CHINA ESSENTIAL GUIDE
With its high-octane energy, can-do drive, teeming population and challenging language barrier, China can be an exhausting destination for the first-time visitor. Common complaints I have heard from tourists include: “It’s so crowded –everyone’s pushing and shoving”; “We couldn’t make ourselves understood”; and “We needed another holiday after that trip”.
The best piece of advice I can give is to avoid trying to cram too much in. There are not many travellers who head to the US and combine Manhattan, Disneyworld, the Grand Canyon and Hollywood in one trip, yet the equivalent in China - from east to west, north to south - is not unheard of. Like the US, China is a big, diverse country; smart travellers winnow down their must-see list to a select few destinations. Approached wisely, China is as uplifting as it is intriguing. It is also an essential stop for anyone hoping to learn more about the direction the world is taking this century.
Some travel to China to marvel at the skylines of cranes, innovative architectural projects and the country’s artistic endeavours. They should head to the financial and commercial hub of Shanghai, as well as to Beijing’s Olympic Village and the capital’s contemporary art district, housed in a former munitions factory, and called 798.
Others will be keen to learn more about China’s 5,000-year-old civilisation. That is best viewed through the country’s museums and monuments, from the first emperor’s Terracotta Warriors in Xi’an to Beijing’s Forbidden City, which served as the imperial palace from the Ming dynasty until the end of the Qing dynasty. However, be aware that these must-see attractions, including Beijing’s Summer Palace and the Temple of Heaven, and the sections of the Great Wall closest to the capital (notably Badaling), are often the most crowded.
For the adventurous, there are less well-known – and less crowded – sites, such as the Buddhist caves at Dunhuang, the charming former capitals of Luoyang and Kaifeng, and the great Taklamakan Desert in the far north-west. Some of China’s exceptional but less frequented museums include Shaanxi History Museum, Xi’an Museum and the Museum of Han Yangling (all three are in or close to Xi’an), as well as Zhejiang Provincial Museum.
Those who come seeking glimpses of daily life should plan a slower-paced trip building in time to walk the city streets and explore the parks. This will naturally allow for unplanned pauses: at the threshold, say, of moon-shaped gateways leading into courtyards of plum blossom; to hear a street busker playing the haunting two-stringed erhu; and to watch children cycling to school in immaculate blue-and-white uniforms.
My strongest suggestions for anyone planning a first trip to China are to incorporate a long train journey in order to mix with locals; to spend an afternoon at a traditional teahouse; and to visit a park in the early morning to watch locals practising tai chi, sing rousing Communist songs and pair up for ballroom dancing lessons. It is experiences like these which may make for the most enduring memories of all.
When to go
The best weather is during spring (March until May, but avoid Easter) and autumn (late September to early November) but hotel rates are higher at those times. Prices are lower in the shoulder seasons: February/early June and September/late November/December.
When to go
Many will prefer to avoid the three main Chinese public holidays: Chinese New Year (also called Spring Festival, usually falling in late January or early February), May holiday (the first week of May) and National Day (the first week of October). Tourist attractions become very crowded at this time. In 2014 these holidays fall on the following dates: January 31 - February 14 (Chinese New Year), May 1-3 (May holiday) and October 1-7 (National Day).
Some trips will be seasonal, such as those to catch the rhododendron valleys of Shangri-La in bloom, birdwatching in Napahai Lake and, for example, the Harbin International Ice & Snow Sculpture Festival.
China’s air network is extensive and airports are regularly being built and upgraded. On domestic flights, economy passengers usually have a free baggage allowance of 20kg and 5kg of hand luggage. Excess baggage charges can be steep.
China has taken rail travel into the modern age with punctual high-speed networks crisscrossing the country. Although sometimes crowded, trains are a great way to mix with locals.
The ‘soft seats’ for day trains and ‘soft sleepers’ for overnight trains are the most comfortable. Soft sleeper has two tiers of two bunks in each compartment separated from the aisle by a door (with Western as well as Asian toilet facilities). For anyone who prefers to mix more with locals the ‘hard sleeper‘ option has a similarly comfortable bunk but the carriage is completely open with three tiers of bunks (the middle bunk is preferable); seat61.com has excellent advice on what to expect when travelling on China’s railways.
