For thousands of years China has kept to itself, and foreigners still find it difficult to penetrate the inner depths of this fascinating and enigmatic nation. However, since the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing showcased some of its most spectacular attractions, there has been a major increase in travellers wanting to explore this exotic destination. There is a great deal to discover in China, which is the world's most populated country (over 1.3 billion citizens), and also the third largest in the world territorially.
What makes China attractive as a travel destination for Western tourists is its fascinating culture and valuable antiquities. Ruins and relics from Neolithic settlements and the dynastic reigns of the mighty emperors are there to behold, and there are adventures to be had along the legendary ancient trade routes, such as the Silk Road. The Forbidden Palace, Great Wall of China, and the Terracotta Army of X'ian are just some of the incredible attractions to be seen in this ancient Eastern empire.
The People's Republic of China has been under a communist government since 1949, but is currently undergoing social and economic development. Emphasis is being placed on tourist facilities and infrastructure. Though the country's inconsistent human rights record makes it a somewhat controversial choice, China is opening the doors to its wealth of historical and cultural treasures and visitors are flooding in to be amazed and awed.
Organised tours are still the favoured way to explore China, but independent travel is slowly becoming easier. The major cities, like Beijing and Shanghai, are modern metropolises offering fast food and glitzy stores alongside centuries-old historical buildings and traditional eating houses. Archaeological wonders vie with amazing architecture in the interior, while majestic mountains and remote monasteries crown the northern areas.
The currency used in China is the Renminbi Yuan (CNY). The Yuan
is divided into 10 chiao/jiao or 100 fen. Make sure you exchange
your leftover Yuan before returning home because this currency can
be exchanged only within China's borders. Travellers cheques,
preferably in US Dollars, and foreign cash can be exchanged in
cities at the Bank of China. Banks are closed weekends. The larger
hotels and the special 'Friendship Stores' designed for foreigners
will accept most western currencies for purchases. Major credit
cards are accepted in the main cities at various establishments,
but outside the major cities acceptance is limited. ATMs are scarce
outside the main cities.
|CNY 1 =||US$ 0.16||Â£ 0.10||C$ 0.16||A$ 0.15||R 1.34||EUR 0.12||NZ$ 0.20|
Note: These currency exchange rates are not updated daily and should be used as a guideline only.
A yellow fever vaccination certificate is required from travellers coming into China from infected areas. There is a risk of malaria throughout the low-lying areas of the country, and it is recommended that travellers to China seek medical advice about malaria before departure. There is also a risk of dengue fever (also transmitted by mosquito) so travellers must take precautions against insect bites. A total of 18 human cases of avian influenza ('bird flu') have been reported from China since November 2005. Travellers are extremely unlikely to be affected by bird flu, but contact with live poultry should be avoided. All poultry and egg dishes should also be thoroughly cooked. Vaccinations are recommended against hepatitis A and hepatitis B, typhoid, Japanese encephalitis, and rabies. Polio has resurfaced in areas of China so be sure to be up to date on immunisations. A variant of hand, foot and mouth disease, an intestinal virus, has also been prevalent since 2008, with children being at particular risk. There is no vaccination for the disease but if careful personal hygiene in maintained it should not be a problem. Outside city centres, visitors should only drink bottled water. There is a generally high standard of health care in major Chinese cities but it is not provided free of charge so make sure you have comprehensive travel insurance.
A visa is not required if coming for a stay of six days only and arriving from Hong Kong or Macao in order to take a trip to Zhujian Delta in Guangdong Province. Persons holding an APEC Business Travel Card do not require a visa, provided that it is valid for travel to China. Travel to Tibet will also require a special Tibet Entry Permit. All documents necessary for further travel and sufficient funds to cover intended period of stay are required. Period of validity is stated on visas, and care should be taken when reading dates on visas for China as they are written in year/month/day format. We always recommend that passports be valid for six months after intended period of travel.
Note: Passport and visa requirements are liable to change at short notice. Travellers are advised to check their entry requirements with their embassy or consulate.
