Explore China, officially known as the People’s Republic of China a huge country in Eastern Asia (about the same size as the United States of America) with the world’s largest population.
With coasts on the East China Sea, Korea Bay, Yellow Sea, and South China Sea, it borders 14 nations. This number of neighboring states is equalled only by China’s vast neighbor to the north, Russia.
“I am not one who was born in the possession of knowledge. I am one who is fond of antiquity, and earnest in seeking it there.” — Confucius
The roughly 5000-year-old Chinese civilization has endured through millennia of tumultuous upheaval and revolutions, periods of golden ages and anarchy alike. Through the recent economic boom initiated by the reforms of Deng Xiaoping, China is once again one of the leading nations in the world, buoyed by its large, industrious population and abundant natural resources. The depth and complexity of the Chinese civilization, with its rich heritage, has fascinated Westerners such as Marco Polo and Gottfried Leibniz through the Silk Road and more ways of culture exchange in centuries past, and will continue to excite – and bewilder – the traveler today.
The recorded history of Chinese civilization can be traced to the Yellow River valley, said to be the ‘cradle of Chinese civilization’. The Xia Dynasty was the first dynasty to be described in ancient historical chronicles, though to date, no concrete proof of its existence has been found. Nevertheless, archaeological evidence has shown that at the very least, an early-bronze-age Chinese civilization had developed by the period described.
Climate and Terrain
China’s climate varies from tropical in the south to subarctic in the north. Hainan Island is roughly at the same latitude as Jamaica, while Harbin, a large northern city, is at roughly the latitude of Montreal and has the climate to match. Northern China has four distinct seasons with intensely hot summers and bitterly cold winters. Southern China tends to be milder and wetter. The climate is more arid in the north and west. In the Tibetan highlands and the vast steppes and deserts of Gansu and Xinjiang, distances are great and the land is often barren.
China has five major annual holidays:
- Chinese New Year or Spring Festival – late January/mid-February
- Qingming Festival — usually 4–6 Apr, or the tomb sweeping day, cemeteries are crowded with people who go to sweep the tombs of their ancestors and offer sacrifices. Traffic on the way to cemeteries can be heavy.
- Labor Day or May Day – 1 May
- Dragon Boat Festival – The fifth day of the fifth lunar month, usually May-Jun. Boat races and eating zongzi, steamed pouches of sticky rice) are a traditional parts of the celebration.
- Mid-Autumn Day- The 15th day of the eighth lunar month, usually in October. Also called the Moon Cake Festival after its signature treats, moon cakes. People meet outside, putting food on tables and gazing at the full harvest moon while talking about life.
- National Day – 1 October
Regions of China
- Northeast China (Liaoning, Jilin and Heilongjiang)
- dōngběi, “rust-belt” cities, vast forests, Russian, Korean, and Japanese influence, and long, snowy winters
- North China (Shandong, Shanxi, Inner Mongolia, Henan, Hebei, Beijing, Tianjin)
- The Yellow River Basin, cradle of China’s civilization and historic heartland
- Northwest China (Shaanxi, Gansu, Ningxia, Qinghai and Xinjiang)
- Site of China’s capital for 1000 years, grasslands, deserts, mountains, nomadic people and Islam
- Southwest China (Tibet, Yunnan, Guangxi and Guizhou)
- The exotic part, minority peoples, spectacular scenery and backpacker havens
- South-central China (Anhui, Sichuan, Chongqing, Hubei, Hunan and Jiangxi)
- Farming areas, mountains, river gorges, temperate and sub-tropical forests
- Southeast China (Guangdong, Hainan and Fujian)
- Traditional trading center, manufacturing powerhouse, and ancestral homeland of most overseas Chinese
- East China (Jiangsu, Shanghai and Zhejiang)
- The “land of fish and rice” (China’s equivalent of the “land of milk and honey”), traditional water towns, and cosmopolitan, prosperous boomtowns
- Beijing — the capital and cultural centre
- Guangzhou — one of the most prosperous and liberal cities in the south, near Hong Kong
- Guilin — popular destination for both Chinese and foreign tourists with sensational mountain and river scenery
- Hangzhou — famously beautiful city and major centre for the silk industry
- Kunming — capital of Yunnan and gateway to a rainbow of ethnic minority areas
- Nanjing — a renowned historical and cultural city with many historic sites
- Shanghai — famous for its riverside cityscape, China’s largest city is a major commercial center with many shopping opportunities
- Suzhou — “Venice of the East,” an ancient city famous for canals and gardens just west of Shanghai
- Xi’an — the oldest city and ancient capital of China, home to ten dynasties including the Han and the Tang, terminus of the ancient Silk Road, and home of the terracotta warriors
- Yangzhou — “Epitome of China” with a history of over 2,500 years, Marco Polo served as the city’s governor for three years in the late 13th century.
