Our China Travel Guide
Whether it’s your first time travelling to China or you’ve been there before, read our guide on the country’s history, etiquette, tipping culture, food, festivals and more.
At a glance
China is a land of immensity. The fourth largest country in the world in size, it has the biggest population and a landscape that features the world's highest peak, Everest, and Asia's longest river, the 6,300-kilometre-long Yangtze. There are fertile plains, mountain plateaux, arid deserts and bamboo forests, which are home to some of the last remaining giant pandas in the wild.
This is a land that has nurtured empires and witnessed great advances in science and the arts. It is also home to some of the finest sights in the whole of Asia, from the Great Wall and the Terracotta Warriors, to Tiger Leaping Gorge and the tranquil Li River.
It contains some of the world's great cities in Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong - the powerhouses of the world's largest manufacturing nation. From these and other cities the People's Republic exports clothing, textiles, tea, fossil fuels and so many of the other things ‘made in China' that we identify with the country. The pace of change is perhaps more evident in these hubs than anywhere else on the planet, as spending power increases and a new generation of Chinese makes its mark. Theirs is a land of opportunity and of contrasts, and this is an exciting time to visit.
Culture & etiquette
China's vast territory, population and long history have bestowed a rich cultural diversity upon the country. Ethnically, most of country's 1.3 billion people are Han Chinese, a group that migrated and assimilated other groups over the centuries. Yet important minority groups including Mongols, Uighurs, Miao and Tibetans remain. Similarly, though the People's Republic is officially atheist, Buddhism, Taoism and Christianity are widely practised. Confucianism is also firmly embedded in the nation's psyche.
Central and eastern China is the Han heartland, a world of chopsticks, tea, calligraphy, stir-fried tofu and twenty-first century metropolises. Polluted and heavily populated, these shiny, ever-expanding cities are a visible sign of the country's vibrant modern economy.
Beyond this, the population thins out towards the Himalaya and the Mongolian steppe, boundaries that historically contributed to Chinese isolation from the wider world. Yet goods and ideas were exchanged, particularly by way of the legendary Silk Route that brought China great riches during the imperial dynasties. Between the cities and the wild extremes much of the country is given over to agricultural, with farmers irrigating the rice fields that feed the nation.
Perhaps unsurprisingly for a country of more than a billion people, there is little concept of privacy - as the large noisy groups of Chinese tourists that you'll see at all major attractions demonstrates. As an exotic foreigner you'll be a great source of curiosity to many people in rural areas or other places where travellers are infrequently seen and you may be stared and pointed at on occasion, but it is rarely intended to be aggressive.
Tea has been drunk in China for centuries and a visit to a traditional teahouse if a good way to understand it's importance in Chinese life and culture. Drinking ‘all the tea in China' would be impossible, but by visiting a teahouse you'll be able to try some of the thousands of blends made from red, green and flower-scented varieties of tea. One in particular to look out for is jasmine pearl tea, in which small bundles of green tea and fresh jasmine blossoms unfurl to produce a distinctive aromatic flavor. Like fine wines or spirits, the very best teas are highly sought after.
Alongside tea, beer (pijiu) is one of the most popular drinks. Tsingtao widely available, alongside provincially brewed lagers. Imported beers and spirits are available in Western-style bars.
The Spring Festival, mentioned above, is a wonderful time to visit China. It's celebrated nationwide and marked by visits to temples, street processions involving paper dragons, drummers and acrobats, and the setting off of firecrackers.
If you're interested in experiencing China's tribal culture, meanwhile, then timing your visit around a regional festival is definitely recommended. In Guizhou province the festivals are held at times of the year when there was traditionally less to do in the fields but plenty of food to go around. One of the most fascinating festivals is the Sisters' Meal Festival in April, when many of tribal youngsters choose a partner. Visit at this time and you'll see Miao people in decorated jackets and fine silver jewellery coming together to sing, play drums and enjoy dragon lantern dancing.
If food is your thing, then the Hong Kong Food Festival in August is a mouth-watering prospect. The action is focused on Lang Kwai Fong, a district of busy restaurants and inexpensive bars.
Food & drink
Chinese cooking features a mouthwatering array of regional delicacies and flavours. But whether you're tickling your tastebuds with ‘numb and spicy' Sichuan hotpot in Chengdu or tucking into dim sum during a performance of the Tang Dynasty Theatre in Xian, the chance to try some authentic local food usually features high on the wish list of travellers to China.
Rice and noodles are staples, but alongside these is an almost endless and bewildering selection of ingredients, full of contrasting textures and flavours that are enhanced with a splash or two or sugar, soy, rice wine or vinegar. Bamboo shoots and lotus roots provide some crunch, while tofu gives a dish some softness, and deep-fried meats add crispiness.
Every region and most cities have their own intricate variations and specialty dishes - so be sure to try some delectable dumplings if you're in Shanghai, the world famous Peking Duck in Beijing or steampot chicken if you pass through Yunnan province.
Fresh seafood and river fish are widely used in Shanghai's ‘eastern style' cuisine, while chillies and spices are at the heart of the more boisterous Sichuan and Hunan dishes. Southern Chinese cooking, specifically Cantonese, is the most varied in terms of ingredients and when people say that southerners will eat anything, they really do mean it: snake and scorpions being among the more exotic dim sum (‘small eats') Cantonese delicacies.