China National Tourism Administration (CNTA), Beijing: +86 (0)10 6520 1114
Foreign Embassies in China
The capital of the People's Republic of China, Beijing (formerly Peking), is a very modern and exceedingly busy city (nearly 14 million people call it home) with high-rise buildings, international hotels and sprawling suburbs. The city is abuzz and bristling with cranes on the skyline as construction projects give rise to new skyscrapers and modernisation proceeds apace. However, Beijing also encompasses numerous attractions of cultural and historical interest, of which some, such as the Great Wall of China, the former Imperial Palace (known as the Forbidden City), the Temple of Heaven, the Summer Palace and the remains of Peking Man at Zhoukoudian, are UNESCO-endorsed World Heritage Sites. Chinese history and culture fascinates Western visitors, and Beijing is a great place to start exploring it. The city abounds in palaces, temples, mansions, gardens and tombs that epitomise classical Chinese architecture. It also has roughly 120 museums and more than 100 public gardens.
The first port of call for most visitors is the Forbidden City, which lies at the heart of Beijing with the rest of the city radiating out from it in a grid pattern. For five centuries this massive palace complex, with 9,999 rooms, functioned as the administrative centre of the country and home to a succession of emperors, who lived in luxurious isolation, surrounded by courtiers and retainers. The Palace overlooks the infamous Tiananmen Square, site of so much Chinese history with political drama and dissent.
In preparing to host what they hoped were 'the best games in Olympic history', Beijing undertook many major renovations in 2008. Public transport was improved, environmental issues addressed and a general clean up of the city was ordered. The Chinese saw the games highlight its economic rise and emergence as a world power. Some of the infrastructure, such as the iconic 'Birds Nest' stadium, is still in use for different purposes, and contributes to Beijing's unique landscape.
Shanghai, home to almost 12 million people, is China's largest city and is situated in the centre of the coastline where the Yangtze River flows through its delta into the East China Sea. The name of the city means 'on the sea', and most of the city (including Chongming Island) is only a few metres above sea level, criss-crossed by a maze of natural waterways of the Taihu drainage basin.
Shanghai is China's industrial and commercial capital. It is a busy seaport, and a science and technology centre, and has a vibrant business community. Visitors don't generally come to Shanghai for its scenic beauty or history (the city is too young to have cultivated a classical heritage), but those who arrive on business can find plenty of off-duty entertainment and relaxation. Just walking the busy streets and soaking up the vibrant atmosphere is worthwhile, and there are some temples and gardens to visit along with an excellent museum.
This great cosmopolitan metropolis has a colourful colonial background which has had the edge rubbed off of it during half a century of Communist rule. It was the first Chinese coastal port to be opened to Western trade in 1843, resulting in an influx of British, French and American diplomats and business interests, each of which established their own independent enclaves. In the 1920s and 30s Shanghai was regarded as a glamorous, decadent and fashionable place to visit. It all ended with World War II and the coming to power of the Communist party, but since the early 1990s a dramatic re-building programme has been underway which is aimed at putting Shanghai back on the map as a major international finance and trade centre. The World Financial Centre, completed in 2008, is one of the tallest buildings of them all and the world's tallest hotel.
Xi'an, in ancient times known as Chang'an, is situated in central China in the southern part of Guan Zhong Plain in Shaanxi province, with the Qinling Mountains to the north and the Weihe River to the south. In ancient times the city of Xi'an was a major crossroads on the trading routes from eastern China to central Asia, and the beginning point of the famed Silk Road; in recent years this 3,100 year old city, that was once seen as comparable with Rome and Constantinople, has come back into its own as one of China's major tourist attractions.
In 1974, on the city's eastern outskirts, archaeologists stumbled across a treasure trove: an army of terracotta warrior figurines in battle formation standing in underground vaults. Hailed as the greatest archaeological find of the 20th century, the Terracotta Warriors of Xi'an have brought visitors from around the world flocking to the city to soak up its historical and cultural heritage, and perhaps embark on an adventure tour along the ancient silk caravan route.
Besides the terracotta warriors, the city has a great many historical relics of interest, including museums and temples, which is unsurprising considering that Xi'an was the capital city of China through 12 dynasties during its thousands of years of development. The city wall is the largest in the world, and the Forest of Steles, with its collection of more than 3,000 ancient stone tablets, is both the largest and oldest in China.
