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China compels, the world’s oldest continuous civilization a roller-coaster ride through captivating contradictions. History buffs immerse themselves, cultural explorers smile as they delve deeper, city breaks are covered, and it would take years to fully discover the eclectic nature on offer. Exotic narratives are omnipresent, blending with the futuristic design and millennia old towns. No country can offer such diversity or deliver such a wide reaching appeal. Yet at the heart of the experience, despite the juxtapositions and inimitability, China is irrefutably China: absolutely unique and unforgettable.
Is there a travel paradigm that the country doesn’t offer? Ancient towns deliver shocks of intrigue, like the barefoot monks who walk down cobblestone alleys to historic temples. Then skyscrapers and the ultramodern welcome you to cities of enthusiasm and flashing lights. Wander through the bamboo forest and javelins of light reveal snow capped mountains in the distance. Warriors of terracotta stand beside fortress walls while rural communities retain their inimitability in far flung corners. Meet hundreds of confident students with perfect English, then laugh at the locals who clandestinely take photos of the white person. China offers a dozen different vacations and hundreds of distinct destinations, each confirming that the country is no mere single stereotype. It’s as if a whole continent is at the tip of your fingertips, each direction pointing you to something mesmerizingly new.
From the moment you land to the moment you leave there’s never any question, never a semblance of doubt about where you are. This is China. It’s written onto every face, every street corner, every journey, and every destination. Even in the states annexed by China – like Tibet – the mark of China never leaves. And China is not like anywhere else. It’s confusing and challenging. There’s limited special treatment. For the most part, you must jump in with two feet and absorb the good and the bad, from deciphering Chinese calligraphy to spending weeks exclusively eating local food. Sometimes you can’t pick or choose. This guidebook contains a whole section on how to survive in China, helping to minimize the culture shock as you explore the country.
At the same time, China’s greatest appeal is its sheer sundry of destinations. No two traveler’s itineraries are the same. In fact, most travelers won’t even cross paths. Head south to forests and mountains, east to cities, down the middle for history, west to historic cultures, and you’re only just glimpsing what’s on offer. With so much choice it’s almost impossible where to begin. That’s why this guidebook helps give you a nudge, presenting a series of mini-itineraries to consider and containing detailed information on the easiest places to start.
So welcome to China. Welcome to a land that rolls like no other, a place that borders on the surreal and is always sublime. You’ll be glad you took the plunge.
China at a Glance
China stretches further than the imagination can follow. From the Himalayan mountains that border Pakistan to the rough seas that gaze across at Japan. From arid desert next to Mongolia to lush forests and tropical islands in the south. A new high speed train connects Beijing to Lhasa in Tibet. It takes 38 hours and this journey traverses less than half the country. The country seems to redefine notions of size and geographical barriers add further complications to travel. Anyone attempting to see it all is madly optimistic. Anyone claiming to have seen it all is lying.
China can suit people with any length of time or budget. Even for a few days you can get a glimpse and sense of the country, albeit in just one place. Whole regions can be explored if you have one to two weeks, and the growing collection of airports enable you to stuff different vacations into a handful of action packed days. Travel for longer and China will keep entertaining, whether you’re coming for a few weeks or a few months.
Beijing is the capital, tucked away in the northeastern corner and reveling in its historical charm. The economic hub of Shanghai is situated half way down the East Coast and a flurry of flashing lights welcome you to a city with more people than most the world’s countries. Down on the southern coast is Hong Kong – part China, part independent state. These three cities are important as they form the basis of a high speed transport channel that runs through the eastern and coastal side of the country.
The western half of China is rural and arid, dominated by the Tibetan plateau and a challenging climate. Travel here is much slower and more difficult, the reward coming from discovering cultures that challenge the ethnic Han majority. Tibet and Northwestern China are poles apart from the East of the country.
Between Northwestern China and the East Coast, the country is heavily marked by industry and cities of ten million inhabitants that the world has hardly ever heard of. Lost amongst the smog are dozens of ancient beguiling destinations, each reliving a different dynasty and allowing an escape into new paradigms.
