Suggested length of stay
China is a vast country and it impossible to take in all the sites and cultures in one trip. If wanting to get a good overview of country taking in the major cities and some of the picturesque rural countryside we recommend that you spend between 12-14 days as a minimum. Of course this can be extended indefinitely as there are so many points of interest throughout the country. If time is limited, or adding China to another Asian destination, shorter trips can be tailored to specific cities or regions.
Beijing and the Great Wall 3 nights, Shanghai 3 nights, Xi’an 2 nights, Guilin 2 or 3 nights, Yangshau & Li River 1 or 2 nights, Chengdu 2 nights, Hainan 3 nights, Hangzhou 2 nights, Nanjing 2 nights, Suzhou 2 nights, Yangtze River Cruise 3 or 4 nights, Tibet 4 – 6 nights, Silk Road 12-16 nights
Yunnan Province – Yunnan should really be treated as a separate country allowing between 8 and 10 days to explore. Shorter trips can be added to Beijing & shanghai city breaks – but please remember, the distances to travel are vast!
Modes of transport
China is home to a great and ever expanding train network. Most of the major cities are connected by trains of various levels of luxury and speed.
Beijing – Shanghai
Beijing – Xian
Beijing to Badaling (Great Wall - very busy section )
Beijing - Hong Kong & Guangzhou (Canton)
Shanghai - Xian
Beijing to Lhasa
The Qinghai-Tibet train leaves Beijing at 9.30pm daily and officially takes 47 hours and 28 minutes to reach Lhasa. There are three classes of tickets: soft sleeper (four bunks to a cabin), hard sleeper (six bunks to a cabin) and hard seat (not recommended!). It takes around 45 hours to travel across China from Beijing to Lhasa.
(Tangula Trains – Kempinski – due to begin in 2011)
The five-star Tangula Luxury Train is due to begin operating between Beijing and Lhasa in 2011, accommodating 96 passengers in two-person suites, with private bathrooms.
Beijing to Lijiang (Tangula Trains - Kempinski)
Watch this space
Beijing to Hanoi
There is a safe, relatively comfortable and affordable twice-weekly train service that runs between Beijing and Hanoi. A Chinese express train with up to date air-conditioned 4-berth soft class sleepers and a restaurant car runs from Beijing to Dong Dang on the Vietnamese frontier. At Dong Dang pass through customs & passport control and board a connecting Vietnamese metre-gauge train in Lao Cai for the final journey to Hanoi.
Note - you may be asked to get off and wait on the platform for an hour or two in Nanning while the train is shunted.
The mighty Yangtze River has been the life blood to the Chinese heartland for centuries. Cruising along the river you will be in awe of the peaks bursting from the river’s surface as you slowly cruise past historic villages and marvel to the pace of China’s modern development at the Three Gorges. On the cruise, enjoy a side-trip to the remarkable Shennong Stream in a “pea-pod boat”, stop at the Lesser Three Gorges and enjoy a variety of shore excursions along the way. Cruises run both up and down stream and vary between 3 and 6 nights in duration. The run between Chongqing and Yichang (or on to Shanghai).
Li River cruises
The Li River cruise from Guilin to Yangshuo is one of the finest river trips anywhere in the world. Stunning limestone karst peaks offer up surprises at each bend of river. En route you will pass by water buffalo that patrol the fields, farmers working in centuries old rice paddies, whilst kids play in the river and fisherman float by on bamboo rafts.
The breathtaking scenery coupled with an insight in to a life style far removed from that witnessed in the urban metropolises make this one of the most popular of Chinas rural destinations.
Private transfers between nearby destinations (2 – 3 hours drive time) are usually undertaken by road in a private air-conditioned vehicle accompanied by an English speaking guide. Road conditions are variable in China but even in the south of the country they are constantly being improved.
Taxis; are a cheap and reliable form of local transport. Always take a business card or get your hotel to write down the name of your hotel to show to the driver as English is not always widely spoken.
The huge distances between sites of interest are generally best traveled by air. The internal air network in China is relatively safe and reliable. Air travel between major cities is particularly recommended for those on a tight schedule that want to see as much of the country as possible. However road, rail and boat trips can easily be incorporated into the itinerary for those especially wanting to experience overland travel.
Cycling tours can easily be arranged in most areas of China.
Trekking is becoming more popular in China. The main area for trekking is in Yunnan Province where you will spend time with the indigenous tribal peoples who populate the area. It is also possible to trek along areas that follow the Great Wall (near Beijing).
