What is there to say about the behemoth that is China? In the last thirty years there have been a lot of publicized differences between the Eastern and Western worlds that may have possibly deterred many from seeking out the adventurous and cultural circumstances that abound here. To avoid the most populated country and the oldest civilization on Earth because of disagreements with a government's reputation or policies or the fact that you may have once had some bad "Chinese food" would be to miss out on a colossal stew of cultural heritages and lifestyles. It would be to miss the striking balance of glittering, larger-than-life skylines found in Hong Kong and Shanghai and the quiet, everyday routines in the hutongs of Beijing or the idyllic water villages of Jinxi or Zhujiajiao. It would also be to miss out on some of the most off-the-beaten-path locales on the map, from the ancient ruins along the Silk Road to the abiding beauty of the striped mountains of Zhangye Danxia, the "heavenly lake" in the crater of Changbai Shan, the inviting, isolated greenery of Jiuzhaigou, and the massive peaks of both the Yunnan (Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, for one) and the world's greatest range, the Himalayas. These are attractions that speak to the true meaning of adventure.
There is a place for any and every traveler in China. For those who are awed by eons of history and the truly epic scope of a culture, there are cities like Beijing and Xi'an, where dynastic figures have been buried with terra cotta armies and temple palaces like the Forbidden City and Temple of Heaven speak clearly of China's lasting power. For those who see themselves in cosmopolitan cities that embody all that modern culture stands for (from skyscrapers to the dance floor), then you have Hong Kong and Shanghai, whose skylines announce an upward development once seen only in science fiction. For the mystic in us all, there is the humbling pilgrimage to Lhasa, Tibet. Even the highlights of China that underpin every tour package need to be seen to be believed; the Great Wall, Xi'an's city walls, the Bund, the list is longer than who's been naughty or nice this year. Check out any of our city pages for specific adventure, culture, nightlife and cuisine details; our practical tips for what you're going to need to know going in; and our activity listings to begin adding to an itinerary in which you'll build unforgettable experiences.
China is more than just the greatest economic stalwart of our time. It is a veritable destination for travelers who desire to better understand themselves and in discovering the sundry corners of our world. That being said, because of it's status as the most industrialized nation in the world, you'll also encounter high levels of pollution in both the air and water, and a lack of Western-style amenities may be lacking (poor restroom facilities, highly variable levels of courtesy, etc.) in many places you'll visit. You also may want to avoid booking group tour packages due to contentious practices being widely cited throughout the China-based tourism industry. Despite these words of warning, the majority of China is very safe and transportation is efficient for travelers in well-developed areas. Your biggest concern? Narrowing down the fantastic range of activities to fit a single itinerary. We wish you all the luck.
Visas to China are often a bit more work to get than other countries, although Hong Kong is considered a separate travel region and allows tourism under 90 days from most developed countries without a visa. Tourist visas to the mainland may run as high as $130 USD for US citizens and as low as $30 depending on your country of origin and require citizenship documentation. Traveling to Tibet is a bit harder; including the mainland visa, you'll need a separate travel permit and other possible documents depending on where you plan to go. Our suggestion? Book with a tour company and they'll take care of these permits for you. Then, if you'd like, trek out and see the sights on your own; the tour police aren't going to stop you!
The Chinese currency is the Yuan. Stay up to date with its value right here.
China has a communist government. There is no process of democratic election for its officials; instead, officials at all levels are elected by the votes of the congress at that level. This means that the Paramount Leader, a role that encompasses the presidency, military chairmanship, and party general secretary, and and the State Council, which hold the highest executive positions, are chosen by the National Congress, which is the highest legislative body in China. The leader of the National Congress is the Premier, who exercises power similar to the Prime Minister in other countries, and along with all other members of the state, is a member of the all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee of the Communist Party of China, which exerts full control over the media and other channels of information sharing (here's a great resource on China's Internet censorship policies). Finally, judicial issues are settled at the highest level by the Supreme Peoples' Court.
