china mapThe first thing that strikes visitors to China is the extraordinary density of its population. In the Han Chinese heartlands of central and eastern China, towns and cities seem to sprawl endlessly into one another in a world of chopsticks, tea, slippers, grey skies, shadow-boxing, teeming crowds, chaotic train stations, smoky temples, red flags and the smells of soot and frying tofu. Move west or north, however, and 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; home to scores of distinct ethnic minorities, from animist hill tribes to urban Muslims.

China has grown up alone and aloof, cut off from the rest of Eurasia by the Himalayas to the southwest and the Siberian steppe to the north. For the last three millennia, while empires, languages and peoples in the rest of the world rose, blossomed and disappeared without trace, China has been busy largely recycling itself. The ferocious dragons and lions of Chinese statuary have been produced for 25 centuries or more, and the script still used today reached perfection at the time of the Han dynasty, two thousand years ago. Today, the negative stories – of runaway pollution, the oppression of dissidents, and imperialist behaviour towards Tibet and other minority regions – are only part of the picture. As the Communist Party moves ever further from hard-line political doctrine and towards economic pragmatism, China is undergoing a huge commercial and creative upheaval.

While travel around the country itself is exhausting rather than difficult, it would be wrong to pretend that it is an entirely easy matter to penetrate modern China. The main tourist highlights – the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, the Terracotta Army, and Yangzi gorges – are relatively few considering the vast size of the country, and foreigners are regularly viewed as exotic objects of intense curiosity. Overall, however, you'll find that the Chinese, despite a reputation for curtness, are generally hospitable and friendly.

Sightseeing

Wake up gracefully to tai chi on The Bund in Shanghai, facing the crystalline skyscrapers of Pudong. Beijing's Tiananmen Square, with its huge portrait of Mao Zedong, is the world's largest public square -- it's dwarfed, however, by the 9,999 rooms of the nearby Forbidden City, the gateway to Ming and Qing dynasty mysteries. The Terracotta Army stands to attention in Xi'an, the start of the fabled Silk Road. Slow down in Chengdu's incense-perfumed temples and tea gardens.

Shopping

From crowded markets to ultra-modern malls, shopping is a national pastime. In Beijing, browse for pearls and silk in Hongqiao Market or antiques and name chops in Liulichang Xi Jie's Qing-style courtyard houses. Haggling is de rigueur for the tailor-made suits at Shanghai's South Bund Fabric Market. Hong Kong's neon-lit Temple Street night market is best for high-tech gadgets and designer fakes. Green tea from Chengdu, floor-length yak coats from Yunnan and jade from Xinjiang all make unique souvenirs.

Eating and Drinking

With chopstick skills and a Mandarin phrasebook, you're ready for China's mixing pot of cuisines. Go local eating hairy crab and "jeweled" duck in Shanghai's Old City and splurge on haute cuisine on The Bund. Beijing dishes up Peking duck dripping in plum sauce and spicy hotpots on magical, lantern-lit Ghost Street. Snack, Cantonese-style, on seafood and dim sum at Hong Kong's Causeway Bay. Food stalls in Sichuan make eyes water with chili-laced pork dishes and peppery bean curd.

Full country name: People's Republic of China

 

  • Area: 9 572 900  sq. Km.
  • Population: 1 110 mln. p.
  • Capital: Beijing
  • Nation: 93% Chinese, the other 55 ethnic groups make up 7%
  • Language: Chinese
  • Religion: Taoism and Buddhism
  • Government: Communist republic