holiday in China?
big, big. 1.3 billion hard working, inventive people divided into 50 ethnic groups, though most are Han Chinese; 5,000 years
of arts and crafts; landscapes stretching from jungles to Mt. Everest
with deserts on the side; politics stretching from imperialism to
capitalism with communism on the side; amazing structures ranging
from the Great Wall to the Terracotta Army with dazzling skyscrapers
on the side, everywhere these days.
The food is fantastic, scenery varies from dreary, industrial plains to magical mountains and glaciers, the
country is good value, the shopping is excellent and the country
is working hard to be tourist- friendly, people are getting used
to foreigners and no longer stare in horror when they hear English
This huge land is the centre of the earth according to Chinese tradition
and it's heading that way again this century; the China buzz
is thrilling. There are two Chinas here: the old, authoritarian, collective China and a new, young, more individualistic China.
- Pollution in some cities can be breathtaking, particularly in Hong Kong and Beijing due to rampant construction and lax industrial controls as well as natural forces such as dust blowing in from desert areas. In 2007 the World Bank calculated that 16 of the world's top twenty most polluted cities are in China.
The World Health Organisations says 'exposure to high pollution levels may trigger serious problems. People who have heart problems may wish to reconsider their willingness to go there'. See Chinese urban pollution.
- Massive distances mean considerable expenditure of time and money
for domestic transport.
- Much/most of the glorious old Chinese architecture is long gone.
- Petty crime is on a rise in cities.
- Human rights is not to be discussed.
- Traffic jams are bad and getting worse.
No, not a car park. An expressway on a holiday when tolls were free.
September-November (or June-October for high altitude places like Tibet
or West Sichuan).
OK: April-May (some wind and dust)
Worst: December, January (extreme cold though the Harbin Ice Festival is amazing); July, August (hot, humid and crowded),
1st weeks of May and October (Chinese holidays so attractions are
very crowded) and the Chinese New Year (sometime January/ February)
***Beijing for the Forbidden Palace, The Summer Palace,
the Temple of Heaven, the Great Wall, Tiananmen Square as
well as stunning new architecture, terrific shopping and entertainment
and a few lovely little old streets that still survive the massive
rebuilding for the 2008 Olympics. Pictures
***Shanghai, Asia's version of Manhattan is more about bling and less
about Ming than Beijing...with dazzling skyscrapers (don't miss
the viewing platform on the 88th floor of Jinmao
Tower), fashionable people, avant-garde galleries and museums,
funky restaurants and bars, rivers of cars, oceans of noise, superb
new transport systems and a ferocious night life. Shanghai is
perfect for tourists who pursue sensory overload but not so good
for seekers of ancient artifacts, though calm oases like Jade Buddha Temple, Fuxing Park,
the Yuyuan Garden and a few crumbling hutongs still exist; alternatively take
a Huangpu riverboat tour for a fish-eye view of China 2K.
Province (east, near Shanghai) for:
***Mount Huang (Huangshan)'s
massive peaks, weird rock formations wreathed in mist, diverse plants
and wildlife have inspired thousands of years of paintings and poetry.
Climb or take the cable car.
**Suzhou, 40 minutes out of Shanghai by train and not far
from Hangzhou or watery Tongli, quiet Suzhou is a canal town dotted
with fine bridges, complex gardens and ancient stonework.
**Hangzhou (180kms/110 miles south of Shanghai, Zhejiang Province), a busy
tourist town of canals, lake, gardens, ancient pagodas and varied
'In heaven there is paradise, on Earth there is Hangzhou'
is not an accurate description of the city these days, mass-touristy
as it has become, but the west edge of the pagoda dotted West Lake
is a relatively quiet place to wind down and smell the Starbucks.
Just to the south Mt Wuyi (Fujian Province) is an outstanding sight
with gorges and diverse plant life.
***Xian (Shaanxi Province) is the place to see the 8,000 man, life-size Terracotta Army, discovered as recently
as 1974, and Qin Shi Huang's tomb that
the army guards, 28kms from the city; the Banpo Museum's remains
of a Neolithic village (4,500 BC); Huaqing
Pool, hot mineral waters favoured by emperors. You can soak
tired bodies here, near the Terra Army, but it's not a culturally
invigorating experience; Famen Si temple
exhibiting Buddha's finger bone and a Tang dynasty museum; the expansive,
dramatic views from the holy mountain of Hua
Shan (Flowery Mountain) which you can partially ascend by
cable car, with sufficient refreshment stops further up if you have
the legs to keep climbing.
Some way to the east, 13km south of Luoyang are the brilliant Longmen
(Dragon Gate) Cave Temples of marble, wood and tiled structures
containing over 100,000 Buddhist statues and reliefs 1km long in
1350 caves; started in 492 AD, it's a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
not a very inviting city but nevertheless encircled by karsts and
terraced rice paddies and gateway for visits to the exotic villages
of ethnic minorities such as the Yao, Miao and Dong, as well as
the exquisite six hour Li River ride (by boat, but bike is possible)
down to Yangshuo.