Although evidence differs, there are a large number of English-language learners in China, but only a very small percentage of the overall population is proficient. This means that you're going to have trouble communicating with locals if you don't know any Mandarin, even in some areas of Shanghai, Beijing, or Hong Kong. While the aforementioned cities will be much easier to navigate due to the throngs of tourists that are greeted every day, you'll need to be well-prepared no matter where you are. Having exact directions and a little patience will get you far if you're using public transportation, although most signage will also be written in pin yin and will give you a better idea than Chinese characters; having directions or an address in Chinese is even more important if you're taking a taxi. Many Chinese locals will be willing to help, but quite often you'll find that "hello" is the most you'll be able to get from passersby, so have a basic translation book or app to give you a hand. When in doubt, resort to sign language; pointing at things in restaurants (even if you have to go in the kitchen and point at certain ingredients) may be your best bet if they are off-the-beaten-path and don't have an English menu. It may also serve you well in China to join a tour group; many tours will throw in unnecessary, unplanned stops, but they may be the best way of relieving the stress of trying to communicate in Chinese and get the most out of a city's highlights. For some further information on communicating in China, check out this page.
Crime and Safety:
China is generally considered a safe country to travel to. The biggest safety concern for travelers may actually be while crossing the street, since the number of vehicular deaths per capita are actually the highest worldwide. Not only do you have some of the worst traffic congestion in massive cities like Shanghai, but you don't have the safe driving standards of many Western countries. Most other situations are generally safe, although you need to keep your belongings on you at all times; even throwing a purse over the back of your chair in a restaurant or leaving your laptop on a cafe table while you use the bathroom are not good ideas. One petty crime that does happen in the close confines of many tourist areas or on public transport is pickpocketing. Again, keep anything of value secure and there won't be an issue. Scams are another thing to be aware of, whether it's the ubiquitous brand name product being sold at a dirt cheap price or the con artist that comes up to you on the street and wants to continue a conversation elsewhere. Also, violent crimes, particularly as related to travelers, are almost nonexistent, so unless you step in front of a speeding vehicle, you'll be fine. Need more help? China Mike has more tips for a safe travel experience.
Modes of Transportation:
China is like... huge. This should factor into your planning, especially if you're looking to visit literally off-the-beaten-path areas like ANYWHERE in western China. The good news is that the highest volume of commuter rail traffic in the world exists in China, as well as the largest system of highways. Even with these conveniences, there is still much of China that is hard to reach unless you are on a tour or willing to put aside a whole lot of time in getting there. If you're in any of the major cities, you'll appreciate the convenience of subway and bus transport, while high speed rail connects a number of destinations (like Shanghai and Beijing). You may look into train pricing and availability here.
If you plan on renting a car, you'll need a provisional license from either the airport or a police transport station in the city you are staying in. The exam is short, but be sure to provide a passport and a valid driver's license. If you are driving, be ready to pay tolls on the expressways and to sit in traffic in the more congested areas of the massive metropolises of China. If you do rent, make sure to get insurance; accidents are frequent, especially in the tense, touch-and-go driving of destinations like Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong. If you want to avoid the stress, then taxis are an incredibly cheap alternative. The problem is that you'll find a lot of people out to scam gullible tourists, so keep in mind that official taxis have license plates that start with "B". Also, some of the less metropolitan cities that you'll be visiting will not have reliable taxi services (Xi'an, Lhasa), so you will have to resort to another form of transportation (rental car, bus, etc.). Lastly, make sure you know where you are going when you use public transport, because stops can be confusing at times and English will rarely be used.
Because of China's landmass, it is impractical to make a sweeping statement about its climate. It is generally colder in the winter and warmer in the summer, although this varies, with extreme temperatures occurring more in northwest China and more moderate changes in temperature occurring along the southern to southwestern coasts. Precipitation also falls more frequently during the summer months due to typhoon season, although this is variable as you move further north. For updated temperature and weather information, take a look here.
Eating and Tipping:
Although more common in cities with more Western-style restaurants, tipping is not very common in Chinese restaurants. Tipping is also not mandatory with taxis or other services, although they are gladly accepted if offered. As far as eating is concerned, nearly every city shows its regional influences through its food; it would be a much more informative to read up on each city's cuisine. Many cities will have a variety of eating options, from restaurants that serve specialty items (Peking duck in Beijing, for example) to food stalls that whip the food up in front of you with often questionable hygiene requirements. There are often cheaper food courts at the top floors of shopping malls as well if you are going the budget route, while there are also a growing number of Western fast food chains for anyone who misses their KFC. As far as eating habits are concerned, chopsticks are the main eating utensil, while most traditional restaurants serve dishes communally. When eating out, there are a LOT of interesting traditions of etiquette that could fill a notepad and its margins; one important tip is to let the host pay the bill as a matter of pride and status, while others involve behaviors like the discreet use of toothpicks.
