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China Travel Guide > Discovering China
 

Discovering China

 
  • China's People
  • Language and Script
  • Chinese Literature
  • Religion and Philosophy
  • The Power of Qi
  • Architecture
  • Chinese Inventions
  • Traditional Arts
  • Modern Arts
  • Festivals
  • The Climate of China
  • The History of China


  • Travelers' Needs

  • Where to Stay
  • Where to Eat
  • Shops & Markets
  • Enterainment
  • Outrood Activities & Specialist Holidays
  • Survival Guide


  • Beijing’s spectacular Forbidden City
    Beijing’s spectacular Forbidden City

    China is famed for the marathon meanderings of its Great Wall, the towering high-altitude palaces of Tibet, and the great cave-temple complexes that dot the ancient silk-trade routes. Within this vast country are lush sub-tropical landscapes, high snowy wildernesses, and neat rice terraces, farmed for thousands of years. The people are as different as the lands they inhabit, and their temples and domestic architecture just as varied. Few other countries can offer as much in a single visit, and China is rapidly becoming one of the world's most popular destinations.

    Beijing & the North

    Northern China contains many of the country's most iconic sights. Visitors can lose themselves for hours among the labyrinthine passageways and lavish pavilions of Beijing's former Ming and Qing Imperial Palace, the Forbidden City. Also to the north is the mighty Great Wall of China, built to protect imperial rule. Various sections can easily be reached as day trips from the capital. The former capital of Xi'an offers the eerie ranks of the first emperor's Terracotta Army and the surrounding countryside is littered with Tang dynasty tombs. Shanxi also has most of China's oldest wooden buildings such as those in Datong and Wutai Shan, and the best-preserved walled city of all at Pingyao.

    The Neon lights of Shanghai’s Nanjing Road
    The Neon lights of Shanghai’s
    Nanjing Road

    Central China

    Zhejiang is now China's richest province, and it is along the coastline that much of the country's wealth can be found, in former treaty ports such as Ningbo and Wenzhou. Shanghai, the "Paris of the East" in the 1920s, is once again mainland China's brightest and most booming city. Its old concession-era buildings, renewed as restaurants and bars, now face a forest of cranes and sci-fi towers in the new Pudong district. Nearby are the gentler charms of Suzhou's gardens. Inland are the humble Ming-era houses and the striking whitewashed mansions of the wealthy merchants of Tunxi, Shexian, Hongcun, and Xidi. West Lake, is particularly scenic and is China's most famous lake.

    The South

    Much of the interest of the southeast lies in the impact of foreigners. Orderly, cosmopolitan, and formerly British Hong Kong is everything the mainland cities aspire to be, and its seaside Manhattan-with-mountains skyline is one of the world's most spectacular. The pre-revolution foreign community of Xiamen left behind elaborate European mansions, while hundreds of years earlier communities of Catholics and Muslims left a surprising assortment of religious monuments at Quanzhou. In the region's mountainous interior, the giant earthen fortresses (tulou) of the Hakka people at Yongding were villages in their own right: home to hundreds of people and livestock.

    Typical cobbled street in Lijiang’s Old Town
    Typical cobbled street in Lijiang’s Old Town

    The Southwest

    Dramatic limestone peaks dot the mountainous landscape of Guangxi
    Dramatic limestone peaks dot
    the mountainous landscape of Guangxi

    China's scenic southwest enjoys mild weather and is home to a wide variety of ethnic minority peoples, known for their lively festivals and extraordinary architecture. The toothy limestone peaks of Guangxi are one of China's most famous attractions, and the cruise between them along the Li River from Guilin is a popular day trip. The well-preserved Yunnan mountain towns of Dali and Lijiang have winding lanes lined by streams. Around Guangxi's Sanjiang are timber drum towers and covered bridges like elongated temples.

    The Northeast

    The northeast offers respite from China's scorching summer heat. The architecture of Dalian and Harbin, dating back to periods of Russian and Japanese occupation, is some of the country's best-preserved. Shenyang still houses a Qing palace complex, and the last emperor Pu Yi, ruled a Japanese-controlled Manchuria from a palace in Changchun. Volcanic Changbai Shan offers views of the waters of Tian Chi (Heaven's Lake), which straddles the border with North Korea.

