China Travel Guide

Pingyao

Pingyao’s old town in central Shanxi province, 600 kms southwest of Beijing. Photo by Benzh.

Travelling in China

Big, 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 and the Silk Road in between; 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 and avante-garde structures on the side.

The food is fantastic, scenery varies from dreary, industrial plains to magical mountains and glaciers, the shopping is excellent and the country is working hard to be tourist-friendly, people no longer stare in horror when they hear English spoken.

This huge land is the centre of the earth according to Chinese tradition and it’s heading that way again in century 2K; the China buzz is thrilling.

Downsides

Pollution in some Chinese cities is frequently and literally breathtaking, particularly in Hong Kong and Beijing due to rampant construction, lax industrial controls, vehicle emissions and 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’. More on pollution.

• People, people, people, simply too many local tourists everywhere at popular sites.

• Massive distances mean considerable expenditure of time and money for domestic transport.

• Much/most of the glorious old Chinese architecture is long gone. To be fair in some places it has been replaced by astonishing new structures. Shanghai and Beijing. . . Woah!

• Petty crime is on a rise in cities.

• Human rights issues are not to be discussed.

• Traffic jams are bad and getting worse.

The CBD, a very modern central business district in Beijing, China

The CBD (central business district) of Beijing, the capital city of China.

China weather

Best months to visit: September-November (or June-October for high altitude places like Tibet or West Sichuan).
OK: April-May (some wind, dust and pollution possible).
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).

Note that these days there are two situations you should assume on most China vacations:
• blue skies are rare – a bleached haze, if not stinging grey pollution, will be the default view.
• there will be hundreds, possibly thousands of Chinese tourists around you, wherever.

Main Attractions

The Great Wall of China at Badaling, Beijing, China

The Great Wall of China at Badaling near Zhangjiakou, 76 kms north of Beijing, on the most visited stretch of the wall. Well, not at this very early time of day, obviously! Photo by hao wei.

Beijing

Beijing’s Yindingqiao hutong canal.

***Beijing sights

The capital of China offers a few grand ancient sights such as the Forbidden Palace/City, the Summer Palace (Yiheyuan), the Temple of Heaven, Tiananmen Square, as well as stunning new architecture, terrific shopping and entertainment, a handful of relaxing old/rebuilt temples and a few lovely little old streets and canals that still survive the massive rebuilding for the Beijing Olympics. And of course the Great Wall snakes around the countryside an hour or two’s drive from the city centre. Tips on walking the Great Wall

***Pingyao (Shanxi)

This ancient city (photo at top) is famous for its imposing city wall with six barbican gates, a well-preserved old town that still retains a feel of the Ming and Qing eras and several beautiful temples. This is one of China’s many World Heritage Sites.

Shanghai

Shanghai’s Pudong district skyline seen across the Huangpu River. Photo by Jim.

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 wish to pursue sensory overload on a bottomless budget 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. Take a Huangpu riverboat tour for a fish-eye view of China 2K.

Huangshan Pines growing out of rocks of Yellow Mountains, China

Huangshan Pine (pinus hwangshanensis) growing straight out of rocks of Yellow Mountains, in the sea of clouds known as the ‘Huangshan Sea’. Photo by Mstyslav Chernov.

***Yellow Mountains (Anhui)

The Yellow Mountains’ (Mount Huangshan or just Huangshan) massive peaks, weird rock formations wreathed in mist and diverse plants make up a scenery that has inspired thousands of years of paintings and poetry. Climb or take the cable car up this World Heritage site, one of the most popular destinations among Chinese tourists; it’s located in southern Anhui Province (east China, near Shanghai).

**Suzhou (Jiangsu)

100kms (about 40 minutes) northwest of Shanghai in Jiangsu Province, by train . Nicknamed ‘Venice of East’, quiet Suzhou is a canal town dotted with fine old bridges, complex traditional gardens, Pagodas and ancient stonework. It’s not far from Hangzhou or watery Tongli.

Dreaming of the Tiger (Hupao) Spring, Hangzhou, Zhejiang, China

This is Dreaming of the Tiger (Hupao) Spring, also known as Running Tiger Spring, just outside Hangzhou. Photo by Sh1019.

