By Shannon Anicas

China is a very large country filled with thousands of years of culture and history. We are all familiar with the well known places like The Great Wall or the Terracotta Soldiers. The more seasoned sinophiles know the awesomeness of Sichuan’s hot pot experience or the Panda Breeding Center. And maybe you have heard of the giant Buddha carved into a mountainside overlooking the water that it protects from flooding, but sometimes you have to step away from the tour guides and try something just because, well you are there.

These are the things that I got to experience on my first trip to China in 2010. Ii am returning for a full year in August 2011, and plan to have several follow-up lists to add to.

So here is a list to start with:

1. Muslim Market, Xi’an

Located outside the old city wall by the Drum Tower, this market place is a fusion of cultures that is befitting of the last stop on the Silk Road.

Packed tightly into the alleyways, you can find exotic bargains from all over China and the world. Haggling is expected and often encouraged. It is like a sport in China. (Just make sure you are using cash, none of the stalls I visited had credit card machines and the closest ATM is across the plaza and on the other side of a busy street that you have to go under to cross).

The sites and smells that surround you are intoxicating. You can get lost in the sea of treasures. If you pause at any part of your journey many vendors will begin to entice you with their wears.

On one of the alleyways there is a food court of sorts, filled with foods of both Muslim and Chinese varieties. Some are more of a street vendor variety but there are a few sit down tiny shops to eat at. There is a sitting area nearby that you can sit and soak up the sites and sounds, just as I did.

2. Hutongs’ “little Jerusalem”, Kaifeng

This is a place that a local took us too to visit the “Kaifeng Jews” site. We walked through narrow alleyways through paths that felt like mazes. With each corner turned it felt as though we were going back in time. The alleys punctuated with doorways with elaborate decorations from Chinese New Year’s gone by and even a throw back or two to Cultural Revolution posters. Each door way looked different. Some had Chinese, some English and some Arabic.

We got to the place that was the site of the Kaifeng Jews. All 20 of us squished into a 2 room home and listened to the history of the Kaifeng Jews and how the house we were standing in was the site of the old Synagogue and the struggles and triumphs of the Kaifeng Jews.

After the amazing stories and sharing of old photos we said our goodbyes and headed out the opposite direction in which we came. We began seeing more signs of life in the hutongs. Families were sitting out on their front step; children were chasing chickens and being bounced on a doting grandmother’s knee, all beautiful sites of Chinese life. What I wasn’t expecting was the call to prayer that broke through the sounds of meat being butchered and rice cakes being fried. It was a beautiful sound and one that I didn’t expect to hear not only in China, but mere feet from the Jewish settlement.

Further into the walk and we saw beautiful spices and vegetables all laid out for purchase. Ideally one never had to leave this neighborhood, everything you needed was right here. Then we reached a man street and just as we were about to head back to our bus a loud bell rang. We were standing next to a beautiful Church. It looked like right out of any city in America, there surrounded by hutongs.

So here in this small space and tiny world were all 3 major religions living peacefully together, sharing stories of grandchildren and times gone by. It is truly an experience.

3. The Great Wall

Yes, the Great Wall is not off the main street but where I visited it and how I visited it was. Instead of the Badaling section that everyone visits, our group went to the lesser known and rebuilt Simitai and Jiantian portions, ergo less foot traffic to contend with for your viewing pleasure.

The way I got up the mountain is the portion that I enjoyed the most. I went up via a cable car. There I was soaring higher then the beautiful birds and tree tops. It felt freeing. It was just me up there, me and my amazing 360 view of the area. I could see the Great Wall stretching in both directions as far as the horizon. I literally cried tears of joy because I was there, in the place of my dreams. It was an awakening for me. I can’t promise the same emotional experience that I had, but I can guarantee it will give you amazing photos and memories to last a lifetime.