Whether you’re talking about landscape, people, culture or cuisine, the variety contained within China’s borders is spectacular. From the east coast’s booming cities to the wind-whipped deserts of western China, and from cosmopolitan city streets to the dusty lanes of the smallest village, there is something here to appeal to travellers of every stripe.
China is clearly a country on the move, but while headlines focus on the unprecedented changes that have overtaken the country since the 1980s, these are merely the latest chapter for a civilization that has survived intact for over four thousand years. The country is peppered with evidence of this long history, from the Great Wall to the Terracotta Warriors that still stand guard around the First Emperor’s tomb.
Most visitors’ first experience of China is in one of the country’s major cities, whether that be stately Beijing, the country’s political and cultural capital; sophisticated Shanghai, with its busy commercial hum; or Hong Kong, where teeming backstreet markets and skyscrapers coexist with lush country parks and quiet beaches.
China’s less well-known cities can also make enticing destinations in their own right. The southern city of Guangzhou offers colonial architecture, exotic markets and the country’s best dim sum. Further west, Chengdu in Sichuan Province combines yet more fantastic food and the world’s largest captive population of giant pandas with a clutch of interesting local sights and it’s also a convenient base for forays to see the Leshan Big Buddha and climb holy Mount Emei. Nearby Chongqing attracts visitors as the jumping off point for multi-day cruises down the Yangtze River to the Three Gorges Dam. Visitors may initially stop in Xi’an to catch a glimpse of the Terracotta Warriors, but the city’s lively Muslim Quarter, museums and temples encourage many to linger.Rural China
China’s big cities are great places to take the country’s pulse, but you’ll be amply rewarded for getting out into the countryside too. Explore the otherworldly landscape outside Guilin in Guangxi, cycle around Hangzhou‘s beautiful West Lake, or walk Pingyao’s cobbled streets for a taste of timeless rural China.
The population thins and grows more diverse as you travel inland from the east coast. While over 90% of China’s population belongs to the Han Chinese majority, the remaining 10% comprises a patchwork of almost 60 ethnic minorities, many of whom live in the ruggedly beautiful west of the country, making the region a fascinating destination for adventurous travellers.
From China’s steamy subtropical borders with Myanmar and Laos, home of peacocks and hill tribes, the west’s landscape grows steadily more dramatic as you work your way north, through ethnic minority villages in Guizhou and Yunnan and via steeply terraced paddy fields (Longji in Guangxi and Yuanyang in Yunnan are the finest examples), to the mountainous region that abuts Tibet.
Once spilled across the vast plateau that reaches from Sichuan and Gansu in the east to Kashmir in the west, Tibet is girded by the Himalayas and a high-altitude desert to the south and north respectively. The official Tibetan Autonomous Region covers just a fraction of this, but it still holds many of Tibetan Buddhism’s most sacred sights, including the capital city of Lhasa and Nam-tso, a vast holy lake.
The Tibetan Plateau gradually descends into Xinjiang’s desert basin, once traversed by the Silk Road. This ancient trade route has left echoes across northwest China, from the magnificent Mogao Caves near Dunhuang and the ruined city of Jiaohe outside Turpan to the last fort on the Great Wall at Jiayuguan.
While overseas media often show China in a less-than-positive light, there’s far more to this fascinating country than air pollution and politics. With its long history and the global impact of its recent meteoric economic rise, China is a fascinating place to explore, and one to which you may find yourself returning again and again.
If you’re tight on time and looking for a whirlwind introduction to the country, a week is really the minimum amount of time you’ll need to spend in China. In seven days first-time visitors will be able to take in major sights in Beijing, Shanghai and a third destination (Hong Kong, Xi’an and Guilin all being popular choices), flying between each stop.
Travellers who prefer a more leisurely pace, travelling overland or those heading to less mainstream destinations will want to allow at least ten days for the same type of trip. For longer trips, your best best is to focus on one region at a time – follow the Silk Road to Kashgar or explore the fascinating region along China’s borders with South-East Asia. Note that getting around in western China – particularly in Tibet and Xinjiang – is more time-consuming than travel in the east of the country, and you’ll want at least two weeks at your disposal if you’re exploring this fascinating region.
Domestic tourists far outnumber foreign visitors in China, with numbers peaking over national and school holidays. High season runs from May to October – between the May 1 Labour Day holiday and the October 1 National Day celebrations. Prices will be higher and availability lower during this period, particularly during the school summer holidays (roughly July–August).
The November–April low season is bitterly cold in much of the country, but hardy travellers will still find much to enjoy in addition to lower prices and greater availability – just beware of the period around Chinese New Year (usually falling in late January or early February), when the entire country seems to hit the road.
