You can’t ignore China: more than a country, it’s a civilization, and one that has continuously recycled itself, not much perturbed by outsiders, for three millenia. Its script reached perfection in the Han dynasty, two thousand years ago, and those stone lions standing sentinel outside sleek new skyscrapers are built to a three-thousand-year-old design. Yet this ancient culture is now undergoing the fastest creative and commercial upheaval the world has ever seen, with Hong Kong-style skylines rearing up across the country. This dizzying modernisation is visible in every aspect of Chinese life, and it is the tension and contrast between wrenching change and continuity that makes modern China such an endlessly fascinating destination.
The first thing that strikes visitors to the country is the extraordinary density of its population. In central and eastern China, villages, towns and cities seem to sprawl endlessly into one another along the grey arteries of busy expressways. These are the Han Chinese heartlands, a world of chopsticks, tea, slippers, grey skies, shadow-boxing, teeming crowds, chaotic train stations, smoky temples, red flags and the smells of soot and frying tofu.
Move west or north away from the major cities, however, and the population thins out as it begins to vary: indeed, large areas of the People’s Republic are inhabited not by the “Chinese”, but by scores of distinct ethnic minorities, ranging from animist hill tribes to urban Muslims.
Here, the landscape begins to dominate: green paddy fields and misty hilltops in the southwest, the scorched, epic vistas of the old Silk Road in the northwest, and the magisterial mountains of Tibet.
While travel around the country itself is the easiest it has ever been, it would be wrong to pretend that it is an entirely simple matter to penetrate modern China. The main places to visit – the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, the Terracotta Army and the Yangzi gorges – are relatively few considering the vast size of the country, and much of China’s historic architecture has been deliberately destroyed in the rush to modernize. Added to this are the frustrations of travelling in a land where few people speak English, the writing system is alien and foreigners are sometimes viewed as exotic objects of intense curiosity – though overall you’ll find that the Chinese, despite a reputation for curtness, are generally hospitable and friendly.