Welcome to Travel Planning 101. Find country specific information about where you are going and what to do to prepare to get there!
- Travel highlights of the country.
- Fun facts and background information.
- History notes, facts on currency, health, holidays and transportation.
- Pre-departure tips, when to go, and visa information.
- Information on weather and electricity plugs.
- Suggestions on things to do if you have extra time to explore on your own.
Places To See
One of Beijing's most visited sights, the immense park of the Summer Palace requires at least half a day. Nowadays teeming with tour groups from China and beyond, this dominion of palace temples, gardens, pavilions, and lakes was once a playground for the imperial court. Royalty came here to elude the insufferable summer heat that roasted the Forbidden City.
The Summer Palace with its cool features - water, gardens and hills - was the palace of choice for vacationing emperors and Dowager Empresses. It was badly damaged by Anglo-French troops during the Second Opium War (1860) and its restoration became a pet project of Empress Dowager Cixi, the last of the Qing dynasty rulers. Money earmarked for a modern navy was used for the project but, in a bit of whimsical irony, the only thing that was completed was the restoration of a marble boat. The boat now sits at the edge of the lake in all its immobile and nonmilitary glory. The Palace's full restoration was hampered by the disintegration of the Qing dynasty and the Boxer Rebellion.
The place is packed to the gunwales in summer, with Beijing residents taking full advantage of Kunming Lake, which takes up three-quarters of the park. The main building is the lyrically named Hall of Benevolence and Longevity, while along the north shore is the Long Corridor, so named because it's, well, long. There's over 700m (2300ft) of corridor, filled with mythical paintings and scenes. If some of the paintings have a newish patina, that's because many of the murals were painted over during the Cultural Revolution.
The Great Wall (Changcheng) wriggles fitfully from its scattered remains in Liaoning province to Jiayuguan in the Gobi Desert. The wall was begun over 2000 years ago, required thousands of workers - many of whom were political prisoners - and 10 years of hard labour. Legend has it that one of the building materials used was the bones of deceased workers.
An estimated 180 million cubic metres of rammed earth were used to form the core of the original wall.
The wall never really did perform its function as an impenetrable line of defence. As Genghis Khan supposedly said, 'The strength of a wall depends on the courage of those who defend it'. Sentries could be bribed.
However, it did work very well as a kind of elevated highway, transporting people and equipment across mountainous terrain. Its beacon tower system, using smoke signals generated by burning wolves' dung, transmitted news of enemy movements quickly back to the capital. To the west was Jiayuguan, an important link on the Silk Road, where there was a customs post of sorts and where unwanted Chinese were ejected through the gates to face the terrifying wild west.
The myth that the Great Wall is visible with the naked eye from the moon was finally laid to rest in 2003, when China's first astronaut Yang Liwei observed that he could not see the barrier from space. The myth is to be edited from Chinese textbooks, where it has cast its spell over generations of Chinese.
These caves, cut into the southern cliffs of Wuzhou Shan, contain over 50,000 Buddhist statues including the earliest Buddhist carvings in China. Images surrounding the main statues include the omnipresent '1000 Buddha' motif, flying apsaras (angels draped in flowing silk), pagodas in bas-relief and Chinese symbols such as dragons and phoenixes.
On top of the mountain ridge are the remains of a huge, mud-brick 17th-century Qing dynasty fortress. As you approach the caves you'll see the truncated pyramids, which were once the watchtowers. Sadly, many of the caves suffer damage from coal and other pollution, largely a result of the neighbouring coal mine. At the time of writing, most of the coal trucks were being diverted to a back road, making the trip more pleasant. East of the caves you can walk to a remnant of the Great Wall.
The incredible artwork shows influences of the many foreign craftsmen, from India and Central Asia, who worked on the grottoes. There are no guides at the caves, but there are decent English descriptions and explanations for many points within.