In general, Chinese winters (December–March) are dry and cold, while summers (July–September) are warm and wet. Spring and autumn provide the best weather for travel in much of the country.
Temperatures range wildly â in the northeast daytime highs rarely creep above 0°C (32°F) in winter, while on tropical Hainan Island the temperature seldom drops below 20°C (68°F) year-round.
Check the average temperatures along your specific itinerary to ensure that youâre not left shivering (or sweating) unnecessarily.
Planes, trains and hotels get booked up weeks or months in advance of China’s main public holidays. Several take their timing from the lunar calendar, and others regularly shift date in order to fit in with weekends, so the calendar is seldom the same from one year to the next; instead, the government announces the exact schedule at the start of each year.
January (1st): New Year’s Day
January-February (last day of 12th lunar month to 6th day of first lunar month): Chinese New Year
April (4th or 5th): Tombsweeping Festival
May (three days either side of 1st): Labour Day
June (5th day of fifth lunar month): Dragon Boat Festival
September-October (15th day of eighth lunar month): Mid-Autumn Festival
October (three days either side of 1st): National Day
Officially, China runs on a single time zone* with all clocks running on Beijing time (GMT 8) year-round.
To check the local time in China, click here.
*This creates some odd situations in the far west of the country, where the sun might rise at 9am or set at 11pm Beijing time. In Xinjiang, locals have adopted an informal time zone two hours behind Beijing (GMT 6), enabling them to make better use of the daylight hours. All official functions (including trains, planes and buses) continue to operate on Beijing time.
Outside of China’s largest cities, dress tastes are generally conservative and modest â men seldom wear shorts and women are rarely seen in sleeveless or low-cut tops. Appearence is considered important and you will find that you receive better and more respectful treatment if you have made an effort to look smart.
Religious considerations: There are no special clothing requirements to enter Taoist or Buddhist temples, but both men and women should cover their arms and legs if visiting a mosque. In the Muslim west of the country Chinese girls get away with wearing skimpy outfits, but modest dress is appreciated!
Prices often fluctuate dynamically depending on capacity, seasonality and deals. We don’t want to lead you astray by quoting exact prices that quickly become wrong. To give you a rough idea for budgetary planning purposes, though, we have indicated general price ranges for all points of interest.
Price ranges are quoted in Chinese yuan (¥, CNY, colloquially known as kuai or renminbi and occasionally abbreviated as RMB).
See & Do
N/A => Not applicable
$ => Tickets less than 30
$$ => Tickets ¥31-¥100 per person
$$$ => Tickets ¥101 per person
$ => Rooms less than ¥200 for a double
$$ => Rooms ¥201-¥500 for a double
$$$ => Rooms ¥501 for a double
$ => ¥1-¥50 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
$$ => ¥51-¥100 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
$$$ => ¥101 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
N/A => Not applicable
$ => Tickets less than ¥100
$$ => Tickets ¥101-¥250
$$$ => Tickets ¥250 per person
Price ranges are quoted in Hong Kong dollars (HKD or HK$), which the Macanese pataca is interchangeable with.
See & Do
N/A => Not applicable
$ => Tickets less than $30
$$ => Tickets $31-$100 per person
$$$ => Tickets $101 per person
$ => Rooms less than $800 for a double
$$ => Rooms $801-$2000 for a double
$$$ => Rooms $2001 for a double
$ => $1-$100 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
$$ => $101-$300 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
$$$ => $301 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
N/A => Not applicable
$ => Tickets less than $200
$$ => Tickets $201-$500
$$$ => Tickets $500 per person
Fly the Friendly Skies
Airfares are a fickle thing. When you need it to be low, itâs high. And when prices dip, what happens? You canât get off work to travel. Sigh.
But you can get notifications from companies like Kayak, which will email you when airfares drop. Type your destination and the dates you are watching and boom, when thereâs a deal, youâll hear about it immediately via your inbox.
Sites like Momondo also display prices for multiple airlines, so you can compare rates without visiting individual airline sites.
When it comes to domestic flights, the best deals can be found on Chinese websites like Ctrip and eLong, both of which have decent English language websites and accept international credit cards.
Have Car, Will Travel
While the major car rental agencies all have a presence in mainland China, living your self-drive dreams is made substantially more complicated by the bureaucracy that surrounds Chinese driving licenses.
International driving permits and foreign licenses are not accepted in China; instead, you’ll need to apply for a temporary Chinese license through a tour operator and be accompanied by a tour guide throughout your trip, all of which can bump up the cost (and hassle factor) considerably.