As the Himalayas descend east of Tibet, most of Southern China is remarkably lush and green. This is a region of bamboo forests, river journeys, limestone karsts, and alpine lakes. Like most of the country, historic towns are dotted amongst it all.
Despite the fact that some Chinese journeys are measured in days, not hours, getting between destinations is far easier than most imagine. 20 years ago the situation would have been different. But airports are springing up everywhere, enabling multiple destinations to open up to those with minimal time. The train services have always been excellent and they continue to improve. Many long distance journeys are scheduled to travel overnight, so with a comfortable air-conditioned sleeper, you drift off in the mountains and wake up on the coast.
Like all things China there are vast disparities between regions. Distance on a map is never an accurate indicator of how long a journey will take. For example, in Sichuan province it can take 8 – 10 hours to cover 200 miles in a rickety bus. On the East Coast, that distance takes little over an hour. Communication barriers and accommodation quality also heavily depends on where you are.
But let’s dwell on the positives here. It wasn’t that long ago that all of China was a very challenging destination to travel in. While some regions still pose difficulties, it adds doses of excitement. For the rest, the country’s remarkable transformation is finally making some of the world’s most unique experiences accessible to the world. So forget your preconceptions. You’ll get on just fine in China.
China isn’t short of the iconic and unforgettable. Here’s a quick flavor to get you excited:
• No world landmark can compete with the scale of the Great Wall of China. It can be explored at a series of destinations near Beijing (chapter 5) as well as in the Central Regions (chapter 8).
• Dazzling with evening neon lights, Shanghai’s Pudong District is the futuristic face of Asia, filled with sublime views and revolving restaurants (chapter 6).
• Exquisite limestone karsts guide your journey through the forest clad mountains of south China, evocative Guilin the most impressive of the region’s natural attractions (chapter 7).
• The eastern terminus of the Old Silk Road, Xian was the capital of China for over 1000 years, and its relics span across the times of 73 different emperors (chapter 8).
• In a couple of towns in Tibetan Sichuan, high up Buddhist monks are buried by having their bodies left to the vultures in a remarkable sky burial (chapter 9).
• The renowned backpacker hangout of Dali is a place where travelers can easily get stuck for weeks within its ancient town streets (chapter 10).
• In the far northwest of China, Kashgar is one of the world’s great trading posts, a place where the currency is still measured in sheep and donkeys (chapter 12).
Here are a few examples of China’s diversity
• Beijing has it all, from the memories found in Tiananmen Square to the Bird’s Nest Olympic Stadium and Chairman Mao’s mausoleum (chapter 5).
• Discover the surreal circular mud houses of Yongding Country, surprisingly close to modern Shanghai (chapter 6).
• Explore some of Hong Kong’s hidden islands, uninhabited places that contrast the chaos of the central streets (chapter 7).
• Immerse yourself in the ancient brilliance of Pingyao, a utopia of pedestrianized streets and antique stores selling communist relics (chapter 8).
• Sit on a panda’s lap and question why they’re so infertile at the panda breeding center in Chengdu (chapter 9).
• Discover the beauty of Chinese rice paddies and wooden villages in the south of Yunnan Province (chapter 10).
• Ascend to the promised land and discover the beauty of Tibet (chapter 11).
How to Use This Guidebook
Let's not pretend this guidebook can tell you everything about China. Claiming to do so would be obtuse and laughably optimistic. It would be the equivalent of a guidebook claiming to the complete bible to travel in the whole of the Americas, covering Alaska to Argentina and everything in between. Instead, the guidebook prefers to be concise and comprehensive in its coverage of typical paths and travels in the country. This applies to 95% of visitors: those coming as a tourist and traveling in China.
A guidebook that covered absolutely everything China would be too big for your backpack, even when it's in electronic form. Most major China guidebooks run to 1000+ pages and it takes half an hour to figure out where to even start reading. With so much going on, you really don't want your head stuck in the e-reader. Our approach is different. If it's important it's included. If it's not important – e.g. soulless industrial city – it's left out. China is a country of discovery and exploration.