    Inner Mongolia & the Silk Roads

    Many of the great trade routes with Central Asia and beyond once passed through the region, leaving elaborate Buddhist monuments. The greatest of these is the Mogao Caves at Dunhuang where fresco-lined caves record the passage of Buddhism into China and the ebb and flow of power in the region. The oases around the Taklamakan Desert include Turpan, with its substantial vineyards; Kuqa with its warren of adobe housing, and rapidly changing Kashgar with its mosque and Sunday livestock market. The Tibetan monasteries of Xining and Xiahe offer a more accessible alternative to Tibet, and the rebuilt fort at Jiayuguan marks the end of the brick-clad Ming-era Great Wall.

    Tibet

    The new rail route to Lhasa is now China's most spectacular rail journey, and the world's highest. The highlands of the Tibetan plateau still have areas off-limits to foreigners, and the special permits needed hint at the territory's history as a hermit, forbidden kingdom. The slab-sided Potala Palace towers over Lhasa and is an awe-inspiring sight. The side trip to Everest Base Camp from the Friendship Highway to Nepal offers unbeatable views of Everest and other peaks over 26,000 ft (8,000 m).

    Putting China on the Map

    China

    Stretching over 50 degrees of latitude and covering 3.7 million sq miles (9.6 million sq km) of land, the People's Republic of China is one of the largest countries in the world with over 20 per cent of the planet's population. It is bordered by 14 countries and has a 12,400-mile (20,000-km) long Pacific coastline. The capital, Beijing, with nearly 17 million inhabitants, is an autonomous (self-governing) municipality.

    A Portrait of China

    A rural worker
    A rural worker

    Thirty years after the late Deng Xiaoping's “reform and opening” policy allowed foreign travelers back into China, the country remains largely as mysterious and undiscovered as it was in the 19th century, when gunboat diplomacy by foreign superpowers forced the last tottering dynasty to open up the country to foreign trade and exploration.

    Shanghai’s high-rise skyline, a symbol of China’s booming prosperity
    Shanghai’s high-rise skyline,
    a symbol of China’s booming prosperity

    Drawn by this air of mystery, the number of visitors coming to China has been rising rapidly. Not one visitor will fail to be impressed by the splendor of China's greatest sights.

    The Great Wall has been completely rebuilt in parts in modern times, but its dizzying loops across the horizon still leave most visitors lost for words. The Forbidden City, at the heart of Beijing, draws crowds that make its original majesty hard to imagine, but the labyrinth of side passages still leaves the more inquisitive visitor spellbound. Although images of Xi'an's Terracotta Warriors are familiar, nothing prepares visitors for coming face to face with an army of thousands. China may not be quite the rapidly modernizing economic success of investment fable, but nor is it the medieval backwater of travelers' tales – the truth lies somewhere in between. Not far from the excitement and wealth of the shiny, high-rise cities, water buffalo pull the plow, and donkey carts are still a popular form of transport.

    Shanghai’s high-rise skyline, a symbol of China’s booming prosperity
    The dizzying, hill hugging loops
    of the Great Wall of China

    The success of the 2008 Olympics was a defining moment for China in terms of economic development and ability to host a global event on such a huge scale. However, the legacy of the games was overshadowed by the global economy crashing just weeks after.

    China's vast population, despite famines and civil wars, has grown from 400 million to approximately 1.3 billion in less than a century. This increase has driven a boom in consumerism, most evident in the cities where advertising hoardings for coffee, computers, and the latest fashions line streets of shops selling fast food, phones, and face-lifts.

    Shanghai is said to represent the new entrepreneurial China, and visitors will immediately notice the billboards, the towers, and the giant HDTV screens on the sides of shiny malls. Urban Shangai received a massive facelift in preparation for the 2010 World Expo, and scores of office blocks, roads, and metro lines were built. However, Shanghai is only one city, 70% of the Chinese people work in agriculture, and the majority of commercial enterprises are still in state ownership or have state majority shareholdings.

    Modern China

    Traditional courtyard housing in Lijiang, southwest China
    Traditional courtyard housing
    in Lijiang, southwest China
    European architecture on the Bund, Shanghai
    European architecture on the Bund, Shanghai

    There has been obvious, rapid economic development – luxury hotels, convenient public transport, and excellent restaurants. However, these welcome refinements have been tempered for the visitor by the destruction of traditional housing for the construction of highways soon choked with traffic. And yet for some people this new commercialism has provided the disposable income to fund a return to traditional hobbies and pastimes.

