Arguably the most well known of the oriental countries, China is a country of splendid mountain backdrops and a rich tradition steeped culture which most western tourists find irresistible. To some China is the land of emperors, ancient temples and warrior monks, other come to see the remnants of communism. No matter what your taste you will find plenty to do in China, from the more well known sites such as the Great Wall of China and the Terracotta Army to lesser known sites such as the Flaming Mountains near Turpan. Of course China hasn't been standing still and in it's cities you will also find elements of western culture fused with Chinese traditionalism. Furthermore, China's extreme size means that it is a fantastic destination for repeated visits; it would take literally years to explore all that this huge country has to offer.
- Currency: Yuan (Renminbi RMB) = 10 chiao/jiao or 100 fen
- Time Zone: GMT + 8
- Language: Chinese (Mandarin is the major dialect)
- Telephone Services: Country code +86, International access code 00
- Emergency Numbers: 110 Police, 119 Fire
China's size means that the climate does vary considerably from one region to another. The northeast generally boasts very hot, very dry summers but also some of the most bitterly cold winters. The northern and central regions have a lot of precipitation at all times of the year with hot summers and cold winters. The south-eastern area is the most temperate with nearly tropical summers and cool winters, there is still however a substantial amount of rainfall spread throughout the year.
Things to see and do
Beijing is China's capital and is to some extent a gigantic showpiece of the Chinese governments. The city is famous for Tiananmen Square, the site is most famously the site of a massacre of thousands of students but is also the home of the Tiananmen Tower, Mao Zedong memorial hall and several other landmarks. The square lies at the centre of Beijing and is dominated by the Tower at the north end, which was originally built during the Ming Dynasty. Also well worth a visit is the Forbidden City, again located in central Beijing this huge palace complex was used by both the Ming and Qing dynasties. It covers an impressive 74 hectares and it is advised to plan to spend at least half a day exploring all that the palaces have to offer. If all of the tourism gets on top of you however , just south-west of Tiananmen square is the Daguanyuan or "Grand View Garden". This exquisitely picturesque garden boasts several small attractions of its own such as the Bamboo Lodge and the Cheerful Red Court but in many ways these are secondary to its beautiful gardens.
Beijing also makes an ideal base for exploring some of the surrounding sites, there are numerous areas of the Great Wall open to visitors close to Beijing. The Jinshanling stretch is 90km in length and not as busy as some of the other stretches nearby. Also close by are the famous Ming Tombs. These 13 mausoleums each house one of the emperors of the Ming dynasty each holding various relics and treasures, amongst them in the mausoleum of Emperor Zhu Yijun is the imperial crown, one of China's rarest treasures.
Most visitors to China don't want to leave without visiting Xi'an. This city was formerly a major hub of trade from eastern China to Asia but is most famous for its Terracotta Army. Uncovered in 1974 with new statues still being discovered and restored to date each of the thousands of warriors has been sculpted uniquely and are thought to be exact likenesses of Emporer Qin's actual army. The statues are armed with real weapons and include contingents of swordsmen, archers and cavalry. Also of not in Xi'an is the Banpo Neolithic village which is a recreation of stone-age China, however these and other attractions such as the Muslim Quarter pale into insignificance against the splendour of the Terracotta Army.
Shanghai is another of China's major cities but to many it represents the Western cultural invasion of the east and as such has earned itself a somewhat distasteful reputation amongst snobbier travellers. To those willing to look past facetious nicknames like "The whore of the east" there are plenty of things worth seeing in Shanghai. The most famous site is the "Temple of the Jade Buddha", this splendid temple was built in 1882 to house two magnificent jade Buddha statues brought back from Burma by the monk Huigen. Also worth a visit is the Shanghai museum which hosts some 120,000 works of art including excellent exhibitions of Chinese Bronzes and Ming/Qing dynasty furniture. Of especial interest is the splendid Jade gallery which boasts exhibits ranging as far back as 7000 years.
China is an enormous country so travelling by air across larger distances is well worthwhile. The Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) operates routes connecting over 80 locations to Beijing, their web page is however in Chinese so you may need to babelfish. Most tickets are booked through tour operators but backpackers or independent travellers can book through the Chinese International Travel Service which charge a commission. You can attempt to buy tickets from booking offices but you will find that the Chinese government has put some restrictions on foreign air travel, most notably you will be refused access to areas such as Tibet if you are not part of a "group tour" arranged through a tour operator or Chinese International Travel Service.
The rail service in China is in general good and offers a cheap and safe way to travel. The network covers some 52,000lm and reaches every province except for Tibet. There are four different kind of fares, hard and soft seated and hard and soft sleepers, it is generally quite cheap so you will be wanting to lay out the extra cash for the comfier seats/beds on most journeys. Children are offered discounts according to height rather than the more traditional age boundaries, children under 1m (3ft) will travel free and children under 1.3m (4ft) only pay a quarter fee.
It is possible to reach most of China by bus, however roads are not always of good quality and neither is the standard of driving. Buses are for the most part slow, crowded and in general a somewhat hair raising experience. Buses are run by a variety of local companies and fares are usually paid for on the bus to the bus driver. It is worth noting that although hire-cars are available most companies will want to retain your passport and thus are not generally to be recommended. Cars, with drivers can be hired easily in bigger cities.
The final way to travel in China is by boat, all major rivers have ferry services on them and these are geared up to serve tourists quite well. The Yangzi is especially well catered for and there is a good selection of boat trips available.
China boasts some 2350 "star-graded" hotels with about that number again of ungraded hotels so finding a place to stay near major cities shouldn't pose much of a problem. Most hotels have good facilities and many of the pricier ones have a myriad of leisure activities on-site. The China Tourism Hotel Association can be contacted for more information on Chinese hotels.
Budget travellers have two choices open to them, there are generally dormitories found in tourist hotspots although the conditions can be very poor and in some you will want to take your own bed linen. Thankfully China is currently in the process of building a youth hostel network. The International Youth Hostel Federation has more information on these plans which are expected to be concentrated around Guandong, Beijing, Guanxi, Yunnam and Shanghai.
Medical costs are surprisingly low in China although many Western medicines are unavailable. Facilities in China's international hospitals are nearly as good as those in Western hospitals although it is still advised that you take out comprehensive travel insurance.
Typhoid and polio vaccinations are recommended before travelling to China, these can be obtained from your local GP for around £40. Cholera is also a slight rish in China although the medical community is somewhat divided on whether vaccinations are effective, you should consult your GP for up to date medical advice before travelling. Malaria is present in most region of the country and it is recommended that you carry chloroquine in most areas and mefloquine in Hainan and Yunnan.
Outside main cities water should be boiled before use for either washing or consumption, meat should be well cooked and served hot and vegetables should be cooked and peeled. Although in the cities there are no large problems normal precautions should be observed when buying food from smaller restaurants or street vendors.
The China Tourism Hotel Association can be contacted for information on Chinese hotels.
The Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) operates routes connecting over 80 locations to Beijing. (Site in Chinese).
China National Tourist Office is a good source of information for visitors to China.