Army of Terracotta Warriors (Bingmayong)
Ranking alongside the Great Wall and the Forbidden City as one of China's top historical sights, the 2000-year-old Terracotta Army remains a stunningly well preserved, perpetually vigilant force standing guard over an ancient imperial necropolis. Almost as extraordinary is a pair of bronze chariots and horses on display in a museum by the main entrance.
The discovery of the Army was, like many major discoveries, entirely serendipitous. In 1974 peasants digging a well uncovered what turned out to be perhaps the major archaeological discovery of the 20th century: an underground vault of earth and timber that eventually yielded thousands of life-size terracotta soldiers and their horses in battle formation. In 1976 two other smaller vaults were discovered close to the first one.
The 6000 terracotta figures of warriors and horses face east in a rectangular battle array. Every figure differs in facial features and expressions. The horsemen are shown wearing tight-sleeved outer robes, short coats of chain mail and wind-proof caps. The archers have bodies and limbs positioned in strict accordance with an ancient book on the art of war.
Archaeologists believe the warriors discovered so far may be part of an even larger terracotta army still buried around the Tomb of Qin Shihuang. Excavation of the entire complex and the tomb itself could take decades.
The Forbidden City, so called because it was off limits for 500 years, is the largest and best-preserved cluster of China's ancient buildings. It was home to two dynasties of emperors, the Ming and the Qing, who didn't stray from this pleasure dome unless they absolutely had to. Allow yourself a full day, or perhaps several trips if you're an enthusiast.
On the north-south axis of the Forbidden City, from the Gate of Heavenly Peace in the south to Divine Military Genius Gate to the north, lie the palace's ceremonial buildings. Restored in the 17th century, Meridian Gate is a massive portal that in former times was reserved for the use of the emperor. Across the Golden Stream is Supreme Harmony Gate, overlooking a massive courtyard that could hold an imperial audience of up to 100,000 people.
Raised on a marble terrace with balustrades are the Three Great Halls, the heart of the Forbidden City. The Hall of Supreme Harmony is the most important and the largest structure in the Forbidden City. Built in the 15th century, and restored in the 17th century, it was used for ceremonial occasions, such as the emperor's birthday, the nomination of military leaders and coronations.
Chinese New Year (Chūn Jié) Also called the Spring Festival, this starts on the first day of the first month in the lunar calendar; many people take a week off work. Be warned: this is China's biggest holiday and transport can be hellish. It can be a great time to see the Chinese celebrating with all stops out, but book your room in advance and sit tight until the chaos is over.
Lantern Festival (Yuánxiāo Jié) This isn't a public holiday, but it is very colourful. Children make (or buy) paper lanterns and walk around the streets with them in the evening. It falls on the 15th day of the first moon.
Guanyin's Birthday (Guānshìyīn Dànchén Shēngrì) The birthday of Guanyin, the goddess of mercy, is a fine time to visit Buddhist temples, many of which have halls dedicated to the divinity. Guanyin's birthday is the 19th day of the second moon.
Tomb-Sweeping Day(Qīng Míng Jié) This day for worshipping ancestors is when people visit and clean the graves of their departed relatives. They often place flowers on the tomb and burn ghost money for the departed. The festival falls on 5 April, or 4 April in leap years.
Water-Splashing Festival (Pō Shuǐ Jié) Held in the Xīshuāngbǎnnà region in Yúnnán, this marvel takes place in mid-April (usually 13 to 15 April), washing away the dirt, sorrow and demons of the old year, and bringing the happiness of the new. Expect a saturation. The event is staged virtually daily for tourists.
Mazu's Birthday (Māzǔ Dànchén Shēngrì) Mazu, the goddess of the sea, is the friend of all fishing crews. She is also called Tianhou (pronounced 'Tin Hau' in Cantonese) or Niangniang. Her birthday is widely celebrated at Taoist temples in coastal regions as far south as Vietnam. Mazu's birthday is on the 23rd day of the third moon.