    Today, former occupants of crumbling courtyard houses may find themselves exiled to unfinished towers in the suburbs, but in the spaces between the blocks, they've revived the tradition of walking their snuffling Pekinese. Song-birds flutter and call from delicate bamboo cages while their owners sit and chat. On bridges over ring roads, old men gather to fly colorful kites – now made from supermarket shopping bags.

    Growing too fast?

    As population growth drives a consumer boom, China's energy needs are fast outstripping its capacity and a major expansion of its network of coal-fired generating stations is planned. But China is already the planet's biggest polluter – in many cities the atmosphere is furry enough to stroke.

    The Hong Kong rush hour – much the same as in any international metropolis
    The Hong Kong rush hour –
    much the same as
    in any international metropolis

    With few opportunities for work in the countryside, tens of millions are moving to the cities in search of a better life. Living in poor conditions and often left unpaid after building the new towers, they send whatever they can to families back home. Others staff the restaurants and run a million small businesses from shoe-shining to knife-sharpening. If your taxi driver doesn't know where he's going, it's often because he hasn't been in town long.

    Those better off in the city blame the migrants for the rise in urban crime (although most countries would envy China's crime figures), but complain when the services they provide vanish at Chinese New Year due to the workers returning home for the holiday.

    Politics

    Traditional modes of transport in Beijing
    Traditional modes of transport in Beijing

    The end of the 20th century has seen communist regimes toppled across Europe, but the present government has made it all too clear that there will be no political change in China in the foreseeable future. Politics, although almost invisible to visitors, still enters every aspect of life, including the training of tour guides to provide cultural and historical information that supports the view of China the Party wishes to promote.

    The Chinese people are removed from politics, because as individuals they can make little difference. Dissatisfaction is widespread and increasing, particularly with regards to corruption, pollution, environmental degradation, and the expensive, rising cost of living. The global recession has hit certain sectors, such as manufacturing very hard, and unemployment is rising.

    Family life

    Minority mother and child
    Minority mother
    and child

    Eight out of ten of the parents of the current generation of twenty-year-olds had their spouses chosen and approved by their work unit, but today's urban youth experiment early, live together outside marriage (until recently still illegal), and try a few partners before settling down.

    Divorce, unheard of until the end of the last century, is now common, and is attributed to an increase in work demands and extra-marital affairs. Attitudes to children, too, are changing. There are hints that the one-child policy, long breached by anyone with connections or cash, may be relaxed a little. And there are signs that many members of the urban middle class, although still a tiny percentage of the total population, wish to enjoy the treats they can now afford rather than have children. While 20 years ago it was considered fortunate to own a bicycle, now aspiring, young urbanites can work towards owning a car and an apartment.

    Unified by language

    A space nation – China’s first astronaut Yang Liwei
    A space nation
    China's first astronaut Yang Liwei

    The whole nation may have felt proud when Yang Liwei became the country's first astronaut in 2003, heralding China's entry to the exclusive club of space nations. The government likes to use such occasions to promote Han unity – “Han” is the name the Chinese majority use for themselves, as opposed to the 50 or so officially recognized minorities within China's borders. There's been a tendency to treat these minorities as unpredictable pets, and their mostly colorful costumes and traditional festivals have been put at the forefront of tourism promotion in recent years. It may not be ideal but it is a great improvement on the forced assimilation of past times.

    Almost everyone is educated in Mandarin (Putonghua), the official language of China, but there are five completely different regional versions of Chinese, and a strong sense of local culture and tradition goes with them.

    The Chinese people's common love of food also helps differentiate them, with preferences for spicy, vinegary, sweet, and other flavors being distributed geographically. Visitors to Sichuan and Yunnan will find the locals rightly proud of their uniquely fiery cuisine, while those visiting Guangdong and Guangxi will be astonished at the subtlety and delicacy of Cantonese food.

    Culture and religion

    Popstars performing an outdoor concert in Beijing
    Popstars performing
    an outdoor concert in Beijing

    While traditional opera is now largely confined to shows for foreign tourists, modern art, films, and popular music have all flourished. Not all of it is good by any means but art galleries now feature on tourist itineraries, resident students crowd bars to hear Chinese punk bands, and millions around the world flock to see big-budget martial arts epics.

    China’s modern consumer society – a smart shopping mall in Xi Dan, Beijing
    China’s modern consumer society
    a smart shopping mall in Xi Dan, Beijing

    Religion and superstition are making a small come-back which the government regards warily – it fears organizations of any kind not directly under its control. Many people are still struggling to cope with the end of government-organized everything, and for some the structure of organized religion provides a substitute. There may be many more opportunities to start businesses and make money, and all kinds of employment that simply didn't exist before Deng Xiaoping's reform policy kick-started the economy, but jobs no longer come with housing, healthcare, or any guarantees they'll last.

