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.
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.
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.”
Domestic tourism is big in China. Steer clear of the two-week-long public holidays at the beginning of May and October when the whole of the country is out visiting. Also, avoid travelling during the week before Chinese New Year (February), when the nation is going home for the holidays and transport services are over-stretched.
On the whole, spring and autumn are the most pleasant months, when most of China enjoys clement weather. Certainly those are the best times to visit Beijing or Shanghai. During the winter Beijing, Xinjiang and the north-east are bitingly cold, but southern destinations such as Yunnan are pleasant. There is no rainy season.
Festivals in China follow the Chinese lunar calendar. After the two week Spring festival (normally in February), March sees celebrations for Guanyin’s birthday – China’s most popular deity. The Dragon Boat Festival, held in memory of the poet Qu Yuan, is held in June or July. Head to Yunnan Province in mid-April for the Water-splashing festival.
Beijing (PEK) 26km from the Beijing; Guangzhou Baiyun (CAN) 7km from Guangzhou; Shanghai Hong Quio (SHA), 12km from Shanghai; Shanghai-Pudong (PVG) 30km from Shanghai; Chengdu Shuangliu (CTU) 16km from Chengdu
China is a country of vast distances. Thanks to an extensive internal air network, these can be quickly covered by plane. Tickets are easy to purchase except during major festival and holidays.
China’s rail network is fast and efficient, though timetables and signs are not always in English.
Buses are the best way to get from cities into rural areas. Driving across China is currently forbidden to foreign tourists (you need to have a resident’s permit and Chinese driving license to be able to do so). It is possible to rent vehicles for local use in Beijing and Shanghai. Taxis are always available in large towns.
Cycling is a good way to get around; rental booths are common around train stations and tourist centres. Boat services are dwindling, but a trip down the Yangtze remains one of the world’s great river journeys.
Family-run, character-rich guesthouses of the kind found all over Asia are rare in China. Generally accommodation in China is no great cause for excitement but the situation is improving. Certain temples and monasteries provide accommodation – these are cheap but sometimes don’t have electricity or running water.
Chinese cuisine varies greatly from region to region and every town has its speciality (Beijing’s is famously Peking duck). Noodles are predominant in the north, while rice is king in the south. In the east you’ll find rich, sweet cooking, hot and sour soups and lots of seafood dishes. In the west food is spicy and peppery. Throughout China, street stalls sell mouth-watering delicacies and steamed buns.
Consult with a specialist travel-health clinic about which vaccinations are recommended before departing. Medical facilities are good in the major cities. Elsewhere don’t expect English to be spoken in hospitals and pharmacies. Beware of backstreet pharmacies as counterfeit drugs are common. Don’t drink untreated tap water.
The country is generally safe for foreigners. Be wary of pickpockets on trains and buses and don’t flash valuables about in the street.
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