It would also be challenging for anyone to make a claim as being a true China travel specialist. Again, the country is simply too big. Instead, this guidebook is written by a series of regional specialists, each able to fully explore the travel experiences in different parts of China. These have been collated and edited by a longtime expat who has coauthored a number of our e-travel guides.
The guidebook is split into three distinct sections. Chapter 2 is about preparing for a China visit. It contains the essential information on getting to the country, getting a visa, roughly planning where to go, when to go, and how much it’s going to cost. Chapter 3 is a first time visitors survival guide to the country. How do you get around and how do you decipher Mandarin? What local customs are essential to understand? Where do you sleep and how do you find a good hotel? What do you do when it all goes wrong and a hundred locals stop and stare?
The remaining chapters are about China’s destinations. It’s always a challenge to subdivide China into regions. Political boundaries may be useful to the locals but they have no bearing on a visitor’s travel plans. Individual states are too numerous to detail in any depth. This guidebook splits China into eight regions based on typical journeys and itineraries made by visitors to China. It roughly divides the country geographically, but also takes care to consider transport connections and well established travel hubs. In these sections you’ll find classic mini-itineraries that offer ideas for your trip. You’ll also find the essential information to make things run smoothly once you arrive. And most importantly, these chapters contain the experiences that make China such a unique and unforgettable destination.
This chapter contains the essential information required to transform China reverie into China reality. By the end of the chapter you should have a good understanding of how to make a China trip happen, as well as some indicative ideas on where to visit.
When to Go
This isn't visiting Mediterranean Europe. There is no single best time to go. China can be perfect at all months of the year. It could also be avoided at all months of the year. Climatic regional differences are more pronounced than any other country in the world. So while one region is enjoying its prime visitor season, another is inaccessible due to mountains of show. Rural China will be -40ºF in winter. Hong Kong midsummer hovers around 100ºF. So think less about the ideal time to visit China and more about the ideal time to visit the destinations you're most interested in. Best and worst seasons are included in the Where to Go section below.
As a general rule, summers in China are hot. Even the snowy summits can’t disguise temperatures that roast in the 80’s and 90’s. Summer is also the peak travel season due to local student holidays. Domestic tourists far outnumber foreign tourists in most of China, and this rush to explore the country is most apparent during summer. Winter is obviously colder. That makes some destinations inaccessible, but also brings central and southern China into pleasant and dry weather. Spring and fall are somewhere in between.
Planning an Itinerary
A China trip could last a few days. It could also last a few years. In reality, your trip is going to be somewhere in between. Despite the rapid improvements in transport, long journeys are likely to feature highly in any trip. Being overly optimistic and cramming dozens of destinations into two weeks invariably results in too many bored hours sat on a train or plane. Another major consideration is the size of most destinations. Most cities are on gargantuan proportions and it’s difficult to see anything if you’re just around for one day. Likewise, the natural attractions are vast and not easily glimpsed from afar. The best side of China is found when you really explore. And in this case, you can explore more by planning to do less.
In one week it’s advisable to stick to a single region. With two weeks you could also stay in one region. However, with more time it’s easy to immerse yourself in more than one region. Each of the destination chapters contains different itineraries, one covering the classic trip and others going more off the beaten track. These are based around the region’s transport hub and major city, like Shanghai or Hong Kong. These hubs are important because they’re almost unavoidable. This is where you’ll find airports with excellent domestic connections, and railway stations with lines scattering into all corners of the country.
Where to Go
China’s region’s are indelibly diverse, each of them offering an idiosyncratic feel and appeal. The following sections provide a brief on each region and link to the destination chapters.
Beijing and the Northeast (Chapter 5)
Ancient Beijing is packed with historical treasures and can easily entertain for a week. It’s also one of the country’s prime transport hubs. The northeast rarely features on itineraries, other than the unmissable day trips from Beijing to visit the Great Wall. However, it’s not without its cultural charms.
When to go: Generally good for most of the year, although there’s no absolutely ideal. In Beijing, hot and humid in summer, cold and just below freezing for most of the winter. Avoid the far northern reaches during winter.