Hupao Spring is embedded in a a forest park of streams, pagodas and pavilions about 5km  southwest of Hangzhou, easily reached by bus or taxi and often combined with a visit to Liuhe Pagoda on the same route. Hupao spring water is one of the three best natural water sources in China, very pure and sweet.

**Hangzhou (Zhejiang)

180kms/110 miles south of Shanghai in Zhejiang Province, Hangzhou is a busy tourist town of canals, lake, gardens, ancient pagodas and varied buddha sculptures and sculpture gardens.

In heaven there is paradise, on Earth there is Hangzhou‘ is sadly not an accurate description of the city these days, with overdevelopment and mass tourism weaving their evil spell, but the west edge of the 6 sq km pagoda dotted West Lake is a relatively quiet place to wind down and watch loitering Chinese lovers and elaborately coloured tourist boats (primarily for Chinese people, not round eyes) while some of the bizarrely arranged buddha statues are exceptional.
Just to the south Mt Wuyi (Fujian Province) is an outstanding sight with gorges and diverse plant life. Hangzhou is 180 kms (110 miles) southwest of Shanghai.

Xi

Xi’an’s magnificent City Wall. Photo by Ronnie Macdonald

***Xi’an (Shaanxi)

Xian is the place to walk the city walls, check the two iconic structures in the centre – the Bell Tower and Drum Tower – visit the interesting Shaanxi Historic Museum, the Grand Mosque and the City God Temple, watch a traditional Tang-era Chinese music show or head for Qujiang Tang Paradise resort for a display of Tang Dynasty culture encompassing landscapes, poetry, song, dance, food, lifestyles and science.

Then there’s the big sight just outside the city, the huge, life-size Terracotta Army, discovered as recently as 1974, along with Qin Shi Huang’s tomb that the army guards 28kms from the city.

Within day-trip distance are quite a few more touristic possibilities such asthe 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.

An aerial view of the Li River near Guilin, Guangxi, China

The 83 kilometre-long Li River runs through tranquil, peaky countryside and carries masses of tourists daily from Guilin to Yangshuo. Photo by Ben Hodgson.

*Guilin (Guangxi)

Not a very inviting city but nevertheless encircled by karsts, terraced rice paddies and a bizarre, beautiful cave – Reed Flute Cave. Guilin is also gateway for visits to the exotic villages of ethnic minorities such as the Yao, Miao and Dong, as well as a long or short boat trip on the spectacular Li River (bike rides also possible) down to Yangshuo or just cruising the prettiest sector. Nowadays you are likely to be accompanied by a mass of Chinese tourists.

***Yangshuo (Guangxi)

Yangshuo town is 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.

The Shilin Stone Forest in Yunnan, China

The Shilin Stone Forest in Yunnan.

***Yunnan Province

This sub-tropical province in China’s far southwest, near Burma/Laos/Vietnam, is the place to meet colourful ethnic minorities and to see shining ranks of rice terraces groomed by water buffalo, ancient buildings and terrific hiking or biking.

Kunming is the capital of Yunnan and known for its fine climate (aka the city of eternal spring), temples and relaxed lifestyle; it’s fairly modern but still pleasant nevertheless.

The weird rock formations of Shilin ‘Stone Forest’ are an easy 100kms from Kunming while 370kms away (7 hours by train) is a backpacker favourite, atmospheric Dali’s fortified old town, great hiking around Lake Erhai or Cang Shan mountain and banana pancake breakfasts.

The old town of Lijiang, Yunnan, China

The old town of Lijiang. Photo by chensiyuan.

Lijiang (Yunnan)

570 kms from Kunming Lijiang is more remote and less modernised than most Chinese towns. Traditional old, wooden, low-rise buildings 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 metres.

Leshan

Leshan’s Giant Buddha in Sichuan. Photo by PieCam.

**SichuanProvince

In south west China, north of Yunnan, Szechuan is known for its gastronomy, particulaly the use of hot and spicy chillies and peppercorns, one of four traditional Chinese cuisines. The area produces one of the highest quality chinese teas as well and is home to giant pandas, with 80% of China’s wild pandas living in this province.

**Chengdu (Sichuan)

Called ‘the land of abundance’ or ‘the land of milk and honey’ because of its rich agricultural fortune, Chengdu is the capital of Sichuan province and one of China’s major cities. This historic city and the surrounding area is one of the most important Taoist (Daoist) centres in the country, with the sacred Mount Qingcheng located near Duliangyan City, 70km from Chengdu.