***Yangshuo (south), surrounded by amazing pointy limestone
hills (karsts), rural tranquility and cormorant fishermen still in a 1,000 year partnership with their birds, this is
premium biking or walking territory though the town itself is a
neon-lit bustle of tourist overdose.
***Yunnan (sub-tropical province, far southwest, near Burma/Laos/Vietnam),
for colourful ethnic minorities, shining ranks of rice terraces groomed by water buffalo, ancient buildings and terrific
hiking or biking.
Kunming, known for its fine climate (aka the city of eternal spring),
temples and relaxed lifestyle, is fairly modern but still pleasant
The weird rock formations of Shilin 'Stone
Forest' are an easy 100kms from Kunming while Dali, 370km away, is a backpacker favourite, with its atmospheric, fortified
old town, great hiking around Lake Erhai or Cang Shan mountain and
banana pancake breakfasts.
Lijiang, 570 kms from Kunming is more remote and less modernised
than most Chinese towns. Traditional old, wooden, low-rise buildings
(that are now a UNESCO World Heritage Site) are inhabited by traditional
old low-rise Chinese, offering one of the country's most charming
and authentic old-time China experiences, with the added value of
canals, colourful Naxi culture and the nearby Jade Dragon Snow Mountains.
Hiking the jungle in Xishuangbanna brings visitors to really exotic ethnic villages.
Best time to visit Yunnan: more or less any
time. Winter is sunny but a little chilly, summer a little
wet but cooler than most places due to its altitude of nearly 2,000
**Sichuan Province (west China, north of Yunnan, aka Szechuan) for:
Mount Emei scenic area with diverse vegetation, hundreds of temples - including
the country's first Buddhist temple - and the world's largest rock-carved
8th century, 71m high) overlooking the confluence of three rivers.
**Jiuzhaigou Valley wilderness area
in north Sichuan for forests, karsts, waterfalls, valleys, birds,
plants, pandas and the Himalaya mountains.
Kashgar (far north-west) for Muslim minorities, stunning
desert scenery and Silk Road relics, though it's extremely hot,
distant and non-Chinese.
*Hainan Island (Dao),
the Chinese answer to Hawaii. Main activities involve swimming,
snorkelling, surfing, hiking, sun-burning and too much Tsing Tao
beer; sights include primate-packed Monkey Island and the colourful
Tomb of Hairui. Hainan
Get there by domestic or international flight or by ferry from Hai'an
(Leizhou Peninsula, nearish to Guangzhou). Best
time to visit: November to April; Worst: May to October (storm
Kong, people packed, scenically dazzling and historically
fascinating, it's a kind of muggy mini-China experience. The climate
is more sub-tropical than most of the 'mainland' so the best time
to visit differs from the mainland: October-December
is relatively cool and sunny.
this tiny (11 sq miles), relaxed ex-Portuguese island has a few
interesting colonial relics such as forts, churches and temples
but its visitor raison d'etre is gambling of all sorts from
odd Chinese games involving sorting buttons to high stakes poker.
Macau is easy to get to from Hong Kong by high speed ferry.
***Tibet is a breathtaking experience, both metaphorically and literally as your lungs gasp for oxygen and your mind gasps for rational explanation of the magical mountains, strange apparel and rituals.
Chinese hotels are at peak pricing three months in advance. If you are willing to risk not getting a room at your preferred hotel or b&b then wait until weeks before arrival before making a booking. The nearer to the date the lower the price. You could save up to 50% on room rates though patience.
Chinese-run hotels are particularly good value compared to international chains. Check here for a range of China Hotels from budget to luxury, business to family vacations.
Unlike western countries tipping is not a part of the Chinese culture and could actually be deemed offensive. Do not tip in taxis, restaurants and hotels unless you are in a very westernized establishment where service personnel have obviously been conditioned to expect tips from foreigners. The exception is for some tour guides of organised groups and service people in Hong Kong where you should round up taxi fares, check restaurant bills to see if 10% or 15% service charge is included if it is, you could leave a little tip if you're happy.
220v, flat 2 pins, occasionally 3 flat pins or even 3 rectangular
pins (UK style).
Visas are required from visitor's home consulates or embassies with the exception
of western nationals visiting only Hong Kong or Macau. More on Visas for China.
Beware AMS (altitude
sickness) in Tibet - even Lhasa - for older or less fit tourists;
hygiene standards are low in Tibet so typhoid is not uncommon, as
is rabies due to rampant dog packs.
Hepatitis A and B occur throuout the country as does malaria
in some south western states.
Mainly Mandarin (70%) or Cantonese, but service people are increasingly
making an effort with English.
China is still not totally comfortable with credit cards outside
major tourist locations (e.g. big shops and hotels) so plan
to carry some cash. Exchanging foreign currency is easy but easier
still is to use cards to get ATM cash in most cities.
Tipping is not necessary in any situation outside Hong Kong or Macau. More on Chinese currency
Beijing | Tibet | Hong Kong | China
Tours | China