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China travel guide

China is a world to itself, with mountain ranges, ancient cities, charming wildlife and a fascinating culture – not to mention THAT wall

China is big all over – 1.3 billion people, almost 10 million sq km. But don’t let the size daunt you. Rapidly improving infrastructure has made China easier to travel now than ever before, and areas that were off-limits a few years ago are opening up to all.

In China’s eastern coastal region, thronging mega-cites such as Shanghai have hurtled head-first into the 21st century. But elsewhere you’ll still find people living traditional ways of life, as well as vast swathes of untouched landscapes.

Beautiful, diverse Yunnan is a travellers’ favourite. From its steaming jungles on the Laos border to its mountains and renowned Tiger Leaping Gorge near Tibet, this western province of China is packed with spectacular scenery.

Just north of Yunnan, Sichuan province is the place to go to see wild pandas and eat the best Chinese food. If you’d rather go tiger spotting, head to the nature reserves in the region formerly known as Manchuria, in China’s north-east.

If you’re after an epic journey, follow the old Silk Road in China’s north-west, beyond the Great Wall along the border with Mongolia. Here you’ll meet ethnic minorities – Turkic-speaking Uighurs, Hui Muslims and Mongols – and have the chance to stay in a yurt on the great steppe lands. Or follow the Yellow River to see magnificent historical buildings in China’s ancient dynastic capitals.

Wanderlust recommends

  1. Explore the Great Wall of China without meeting the masses
  2. Go in search of giant pandas in the wilds of Sichuan or Shaanxi
  3. Meet Buddhist monks and nomads in the Qinghai region of China’s wild west
  4. Explore the best of Beijing – from the Forbidden City to the capital’s best karaoke bars
  5. Pedal and climb through paddy fields around laid-back Yangshuo, southern China
  6. Hike the dramatic Tiger Leaping Gorge in Yunnan

Wanderlust tips

English is widely understood in the service industries, though not by taxi drivers – you’ll need to have your destination written down in Chinese characters. In the countryside, a little Chinese will help a lot, though plenty get by with a repertoire of expressive gestures, a phrasebook and a lot of patience.

Check the weather forecast before you visit, as this can have a massive impact on your trip. Rain and clouds can completely cover the skyline of big cities, and save a visit to the Great Wall for a clear day. If there are clouds lurking around Beijing, you can guarantee that you won't be able to see more than a few metres in front of you at the top of the Great Wall.

I wish I'd known...

If you were hoping for a quiet holiday in China, forget it, says Katherine Price:

“If you thought that you wouldn't stand out in cities like Beijing and Shanghai – you'd be wrong. Westerners will always stand out like a sore thumb. Even in the cities, prepare to be stared at constantly, photographed without your permission, and asked to dinner by teachers wanting to practice their English. Even on Tiananmen Square in Beijing, people will get out their phones and take pictures or record videos of you. In more rural areas and smaller cities, you may as well be a celebrity. It takes a lot of getting used to."

"Read up before you go; information for sites may not necessarily be written in English, and certain historical sites may have no information at all.”

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