- Chengdu — “The home of giant pandas”. It was established before Xi’an. It is the capital city of Sichuan Province and offers the best and the most spicy food.
You can travel to many of these cities using the new fast trains. In particular, the Hangzhou – Shanghai – Suzhou – Nanjing line is a convenient way to see these historic areas.
- Great Wall of China — longer than 8,000 km, this ancient wall is the most iconic landmark of China
- Hainan — a tropical paradise island undergoing heavy tourist-oriented development
- Jiuzhaigou Nature Reserve — known as the habitat of giant pandas and for its many multi-level waterfalls and colorful lakes
- Leshan — most famous for its huge riverside cliff-carving of Buddha and nearby Mount Emei
- Mount Everest — straddling the border between Nepal and Tibet, this is the world’s highest mountain
- Mount Tai — one of the five Taoist sacred mountains in China, and because of its history, the most-climbed mountain in China
- Tibet — the Tibetan Buddhist majority and their traditional culture make it distinct
- Turpan — in the Islamic area of Xinjiang, this area is known for its grapes, harsh climate and Uighur culture
- Yungang Grottoes — more than 50 mountain-side caves and recesses number are filled with 51,000 Buddhist statues
The official language of China is Standard Mandarin, which is mostly based on the Beijing dialect, known in Chinese as Putonghua. Mandarin has been the only language used in education on the mainland since the 1950s, so most people speak it.
Chinese students learn English as a compulsory subject starting from late elementary or middle school. Passing an English exam is a requirement to earn a four-year university degree, regardless of major. However, the focus of the instruction at all levels is formal grammar and, to a lesser degree, writing rather than speaking or listening. As a result, most young people in the country can read some English, but might not be able to have a conversation in the language.
What to do in China
High-quality, reasonably priced massages are easily found. Traditionally, massage is a trade for the blind in Asia.
Foot massage is widely available, often indicated by a picture of a bare footprint on the sign.
Whole-body massage is also widespread. There are two varieties: ànmó is general massage; tuīná concentrates on the meridians used in acupuncture. The most expert massages are in massage hospitals, or general Chinese medicine hospitals. The best value is at tiny out-of-the-way places some of whose staff is blind .
These three types of massage are often mixed; many places offer all three.
If planning a long stay in China, consider learning some of the traditional arts. Traveling to China is a unique chance to learn the basics, or refine already acquired skills, directly from master practitioners in the arts’ home country. Many cities have academies that accept beginners, and not knowing Chinese is usually not a problem as learning is by example and imitation.
Martial Arts and Taichi
Those with the time and inclination may study China’s famed martial arts. Some, such as tai chi can be studied by simply visiting any city park in the early morning and following along (there will be eager, potential teachers, too). Other martial arts require in-depth study. Famous martial arts programs include those at the Shaolin Temple on Mount Song and Wu Wei Temple near Dali.
China has several traditional games often played in tea gardens, public parks, or even on the street. Players often attract crowds of on-lookers. Two famous strategy-based board games that originated in China are Go and Chinese chess. Mahjong, a game played with tiles, is popular and often played for money, although its regional variations require learning new rules when visiting different areas. Among the most well-known variants of this game are the Cantonese, Taiwanese and Japanese versions. Chinese checkers, despite its name, did not originate in China but can be found. Many Chinese are skilled card players; Deng Xiaoping’s love for bridge was particularly renowned.
Possession or trafficking of illicit drugs is a serious offence in China and even possession of Cannabis for personal use may lead to imprisonment. Enforcement is weak, but penalties are severe for an offender who is caught. In some cities such as Beijing, the police tend to see foreigners as a high-risk group. Body inspection can happen in an expat bar. Random searches of cars may occur in the countryside, and if caught with drugs, do not expect lenient treatment from the police. Drug trade could result in capital punishment, from which foreigners are not exempted.
The Chinese strongly dislike drug-use, probably because their humiliation in the past 150 years is linked to the spread of drugs. Cannabis, heroin and LSD are the same to many of them, especially to the older generations.
The Chinese do not drink water straight from the tap, and tourists should not either. All hotels (even boats) provide either a thermos flask of boiled water in guest rooms (refillable by the floor attendant) or – more commonly – a kettle the guest can use to boil water. Generally, tap water is safe to drink after boiling. Purified, bottled water is widely available and a small bottle. Check that the seal on the cap is not broken. Beer, wine and soft drinks are also cheap and safe.
Since the end of May 2014, all Google-related services, including Google Search, Gmail, Google Map and Google Translate do not work in China. It is an unprecedented block on Google services and no reasons have been announced. YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Blogspot, WordPress, Picasaweb and WhatsApp are all banned.
Wikipedia and Flickr are available, although Chinese-language web pages that contain sensitive keywords may trigger the censorship system, called the Golden Shield (or euphemistically, the Great Firewall or GFW) and result in the message “your connection has been reset”.
China has more Internet users than any other country in the world and Internet cafés are abundant throughout China. Many of them are designed for gamers though and are not useful places to do business. It is cheap to use a computer, albeit one with Chinese software. Internet cafés are supposed to require users to show identification (passport). Traffic may be monitored, and be aware that there may be background malware recording keystrokes.
WI-FI is pervasive in coffee shops and many restaurants. Free WI-FI is provided in cafés such as Starbucks, Costa Coffee, some McDonald’s and many private coffee houses. However, many free networks (including that in the Beijing’s PEK Airport) require submitting a Chinese mobile number, to which they can text an access code, thus rendering them off-limits to many foreigners.
When you explore China keep in mind that some hotels and hostels provide access from the rooms that may or may not be free; others may provide a wireless service or a few desktops in the lounge area.
Unesco World Heritage List
- Imperial Palaces of the Ming and Qing Dynasties in Beijing and Shenyang
- Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor
- Mogao Caves
- Peking Man Site at Zhoukoudian
- The Great Wall
- Ancient Building Complex in the Wudang Mountains
- Historic Ensemble of the Potala Palace, Lhasa 1
- Mountain Resort and its Outlying Temples, Chengde
- Temple and Cemetery of Confucius and the Kong Family Mansion in Qufu
- Lushan National Park
- Ancient City of Ping Yao
- Classical Gardens of Suzhou
- Old Town of Lijiang
- Summer Palace, an Imperial Garden in Beijing
- Temple of Heaven: an Imperial Sacrificial Altar in Beijing
- Dazu Rock Carvings
- Ancient Villages in Southern Anhui – Xidi and Hongcun
- Imperial Tombs of the Ming and Qing Dynasties
- Longmen Grottoes
- Mount Qingcheng and the Dujiangyan Irrigation System
- Yungang Grottoes
- Capital Cities and Tombs of the Ancient Koguryo Kingdom
- Historic Centre of Macao
- Yin Xu
- Kaiping Diaolou and Villages
- Fujian Tulou
- Mount Wutai
- Historic Monuments of Dengfeng in “The Centre of Heaven and Earth”
- West Lake Cultural Landscape of Hangzhou
- Site of Xanadu
- Cultural Landscape of Honghe Hani Rice Terraces
- Silk Roads: the Routes Network of Chang’an-Tianshan Corridor *
- The Grand Canal
- Tusi Sites
- Zuojiang Huashan Rock Art Cultural Landscape
- Kulangsu, a Historic International Settlement
- Archaeological Ruins of Liangzhu City