Splendidly diverse in its geographic, ethnic, culinary and social make-up, China is a nation on the march. Developing at a rate unmatched in human history, already huge cities are adding sprawling suburbs and cutting-edge architecture on a day-by-day basis, even as an ever-expanding web of high-speed rail ties the country together. Nevertheless, this apparent modernity is based on a civilization that has remained intact, continually recycling itself, for over four millennia. Chinese script reached perfection during the Han dynasty (220 BC–220 AD), and those stone lions standing sentinel outside sleek new skyscrapers first appeared as temple guardians over three thousand years ago. Indeed, it is the tension and contrasts between change and continuity that make modern China so fascinating.
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The first thing that strikes visitors to the country is the extraordinary density of its population. In much of China, villages, towns and cities seem to sprawl endlessly into one another along the grey arteries of busy expressways. Move to the far south or west of the country, however, and the population thins out as it begins to vary: indeed, large areas 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 tourist highlights – 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.
Facts about China
- With an area of 9.6 million square kilometres, China is the fourth-largest country in the world and the most populous nation on earth, with around 1.35 billion people. Of these, 92 percent are of the Han ethnic group, with the remainder comprising about sixty minorities such as Mongols, Uyghurs and Tibetans.
- The main religions are Buddhism, Taoism and Christianity, though the country is officially atheist.
- China’s longest river is the Yangzi (6275km) and the highest peak is Qomolongma – Mount Everest (8850m) – on the Nepalese border.
- The Chinese Communist Party is the sole political organization, and is divided into Executive, Legislative and Judicial branches. The chief of state (President) and the head of government (Premier) are elected for five-year terms at the National People’s Congress.
- After decades of state planning, the economy is now mixed, with nationally owned enterprises on the decline and free-market principles ubiquitous.
Where to go in China
China's Eastern Seaboard
Encompassing the provinces of Shandong, Jiangsu and Zhejiang, China’s eastern seaboard stretches for almost 2000km between the mouths of the Yellow and Yangzi rivers. These waterways have played a vital part in the cultural and economic development of China for the last two thousand years, and the area today remains one of the country’s economic powerhouses. Including Shanghai, a city flanked by Jiangsu and Zhejiang, the eastern seaboard is home to nearly 250 million people – meaning that, if somehow cleaved from China, it would be the world’s fourth most populous country. This makes for great transport infrastructure: comfortable, modern buses run along the many inter-city expressways, while the area has the country’s highest concentration of high-speed rail routes. Yet, however modernized the eastern seaboard might be, with cities which rank among the most sophisticated in the land, there’s plenty of visible history to get your teeth into as you journey around the region.
Shandong province is home to some small and intriguing places: Ji’nan, a large city in which you can go swimming in a hutong spring; Qufu, the birthplace of Confucius, with its giant temple and mansion; Tai Shan, one of the major pivots of the Taoist religion; and the coastal city of Qingdao, which offers a couple of beaches, swath of colonial architecture, lots of beer and seafood, and a ferry service to South Korea. Over in Jiangsu province there’s Nanjing, China’s large but likeable “southern capital”, and wonderful Suzhou, whose centre is crisscrossed by gorgeous canals, and dotted with classically designed gardens. Heading further south to Zhejiang province one will undoubtedly stumble across Hangzhou, which Marco Polo termed “the most beautiful and magnificent city in the world”; its Xi Hu (West Lake), still recognizable from classic scroll paintings, is deservedly rated as one of the most scenic spots in China. The same can be said of the enchanting island of Putuo Shan, which juts out of the sea just east of the mainland.
The region’s prosperity means that its accommodation is on the expensive side, though there are excellent youth hostels in almost all tourist centres. The climate varies a fair bit from north to south: Shandong’s is similar to that of Beijing; while the Yangzi River region, despite being low-lying and far from the northern plains, is unpleasantly cold and damp in winter, yet also unbearably hot and sticky during the summer – Nanjing’s reputation as one of the “three furnaces” of China is well justified. If possible, try to visit in spring (mid-April to late May), during which a combination of rain showers, sunshine and low humidity gives the terrain a splash of green as well as putting smiles on the faces of residents emerging from the harsh winter.