Fortunately, taxis are inexpensive and plentiful and Uber? is ?quickly expanding in China’s major cities. With the latter you can line up rides all over town through a smartphone app. Itâs convenient because no money changes hands (payment is made through the app) and it? can be cheaper than a taxi. Another bonus? After requesting a ride, you can see where the driver is on a map, so you know that they are on their way and how long it will be. Try that with a cab.
If you’re travelling a longer distance, lining up a car and driver might be your best option. The best way to do this is through a tour operator. Check whether prices include fuel, plus food and accommodation for your driver.
Hopefully, your trip to China goes without a glitch. But what if an unexpected situation arises? Will you lose the money you invested in the trip? Will you need quick cash to cover sudden costs?
Travel insurance policies are meant to cover these unexpected costs and assist you when problems arise. The fee is typically based on the cost of the trip and the age of the traveler.
Most travel insurance providers offer comprehensive coverage that usually includes protection for the following common events:
Trip Cancellation: About 40 percent of all claims fall in this category.
Medical: International-standard healthcare in the China can be expensive for the uninsured. This is a major reason to consider purchasing insurance. Without insurance you may be denied treatment – unless you have enough cash on hand to cover the cost. Air ambulances and evacuation could set you back $10,000 or more.
Trip Interruption: For example, if you become ill during your trip or if someone at home gets sick, and you have to get off the cruise ship or abandon a tour. The insurer will often pay up to 150% of the cost of your trip to get you home.
Travel Delay: Insurance usually covers incidentals like meals and overnight lodging while you wait to travel home.
Baggage: Insurance will typically cover lost and mishandled baggage.
Some insurance companies allow you to purchase a policy that allows you to cancel for any reason. This may cost more (often 10% or more), but it is worthwhile for certain travelers.
Do I need travel insurance?
If your trip costs $4,000 to $6,000 (or more), itâs probably a good idea. Your age and health are important factors. So is your destination. If you’re traveling to a hurricane-prone area during hurricane season, for example, you’ll probably want some coverage ‘just in case’, no matter what.
Your language skills are also an important factor. Insurance policies often include concierge services with 24-hour hotlines that can connect you quickly with someone who can ease communication with Chinese-speaking staff.
How do I choose an insurance provider?
Do your homework; check around.
The largest insurers in the U.S. include Travel Guard, Allianz and CSA Travel Protection. Smaller reputable companies include Berkley, Berkshire Hathaway Travel Protection, Travel Insured International and Travelex. You may also find deals through aggregator sites like Squaremouth and InsureMyTrip.
Many airlines and travel companies also offer travel insurance when you book your flight (often contracted with the above major players).
If you have pre-existing health conditions: Many policies have exclusion policies if you have a pre-existing medical condition. But companies also offer waivers that overwrite the exclusion if you purchase the policy within a certain time frame of paying for your trip (e.g., within 24 hours of buying your cruise package). Again, it’s best to check the fine print.
Credit card insurance: If you buy your airfare or trip with a credit card, you may be partially covered by the credit cardâs issuing bank. Check directly with the company to find out exactly whatâs covered, as many have âstripped downâ coverage and restrictions.
The travel insurance business is expanding and evolving rapidly. As âshared spaceâ lodging options like VRBO, Airbnb and Homeaway become more popular in the travel and leisure market, so does the need for insurance for both property owners and travelers.
For more information, visit the US Travel Insurance Association.
The best exchange rates are available from the Bank of China, but whether you’re looking to exchange notes or travellers’ cheques, you may find you need to hunt down a specific branch that has been designated to handle foreign currency transactions. For convenience’s sake, it can be quicker to accept the exchange rate offered by your hotel. Once common, black market money changers should be avoided like the plague these days – if you have no other option but to use one, remember to check the notes scrupulously.
In Hong Kong and Macau you have more options – most banks will exchange foreign notes or travellers’ cheques, as will the vast majority of hotels. Exchange desks are widespread, and useful if you get caught short outside regular banking hours.
As befits the country that invented paper money, bank notes are still the basis for most transactions. Chinese yuan come in Â¥1, Â¥2, Â¥5, Â¥10, Â¥20, Â¥50 and Â¥100 notes. One yuan is divided into 10 jiao, and you may come across 1 jiao, 2 jiao and 5 jiao notes, which are smaller than the yuan notes. One jiao is theoretically divided into 10 fen, and you may be given tiny fen notes in some banks, although these have little practical use, other than making fun souvenirs.
Colloquially, yuan are also known as kuai or renminbi. Jiao are often called mao.
Fake bank notes are a relatively common problem in China; fortunately, most fakes are easy to detect – check your change carefully.