Dragon-Boat Festival (Duānwǔ Jié) This is the time to see dragon-boat races and eat zòngzi (dumplings made of glutinous rice wrapped in bamboo or reed leaves). It's a fun holiday despite the fact it commemorates the sad tale of Qu Yuan, a 3rd-century BC poet-statesman who hurled himself into the Mi Lo river in Húnán to protest against the corrupt government. This holiday falls on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month.
Children's Day Most schools go on field trips on this day; some schools have half day off. Held on 1 June.
Ghost Month (Guǐ Yuè) The devout believe that this is the time when ghosts from hell walk the earth; it's a dangerous time to travel, go swimming, get married or move house. If someone dies during this month, the body will be preserved, and the funeral and burial performed the following month. Ghost Month is the first 15 days of the seventh lunar month (usually from early August).
Birthday of Confucius (Kǒngzǐ Dànchén Shēngrì) The great sage has his birthday on 28 September. A natural high point on the calendar of Qūfù (the birthplace of Confucius) in Shāndōng, the birthday is celebrated with a ceremony at the Confucius Temple, which starts around . Other Confucian temples around China observe the event.
Mid-Autumn Festival (Zhōngqiū Jié) The Chinese celebrate this festival, also known as the Moon Festival, by gazing at the moon, eating tasty yuè bǐng (moon cakes) and hanging out lanterns; it's also traditionally a holiday for lovers. The festival takes place on the 15th day of the eighth moon.
When to go?
Travel to China is possible year-round, as long as you're prepared for what the season can throw at you. Spring (March to May) and autumn (September to early November) can be the best time to be on the road, as you avoid the blistering heat of summer (June to August) and stinging chill of winter (November to February/March). Autumn in Běijīng, for example, is particularly pleasant, as are early spring and autumn in Hong Kong. Summer is the busiest tourist season, and getting around and finding accommodation during the peak summer crush can be draining.
Travel Visa Overview
Apart from for citizens of Japan, Singapore and Brunei, all visitors to China require a visa. A Chinese visa covers virtually the whole of China, although there are still some restricted areas that require an additional permit from the PSB. Permits are also required for travel to Tibet, an area of China that the authorities can suddenly bar foreigners from entering.
Japanese-style plug with two parallel flat blades
Australian-style plug with two flat angled blades and one vertical grounding blade
British-style plug with two flat blades and one flat grounding blade
South African/Indian-style plug with two circular metal pins above a large circular grounding pin
This diarrhoeal disease can cause rapid dehydration and death. Cholera is caused by a bacteria, Vibrio cholerae. It's transmitted from person to person by direct contact (often via healthy carriers of the disease) or via contaminated food and water. It can be spread by seafood, including crustaceans and shellfish, which get infected via sewage.
Cholera exists where standards of environmental and personal hygiene are low. Every so often there are massive epidemics, usually due to contaminated water in conditions where there is a breakdown of the normal infrastructure.
The time between becoming infected and symptoms appearing is usually short, between one and five days. The diarrhoea starts suddenly, and pours out of you. It's characteristically described as 'ricewater' diarrhoea because it is watery and flecked with white mucus. Vomiting and muscle cramps are usual, but fever is rare. In its most serious form, it causes a massive outpouring of fluid (up to 20L a day). This is the worst case scenario - only about one in 10 sufferers get this severe form.
It's a self-limiting illness, meaning that if you don't succumb to dehydration, it will end in about a week without any treatment.
You should seek medical help urgently; in the meantime, start re-hydration therapy with oral re-hydration salts. You may need antibiotic treatment with tetracycline, but fluid replacement is the single most important treatment strategy in cholera.
Prevention is by taking basic food and water precautions, avoiding seafood and having scrupulous personal hygiene. The currently available vaccine is not thought worthwhile as it provides only limited protection for a short time.