The legal age for alcohol purchase in China is 18 years old. There are no explicit regulations on age as far as alcohol consumption because such a thing has traditionally fallen on the parents to control. As far as the culture of consumption, it is not a ritual relegated to silly antics of college kids. It is a ritual performed with frequency by people (largely men) of all ages as a testament to their trustworthiness, usually over a banquet dinner or during a social function of some sort. Called ganbei, this tradition of toasting is meant to get all involved very drunk and is sometimes hard to opt out of; you're in trouble if shots of baijiu (an unpleasant Chinese liquor made from rice or sorghum) are going around, while Chinese beer will prove to be quite tame compared to Western standards. Women earn extra points for participating, while it is seen as a man's duty and a sign of disrespect if you choose not to (without a really good reason that is, real or made-up). Check out a great list of drinking customs here, or the business travel-related info here. KTV's (karaoke television bars) are a very popular Asian drinking establishment that may often include misogynist practices, do yourself the favor of finding out exactly what will be in store for you prior to entering these establishments. Otherwise, there are plenty of Western-style scenarios that also involve drinking, including the typical bar and club scene, which really thrives in cities like Hong Kong and Shanghai.
But what authentic beer or liquor to drink, you ask? The aforementioned baijiu is widely recognized liquor that has plenty of local incarnations, while wine like Huangjiu, which is brewed from a handful of different grain types, and the much sweeter Lychee wine made from the lychee fruit are frequently available. China craft beer culture isn't nearly as popular as in Western societies, so you may have to settle for imports or the ubiquitous Tsingtao, Yanjing, Zhujiang, and Snow Beer.
Interesting Cultural Fact:
China leads the world in yearly executions. This sobering fact and other human rights crises can be accessed via Amnesty International. Since we're in the business of information, we would also be remiss in failing to mention that nearly 700 million Chinese citizens drink water contaminated with human or animal waste (>World Resource Institute). Bottled water may not be a bad idea during your visit.
Peak season:During holidays and June to September
Chun Jie, otherwise known as the Chinese New Year or Spring Festvial, is the most happening time in China for a group of travelers to satiate their wanderlust. Although the date varies with the lunar calendar, the celebrations are held annually near the end of January or the beginning of February for 15 days in Chinese communities worldwide. Although local customs may differ greatly, citizens are known to put on lavish parades, enjoy fireworks, and contribute to the glee and excitement of a a new year, a clean slate. A big feast starts the celebration and it is ushered out with a ceremony that involves the hanging of red lanterns.
For those who would like to enjoy a cultural festival less associated with rampant noise and crowds and more oriented toward actual culture, try Sanyue Jie in the Yunnan Province's town of Dali. This traditional festival, which celebrates the town's being saved from a vicious monster in ancient times, consists of folk performances, the colorful garb of the Bai, Yi, and Naxi people, horse races, boat races, and so many market stalls you'll barely be able to walk them all. It's a 5-day celebration that often falls in April; if you're not feeling the travel troubles of enjoying Chinese New Year, opt instead for Sanyue Jie.
The Dragon Boat Festival
Celebrated in a number of south and southeastern Chinese communities (Hong Kong, Chongwu), the Dragon Boat Festival is, as most would suspect, all about the dragon boat racing. Held on the 5th day of the 5th month of the lunar cycle (May or June), traditional aspects of the celebration also include fireworks, the eating of zongzi (a rice-filled dumpling), and the consumption of realgar wine. Although historians aren't sure if there is a single inspiration for the festival, it is associated with the famous Chinese poet, Qu Yuan.
Intro Music Festival
Established in 2009, this electronica-centric festival is the biggest of its kind in all of China, a country that is just getting its footing in the music festival world. This outdoor festival brings about 20,000 music lovers into Beijing's 798 art district for a weekend of fun in late May. Although this music is usually better suited for darkly lit clubs, the festival has fared quite well in the few years it has been operating.
Generally considered a festival for rock music, the Midi Festival, which occurs in both Beijing and Shanghai for a weekend early in October, actually provides a range of music (rock to ska to metal) on different stages. Considered the most reliable and longest running festival of its kind, Midi is well-run and benefits from good sound and a line-up that often includes some international acts. Check the website for this year's updated line-up, dates, and location.