    But the Chinese are used to turbulence, and are incredibly stoic about it. Their attitude to visitors varies from the studied indifference of the smart metropolitans, to the close interest in foreign wallets of the tourist touts, via frank (even uncomfortable) curiosity, and the casual warmth and generosity of everyday folk.

    Forest butterfly
    Forest butterfly

    Landscape and Wildlife – West

    The west of China is made up of a high, arid mountain plateau and, further north, a harsh, dry desert. These areas are not suited to agriculture and therefore sparsely populated by humans – only specialist animals that have adapted to the conditions survive here. At the eastern edge of the Tibetan plateau lie the mountains and wooded hills of central and west China, home to pockets of bamboo forest – the habitat of one of China's most famous and unique animals, the giant panda. Watered by rivers of melted snow from Tibet, the forests are also home to a great number of other animals, trees, and especially beautiful flowers (see The Flora of Southwest China).



    Key
    1 Tibetan High Plateau
    2 Mountains of Central & West
    3 Deserts of North & Northwest
    4 Bamboo Forest

    Tibetan high plateau

    The vast, rocky Qinghai-Tibet Plateau lies between the Kunlun Mountains in the north, the Karakoram in the west and the Himalayas to the south. The average altitude is about 15,994 ft (4,875 m), making it the highest plateau in the world.

    Snow leopards (Panthera (Uncia) uncia) have thick fur to protect them. Though protected, they are still poached for their valuable pelts.
    Snow leopards (Panthera Uncia)
    have thick fur to protect them.
    Though protected, they are still
    poached for their valuable pelts.

    Mountains of central & west China

    The central ranges have large areas of natural forest habitats, and are major wildlife refuges. Covering over 20,000 sq miles (52,000 sq km), they are home to many species, including the endangered golden monkey.

    Rhesus macaques (Macaca mulatta) are common in Chinese forests. Though able to fend for themselves, they are used to people, and can be a nuisance begging for food.

    Only about 600 of the two-humped Bactrian camel (Camelus bactrianus) survive in the deserts of China.

    The silver pheasant (Lophura nycthemera) is one of China’s most beautiful birds. It is common in evergreen forests and bamboo thickets in southern and eastern areas.

    Deserts of north & northwest

    Deserts cover about 20% of China's landmass – mainly in the northwest. This is a challenging environment and plants and animals adapted to the deserts are few: reptiles and small rodents such as jerboas predominate.

    Only about 600 of the two-humped Bactrian camel (Camelus bactrianus) survive in the deserts of China.

    Bamboo forest

    Bamboo forest

    China has some 500 species of bamboo covering about 3% of the total forest area. They are found in 18 provinces and are not only a vital habitat for wildlife, but with their almost indestructible culms (stems), are also a valuable resource.

    Tall forests of muso bamboo (Phyllostachys pubescens) are managed to provide a sustainable crop of culms, which local people use in many ways.The giant panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca), symbol of conservation, is slowly increasing in forest reserves in central and western China.

    Tall forests of muso bamboo (Phyllostachys pubescens) are managed to provide a sustainable crop of culms, which local people use in many ways.

    Golden pheasant (Chrysolophus pictus) is native to scrubby hillsides and forests in central southern China, from 2,625–8,200 ft (800–2,500 m).

    The giant panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca), symbol of conservation, is slowly increasing in forest reserves in central and western China.

    The Steps of China

    Running west to east, China's landscape is said to form a series of three steps. The first is the Tibetan Plateau, most of it over 13,000 ft (4,000 m). This spans a third of the width of China's territory. Next at between 5,000 ft (1,500 m) and 10,000 ft (3,000 m) come the mountains of Sichuan and central China. These ranges show great changes in vegetation over relatively short distances, in some places changing from high altitude frozen desert to near tropical forest. Lastly come the fertile lowlands running from 5,000 ft (1,500 m) down to the coast. It is easy to see how China's rivers starting on the Tibetan Plateau become so powerful on their course east to the coast.