China is a vast land spanning many degrees of latitude with complex terrain, and thus climate varies radically in different regions at different times of year. China has a variety of temperature and rainfall zones, including continental monsoon areas. In general winter is cold and dry and summer hot and rainy.
Six Temperature Zones
- Cold-Temperate Zone: northern part of Heilongjiang Province and Inner Mongolia (Representative city: Harbin)
- Mid-Temperate Zone: Jilin, northern Xinjiang, and some of Heilongjiang, Liaoning, and Inner Mongolia (Representative cities: Beijing, Shenyang, Dalian, Urumqi, Hohhot, Dunhuang, Lanzhou)
- Warm-Temperate Zone: area of the middle and lower reaches of the Yellow River, Shandong, Shanxi, Shaanxi, and Hebei Province (Representative cities: Xian, Taiyuan, Luoyang, Jinan, Qingdao, Zhengzhou)
- Subtropical Zone: South of Qinling Mountain-Huaihe River, east of Qinghai-Tibet Plateau (Representative cities: Shanghai, Guangzhou, Hong Kong, Macau, Guilin, Hangzhou, Suzhou, Kunming, Dali, Lijiang, Chengdu)
- Tropical Zone: Hainan province, southern Taiwan, Guangdong, and parts of Yunnan Province (Representative cities: Haikou, Sanya)
- Plateau Climate Zone: Qinghai-Tibet Plateau (Representative city: Lhasa)
China is the third largest nation in the world, with a total area of 3,705,407 square miles (9,596,960 km2). China's land boundaries have a total length of almost 13,800 miles (22,200 km) and are shared with 14 countries—the largest number of any nation in the world, these countries are North Korea, Russia, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bhutan, Burma, Laos, and Vietnam. Some of the boundaries were forced on China during periods of weakness and are currently not recognized by the incumbent government. These disputed areas are parts of the Russian and Indian borders.
China can be split into two major geographic regions: Tibet-Xinjiang-Inner Mongolia, spanning the west and the north, and “China Proper”, occupying the rest of the country.
The most mountainous areas are in Tibet and Xinjiang, where they rise as majestic towering ranges capped by ice and snow. The two highest chains, the Himalaya and the Karakoram Range, lie along China's south-western border and reach heights of over 28,000 feet (8,500 m). Mount Everest, the world's highest peak, rises 29,035 feet (8,850 m) above sea level on the Nepal border in the Himalayas; K2 (Godwin Austen), in the Karakoram Range, reaches 28,250 feet (8,611 m).
China is also home to great plateaus, basins, and deserts. The Plateau of Tibet, roughly a quarter of China's area, is the highest and most extensive tableland on earth. It is a cold, desolate, windswept area lying at elevations of more than 15,000 feet (4,600 m). From eastern Xinjiang a wide belt of semiarid and arid land extends eastward through Inner Mongolia into Manchuria. Much of it lies within the Gobi, a desert edged on the south by the Great Wall of China.
China Proper consists partly of lowland plains and basins and partly of hills and mountains. Except for the highest and most remote parts, the land has been heavily populated and intensively farmed for many centuries.
The lowlands form the nucleus of China and it is here you will find most of the nation's cropland, manufacturing and population.
China's two main rivers are the Huang He (Yellow River) and the Yangtze. They begin in high altitude Tibetan highlands and flow eastward to the sea. The Huang He follows a 2,900-mile (4,670-km) course, through northern China to the Bo Gulf, an arm of the Yellow Sea. The Yangtze, some 3,400 miles (5,470 km) long and the nation's largest river, winds through central China to the East China Sea. Unlike the Huang He, the Yangtze has many tributaries. They drain most of central and southern China.
China has one of the richest and most diverse culinary heritages on earth. Chinese food is eaten with chopsticks, and soups with a wide, flat-bottomed spoon (typically ceramic). Chinese regard using a knife at the table as being barbaric, so meals are prepared in smaller pieces ready for eating. Unlike Western meals where meat is the main focus of the meal, rice or noodles are typically the main ingredient of a Chinese meal.
Whilst many associate Chinese food with rice as being a key component of any meal but rice doesn't grow in northern China, which is much drier and colder. People in northern China gathered wild millet and sorghum and they ate it boiled into a kind of porridge.
There are many different styles of food to try – that are mainly regionally based. Just a few of the more famous distinct categories are.......
Cantonese – most widely known of all Chinese cuisine, steaming, stir frying and deep frying are the most popular cooking methods.