Chengdu’s main tourist sights include Dujiangyan Irrigation Project which is a 2, 500-year-old water conservation system, the Panda Breeding and Reserch Centre, one of China’s oldest and largest Taoist establishments the Quingyan Taoist ‘Green Goat Temple’ and three Buddhist Monasteries of Chengdu, Wenshu and Baoguang.

** Mount Emei (Sichuan)

One of Four Sacred Buddhist Mountains in China, Mt Emei’s scenic area is covered with diverse vegetation, hundreds of temples – including the Monastery of Ten Thousand Years, the country’s first Buddhist temple – and the world’s largest rock-carved Buddha (Leshan, 8th century, 71m high) overlooking the confluence of three rivers, Min, Qingyi and Dadu.

Nuorilang falls in the Jiuzhaigou valley, Sichuan, China

Nuorilang falls in the Jiuzhaigou valley, Sichuan. Photo by Chensiyuan.

**Jiuzhaigou Valley (Sichuan)

Part of the Min Mountains in the range known as the Valley of Nine Fortified Villages, this is one of China’s three best national parks. This wilderness area in north Sichuan is known for its multicoloured lakes and autumn foliage as well as karsts, waterfalls, birds, plants, pandas and the Himalaya mountains.

Zhangjiajie National Forest Park, China

Zhangjiajie National Forest Park, Hunan Province. Photo by chensiyuan.

**Wulingyuan Scenic Area (Hunan)

It contains Tianzishan (Heavenly Gate) mountain range, Suoxi Valley, Baofeng (Treasure Peak) Lake and Zhangjiajie National Forest Park known for its pillar rock formations which is a distinct image of Chinese landscape, seen in traditional Chineses ink wash paintings, a brush paintings uses black ink.

Also known as the Silk Routes these ancient caravan trails linked China (especially Xi’an) with Europe over 4, 000 miles long (6, 437 kilometres) via the Middle-East and Turkey (then called Byzantium). The Silk Routes commenced before the birth of Christ and lasted for around 1, 500 years, trading silk, paper, bamboo, and gunpowder while the west sent back gold, jade and grapes.

Key tourist attractions are the Mogao Caves and their superb buddhist murals; the desert fort at Jiayuguan’s Great Wall; Dunhuang monastery oasis; Turpan and its Grape Valley in the hottest place in China; the sand dunes at the Yueyaquan National Park.

*Turfan (Xinjiang)

In the far west province of Xinjiang Turpan is the place to meet the Muslim Uighur people who make up about 60% of the population, most of the rest being migrated Han Chinese. Unfortunately the Uighurs are less than happy about their employment situation and Han lack of respect for Muslim customs. Local Chinese held a beer festival just before the start of Ramadan, the Muslim fasting month, in 2015.
On the plus side the desert scenery and Silk Road relics are interesting, but it’s extremely hot/cold, distant and there is discord and occasional extreme violence.

*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.
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 season).

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. Hong Kong offers superb bargain shopping, brilliant harbour walks and views along the Tsim Sha Tsui Promenade, sandy beaches, an Ocean theme park, fine museums, attractive temples, awesome food and even a Disneyland.

*Macau

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.

prayer flags or scarfs outside Zhargye Nyenri Monastery, Tibet, China

Kataks (or kathaks), prayer flags or scarfs outside Zhargye Nyenri Monastery, 18 kms south of Litang along the road to Daocheng on the Tibetan plateau, which is actually in western Sichuan Province. Photo by Antoine Taveneau.

*** Tibet

The southwest frontier of China in the largest and highest plateau in the world, visiting Tibet is another breathtaking Chinese 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.

Highlights of Tibet are its three main towns of Lhasa, Shigatse and Gyantse cultural heritage – Buddhist buildings such as Jokhang Temple and the Potala Palace, festivals such as Saga Dawa in Lhasa and the spectacular natural scenery of Himalayas.