This serious and potentially fatal disease is spread by mosquito bites. If you are travelling in endemic areas it is extremely important to avoid mosquito bites and to take tablets to prevent this disease. Symptoms range from fever, chills and sweating, headache, diarrhoea and abdominal pains to a vague feeling of ill-health. Seek medical help immediately if malaria is suspected. Without treatment malaria can rapidly become more serious and can be fatal.
If medical care is not available, malaria tablets can be used for treatment. You should seek medical advice, before you travel, on the right medication and dosage for you.
If you do contract malaria, be sure to be re-tested for malaria once you return home as you can harbour malaria parasites in your body even if you are symptom free.
Travellers are advised to prevent mosquito bites at all times. The main messages are: wear light-coloured clothing; wear long trousers and long-sleeved shirts; use mosquito repellents containing the compound DEET on exposed areas (prolonged overuse of DEET may be harmful, especially to children, but its use is considered preferable to being bitten by disease-transmitting mosquitoes); avoid perfumes and aftershave.Use a mosquito net impregnated with mosquito repellent (permethrin) - it may be worth taking your own.
This is a fatal viral infection found throughout South America and parts of Asia. Many animals can be infected (such as dogs, cats, bats and monkeys) and it's their saliva that is infectious. Any bite, scratch or even lick from a warm-blooded, furry animal should be cleaned immediately and thoroughly. Scrub with soap (to neutralize as much of the saliva as possible) and running water, and then apply alcohol or iodine solution. Medical help should be sought promptly to receive a course of injections to prevent the onset of symptoms and death.
This disease is carried in fresh water by tiny worms that enter through the skin and attach themselves to the intestines or bladder. The first symptom may be tingling and sometimes a light rash around the area where the worm entered. Weeks later, a high fever may develop. A general unwell feeling may be the first symptom, or there may be no symptoms. Once the disease is established, abdominal pain and blood in the urine are other signs. The infection often causes no symptoms until the disease is well established (several months to years after exposure), and damage to internal organs is irreversible. Avoid swimming or bathing in freshwater where bilharzia is present. Even deep water can be infected. If you do get wet, dry off quickly and dry your clothes as well. A blood test is the most reliable test, but it will not show positive until a number of weeks after exposure.
Unlike the malaria mosquito, the Aedes aegypti mosquito, which transmits the dengue virus, is most active during the day, and is found mainly in urban areas, in and around human dwellings.
Signs and symptoms of dengue fever include a sudden onset of high fever, headache, joint and muscle pains, nausea and vomiting. A rash of small red spots sometimes appears three to four days after the onset of fever. Severe complications do sometimes occur.
You should seek medical attention as soon as possible if you think you may be infected. A blood test can indicate the possibility of the fever. There is no specific treatment. Aspirin should be avoided, as it increases the risk of haemorrhaging. There is no vaccine against dengue fever.
The climate for this Asian behemoth is understandably varied and ranges from bitterly cold to unbearably hot, and a whole lot in between. Your average winter day in the north might reach -8°C (17°F) if you're lucky and yet sit in the low thirties (high eighties) in summer around July. The central Yangzi River valley area also experiences extreme seasonal temperatures. In the far south, the hot and humid summer lasts from April to September and, as in north China, coincides with the wettest weather. Typhoons can hit the southeast coast between July and September. The northwest experiences dry, hot summers, with China's nominated hottest place - Turpan - receiving maximums of around 47°C (117°F). Winters here are as formidably cold as in the rest of northern China.
History and Culture
Chances are, if it exists in the West, it came from the East. Think anything from noodles, calligraphy and ceramics to golf, ice-cream, opera, fireworks, architecture and philosophy. The Chinese were casting bronze around 5000 years ago, and the earliest chopsticks were not far behind. Chinese culture has made one of the greatest artistic contributions to humankind. Sadly, much of China's ancient art treasures have been destroyed in times of civil war or dispersed by invasion or natural calamity.
