold a mirror up to ourselves.

No one’s perfect!

A view up a flight of stairs to a beautiful architecutral structure in the grounds of the Temple Of Heaven in Beijing, China. As you can see photographing China can include beautiful, blue skies.

Magic China Holidays

This photo was made in the grounds of the lovely Temple Of Heaven and depicts one of the sites historical structures.

While the Temple Of Heaven is a large and heavily touristed site, there's still opportunities to find moments of quiet respite, away from the crowds.

Fantastic China - There’s So Much To See

As architecturally dynamic as these wondrous new buildings are, it’s still the traditional sites that hold the most meaning for me.

These sites include the following tourist hotspots:

  • Temple of Heaven

  • Summer Palace

  • Forbidden City

These days Beijing is a very cosmopolitan city. The modernization of Beijing to showcase the capital during the 2008 Beijing Olympics was an immense achievement.

Many overseas tourists, including enthusiastic photographers, might be saddened by the loss of traditional Hutong housing regions.

But what matters most is how the lives of the local people has changed. Ultimately it’s for them to determine if their lives are better or not.

Why Photographing China Is important

I believe I’ve visited Beijing three times over the years.

I hope to return again in a year or so to explore more of the architecture in China’s thriving capital city.

Further travel adventures that include some of this vast country's spectacular natural landscapes also beckon.

Whenever I return I always look forward to making new Chinese friends. They really are an extraordinary people and I’ve learned so much from my friends in China.

China is a vast, beautiful and complex nation. But it’s only possible to learn so much about a place as an armchair traveller.

Photographing China broadens my understanding and experience of the Human Condition. And I think that part of my life’s ongoing journey is evident in the photos I make.

For my photos to do justice to China, I might need to spend ten or more years there. But we all do what we can, when we can.

Perhaps it’s time for your first China holiday. I’m sure you’ll find photographing China to be a remarkable experience.

Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru