China is a country of superlatives. It is the second largest country by landmass and the world’s most populated. It is truly spectacular, mysterious, beautiful and ancient, all at the same time. There is something for every type of visitor here, from magnificent natural attractions to the amazing, man-made features, with tiny and remote mountain villages on the one hand and large, breakneck cities on the other.
The country is so large that it crosses five different time zones, but the Chinese, ever different, use only one single time, which is set eight hours in front of universal coordinated time. China shares a border with no fewer than 14 countries including Mongolia, North Korea and Kazakhstan. Of its 1.3 billion population, more than 20 million apiece live in its two biggest cities, Shanghai and the capital, Beijing.
Religion and Culture
Its population is not overtly religious and indeed the official Communist Party view is atheist. Approximately one in five support Buddhism, with folk religions and Taoism also observed.
China has evolved spectacularly and rapidly into a mix of cultures. You will see some elements of Western society, but many old-world traditions at the heart of life. You’ll certainly see these traditions evident in rural areas, as opposed to the big cities.
The teachings of Confucius and Tao are on display in daily life, especially when it comes to respect for older people, etiquette and honesty. The Chinese are very careful to make sure that they maintain stature in all public life. They’re very careful to ensure that they don’t lose any “face,” through emotional scenes or arguments.
One other thing that will be very difficult to understand at first is the tendency of the Chinese to make their way to the front of any line. They simply don’t understand the Western concept of queueing and personal space is not as readily observed as it may be back home.
When to Visit
When is the best time to visit? Temperatures can soar across the country into the 30s in summer, and winter can be quite harsh in places. Consequently, autumn is probably the best travel time and is also the dry season.
The public transportation network in China is very advanced, as not many people own a car. You’ll be able to find taxis wherever you go and can either hail them from the pavement, or go to a transportation hub. There are a number of airlines and advanced rail networks crossing the country, but don’t be surprised if public transport becomes very crowded wherever you are.
The language can be very difficult to grasp for Westerners and may often seem unintelligible. A number of different regional languages and dialects are in evidence, but the majority of people tend to speak Mandarin. You may come across other languages depending on where you travel, however, including Cantonese.
Some other things to remember before you go
You’ll definitely need a visa, which is not generally available from the Consulate General or Embassy in Australia. You have to submit an application in person or via mail to a specialist application service centre in one of the big cities.
The Chinese currency is the renminbi or yuan and you’ll get approximately six of these to an Ozzie dollar.
If you’re going out, the drinking age is 18 and tipping is not usual, although will be accepted. 10% is the norm.
You may be confused by the different electrical plugs, as three separate systems are used, so you will need an adapter and the voltage is 220.
There is perhaps no other country in the world to compare when it comes to diversity and the sheer range of attractions available for the visitor. China truly is epic and vast and it’s not surprising that it is one of the leading “new” travel destinations for Australians.
There are so many major cities, but the top four for you to consider will keep you going for some time.
Beijing is the capital and blends modern and ancient very well. The Imperial Palace and Forbidden City are most famous and this is the home of the Ming and Qing dynasties.
The biggest city in the country is Shanghai, which is also its financial and commercial centre. Here you will find traditional and modern side-by-side; the area around the river is particularly attractive.
You will have heard of the Terracotta Warriors and will be able to see this truly amazing sight in the ancient city of Xi’an. This is located at the eastern end of the Silk Road and there is evidence of ten distinctive dynasties here.
Don’t forget to schedule a visit to Hong Kong, where East truly meets West. This is one of the world’s greatest international travel hubs and home to a great culinary scene.
No visit to China would be complete without a walk along the Great Wall. It is 2,300 years old and was intended to protect the Chinese people from invasion. It’s incredible to think how this wall was built over such rugged terrain using rudimentary tools, so long ago. The most impressive section of the wall is the area around Badaling, but expect this to be very busy in the summer months, especially as it is the closest part to Beijing.
The Ming Tombs house the mausoleums of no fewer than 13 emperors from this dynasty. Each one of these mausoleums is an attraction in its own right, as they are independently designed and built. You will see the principles of Feng Shui evident here and a huge number of cultural relics. Visit the underground palace at Dingling, which is one of only a few of the mausoleums actually open to the public.
No animal is more synonymous with China than the great, lovable panda. It’s still in danger, however and there are only a couple of thousand of these giants left in the wild. You can visit them at the breeding centre in Chengdu, to learn a lot more about these animals, which are all “officially” owned by the country.
Kunming is your destination if you want to see one of the greatest natural wonders on Earth, the Shilin Stone Forest. An otherworldly array of stone shapes were created several hundred million years ago and have to be seen to be believed.
Ancient life in China is depicted in a location that is frozen in time, just east of the city of Xi’an. This is where the famous UNESCO World Heritage site known as the Terracotta Army is located. A huge number of life-size figures are arranged here, set up in battle formation as if to protect the tomb of the first Emperor. What’s even more amazing is that each individual figure is unique and is meant to represent an actual person, wearing the armour of that era.
What to Eat
It’s unlikely that you’ve ever eaten anything that will come close to the type of food you will experience in China. While some of the favourite items may be somewhat familiar, like dumplings, you may not be used to eating live shrimp (qiang xia), deep-fried scorpions on a skewer (xie zi) or duck’s feet.
In sheer scale, very little can match the world-famous Yangtse river. It goes through 11 provinces across the country and is also an important commercial artery. You can cruise on the river while looking at the amazing sites, steep gorges and incredible scenery. The Three Gorges Dam is an enormous hydroelectric station and showcases everything that is modern. You’re just as likely to see rudimentary and remote villages and temples along the way, however.
Chinese New Year
If you happen to visit in the middle of January, you’ll be in for a treat as this is the time when the Chinese New Year is celebrated. It’s a traditional holiday that lasts for many days and families get together to celebrate and eat. There will be a proliferation of firework displays and dragon dances and you can immerse yourself in ancient and modern customs. Do be aware, however, that transport at this time of year can be very difficult and the usual public options, such as buses, may not be running. Many Westerners say that Hong Kong is one of the cities to visit during the New Year celebrations, as it is a place where ancient customs and modern celebration come together very well.
If you want to learn a new sport, consider immersing yourself in the martial art of kung fu. This is seen as a competitive sport in China and even though it may be based on fighting, it’s really more about having fun and keeping fit. You can learn about the history of this art by visiting the University of Sports in Shanghai, or the Chinese Martial Arts Museum.
Travelling Safely In China
Be prepared for anything when you visit China, as the culture, tradition and way of life is so different. Due to the sheer size of the population and some levels of pollution, you need to take some additional safeguards when you travel.
In particularly crowded areas, watch out for petty theft and pickpocketing, especially as there is no traditional interpretation of “personal space” here. It can be difficult to know when you’re being accosted, especially in the busiest train stations, shopping malls and restaurants. Don’t put any belongings down on the floor when you’re eating at a restaurant, or keep anything in your back pocket, as an example. In general, exhibit the same type of caution as you would when visiting any other country, but just be aware that people will bump into others normally and this can provide would-be thieves with a greater opportunity than you might expect.
Always try and watch your footing, especially when you are visiting some of the more ancient attractions around the country. Here you will find that the combination of uneven surfaces and big crowds could cause a slip and fall. While standards are generally upheld in most places, don’t expect building facilities to be always well maintained and watch your step.
You should always look down, up and sideways when you’re walking around any attractions, to make sure that you avoid loose wires, objects or protrusions that could cause you to bang your head, or to trip and fall.
If you visit during what is generally known as the rainy season, expect delays and potential problems. These can be exacerbated when the country is hit by a typhoon, which can in turn lead to landslides in mountainous areas and flooding. Always check the weather forecast well in advance before you travel and expect some cancellation of tourist activities. This is also a good reason why you should get a good travel insurance policy before you leave. Expect unpredictability and be prepared to rearrange flights and accommodations at short notice when travelling in this season.
Don’t drink the water from the tap when you’re in China, as its not considered safe. Try and avoid any restaurant or bar drinks that contain ice unless you know that it’s been filtered, and only drink bottled water.
Expect Chinese people to be fairly aggressive when in a situation where you would normally queue up patiently. This is unknown in this country and people will generally just push their way to the front. In these situations, don’t be surprised if people bump into you and not apologise. It’s not a good idea to become angry in these situations, however, as this could lead to a confrontation.
Finally, be aware that pollution can be quite a serious problem, especially in some of the biggest cities. In fact, Beijing has been in the news recently due to a bad combination of weather conditions, geographical restrictions and industrial activity. All these factors may combine to keep very high levels of pollution hanging in the air for days on end. Many people choose to wear a mask on days that are particularly problematic and if you have any respiratory issues it’s best to check with a doctor before travelling to some of these locations. You’ll be able to check government reports and predictions before you travel, so you have up-to-date with information.