Fujian, Guangdong and Hainan Island
There’s something very self-contained about the provinces of Fujian, Guangdong and Hainan Island, which occupy 1200km or so of China’s convoluted southern seaboard. Though occasionally taking centre stage in the country’s history, the provinces share a sense of being generally isolated from mainstream events by the mountain ranges surrounding Fujian and Guangdong, physically cutting them off from the rest of the empire. Forced to look seawards, the coastal regions have a long history of contact with the outside world: this is where Islam entered China, and porcelain and tea left it along the Maritime Silk Road; where the mid-nineteenth-century theatricals of the Opium Wars, colonialism, the Taiping Uprising and the mass overseas exodus of southern Chinese were played out; and where today you’ll find some of China’s most Westernized cities. Conversely, the interior mountains enclose some of the country’s wildest, most remote corners, parts of which were virtually in the Stone Age a century ago.
Possibly because its attractions are thinly spread, the region receives scant attention from foreign visitors, except those transiting between the mainland and Hong Kong or Macau. And it must be admitted that a superficial skim through the region – especially the enormous industrial sprawl surrounding the Guangdong capital, Guangzhou – can leave a gloomy impression of uncontrolled development and its attendant ills. Yet below the surface, even Guangzhou has some antique architecture and a strangely compelling, lively atmosphere, while smaller cities – including the Fujian port of Xiamen, and Chaozhou in eastern Guangdong – seem partially frozen in time, staunchly preserving their traditions in the face of the modern world. Scenically, the Wuyi Shan range in northeastern Fujian contains the region’s lushest, most picturesque mountain forests; while way down south on Hainan Island lie the country’s best and busiest beaches where you can also surf and scuba dive.
As one of the longest-developed areas of the mainland, getting around the region is seldom problematic, though accommodation can be expensive and suffers huge seasonal fluctuations in price. The weather is nicest in spring and autumn, as summer storms from June to August bring sweltering heat and humidity, thunder, downpours and floods. In contrast, the higher reaches of the Guangdong-Fujian border can get very cold in winter.
Hong Kong and Macau
The handover of Asia’s last two European colonies, Hong Kong in 1997 and Macau in 1999, opened new eras for both. Despite a visible colonial heritage, the dominant Chinese character underlying these two SARs, or “Special Administrative Regions of China” is obvious: after all, Hong Kong and Macau’s population is 97 percent Chinese, the main language is Cantonese, and there have always been close ties – if tinged with distrust – with their cousins north of the border. It is hard to overstate the importance that the handovers had for the Chinese government, in sealing the end of centuries of colonial intrusion with the return of the last pieces of foreign-occupied soil to the motherland. Hong Kong and Macau’s population widely supported the transfer of power – if only to see how much leeway they could garner under the new administration. Both entities now find themselves in the unique position of being capitalist enclaves subject to a communist state, under the relatively liberal “One Country, Two Systems” policy coined by the late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping.
First under colonial and now mainland Chinese rule, Hong Kong and Macau’s citizens have never had a say in their futures, so they have concentrated their efforts on other things – notably, making money. With its emphasis on economics and consumerism, Hong Kong offers the greatest variety and concentration of shops and shopping on earth, along with a colossal range of cuisines, and vistas of sea and island, green mountains and futuristic cityscapes. The excellent infrastructure, including the efficient public transit system, the helpful tourist offices and all the other facilities of a genuinely international city make this an extremely soft entry into the Chinese world.
While Hong Kong is a place to do business, Macau has leapt ahead in recent years as a haven for gambling, its thirty-odd casinos making the enclave a veritable Las Vegas of the East. The wealth has funded a modern cityscape, but evidence of its colonial past persists in extensive quarters of antique, Mediterranean-style architecture, along with Portuguese wine and Macanese cooking, a fusion of colonial and Chinese styles.
Visitors will spend more money here than elsewhere in China, though public transport and food are good value – even if accommodation is always pricey for what you get. Travellers on a tight budget who stay in dormitories can just about get by on HK$450 a day, though at the other end of the market in hotels, restaurants and shops, prices quickly rise to international levels.
Outdoor activities in China
Since 2008, when China hosted the Olympics, athletic passion has become almost a patriotic duty. But the most visible forms of exercise are fairly timeless; head to any public space in the morning and you’ll see citizens going through all sorts of martial-arts routines, playing ping pong and street badminton, even ballroom dancing. Sadly though, facilities for organized sport are fairly limited.
