China: Bear essentials about a trip to the land of the panda
It's time to start discovering more about one of the world's most powerful - and fascinating - countries.
It's got the second biggest economy in the world - and could well overtake the United States in our lifetime to become the planet's most powerful country.
Fourteen of its cities have bigger populations than Ireland. It's got the most citizens on the planet (nearly 1.4 billion) and twice as many folks speak Chinese than English. And chances are the phone you're using or TV you're watching is made there.
But the weirdest fact is that most of us know precious little about China.
And if you think the Great Wall is a takeaway in Crumlin, maybe it's time to start thinking about discovering more.
So, why travel half-way across the world to China?
Firstly, it's an adventure that will last long in the memory, somewhere truly exotic that'll leave your friends curious and jealous. Secondly, getting there is really good value. Last, but not least, it's dirt cheap there, and your poor old euro will go a lot further than heading across the Atlantic.
Unless you're pretty fluent in one of the world's toughest languages (so fiendishly difficult that even the Chinese struggle with the thousands of ornate characters that make up words), getting around, or just ordering from a menu that looks like hieroglyphics, is going to be a huge struggle.
Even if you're independently-minded, there's a lot to be said for an organised tour. You have an English-speaking guide to bring you the best of the country - from learning words and phrases to organising visits to temples, they take the headaches away, leaving you free to snap away and savour.
I went with local specialists Wendy Wu (see factbox), and the value is surprising - from €1,990 for 10 days - that's including international flights, internal flights and transport, hotel stays, admission to all the attractions, your meals, plus your visa is sorted before you go.
The only thing you're left to cover is alcoholic drinks - which is not such a hassle, with a bottle of beer in bars and restaurants frequented by locals costing around €1.50. And if you're thinking about souvenirs, then silk, cashmere, ornaments and antiques are a steal by Irish standards.
Travelling with a group makes friends for life (it's a particularly good holiday for singles), with those last nights in the hotel bar spent exchanging stories, email addresses and connecting later on social media.
Tours normally begin in the capital, Beijing, then move to the inland cities - in my case, Chengdu and Xi'an - and outbound home via Beijing or Shanghai.
Pandas - close-up and personal
OK, you've never heard of Chengdu (after all, a mere 14 million or so people live there), but it's the gateway to the mighty pandas. The Chinese adore them, and outside the city, at the Panda Breeding Research Base, you'll get up close with them.
Goofing around, grabbing each other's tasty bamboo shoots (they're fussy, and only eat the best) and generally sitting on their backsides, they're one of the world's most endangered species. Mankind gets a tough rap for conservation, but pandas might not be around without us.
Pandas - who make sleepy koalas seem like livewires - don't seem that pushed about mating. But, with the help of dedicated scientists here (and the aid of a few "adult" movies to get them in the mood for love), they're thriving.
And the evidence is there to see in the shape of the six sets of twin baby pandas in the centre's clinic, sharing their cot for a nap, their blissful zzzs only being disturbed by researchers who give them a good wash, panda butt and all.
Oddly enough, China reminds me most of Italy - the streets are alive with people, the cuisine is one of the world's best, and food is an obsession. And Chengdu is at the heart of Sichuan Province, arguably the culinary capital of China, and certainly serving up the spiciest cuisine.
While the great Irish spice bag hasn't hit these parts, if you like Chinese food at home, you'll really love it here. So, whether it's sweet and sour pork, fried rice, chicken in black bean sauce, you'll get that - only much fresher and healthier, with a better selection of vegetables and sides. And if you're fussy, every big city has been invaded by Starbucks, KFC, McDonalds and all the rest.
Chengdu is a culinary capital, and locals flock to Jinli Street - a trading area dating back to the Qin dynasty of around 220BC. It looks touristy, but it sums up social life in China - food, tea and enjoying the great outdoors. Just imagine a Temple Bar with no drunks, but great street food, temples, lakes, tea houses and a huge array of food stalls, and you've got it. If you're up for it, don't leave the city without trying hotpot - a boiling, spicy cauldron into which you place meats, beef, chicken and, if you're feeling really adventurous, entrails, and veg and share out with chopsticks.
Our other city stay was in Xi'an, the country's ancient capital. This is a beautiful city, even by Chinese standards. Its wall, surrounded by a moat, is reckoned to be the largest defensive city structure anywhere still intact from ancient times. Almost nine miles long, you can even cycle its cobblestones, but get down at night when the bamboo lanterns are illuminated and where every corner gives you a romantic shot.
But the biggest draw is the army of terracotta warriors, from around 210BC, discovered by accident by farmers digging a well in 1974. A handful of the troops came to Dublin some years back, but that didn't do them justice. There's a jaw-dropping 8,000 soldiers, 130 chariots with 520 horses and 150 cavalry horses. To put that in context, there's almost as many sculptured soldiers as real troops in the Irish Army.
The detail is amazing - eyes, hair, weapons - and it's a living museum, where teams of archaeologists are still piecing together the bits of heads and limbs. The scale is unimaginable, with hundreds of troops lined up like something from a scary Dr Who episode.
As beautiful as China is (and it's absolutely heaving with temples and ancient streets), my biggest memory is of the people. They're curious about Westerners, so expect to be asked if people can take your picture - I've even had to hold babies for family snaps - and locals will often strike up a conversation with you in a bar or restaurant.
Parks are their playgrounds, with floral displays straight out of a flower show, concerts, locals dancing or just knitting and playing cards. Here family is all-important (in Chengdu especially, mums stand in the park and advertise for brides or grooms for their offspring!) and older people are held in the greatest respect for their wisdom. So, if you're heading here and you've got a few grey hairs, expect to be treated like royalty.
Put it on your trip list - it's a land you'll love, and be sad to leave.
Mark travelled with the award-winning Wendy Wu Tours (0818 776380; wendywutours.ie), who have an 'In Pursuit of Pandas' trip on special offer.
Fly from Dublin to Beijing, spending three nights in the capital, with guided tours to the Great Wall, Forbidden City and all the major sites. Then fly to Xi'an, spending a night in the ancient city and visiting the Terracotta Warriors. Then it's three nights in Chengdu to see the Giant Pandas (and the red pandas) close-up.
The nine-day trip costs from €1,990pps, based on selected November departures, with other dates available. A China Experience, taking in Shanghai rather than Chengdu, starts from the same price. Good-value upgrades to business class are worth checking out.
International flights were with Emirates (the best airline Herald Travel experienced in 2015), which flies from Dublin to Dubai twice-daily. Economy is a cut above, with the in-flight Ice entertainment system offering over 2,000 channels of movies, TV shows, games, audio books and music.
First and Business Class offers lie-flat seats, with built-in massager, chauffeur pick-up and drop-off, and even a full bar on the giant A380 from Shanghai to Dubai. The airline has a worldwide sale on now: check out emirates.ie for more.