Within the last 200 years, China has undergone tremendous social and economic upheaval, all taking its toll on the national psyche. Chinese culture took a beating during the Cultural Revolution and is still recovering. There is a large cultural gap between Hong Kong and Macau and the rest of China. Hong Kong and Macau, while outwardly more modern, are also more traditionally Chinese because they didn't experience the Cultural Revolution.
Pre-20th Centure History
The Chinese claim a history of 5000 years. The first dynasty, the Xia, is yet to be archaeologically verified but is accepted as lasting from 2200 to 1700 BC, and is described in legends as having been preceded by a succession of god-like sovereigns who bestowed the gifts of life, hunting and agricultural knowledge. The existence of ensuing dynasties is similarly hazy, but clarity increases with each era, revealing agricultural societies who practised ancestor worship.
The Zhou period (1100-221 BC) saw the emergence of Confucianism and the establishment of the 'mandate of heaven' whereby the right to rule was given to the just and denied to the evil and corrupt, leading to the later Taoist view that heaven's disapproval was expressed through natural disasters such as earthquakes, floods and insect plagues.
The Chinese were united for the first time during the Qin dynasty (221-207 BC). The dynasty standardised the writing system and completed construction of the Great Wall. The ensuing Han dynasty (206 BC-AD 220) featured much military conflict and the creation of the Three Kingdoms. Curiously, these war-torn centuries also saw the flowering of Buddhism and the arts.
Unity arose out of the chaos under the Sui dynasty (581-618) and was consolidated under the Tang (618-907), commonly regarded as the most glorious period of Chinese history. Military conquests re-established Chinese control of the silk routes and society was 'internationalised' to an unprecedented degree. Buddhism flourished under the Tang, splitting into two distinct schools: the Chan (Zen) and Pure Land (Chinese Buddhist).
The Song dynasty (960-1279) was marked by a revival of Confucianism and urban and commercial revolutions - it was during the 13th century that Marco Polo commented on the grand scale of China's prosperous cities. Genghis's grandson Kublai Khan's Yuan dynasty (1206-1368) established a capital at what is now Beijing and militarised the nation's administration. The novice Buddhist Hongwu established the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), with capitals at Beijing ('Northern Capital') and Nanjing ('Southern Capital') .
The Portuguese were the first Europeans to arrive in China, anchoring off the coast in 1516. A trade mission was established in Macau by 1557, but it was not until 1760 that other powers gained secure access to Chinese markets via a base in Guangzhou. Trade flourished, but in China's favour, as British purchases of silk and tea far outweighed Chinese purchases of wool and spices. In 1773 the British decided to balance the books by encouraging the sale of opium. By 1840 the Opium Wars were on.
The resulting treaties signed in British favour led to the cession of Hong Kong and the signing of the humiliating Treaty of Nanking. A subsequent land-grabbing spree by Western powers saw China carved up into spheres of influence. The Chinese agreed to the US-proposed free-trade Open Door Policy and all of China's colonial possessions soon evaporated, with Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia falling to the French, Burma to the British, and Korea and Taiwan to Japan.
The first half of the 20th century was a period of utter chaos. Intellectuals searched for a new philosophy to replace Confucianism, while warlords attempted to grab imperial power. Sun Yatsen's Kuomintang (KMT, or Nationalist Party) established a base in southern China and began training a National Revolutionary Army (NRA). Meanwhile, talks between the Soviet Comintern and prominent Chinese Marxists resulted in the formation of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in 1921. Hopes of the CCP aligning with the KMT were dashed by Sun Yatsen's death and the rise from the KMT of Chiang Kaishek in Beijing, who favoured a capitalist state supported by a military dictatorship.