Tibet is a land of majestic mountains, exotic culture and gentle people. Tibet, 'the roof of the world', lay largely undiscovered by the rest of the world until the beginning of the 20th century, but has since fascinated travellers seeking the unspoilt and more remote corners of the globe.
China invaded and annexed Tibet in 1950, since when the country has officially been known as the Tibet Autonomous Region. Travelling through Tibet is no longer allowed unless visitors are part of a package tour, and must remain with the tour for the duration of their stay. In recent years there has been a massive influx of Han-Chinese immigrants to Tibet, and Chinese-Tibetan relations can be strained, though most visitors find locals friendly and hospitable.
This vast territory in the southwest of China consists of a massive plateau surrounded by towering mountain ranges. The Himalayas ring it in the south, the Karakoram Range is to the west, the Kunlun to the north, and smaller ranges fringe the east forming a barrier between Tibet and China's internal provinces. Most of Tibet is several thousand feet above sea level, meaning that the air is thin. The region is a major draw for mountaineers, containing some of the world's highest mountain peaks, capped by Mount Everest at 29,029 feet (8,848m), in the middle section of the Himalayas in Tibet's Tingri Country.
Tibet is scenically rich with snow-covered peaks, glaciated high passes, aquamarine lakes, primeval forests and almost continual bright-blue skies. Despite its altitude and thick snow covering the mountains, Tibet actually has snowfalls only a few times a year with plenty of sunshine the rest of the time. Tibet's major cities and towns are congregated mainly in the southern part of the region. Here, in the agricultural sector, are the capital Lhasa and the other major city of Shigatse, which offer the region's most important tourist attractions, including the Summer Palace of the Dalai Lama, and The Rongbuk Monastery, which is the highest in the world and has fantastic views of Mount Everest.
Guangzhou is China's third largest city, with an appealing mix of retail frenzy and capitalist energy tempered by ancient traditions and intact historical districts. Capital of the Guangdong Province in southern China, adjacent to Hong Kong and Macau (75 miles north-west of Hong Kong), the city of Guangzhou was formerly known in the West as Canton (the home of Cantonese cuisine) and has a rich heritage in tea production. Today the city skyline is dominated by massive skyscrapers which play host to vast business and trade enterprises.
Guangzhou also has numerous shopping malls, as well as cultural and historical attractions, for visitors to enjoy. Cantonese cuisine and opera are highlights of the Guangzhou social scene, and the city's history (dating back to 214 BC) can be discovered at sites such as the Temple of the Six Banyan Trees. Some of Guangzhou's best shopping areas include Shangxia Jiu Lu, Beijing Lu and Renmin Nan Lu, while Teem Plaza and China Plaza are the most popular department stores.
Travellers to Guangzhou will probably find the summer season a bit hot and rainy but the winters, from December to March, are mild and sunny - a wonderful time to explore this fascinating city. There are a number of buses and taxis to transport tourists in the city, and there are flights and trains from Guangzhou to other major Chinese destinations such as Beijing and Shanghai.
Hangzhou, located in the southeastern province of Zhejiang, has been bewitching visitors with its natural beauty for centuries, with even Marco Polo declaring it paradise. The city is known for its tranquil and scenic areas, with many beautiful gardens and hills.
The natural beauty of the city's West Lake is considerable, with the surrounding area lush and green and dotted with temples, pavilions and bridges. Admirers can stroll through the gardens, take a boat ride, see the thousands of stone carvings at Lingyin Temple, or admire the scenic view from Baochu Pagoda.
Hangzhou also has a number of interesting museums, including the National Silk Museum and the National Tea Museum. Hangzhou is noted for its tea fields, with its own variety of green tea, Xi Hu Long Jing, being a popular Hangzhou souvenir. The town also has several markets, most notably the Silk Market and Night Market, that are popular for shopping.
