China

China
image: Temple of Heaven, Beijing

Temple of Heaven, Beijing

China is the third largest country in the world in terms of land mass and houses the largest and most diverse population of over one billion people. For centuries, China ruled over all civilizations, outpacing the world in arts and sciences creating historical, architectural, artistic and gastronomic treasures that are still to be enjoyed today. The beautiful and magical scenery will lure you into feeling as if you are floating on top of the world or have been transported to the middle of an ancient Chinese painting or poem.

It’s alive with history and vibrant cultures, ancient to modern, from the Teracotta Warriors in Xi’an to the Forbidden City andTian’anmen Square in Beijing, epic karst scenery at the edge of the world, tropical gardens in the heart of furious cities, sites of many gods and worshippers…numerous experiences which cannot be rivalled.

A few Chinese words will go a long way to getting a smile and a response. When offering locals food and drink, they will always politely refuse, so you will have to offer at least three times to be really sure.

Whilst China is one of the oldest civilisations, its future will undoubtedly shape the 21st century. China has recently opened its doors for the rest of the world to discover both the cultural and economic richness of this country. The evidence of tight political control remains, however, even while the economic and social controls continue to weaken. China delivers more than you could ever hope for and the warm-hearted people will welcome you every step of the way.

Climate

For mild and generally clear weather, the best times to visit China are either spring (March – May) or autumn (September – October) when the temperatures during the day usually range between 77-86F (20-30C). However the temperature at nights can still be very cold. When to go to China will largely be dictated by where you are going as it is such a vast territory. Temperatures in the north can drop to -40F (- 40C) in the winter but Beijing experiences hot months around 86F (30C) in June and July.The summers are generally very humid and the winters are quite cold. However, winter does offer a few interesting events: the Ice Festival inHarbin (a few hours north of Beijing) features intricate ice carvings, and Chinese New Yearfalls in February.

People

93% of China’s population are Han Chinese, and the rest of the population is made up of 55 different minority nationalities.The official religion of Communist China is atheism (no belief), yet in reality, Confucianism, Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Christianity and other tribal religions are quite widely practiced.

Of China’s 1.2 billion people, over 13 million make Beijing their home. However, there is also an estimate of 10 million more unofficial migrant workers who live in the city. More than 90 percent of the population in Beijing are Han Chinese, and the remainder are Manchus,Mongols and Turkic people from Western China. With China opening up to the outside world, the capital has also acquired a small but fast-growing foreign community.

Language

A phrase book is essential when exploring rural China as the chances of finding people speaking English is slim outside of Beijing. Mandarin (Putonghua) is the country’s official spoken language. Apart from Mandarin, Cantonese as well as a number of regional and tribal languages are spoken.

Despite all its modernity, travellers will find that a phrase book and a map with place names in both Mandarin and English would be helpful when exploring Beijing, especially when dealing with taxi drivers (pointing is much simpler than attempting to pronounce Chinese place names!). However, in most hotels and tourist areas, you will find still be able to find someone who can speak at least some English. Hotels in the city also provide cards which have the names of the main tourist sites printed in both English and Mandarin. These can be very useful as travellers just have to check the box next to the attraction they want to visit and hand the card over to the taxi driver. This would be almost impossible in the rural areas.

Reading signs in rural areas of China can also be difficult, but in the cities most have the characters followed by the name in pinyin (Chinese using the western alphabet) with accents to give you a hint of the pronunciation.

Cash

The currency in China is the China Yuan Renminbi (CNY) but it is commonly known as the yuan or kwai (local slang word). Whilst exchange rates constantly fluctuate, the rates at the time of printing were approximately as folows:

$1 US = 8 CNY
1 pound = 12 CNY
1 Euro = 10 CNY

Foreigners will inevitably end up paying more for most things in Beijing. All businesses from the airlines to museums are told by the government to charge foreigners more. However recent reports have indicated that this situation is slowly changing and places are starting to charge a flat rate for locals and tourists alike.

Prices vary a lot depending on whether you’re visiting major tourist hotspots like those found in Beijing, or backpacking rurally – but as a rule of thumb you can live comfortably for about $30 a day rurally and $70 in cities.

Dress

From hot summers (June to August) to freezing winters (December to March), China has it all, so your attire will largely depend on the time of your visit. Use common sense when packing, and if in doubt include plenty of layers instead of bulky items that will weigh you down. Bring plenty of loose natural fibres like cotton and silk to counteract the blaring heat if you are travelling during summer, and as a general rule the traveller should try to dress conservatively, especially in more rural areas. The Chinese people are generally casual dressers so you needn’t worry too much about not being a snappy dresser as you live out of your backpack or suitcase.

Visa Requirements

All visitors to China require a visitor’s visa. Standard tourist visas are issued for 30 days from your arrival date. It can be possible to get a 60 or 90 day visa but you can usually only obtain these from the CTS (China Travel Service) office in Hong Kong. Be careful not to overstay your visa, you could be fined $50US per day.

Food

Grains form the main staples of the Chinese diet, with rice being the most popular and widely consumed food. You will often find soups, consisting of a broth with numerous vegetables, meat or tofu inside the soup. However, you should expect the food to be quite different to your local Chinese takeout, and regionally, the food will vary substantially within China itself.

In Beijing, you will find a wide selection of cuisine, testament of just how cosmopolitan the city has become. From fast food joints to some of the most famous and delicious food from everywhere in China, you’ll be spoilt for choice.

Transport

If you have planned an extensive itinerary of China you will find plane fares cheap, unfortunately it is usual for foreigners to pay at least double the fare that is charged to nationals. However, train travel can prove more insightful to the Chinese way of life as it is the most popular way for Chinese people to travel. Another way to get around that is unique to China is the Sleeper Bus, which, as the name suggests is a bus with little cabins for sleeping.

Beijing‘s network of bustaxi and the underground makes it easy to get around. Taxis are recommended as they are fast and inexpensive, with the average ride costing between $1.20 and $3, though unfortunately it is usual for foreigners to pay at least double the fare that is charged to locals. Rented bicycles can also be a great way to get around town. Rates start from $3.60 an hour or $7.20 a day but if you are planning for a longer stay in Beijing, you may even want to consider getting yourself a second hand bicycle.

Health

Besides not drinking the tap water, China is a relatively healthy place to visit. Malaria is not generally a risk in main tourist areas, although some Dengue fever occurs in some areas in South China. However, Hepatitis B and A are quite prevalent in China, and vaccinations are a good idea. Medical facilities in China range from sophisticated in the cities to totally primitive in more remote areas, and it goes without saying that you should have adequate travel insurance before you leave home.

Air pollution is a problem in Beijing and the capital is one of the ten most polluted cities in the world, according to the World Health Organisation. The city’s constant winds do however, reduce this hazard quite significantly, but it is at its worst in the hot and humid summers so would best be avoided then by people with breathing problems.

For more information on international travel and health, check out the World Health Organization website.

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