The communists were split between those who focused on urban revolt and those who believed victory lay in uniting the countryside. Mao Zedong established his forces in the mountains of Jinggang Shan, and by 1930 had marshalled a guerrilla army of 40,000. Chiang mounted four Communists extermination campaigns, each time resulting in communist victories. Chiang's fifth campaign was very nearly successful because the communists ill-advisedly met the KMT head-on in battle. Hemmed in, the communists retreated from Jiangxi north to Shaanxi - the Long March of 1934. En route the communists armed peasants and redistributed land, and Mao was recognised as the CCP's paramount leader.
In 1931 the Japanese took advantage of the chaos in China and invaded Manchuria. Chiang Kaishek did little to halt the Japanese, who by 1939 had overrun most of eastern China. After WWII, China was in the grip of civil war. On 1 October 1949 Mao Zedong proclaimed the foundation of the People's Republic of China (PRC), while Chiang Kaishek fled to Taiwan. The USA continued to recognise Chiang as the legitimate ruler of China.
The PRC began its days as a bankrupt nation, but the 1950s ushered in an era of great confidence. The people were bonded by the Korean War, and by 1953 inflation had been halted, industrial production was restored to prewar levels, the redistribution of land had been carried out and the first Five Year Plan had been launched. The most tragic consequence of the Party's dominance was the 'liberation' of Tibet in 1959. Beijing oversaw the enforced exile of the Tibetan spiritual leader and initiated the genocide of a precious culture. To this day hundreds of monasteries still lie in ruins.
The next plan was the Great Leap Forward, aimed at jump-starting the economy into first-world standards. Despite oodles of revolutionary zeal, the plan was stalled by inefficient management coupled with floods, droughts and, in 1960, the withdrawal of all Soviet aid. The Cultural Revolution (1966-70) attempted to draw attention away from these disasters by increasing Mao's personal presence via his Little Red Book of quotations, purging opponents and launching the Red Guard. Universities were closed, intellectuals were killed, temples were ransacked and reminders of China's capitalist past were destroyed.
Beijing politics were divided between moderates Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping and radicals and Maoists led by Mao's wife, Jiang Qing. The radicals gained the upper hand when Zhou died in 1976. Hua Guofeng, Mao's chosen successor, became acting premier. Public anger at Jiang Qing and her clique culminated in a gathering of protesters in Tiananmen Square, and a brutal crackdown led to the disappearance of Deng, who was blamed for the 'counter-revolutionary' gathering. Deng returned to public life in 1977, eventually forming a six-member Standing Committee of the CCP.
With Deng at the helm, and the signing of the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration, China set a course towards economic reconstruction, although political reform was almost nil. General dissatisfaction with the Party, soaring inflation, corruption and increased demands for democracy led to widespread social unrest, typified by the demonstrations of 1989 that resulted in the bloody Tiananmen Square massacre.
Continued civil rights abuses, official corruption and the stagnant rural economy are still the sharpest thorns in the country's side, but membership of the World Trade Organisation was a great leap forward - though probably not one Chairman Mao would have envisaged.
The biggest barrier to the 'One China' model is the tiny rogue island of Taiwan, which has agreed in principle to the model but paradoxically interprets it in its idiosyncratic, Taiwanese way. China has retorted with rhetoric about 'brothers and sisters' and, just to prove that all families have their problems, have backed it up with a show of military muscle. It's the equivalent of a Chinese burn administered by an older and stronger brother.
China's economy continues to expand at an astounding rate and with such growth comes the increased demand for energy, pressure on the environment and widening gap between the flourishing south and east-coast provinces and the less developed inland areas. Beijing has attempted to deal with these issues; opening the massive Three Gorges Dam hydro-electric scheme in 2006 and launching a Develop the West campaign to lure investment into the hinterland. Rural China has seen an upsurge in protests and demonstrations, often targeted at corrupt officials. The government retains a tight grip on the nation's media, building the so-called 'Great Firewall of China' to filter the internet.
In 2008, Běijīng hosted the Summer Olympic Games and Paralympics, which, despite fears of protests over human rights, were widely considered to be a great success in burnishing China's image in the world.
China's economy continues to grow at around 7% a year.
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