The Chinese are good at “small ball” games such as squash and badminton, and, of course, table tennis, at which they are world champions, but admit room for improvement in the “big ball” games, such as football. Nevertheless, Chinese men follow foreign football avidly, with games from the European leagues shown on CCTV5. There’s also a national obsession among students for basketball, which predates the rise to international fame of NBA star Yao Ming, who plied his trade for the Houston Rockets.
If China has an indigenous “sport”, however, it’s the martial arts – not surprising, perhaps, in a country whose history is littered with long periods of civil conflict. Today, there are hundreds of Chinese martial-arts styles, often taught for exercise rather than for fighting.
As for outdoor activities, hiking for its own sake is slowly catching on, though tourists have plenty of opportunities for step-aerobic-type exercise up long, steep staircases ascending China’s many holy mountains. Snow sports have become popular in Dongbei, which has several ski resorts, while the wilds of Yunnan and Sichuan, along with Qinghai and Tibet, are drawing increasing numbers of adventurous young city-born Chinese – always dressed in the latest outdoor gear – to mountaineering and four-wheel-drive expeditions.
Shopping in China
China is a good place to shop for tourist souvenirs, folk art, clothes, household goods and faked designer labels – but not for real designer brands or electronic goods (including mobile phones), which are all cheaper at home or online. Even small villages have markets, while larger cities will also have big department stores, shopping malls and even international supermarket chains.
Prices in stores are fixed, but discounts (折扣, zhékòu) are common: they’re marked by a number between one and nine and the character “折”, indicating the percentage of the original price you have to pay – “8折”, for example, means that the item is on sale at eighty percent of its original price. At markets you’re expected to bargain for goods unless prices are displayed. If you can speak Chinese, hang around for a while to get an idea what others are paying, or just ask at a few stalls selling the same things; Chinese shoppers usually state the price they’re willing to pay, rather than beginning low and working up to it after haggling. Don’t become obsessed about saving every last yuan; being charged more than locals and getting ripped off from time to time is inevitable.
Souvenirs popular with foreign tourists include “chops” (stone seals with your name engraved in characters on the base); all manner of reproduction antiques, from porcelain to furniture; mementos of Mao and the Cultural Revolution – Little Red Books and cigarette lighters that chime “The East is Red”; T-shirts and “old-style” Chinese clothes; scroll paintings; and ethnic jewellery and textiles. Chinese tourists also look for things like local teas, “purple sand” teapots and bright tack. Pretty much the same selection is sold at all tourist sites, irrespective of relevancy. For real antiques, you need specialist stores or markets – some are listed in the Guide – where anything genuine is meant to be marked with a wax seal and requires an export licence to take out of the country. But be aware that, with world prices for Chinese art going through the roof, forgeries abound. The Chinese are also clued-up, avid collectors and value their culture highly, so don’t expect to find any bargains.
Clothes are a very good deal in China, with brand stores such as Giordano, Baleno, Metersbonwe and Yishion selling high-quality smart-casual wear. Fashion-conscious places such as Shanghai and Hong Kong also have factory outlet stores, selling last year’s designs at low prices, and all major cities have specialist stores stocking outdoor and hiking gear, though it often looks far better than it turns out to be for the price. Silk and other fabrics are also good value, if you’re into making your own clothes, while shoes are inexpensive too. With the Chinese youth racing up in height, finding clothing in large sizes is becoming less of an issue.
All bookshops and many market stalls in China sell music CDs of everything from Beijing punk to Beethoven, plus VCDs and DVDs of domestic and international movies (often subtitled – check on the back). While extremely cheap, many of these are pirated (the discs may be confiscated at customs when you get home). Genuine DVD films may be region-coded for Asia, so check the label and whether your player at home will handle them; there are no such problems with CDs or VCDs.
Hong Kong is the only place with a comprehensive range of Western goods; on the mainland, your best bet is to head to provincial capitals, many of which have a branch of Carrefour (家乐福, jiālèfú) or Wal-Mart (沃尔玛, wòěrmă), where you may find small caches of foreign goodies.