China's landscape ranges from the fertile plains of central China - where farmers in conical hats tend the paddy fields that feed the nation - to the plateaux and mountains of Tibet, the grasslands of Inner Mongolia and the immense Gobi Desert.
In the southeast you'll find some surprisingly good beaches, although for the majority of visitors China's great rivers hold more appeal. These include Asia's longest river, the Yangtze, which passes through the spectacular Three Gorges. The Li River, lined by paddy fields and towering pillars of limestone karst, is another highlight - and a scenic cruise on either or both of these waterways makes for an iconic China travel experience.
While China's cities grow ever larger, there remain some incredibly wild and beautiful places in between, not least in the loftier parts of the country. Mountains comprise around a third of the country and the Altai, Tian Shan and Kunlun ranges are home to some of its highest peaks. The mightiest mountains of them all, however, are located in the Himalaya in the autonomous region of Tibet. Here, at the ‘Roof of the World', you can glimpse 8,848-metre-high Mount Qomolangma, or as we know it, Mount Everest.
Everest straddles the border with Nepal, which is one of 14 neighbouring countries. China borders the following countries: Russia and Mongolia to the north; North Korea to the east; Vietnam, Laos, Burma, India, Bhutan and Nepal to the south; and Pakistan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan to the west.
Domestic flights are often the best way to combine several attractions in different parts of the country into your personalised travel itinerary.
On the ground, public transport is comprehensive and good value for money. However, given the language barrier in particular, we recommend joining an organised tour to take the hassle out of your holiday. WEXAS Travel China experts can advise on a wide variety of tailor-made itineraries with ground handlers that we have vetted and built strong relationships with - so that you can rest assured that you are in safe hands. You'll typically travel by car or minibus, although cruises on the Yangtze and Li rivers are another memorable way to travel in China and a great way of combining several destinations.
The Yellow River is widely viewed as the cradle of Chinese civilization and this region has witnessed many of the events that have shaped the country. Chinese history has seen periods of peace and prosperity interspersed by dramatic shifts in power, when influential and ambitious leaders would force change and bring about the rise of new era and a new dynasty.
These powerful Dynasties remain a key element in understanding the ebb and flow of Chinese history, the written record of which dates back to the Shang dynasty, around 1700 BC. That was followed by the Zhou, the longest-lasting dynasty of all, and a time from when the origins of modern-day Chinese literature, philosophy and culture can be traced. It was the Zhou, too, who invoked the concept of the Mandate of Heaven to legitimise imperial rule, an idea that proved influential for almost every succeeding dynasty.
Next came the Qin, a short-lived but important dynasty that established the first Chinese empire around 221 BC and also started the Great Wall. This symbolic structure was expanded and improved during the Ming dynasty, which had overthrown the Yuan dynasty founded by the Mongol leader, Kublai Khan.
Before the Mongols arrived the Tang dynasty had held the ascendancy. This period - along with the earlier Han dynasty - is considered one of the most prosperous in Chinese history, with innovations in arts and technology.
China's final dynasty, the Qing, saw increased pressures on China from both the wider world and also within. Opium wars with Britain and a major uprising, the Taipang Rebellion of 1851-1864, in which 20 million people were killed, were indicative of China's weaknesses. As the twentieth century arrived students and military officers led the call for change and the creation of a republic, inspired by the revolutionary ideas of Sun Yat-sen - who was to become the country's first president in 1912. Conflict between left and right continued to flare, however, and as the nation became ever more fragmented this erupted into civil war between forces of the Kuomintang (Nationalist) and Communist parties. During the famous Long March the Communists retreated and reorganised under a new leader, Mao Zedong and the struggle continued until 1949 when the People's Republic was declared - with Mao becoming the new nation's founding father.
History of China
|Three Kingdoms - Wei, Shu and Wu||206 BC-200|
|Southern and Northern Dynasties||420-589|
|Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms||907-960|
|Republic of China||1912-1949|
|People's Republic of China||1949|
With so many goods ‘made in China', you'll find plenty of well-priced souvenirs. Tea, porcelain, silk, Chinese calligraphy, paintings, chopsticks and Communist memorabilia (often featuring Mao) are some of the most popular gifts to take home for family and friends. Clothes can also often be bought for a fraction of the price you'd pay for them at home - and factory outlets in fashion conscious Hong Kong and Shanghai are good bets for top brands.
Tipping is not expected in mainland China, though in Hong Kong it's customary to leave around ten per cent.
According to China's state tourism authority, tipping is not required in China, but in reality it provides one of the main sources of income for guides, drivers and other tourism service providers. The following recommended guideline is based on per visitor per day for services provided as part of our holidays:
Local guide - US$10
Driver - US$5
Hotel porter - US$1 per piece of luggage
It is not necessary to tip taxi drivers.
Where to eat
The cheapest - and often the most fun - way to try local dishes is at a local street market. The Shilin Night Market in Taipei is a great example, with stinky tofu and noodle soup among the local delicacies.
Hong Kong is another foodie heaven, with countless bright and busy restaurants and canteens catering to the masses and cutting edge Cantonese fare available at some the city's exclusive hotels.
Eating out is a hugely exciting activity, but there a few things to bear in mind when you're dining at a restaurant. One of these is to avoid leaving chopsticks upright in your rice bowl, as this gesture symbolises death. Meanwhile, at the end of the meal it's not normal to split the bill: rather your Chinese companions will normally argue over who pays the entire bill, with this ‘honour' usually falling to the person who's viewed as most senior.