Sichuan – has an international reputation for being spicy and flavoursome, with the hot Sichuan pepper being a key ingredient.
Hakka - heavily utilize dried and preserved ingredients, such as various kinds of fermented bean curd and much use of onion – pork is most often used.
Mandarin (or Beijing) – as Beijing has been the capitol city for centuries the food here is actually heavily influenced by the regions. Classics included Peking Duck.
Chinese Islamic – dishes include spicy noodle soups and clear stewed broths, they tend to use more lamb (never pork).
Do not drink the tap water anywhere in China (including Hong Kong). Bottled water is cheap and readily available in most areas. If heading out in to the rural countryside ensure you take bottled water with you.
The currency used in China is the Renminbi (RMB) and the basic unit is the Yuan.
Foreign currency, including the Australian dollar, can be exchanged in banks or licensed moneychangers.
Please retain your currency exchange receipts as any excess RMB you may be left with at the end of your visit cannot be exchanged without your receipts. The “Government Currency Law” allows you to change back in to foreign currency up to 50% of the amount on each Receipt of Exchange. Please be aware that exchanging money on the black market is a criminal offence. Only ever use licensed moneychangers and banks.
In the big cities credit cards are widely accepted in major establishments such as restaurants, shops and hotels. In smaller cities they are not always usable – so please keep a reserve of local cash.
China operates on GMT + 8 hours. Despite its size, every place in China falls under one time zone.
Inoculations & health precautions
Please consult with your doctor at least 6 week before travel to China.
The standard of medical facilities and care in China varies. Foreign private medical clinics and hospitals in the major cities such as Beijing and Shanghai are well equipped and provide services comparable to Australian standards. Medical facilities and care at most public hospitals especially in areas outside of the above mentioned cities are poor and medical evacuation to a major centre may be required for even relatively minor operations. Doctors and hospitals expect cash payment prior to providing medical services, including for emergency care.
Ensure you have good medical insurance before you travel.
A visa is required for entry to China (PRC). Your passport must be valid for at least six months after the duration of your intended stay, have at least two clear visa pages and you must also be able to provide evidence of a return or onward ticket. You should ensure that you obtain the appropriate visa for the purpose of your visit. It is very difficult to obtain a visa at Chinese border entry points, hence visas must be obtained prior to travel through the embassy or consulate or the Oasis visalink service.
Australian Embassy & Consulate contacts in China
Australian Embassy Beijing
21 Dongzhimenwai Dajie
People's Republic of China
Tel: (010) 5140 4111
Fax: (010) 5140 4230
Australian Consulate-General, Shanghai
Level 22, CITIC Square
1168 Nanjing Xi Lu
Tel: (021) 2215 5200
Fax:(021) 2215 5252
Australian Consulate-General, Guangzhou
12/F, Development Centre,
No. 3 Linjiang Road,
Zhujiang New City,
People's Republic of China
Tel: (020) 3814 0111
Fax: (020) 3814 0112
Chinese Embassy & Consulate contacts in Australia
Embassy of the Peoples Republic of China in Canberra
15 Coronation Drive
Canberra, ACT 2600
Tel: 02 6273 4783
Fax: 02 6273 9615
Consulate General of the Peoples Republic of China in Sydney
39 Dunblane Street
Camperdown, NSW 2050
Tel: 02 8595 8000
Fax: 02 8595 8021
Consulate General of the Peoples Republic of China in Brisbane
Level 9, 79 Adelaide Street
Brisbane QLD 4000
Tel: 07 3210 6509
Fax: 07 3012 8096
Consulate General of the Peoples Republic of China in Melbourne
534 Toorak Road
Toorak, VIC 3142
Tel: 03 9822 0604
Fax: 03 9822 0606
Consulate General of the Peoples Republic of China in Perth
45 Brown Street
East Perth, WA 6004
The electric current in China is 220 Volts/50 Cycles.
If planning to use an adapter ensure it has different plug sizes as they vary from city to city in China. Most hotels bathrooms have a 110 volts flat pin (US style) outlet for electric shavers.
Getting there (stopovers)
En route stopovers can be arranged, in either direction, in Hong Kong, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok to name but a few. Beach extensions to Thailand and Malaysia can also be added to any China itinerary. Mongolia and Tibet also offer ideal pre or post travel options.