The East Coast and Shanghai (Chapter 6)
Bustling, vibrant, never-ending…Shanghai is the ultra modern face of China and an action packed destination. It stands at the heart of the East Coast, the country’s most developed region and one that’s dotted with the world’s largest ports. While covering a large area, high speed connections make it easy to connect a variety of compelling traditional water towns in this “land of fish and rice.”
When to go: The East Coast can often be unbearably humid during summer. Winter is pleasant but bring a raincoat. Spring and fall are ideal.
Hong Kong and South China (Chapter 7)
While not officially part of China, Hong Kong is a great international transport hub and fascinating base for journeys in South China. Cross to the mainland and you’ll find beaches, old trading towns, and a developing mix of the old and new. Macau is also included here.
When to go: With its tropical climate, the cooler winter months are perfect for this region. Spring and fall are more than bearable but summer is intense.
Xian and the Central Regions (Chapter 8)
Scattered across the vast central regions are the old empire capitals and odes to ancient dynasties. While most of this region is ugly and polluted from the outside, the smog hides some delightful destinations and world famous attractions. Xian is the transport hub and was the seat of 73 different emperors: it’s the indisputable heart of China’s cultural chronicles.
When to go: Good throughout the year and ideal in spring and fall.
Chengdu and South-central China (Chapter 9)
South of Xian, the landscapes becomes greener, hemmed in by the Tibetan plateau on one side and running across towards the East Coast. This is a fascinating and varied region, dissected by the Yangtze River and filled with both cultural and natural attractions. Transport connections are acceptable but not the quickest and this region tends to require more dedicated time.
When to go: Most of the region can be visited at all times of year but spring to fall ensures everywhere is accessible. Summer is hot but bearable. Winter brings snow and rain to Sichuan, making the mountains inaccessible.
Southwest China inc Kunming (Chapter 10)
The exotic corner of China is the one best suited to budget and backpacker traveler. It’s almost a halfway between China and Southeast Asia and is dominated by the country’s most spectacular scenery, including mountains, lavish forests, and surreal natural attractions. Kunming is the major hub and you’ll see some iconic stretches of rice paddies.
When to go: A tropical climate makes for sticky sweaty summers and plenty of mosquitos. However, many travelers do brave this season. Winter is warm and the remaining months is also an excellent time to visit. But take note that the north of this region is Himalayan and inaccessible during winter.
Lhasa and Tibet (Chapter 11)
Fascinating Tibet is a travel challenge due to continued instability and oppression in the region. It couldn’t be any different to the rest of China, despite the obvious imported evidence of Han culture. If you don’t want to pay for the special permit to visit Lhasa, some Tibetan alternatives are provided in this guidebook.
When to go: Spring and fall is best. Winter stays sub-zero for months and most of Tibet becomes inaccessible. Summer can be roasting.
Northwest China (Chapter 12)
The historic Silk Road winds west from Xian in the central regions, to Kashgar and the borders with Kyrgyzstan and Pakistan. Like Tibet, this is a fascinatingly unique region marked by pockets of indigenous culture and nomadic people. High on the plateau, the transport connections can be challenging and exploring the region requires more than a week.
When to go: The weather can be as extreme as Tibet, oscillating between freezing winters and baking summers.
Getting to China
Three major airports provide the most common entry to China. These are Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong. International flights arrive from every continent and these hubs provide easy onward connection to anywhere in the country. Three other airports offer an alternative, each of them rapidly expanding and good choices for trips in the south: Guangzhou, Chongqing, and Chengdu.
As the domestic air network continues to spread its wings, arriving at any of these airports ensures that you can reach virtually any destination in China within a day. Budget airlines are beginning to operate, drastically reducing the cost and time of traveling cross country. It’s usually cheaper to find flights to one of the major airports and then book domestic connections separately, than find an airline that will offer the complete package.
The Cost of Travel in China
Much to the dismay of the West, China has been artificially controlling its currency to ensure its export market stays affordable to the world. Gradually they’ve been increasing the value of the yuan, keeping it a stable pace so the world keeps importing. This is an advantage to people traveling in China. The yuan is probably weaker than it should be, meaning you getting more spending money for your dollar. China’s currency is the Yuan Renminbi. Since 2011 it’s been trading between 6.0 and 6.5 yuan to $US1. For five years before that it was hovering around 7.0 to 7.5 yuan.