Hangzhou is also noted for its cuisine, with specialties like Dongpo Pork, Longjing Shrimp Meat, Steam Rice Flower, and West Lake Sour Fish being popular with both locals and tourists. Hangzhou's nightlife is not as hectic as larger cities in China, however there are a number of bars and restaurants in the city centre, along with karaoke halls, theatres, teahouses and nightclubs.
While you'll find all the modern amenities you'd expect from a city of 3.5 million, the local government's commitment to preserving the cultural beauty of Hangzhou gives visitors a unique glimpse into the rich history of the region.
Guilin is a small city in southern China when compared to bustling metropolises like Beijing or Shanghai, but it is one of the country's most visited. It's name means 'forest of Sweet Osmanthus' due to the large number of Osmanthus trees in the area. The distinctive limestone karst hills provide a dramatic backdrop for the city of 1.3 million people, making it a favourite destination for avid photographers.
The hills were formed in tectonic shifts about 200 million years ago, and limestone sediments thrust up from the sea to form the unusual hills, caves, and stone forests which are so distinctive of Guilin.
Guilin's two major lakes, Banyan Lake (Rong Hu) and Cedar Lake (Shan Hu) offer scenic boat trips to view the hills, along with pagodas, bridges and centuries-old banyan trees. They are connected via waterway to other lakes in Guilin as well. Another popular boat tour goes along the Li River to the town of Yangshuo.
Guilin is a tourist-oriented city, with all the amenities you'd expect from one, including comprehensive public transport, local and western restaurants, and overpriced souvenirs. The city is popular with local tourists as well, in part because of the clean air but also because the scenery is so splendid.
Kunming is known as the 'city of eternal spring' due to its pleasant climate and attractive setting amongst limestone hills and large lakes. It is the capital of the Yunnan province in southern China. The city of Guilin is home to over three million people and encompasses an ancient city (which used to be fortified), a modern commercial district, a university, and residential areas. It is one of China's major tourism cities, with over two million people annually choosing a holiday in Kunming. The city is also an important hub for transportation and trade as it is linked to Vietnam by rail and to Laos and Burma by road.
Kunming has been rapidly modernised in the last few decades, in places to the detriment of traditional sights and interesting cultural locations. Nonetheless, Kunming has many sights and cultural attractions worth visiting, including temples, museums, parks and gardens, and the fascinating Stone Forest. Jiuxiang Scenic Area also has a number of caves and waterfalls that are popular attractions.
Kunming is generally a relatively safe city, but there have recently been warnings that pick pocketing is on the rise and there have been an increased number of cons and scams involving tourists.
Located in the fertile plains of the Sichuan Province's Red Basin, Chengdu seems like such a small town that it can be easy to forget it is one of China's largest cities. With nicknames like 'Heavenly State', 'City of Hibiscus' and 'Land of Milk and Honey', it is no wonder that Chengdu is also ranked as one of China's most liveable places.
Still a hidden gem for many tourists in China, Chengdu lacks the famous historical sites that draw crowds to tourist magnets Beijing, Shanghai and Xi'an. This doesn't mean that the city lacks historical importance though, as it was the site of origin for the Bronze culture, the Southern Silk Road, and printed the first paper currency. Chengdu is full of history, and travellers can visit attractions like the Wenshu Monastery, Wuhou Memorial Temple, Tomb of Wang Jian, Green Ram Temple, and the Thatched Cottage of the ancient poet Du Fu.
Chengdu is an important culinary destination in China, and visitors can attend traditional Chinese tea ceremonies at many teahouses, including Wenshu Monastery and Guanghe Chalou. The food in Chengdu is some of the best in the region, offering fiery Sichuan dishes like hotpots, Chongqing duck neck, and spicy dragon prawns from roadside carts or stylish restaurants.
The top attraction in Chengdu, however, is located in the lush valleys surrounding the town. The Chengdu Panda Breeding and Research Center is the world's only centre of its kind, and offers one-of-a-kind opportunities to see pandas and their cubs.
Chengdu makes a great base for exploring the Sichuan Province, and is within easy distance of the Giant Buddha of Leshan, Mount Qingcheng, and the Jiuzhaigou Scenic Area. It is also a convenient stopover on travels to Tibet, as there are daily flights to Lhasa.
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