Some particularly good rail routes include between Beijing and Shanghai (the express train takes just 4 hour and 45 minutes); Shanghai to Hangzhou; Shanghai to Suzhou; Beijing to Xi’an, and Chengdu to Chongqing.
It is easy to hail a cab in big cities. Taxis are metered, inexpensive and plentiful but few drivers speak English so it will be necessary to ask your concierge to write in Chinese characters your destination and the name of your hotel for the return journey. Note that traffic can become very congested in big cities, particularly during rush hour.
Beijing and Shanghai both have excellent metro systems, which are user-friendly, cheap, quick and reliable.
In Beijing, the best way to move around the back streets is as a pedestrian (e.g between the Temple of Heaven, Tian’anmen Square and the Forbidden City).
Before you go
British nationals require a visa to enter mainland China but not Hong Kong or Macau. Visas must be obtained before arrival and take around four working days to process, costing about £66. They can be obtained from the China Visa Application Service Centre in London or forms can be downloaded from the website:
For more information, see:
Travellers must have a passport valid for at least six months from the date of arrival and containing at least three pages for affixing visas. Children are no longer able to travel on a parent’s passport.
If your entry point is Lhasa, in Tibet, the visa must state Entry Place – Lhasa airport or Zhangmu (the border between Tibet and Nepal), or entry will be refused.
Before you go
It is possible to make a stopover in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Chengdu without a visa for stays of up to 72 hours. Visitors require an outbound plane ticket to another country scheduled for a departure within 72 hours and with valid travel documents for that destination. For more information, see: visaforchina.org.
A certificate of vaccination against yellow fever is compulsory for travellers arriving from infected areas. You may also want to consider the recommended immunisations, against: cholera, diphtheria, hepatitis A, hepatitis B, Japanese B encephalitis, malaria, TB, tetanus and typhoid. Malaria is present in some areas of China.
Local laws & etiquette
How to dress
The Chinese dress casually and modestly. Men rarely wear shorts except at beach locations. It is respectful for women to cover their shoulders and avoid wearing extremely short skirts and shorts, particularly when visiting temples - when shoulders should also be covered and slip-off shoes are easiest. Wear comfortable walking shoes for long days of sightseeing, particularly if visiting the Great Wall.
Foreigners may attract stares from curious locals especially in rural areas where non-Chinese are not often seen. Spitting in the street is not considered rude or disrespectful. Smoking is common in public places including restaurants.
Ask permission before taking anyone’s photograph. Photography is often prohibited at airports, museums and military installations. Video camera fees are sometimes levied at tourist sights; charges vary but are minimal. On rare occasions there may also be a small charge for still cameras.
Each region of China has a different cuisine. In the north it is hearty, heavier food based around wheat rather than rice. Typical dishes include steamed dumplings, noodles, spring rolls and Peking duck, as well as Mongolian barbecue and hotpot. Shanghai boasts excellent seafood and the renowned xiaolongbao, a soup-filled steamed dumpling. In the west, the key ingredient in spicy Sichuanese food is fiery red chillies. The southern region around Guangdong is famed for Cantonese food and is home to dim sum.
Although vegetarianism is not widespread in China there are plenty of delicious vegetable and tofu dishes. Adventurous eaters should explore the night-time food markets with their busy stalls and lively atmosphere. Most eateries will not have English menus but guests can point at ingredients on display or at fellow guests' dishes.
It is customary to tip guides, drivers and porters. A guideline amount is 100 Yuan per day for local guides, 50 Yuan per day for drivers and 5 Yuan per bag for porters. Tipping at hotels, restaurants and in taxis is discretionary (use 10 per cent as a guide). Some upmarket hotels and restaurants will have already added a service fee to your bill.
Local Chinese currency, the Renminbi (RMB) also known as the Yuan, can be withdrawn from cash machines. Credit cards are not always accepted.
We arrange some of the best package holidays to China
Booking a package combining the flight with a hotel can often work out cheaper than booking the flight and accommodation separately. It can also save hassle - amongst other things, the tour operator can sort out airport-to-hotel transfers - and you get back up if things go wrong.
Let us arrange your package holiday to China. Far East Tours and Rail Journeys