Costs are rising quickly in China and it’s difficult to keep the country in the budget category. Vast regional differences are apparent throughout the country and you’ll need one budget for anywhere in the east, and another for the west. Here are some general guidelines.
In China, inflated price doesn’t always mean an improved service or experience. The country’s excellent network of hostels can offer a better double room for cheaper than a budget room at a new business hotel. Food served in a tourist restaurant is usually twice the price and half the quality as food served in an upmarket restaurant aimed towards locals. Most attractions can be easily visited independently, although it’s sometimes difficult to avoid the pantheon of tours on offer. Chinese tourists like tours. So they assume that foreign tourists like the same. Again, this adds to the money spent without necessarily improving the experience.
The challenge is that doing things independently is fraught with communication troubles. The great restaurant won’t have an English menu, so you’ll be relying on pointing and hoping. Likewise, a business hotel screams hello with its flashing neon, while the hostel is hidden away and the taxi drivers can’t understand your directions. Furthermore, a key tip to surviving China involves minimizing these challenges. So while the above table provides an example of indicative costs, many travelers find that they move across the categories at different points during their trip.
Getting a Visa
Almost all Western visitors to China will need to arrange a visa in advance. Embassy officials don’t ask many questions and the process is simple enough, as long as you’re near to a Chinese embassy. Visit the embassy, fill out the application form, pay the fee, and leave your passport. You may have to “prove” you’re a tourist, but this rarely requires more than writing down the destinations you intend to visit (although it’s slightly stricter for US citizens). Different embassies have vastly different processing times. Some will take a few days, others a few weeks. There will also be options to pay an additional fee to get your visa express.
A standard tourist visa will be valid for 30 days and must be used within three months of the date of issue. A double entry visa will usually be valid for two visits of up to 30 days within a six month period. However, neither of these are absolutely guaranteed and there are reports are visitors being given less time. For longer China trips a double or even multiple entry visas is worth the extra money.
Many travel agents and tour companies can obtain Chinese visas for an additional cost. The $50 is usually worth it considering you don’t have to travel to your capital city and wait in the embassy. Add on extra costs for having your passport sent by recorded mail.
Once in the country, it’s possible to extend a tourist visa for another 30 days at any of the regional administrative capitals. This is a relatively simple process but does take a few working days, which can mean a bored stopover if you arrive at the weekend.
There are some nuances to the visa system. Hong Kong and Macau are not part of mainland China. Most visitors can visit these states visa free for up to 90 days. However, when arriving from the mainland, travelers are stamped out of China and into Hong Kong. To return to the mainland you’ll need a double entry visa. If you do have one, this means another 30 days in China once you return to the mainland. If you don’t, it can be a hassle. Hong Kong was traditionally a place to quickly pick up a new Chinese visa. This is becoming increasingly difficult and same day services are harder to get.
The other exception to requiring a visa is 72-hour stopovers in one of five cities. Visitors can now stopover in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Chengdu, and Chongqing, without having a visa. You’re limited to staying within the metropolitan district in question and must have an onward flight. Note that a return flight is not eligible. This new rule provides opportunities to see a bit of China on a wider trip through Asia.
A Little Introduction to China…
China is a chaotic yet serene place, a country of hyper-development and also of history, and a destination that many travelers put in the “love it or hate it” category. Some people certainly love it. And some hate it. However, this descriptive mantra doesn’t do justice to the China travel experience. In reality, everyone loves certain aspects of the country and begins to hate others. So first the good…It’s beautiful, alternative, packed with culture, full of fascination, and every day brings something utterly memorable.
So what is there to hate? Well…pollution can spoil, never-ending crowds can be tiresome, language barriers frustrating, and certain customs repulsing. In China you can’t go in halfhearted. From the moment you land you’re engulfed in everything that’s good and bad about the country. Even when they offer specialist luxury tourist services, it tends to be more Chinese than everything else. At first, some of these challenges are nothing more than challenges. They add excitement, can be thrown to the back of the mind, and ensure entertainment. However, most travelers seem to have a breaking point, reached when the residual moments of China’s bad build to an unstoppable level. It won’t happen in your first week. Maybe not even in your second month. But almost every traveler reaches a time when the bad outweighs the good.