Non-stop flight time Sydney - Beijing approximately 9 hours
Keep some local currency on departure for airport tax
Tipping is not wide spread in China other than loose change in hotels and western restaurants. If you feel your guide has gone the extra mile for you (and we certainly hope they would do so) a cash tip would be very much appreciated. No more than US$10 per day between your guide (the guide will share this with your driver if applicable)
A brief history
Chinas first civilizations arose in the Yangtze and Yellow River valleys at about the same time as Mesopotamia, Egypt and India developed their first civilizations. For centuries China stood alone as the foremost civilization, outpacing the rest of the world in the arts and sciences. Chinese inventions such as paper, gunpowder, the compass and printing (both block and movable type) were developed way before they were even conceived in the rest of world. Chinese developments in astronomy, medicine, and other fields were also extensive.
China was also the first culture to put into practice a meritocracy (a system of a government or other organization wherein appointments are made and responsibilities assigned to individuals based upon demonstrated talent). Unlike other ancient cultures, bureaucratic posts were not hereditary but had to be earned through a progression of examinations. Based on mastery of the Confucian Classics and the literary arts (calligraphy, essay writing, poetry, painting), the exams were first conducted during the Han Dynasty. The system was further refined into the formal “Imperial Examination System” and opened to all regardless of family background during the Tang Dynasty.
China explored the world and traded extensively with distant lands. By the 5th and 6th centuries AD, voyages to India and the Arab countries were routine. In the 15th century, the Ming Dynasty fleets under Admiral Zheng He reached as far as East Africa. Their ships were very technologically advanced, much larger than European ships of the day, and equipped with a system of watertight compartments unmatched by Europe for several centuries. These voyages were not for settlement or conquest, but for trade and tribute. Zheng He's voyages brought tribute and glory but were incredibly expensive. From 1433, facing renewed troubles on its northern border China turned inward with a vengeance. Records of the great trading voyages were destroyed in 1477 and the ships rotted away in dry dock.
One of the first Westerners to visit China and record their visit was Marco Polo in the late 13th century. He wrote of Hangzhou, "The city is beyond dispute the finest and the noblest in the world." and rated Quanzhou as one of the two busiest ports on earth. When seaborne Western traders arrived in the 16th century, China was initially hostile to them. The first Western base was Portugal's colony of Macau, awarded by the Ming in gratitude for clearing out the local pirates. The Emperors imposed various restrictions on trade, allowing Westerners to trade only at Canton (today's Guangzhou), only with payment in silver and only through a government-approved monopoly of traders called the Cohong. Export of items that would break Chinese monopolies, such as tea seeds or silk worms, was strictly forbidden. Traders eventually smuggled both out, creating two of India's greatest industries. By the end of the 19th century, the situation would be completely reversed. Assorted Western powers had taken various pieces of Chinese territory and relatively free trade was well established through an ever increasing number of treaty ports and spheres of influence. Throughout the century, the Sino-Western relationship continued to be fraught with difficulties. Westerners tended to see China as corrupt and decadent; Chinese often viewed the West as greedy and contemptible.
One of the greatest contentions was opium and Britain's balance of trade; the Chinese were not interested in being paid for tea and silk with most British products. However, by growing opium in India and exporting vast amounts to China, the British enjoyed a healthy trade surplus as countless Chinese became addicted to opium. But every Chinese government from the Qing to the present has been unalterably opposed to the trade.
The 19th century was a period of wars, rebellions and turmoil. There were two opium wars (1839-1842 and 1856-1860) against the West – of which the Chinese lost both and were forced to make concessions by handing over various ports and cities to foreign control such as Hong Kong and Kowloon, and opening cities such as Guangzhou, Xiamen, Fuzhou and Shanghai to western trade.
The Taiping Rebellion (1851-1864) was fought on the basis of bringing about land reform and eliminating slavery, arranged marriage, opium and judicial torture. The Qing government, with some Western help, finally defeated the Taiping rebels, but not before they had ruled much of southern China for over ten years. This was one of the bloodiest wars ever fought; only World War II killed more people. The Panthay Rebellion (1856–1873) in Yunnan pitted the Hui ethnic group against central authority. Up to one million people died during the revolt.
From 1858 to 1895 there were more wars, uprisings and rebellions – most of which the Chinese lost and China was exploited by the west during this time of weakness. This led to the Boxer rebellion in 1898 when the peasants besieged the embassies in Beijing. An eight nation alliance including the UK, US, Japan, Germany, Italy, France Austria-Hungary and Russia had to rescue the Qing government – but this led to further concessions and permanently based overseas troops being based in Beijing and Shanghai being divided up between the eight nations and China.