Activities

River Cruises

***Li River boat trips provide spectacular views from smaller ships than the Yangtze River types, past rural landscapes, karsts, bamboo groves and little villages. (Best river months are April, May, Sept, Oct)

***Yangtze River cruises (aka Yangtzi, the longest river in Asia) escape new China’s relentless hustle and bustle with a quiet chug through the famously dramatic Three Gorges, past little old villages, classic rural scenes, rusting barges and striking monuments.
Yangtze cruise ships range from bare bones backpacker operations to luxury vessels loaded with all the comforts of a five star hotel; boats commonly travel from Chongoing to Shanghai over 7 days or just Chongoing to the Three Gorges over 3 days (return by bus), or many other options.

*The Yellow River is big, dull and dusty though there are some great monuments along the river banks so boating works as transportation but is not visually up to much.

Hiking

Yunnan province and Yangshuo areas are terrific places for long and short walks while of course the Great Wall is an amazing artifact to wander in wonder for days, and as far from Beijing as possible.
Hong Kong‘s MacLehose Trail is renowned, as are Lantau Island hikes.
Tibet offers superb, eyeball-expanding skylines if you can handle the altitude but the bureacracy can be worse than AMS so check out hiking tours and let the experts deal with the paperwork!

Biking

A great way to see most places, especially the countryside around small towns like Suzhou, Yangshuo, Lijiang. Beijing is polluted and car dominated but still cycleable on flat, good dedicated tracks.
Hong Kong has good tracks around the harbour and in the New Territories.
There’s plenty of bike hire available.

Trains

The Trans-Siberian is a classic ride, as is the new 1956 km (1, 222 mile) Qingzang railway trip Beijing-Lhasa (Tibet).
Local rail services are generally reliable, ranging from quite pricey trips on ultra-high speed trains to the traditional slow and steady version, but they are definitely more comfortable than buses for getting around the country. Buses are very cheap, slow and frequently uncomfortable.

Festivals

January – February. Harbin Ice Sculpture Festival. Plus ice sports!
February. Xian, Hong Kong Lantern Festival.
February/March, Lhasa, Tibetan New Year.
March, Chengdu Flower Festival with music and theatre.
Mid April, Xishuangbanna Prefecture, Yunnan, *Water Splashing Festival.
April, Dali, Third Moon Street Fair.
May, Cheung Chau Island, Hong Kong, Bun Festival, 3 days.
Late May, early June. Chengdu, Sichuan, Guanxi, Hong Kong, *Dragon Boat Festival.
June, Stone Forest, Kunming, Torch Festival.
July, Guizhou Province, Tribal Festivals for ethnic minorities.
September/October. Nationwide, Hong Kong, Moon Festival.

Accommodation

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.

Tipping

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.

Transport

Airports and metros/railways are user friendly and function almost perfectly; Shanghai’s multi-billion dollar maglev line to the airport is especially impressive (Buses take 50 minutes from city centre to the airport but the maglev takes 7 minutes! ) and plans are afoot to build something similar Shanghai – Beijing.

Various

Electricity:
220v, flat 2 pins, occasionally 3 flat pins or even 3 rectangular pins (UK style).

Visas:
Visas are required from most visitor’s home consulates or embassies with the exception of western nationals visiting only Hong Kong or Macau.
A citizen of Singapore, Brunei or Japan with passport is exempted from a visa if he/she visits China’s mainland for tourism or business, if he/she stays for no more than 15 days.

Money:
Cash is still the preferred way to pay in China, though very large establishments such as high-end shops, hotels and restaurants should accept credit cards, though they may ask to see your passport too.

Chinese currency is the Yuan (CNY), also known as Renminbi (RMB) or in common speech as the kwai. This can be obtained from ATMs that are most frequently found in hotel lobbies and shopping malls, or bring foreign currency and change it is easily throughout China in banks, hotels, airports and shopping malls. 14 currencies can be exchanged including Euro, British Pound, US Dollar, Swiss Franc, Singapore Dollar, Swedish Krona, Danish Krone, Norwegian Krone, Japanese Yen, Canadian Dollar, Australian Dollar and more.
A passport is required when changing money and keep the receipt for when you exchange leftover RMB before leaving China. Don’t bother trying to pay in dollars, or changing on the black market, $ no longer have the cachet they used to.

Tipping is not necessary in any situation outside Hong Kong or Macau.

Health:
Beware AMS (altitude sickness) in Tibet 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.

Language:
Mainly Mandarin (70%) or Cantonese, but service people are increasingly making an effort with English.