Reaching this saturation point can spoil a whole trip. The great memories are displaced by images of smog, spit, and rough nights spent on a grubby sleeper train carriage. Managing the oscillating emotions is essential in keeping China high and happy in the memory bank. Here are some ideas:
• Long distance travel can showcase some of the worst of China. Filthy carriages, landscapes ruined by pollution, locals continually spitting on the floor. Taking too many long distances in a short amount of time really builds on the nerves. But these trains can also be wonderful experiences, especially if you’re pay for the first class carriages.
• While China can be cheap, the cheapest isn’t that much different from the mid-range. Paying a little more goes a long way to maintaining your sanity, especially when it comes to somewhere to sleep.
• Spending money to relieve the stress can be worth the hit on the bank account. For example, taking two nights at a lavish mountain resort can recharge the batteries after a few days on rickety mattresses.
• Take the language barrier with a pinch of salt. While it’s frustrating, it can be funny and there’s always the surge of pride when you decipher the symbols.
• The Chinese are generally honest and unlikely to deliberately rip off tourists, English speaking taxi drivers being the chief exception. Sometimes you hear groups of locals discussing you and it’s easy to assume the worst. They’re more likely to be arguing to ensure you get the best.
• Tourist rip offs are far more likely to be organized by the local government, involving outrageous entrance tickets to relatively average attractions. If it’s too much, just say no.
• Book long-distance trains a few days in advance to ensure a bed on an air-conditioned sleeper carriage.
• If you can’t use chopsticks carry a fork in your pocket.
• Most importantly, take advantage of any home comforts whenever they arise.
China offers one of the planet’s most overbearing culture shocks. A thousand faces stop and stare, grandmothers leave meters of phlegmy spit on the floor, whiffs of stale tobacco come from many street corners, and you wonder why you came. Then there’s the crowds and lack of space, or the shockingly limited visibility as smog swirls and finds a way into your nostrils. But don’t worry, there are also good things about Chinese culture. And rather than criticize foreigners for not following Chinese customs, the locals will be gracious whenever anyone is willing to try.
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China compels, the world's oldest continuous civilization a roller-coaster ride through captivating contradictions. History buffs immerse themselves, cultural explorers smile as they delve deeper, city breaks are covered, and it would take years to fully discover the eclectic nature on offer. Exotic narratives are omnipresent, blending with the futuristic design and millennia old towns. No country can offer such diversity or deliver such a wide reaching appeal. Yet at the heart of the experience, despite the juxtapositions and inimitability, China is irrefutably China: absolutely unique and unforgettable. Is there a travel paradigm that the country doesn't offer? Ancient towns deliver shocks of intrigue, like the barefoot monks who walk down cobblestone alleys to historic temples. Then skyscrapers and the ultramodern welcome you to cities of enthusiasm and flashing lights. Wander through the bamboo forest and javelins of light reveal snow capped mountains in the distance. Warriors of terracotta stand beside fortress walls while rural communities retain their inimitability in far flung corners. Meet hundreds of confident students with perfect English, then laugh at the locals who clandestinely take photos of the white person. China offers a dozen different vacations and hundreds of distinct destinations, each confirming that the country is no mere single stereotype. It's as if a whole continent is at the tip of your fingertips, each direction pointing you to something mesmerisingly new. From the moment you land to the moment you leave there's never any question, never a semblance of doubt about where you are. This is China. It's written onto every face, every street corner, every journey, and every destination. Even in the states annexed by China – like Tibet – the mark of China never leaves. And China is not like anywhere else. It's confusing and challenging. There's limited special treatment. For the most part, you must jump in with two feet and absorb the good and the bad, from deciphering Chinese calligraphy to spending weeks exclusively eating local food. Sometimes you can't pick or choose. This guidebook contains a whole section on how to survive in China, helping to minimize the culture shock as you explore the country.