    Landscape & Wildlife – East

    Sacred Lotus

    China has the most diverse flora and fauna of any country in the temperate zone, with around 30,000 plant species, 500 mammal species, and 1,200 bird species. Although much of lowland China has been intensively cultivated for centuries, there still remains vast areas of important wild habitat including 29 million acres (12 million hectares) of lakes, and 31 million acres (13 million hectares) of marsh, bog, and coastal saltmarsh. The rugged nature of northeast China's borderlands has prevented the loss of its forest to agriculture, and, despite heavy logging, it is the largest area of forest in China. The accessibility of the steppe, however, has seen much of it lost to agriculture.

    China Map

    5 Steppe Grasslands
    6 Forests of Northeast China
    7 Fertile Lowlands
    8 Wetlands & Coasts
    9 Jungle

    Steppe grassland

    Steppe grassland

    The specialized grasses and drought resistant herbs of the steppe are an important source of food to the nomadic herders. In addition, their roots hold together the topsoil helping prevent erosion and desertification. Heavy cultivation in recent years has led to sandstorms in Beijing.

    The steppe cat (Felis libyca) is common in the shrubby steppe habitats of the Heavenly Mountains (Tian Shan) of the northwest. It feeds on small mammals, birds, and reptiles.

    The steppe cat (Felis libyca) is common in the shrubby steppe habitats of the Heavenly Mountains (Tian Shan) of the northwest. It feeds on small mammals, birds, and reptiles.The great bustard (Otis tarda) is, at up to 33 lb (15 kg), the heaviest flying bird. It nests in the open, on hummocks of dry grass.

    The great bustard (Otis tarda) is, at up to 33 lb (15 kg), the heaviest flying bird. It nests in the open, on hummocks of dry grass.

    The beautiful azure-winged magpie (Cyanopica cyana) is a sociable species, moving in noisy flocks through the trees of forests and parks.

    Forests of northeast China

    Forests here consist mainly of coniferous trees. Along with the evergreen fir, spruce, and pine, the deciduous larch is also common. To the south of these forest regions are mixed temperate broadleaf forests with oaks and birch prominent.

    The beautiful azure-winged magpie (Cyanopica cyana) is a sociable species, moving in noisy flocks through the trees of forests and parks.

    Fertile lowlands

    Fertile lowlandsRice fields or paddies occupy much of the fertile lowlands and hillsides in central and southern China.

    Intensively cultivated and denuded of natural vegetation, the huge lowland flood-plains of major rivers, notably the Yellow and Yangzi, are a seemingly endless patchwork of fields. Grain crops, dominated by rice, are broken up by ponds with fish, ducks, and frogs.

    The long-tailed shrike (Lanius schach), often seen watching from a roadside wire or pole, is common in eastern and southern China.

    Rice fields or paddies occupy much of the fertile lowlands and hillsides in central and southern China.

    Water Buffalo (Bubalus arnee) are beasts of burden and used for plowing. They are at home in the muddy wet paddy fields of the south.
    Water Buffalo (Bubalus arnee)
    are beasts of burden and used for plowing.
    They are at home in the muddy wet
    paddy fields of the south.

    Jungle

    Tropical forests occur in the deep south of China – mainly on the island of Hainan, and also the basins of Yunnan. Many forests are secondary, or have been replaced through felling and grazing by a kind of savanna or by plantations, especially of rubber.

    Wetlands and coasts

    The water arum (Calla palustris) grows around marshes and bogs in the northeast at altitudes of up to 3,600 ft (1,100m).
    The water arum (Calla palustris) grows
    around marshes and bogs in the northeast
    at altitudes of up to 3,600 ft (1,100m).

    Wetlands are some of the country's most diverse ecosystems, being prime habitats for rare or endemic plants and animals. The lakes and flooded river valleys are also vital staging posts for migrating birds, such as waterfowl and species of endangered crane.

    Under threat

    Pollution of the air, soil, and waterways, is threatening many of China's delicate environments, special animals, and plants, especially when faced with large building projects like the Three Gorges Dam. In addition, the use of rare animals in medicinal “remedies” means that many species face extinction from poaching. However, the Chinese government is now paying some attention to conservation and reports that the giant panda, great crested ibis, and Chinese alligator are all increasing in numbers thanks to the protection of their habitat and improved ecosystems. Nevertheless there is still a long way to go.

    Hawksbill turtles (Eretmochelys imbricata) still breed on a few beaches along the southern tropical coast but are at risk from humans.
    Hawksbill turtles (Eretmochelys imbricata) still
    breed on a few beaches along the southern
    tropical coast but are at risk from humans.
     

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