The 20th century brought revolution. The empire was overthrown in 1911 and Sun Yat-sen, a doctor, Christian, revolutionary, nationalist, socialist and democrat, became president of the newly formed Republic of China. He stepped down shortly thereafter allowing the former Qing general Yuan Shih-kai to become president. After an abortive attempt at declaring himself emperor, Yuan died in 1916. Central rule collapsed and China broke into semi-autonomous warlord regions. Until 1949 the various warlords fought challenges to their local power from any outsider, regardless of nationality or ideology.
In 1919 frustrations with China's weakness led to student protests in Beijing and the students called for fundamental reforms to Chinese society including the use of the vernacular language in writing as well as development of science and democracy. The intellectual ferment of this era gave strength to two rising movements: the Kuomintang (KMT, established in 1919) and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP, established in 1921).
In 1926-28 a united front between the KMT and the CCP united much of eastern China under KMT rule. However, the KMT under Chiang Kai-shek turned on the Communists killing thousands and driving the movement underground. During this time, Mao Zedong set up a base area in the mountains of Jiangxi Province called the Jiangxi Soviet. The Kuomintang launched a series of extermination campaigns against the Communists. From 1927 to 1937, the KMT consolidated authoritarian one-party rule. Often called the Nanjing Decade after the Kuomintang capital in Nanjing, the period was one of economic expansion, industrialization and urbanization. Many of the great trading families of Hong Kong made their fortunes in Shanghai during this time. Shanghai became one of the world's busiest ports and the most cosmopolitan city in Asia, home to millions of Chinese as well as a community of around 60,000 foreigners which included British Taipans, American missionaries, Iraqi Jews and refugees from Nazi Germany, Indian police, White Russians and many other notables. Nonetheless, KMT rule remained fragmented and weak outside of urban centres in eastern China. Severe problems persisted in the countryside including civil unrest, warlord conflict, banditry and major famines.
As a result of a Japanese invasion, the Kuomintang and Communists signed an agreement in 1937 to form a second united front but the agreement broke down in the early 1940s. The Kuomintang frequently held back troops from fighting the Japanese and used them against the Communists. The Communists used the power vacuum behind the Japanese lines to expand their guerrilla operations and set up rural networks. The stage was set for the Communists under Mao Zedong and the Kuomintang under Chiang Kai-shek to openly fight each other after Japan's defeat. Outright civil war started again in 1946. Corruption, hyperinflation, defections and desertions crippled the KMT government and army. In 1949, the Communists won; the Kuomintang took the national gold reserves and imperial treasure and fled to Taiwan. There the KMT established themselves and promised to recapture the Mainland. Various Western countries refused to recognize "Red China" and continued to treat the Kuomintang as the only "legitimate" government of China, some until the early '70s.
The new Communist government implemented strong measures to restore law and order and revive industrial, agricultural and commercial institutions reeling from more than a decade of war. By 1955 China's economy had returned to pre-war levels of output as factories, farms, labor unions, civil society and governance were brought under Party control. After an initial period closely based on the Soviet model of heavy industrialization and comprehensive central economic planning, China began to experiment with adapting Marxism for a largely agrarian society.
Huge social experiments rocked China from 1957 to 1976 and are generally considered disastrous failures by the west, especially the Cultural Revolution. The cultural and historical damage from the Cultural Revolution can still be seen today. Many traditional Chinese customs that are still thriving in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau and overseas Chinese communities have largely disappeared in mainland China as a result.
Mao Zedong died in 1976 and in 1978, Deng Xiaoping became China's paramount leader. Deng and his lieutenants gradually introduced market-oriented reforms and decentralized economic decision making. Economic output quadrupled by 2000 and continues to grow by about 10-15% a year, but huge problems remain — bouts of serious inflation, regional and income inequality, massive pollution, rural poverty and across the board corruption. China also remains firmly a one-party authoritarian state and political controls remain tight even though economic policy continues to be relaxed, enough for China to secure admission to the World Trade Organization, (WTO). October 2007 saw the first official guarantees for private property, a clear step away from doctrinaire economic communist practices.
The current president and CCP General Secretary, Hu Jintao, has proclaimed a policy which promises to restore balanced economic growth and to channel investment and prosperity into China's central and western provinces, which have been largely left behind in the economic boom since of the late 1970’s. This policy involves additional tax breaks for farmers, a rural medical insurance scheme, reduction or elimination of school tuition fees and infrastructure development to encourage investment in underdeveloped areas, e.g. the Beijing/Lhasa railway.