China's Shaanxi province is the starting point of the Silk Road which has linked Asia with Europe for more than 2000 years. Its cities are seeped in culture and history with civilisations dating back 5000 years.
With picturesque mountain ranges and ancient cities, it is an excellent place to start discovering China. The Quinling mountain range with its natural springs is home to several endangered species considered national treasures including the giant panda, golden monkey, crested ibis bird and takin (a type of antelope).
My starting point is Chengdu in Sichuan province, home of the Giant Panda, which you can fly to direct from Auckland.
The capital of Sichuan Province, known for its pandas and spicy Szechuan food based on a locally grown hot pepper.
Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding is the best place to see Chengdu's most famous residents being reared in surroundings resembling their natural habitat. A tour around the centre is a black and white cuteness overload — we got to see some young baby twin pandas as well as full grown adults.
The pandas are often eating or sleeping — they sleep a lot due to the energy it takes them to digest bamboo, explains our guide. The park is pleasant to walk around and you can dine afterwards in the garden tea rooms where toy pandas sit among the guests.
Shopping is a big pastime in the city which is home to boutiques and shops of all the big world designers from Apple to Gucci to Tiffany conveniently located in a central area.
The capital of Shaanxi province, Xian is one of the most ancient cities in the world, and its city walls among the oldest preserved city walls in the country, which you can walk or cycle around.
Xian served as the capital of China for more than 2000 years across eleven dynasties.
The city is famous for being the home of the Terracotta Warriors, some of which were earlier this year exhibited in Te Papa. Considered one of the most important archeological finds of the 20th century, around 1500 lifesize stone warriors, all with different faces, hailing from 210 BC when they were created to protect China's first emperor, Qin Shi Huang Di. They are on display in Xian in a four acre museum.
This vast park contains ruins, relics and architects from the Tang Dynasty which visitors can walk around or take a guided tour in a buggy-recommended due to the size of the park.
Built around 640AD, the original Daming Palace was destroyed after several wars but its ruins remain. There is a miniature village model of the actual site how it used to be as well as a museum containing artefacts from the era.
Old city-food and market quarter
At one of the old city walls is a buzzing area of old streets lined with food stalls, shops and restaurants and is known as the place to come for food — with musicians and entertainers further livening up the area by night.
You can sample local specialities from stalls or in one of the many restaurants. A special local dish is noodles served with a wide variety of sauces — the region is known for its thick ribbon pasta-like noodles served in huge bowls.
Noodles are often served at the end of a meal and there is a local saying that they symbolise the ties of friendship established by the diners.
Tang Dynasty show
At the other side of the city wall visitors can attend an impressive outdoor music and dance show telling the story of the how the city was the beginning of the Silk Road. The actors and colourful costumes bring history to life.
Xian Film studio
Opened in 1958, the studio has produced some of the best known Chinese movies including Old Well and Red Sorgham. Now called Western Movie Group, it produces not just films but television programmes and a tour around the studios includes a vast warehouse of vintage Rolls Royces and other old model cars including world war army vehicles, all in pristine condition, that are used for movie props.
There is a Chinese saying, "To know China, come to Baoji" because the city's history dates back 7000 years.
Baoji bronze museum is the largest sole collection of bronze artefacts in China and the treasures, excavated in modern times tell the stories of the Zhou and Qin dynasties. It is amazing to see the intricacies of the creations many of which were used as cooking utensils, household objects or even weapons.
Baoji is also home to Famen Temple housing underground one of the finger bones of the ancient Buddha, Prince Siddartha.
The city and its surrounding villages is also known for its ceramic art — in particular brightly painted pieces of different animals.
It is also a key industrial city in the region, known as the titanium valley of China.
Just outside the city in an area known as Mei County — which has good growing conditions for kiwifruit which actually originated in China, hence its original name the Chinese gooseberry.
Chinese New Zealand Year of Tourism
The 2019 China-New Zealand Year of Tourism was kicked off in Te Papa Wellington by Tourism Minister Kelvin Davis and China's Minister of Culture and Tourism Luo Shugang.
The year is intended for the two countries to strengthen cultural, economic and people-to-people ties through tourism.
China is forecast to overtake Australia as New Zealand's biggest tourist market by 2024.
There was an 8.8 per cent increase in Chinese holidaymakers to New Zealand from 2017 to 2018, and China is New Zealand's second-largest tourism market. The number of New Zealanders visiting China has also reached a new high.
In September the Shaanxi province will host a banquet dinner in Xian for Kiwis to celebrate the year of tourism, and Kiwi visitors can also choose to partake in one of four special 12 day tours of cities which include the region.
For more information contact CTS tours, Tel 9 375 1711, Toll Free: 0800 CTS 999 (0800 287 999), www.chinatravel.co.nz.
Sizchuan Airlines flies three times a week from Auckland to Chengdu direct
Annemarie Quill's trip to China was funded by the Chinese Chamber of Commerce, Bay of Plenty