Coins in circulation include 1 jiao, 5 jiao and Â¥1. Â¥1 coins are most commonly used and accepted in major cities – elsewhere you might find that people are strangely reluctant to accept them.
Outside the major cities, you may find that smaller businesses and taxi drivers have trouble changing Â¥100 notes, so have a few smaller denomination notes to hand. ATMs only dispense Â¥100 notes.
Hong Kong and Macau each have their own currency – the Hong Kong dollar (HKD or HK$) and the pataca (MOP or MOP$) respectively. The two currencies are interchangeable, although you will find Hong Kong dollars more readily accepted in Macau than vice versa.
Hong Kong dollar notes are available in $10, $20, $50, $100, $500 and $1000 denominations. Coins include 10Â¢, 20Â¢, 50Â¢, $1, $2, $5 and $10.
In Macau, one pataca is divided into 100 avos. The denomination of notes and coins available are the same as for Hong Kong dollars.
Many Chinese ATMs now accept international cards, although you may need to try several different banks’ machines before you get your money. By using an ATM you may incur charges (often $2 or $3 per transaction) with your home bank – Chinese banks all offer fee-free withdrawals.
In Hong Kong and Macau, international credit and debit cards are widely accepted. All banks offer fee-free withdrawals and many supermarkets offer cash-back services.
In the mainland’s larger cities, international credit and debit cards are accepted by larger hotels and shops. Elsewhere, cash is king.
Donât forget to call your debit and/or credit card company before you travel to inform them of your planned itinerary. If you donât do this in advance, you risk having your card denied/declined when you try to use it in a destination far from home. You should also call your company immediately to report loss or theft. The numbers to call are usually on the back of the card â which doesnât make sense if it is lost or stolen. So make a note of them and store them where youâll have easy access.
Recently, companies have been issuing cards with embedded chips that prevent counterfeit fraud. Banks and merchants that donât offer the chip-and-PIN technology are beginning to be held liable for fraud. Check with your bank and credit card company for details on your specific cards.
In Hong Kong and Macau, major credit cards are widely accepted in shops, restaurants and hotels.
Tipping is not standard practice in China, and you may find your gratuity refused by restaurant or hotel staff (though they may also be gratefully received). One exception to this rule is with tour guides and drivers, who receive the bulk of their compensation in tips. Rates and expectations vary from province to province; check with your tour operator to see what is expected – Â¥100 per day for a tour guide and Â¥50 per day for a driver is common.
In Hong Kong and Macau, the general practice is to leave the small change for your server in a restaurant, or for a taxi driver. Restaurants often levy a 10% service charge, but this seldom makes its way into staff’s pockets.
Many of the irritations experienced by foreign travellers in China can be put down to nervousness or confusion about the language barrier. That said, there are a few peculiarities to note:
1. Dealing with curiosity. While locals in Beijing and Shanghai have grown accustomed to the sight of foreigners, you donât need to venture too far outside either city before attracting curious stares and shouts of âHello!â These are seldom meant to be aggressive or insulting, although they may grow wearing after a while.
2. Privacy is rare. For various reasons, privacy is not considered particularly important in China. This manifests in different ways, from people travelling in noisy groups to the lack of partitions between public toilet stalls, and people may not understand if you wish to be left alone.
3. Spitting and smoking. One of the most common (and, to many visitors, alarming) aspects of etiquette in China is the widespread acceptance of spitting and smoking, despite many signs attempting to ban both habits.
4. Queuing is optional. Standing in line to wait for things is a relatively recent phenomenon in China, and often it doesn’t take much for an orderly queue to dissolve into a disorderly scrum. In either case, you’re best off going with the flow.
China’s east coast can be
approached from either end, but starting in Beijing enables you to visit the
main historical sights at the start of the trip and saves Hong Kong‘s beaches (and
shopping) for the end. Beijing is the best place to get a feel for China’s
imperial past as you stroll inside the Forbidden City’s vermillion walls and
climb from watchtower to watchtower along the Great Wall â but do leave time to
take stock of modern China too, at 798 Art District and with the hipsters and
partygoers of Sanlitun. China’s commercial heart lies further south in Shanghai, an altogether sleeker city than its northern sister, with pockets of colonial character and plenty of fantastic restaurants and luxury hotels. Shanghai makes an ideal base for day trips to Hangzhou‘s pretty West Lake and the Buddhist island of Putuo Shan. A stop in Hong Kong completes your itinerary,
where you can wander from glitzy shopping malls to local wet markets, ride the
iconic Star Ferry or collapse on one of the territory’s beaches to round off
Start your trip in Xiâan, origin of the Silk
Road and former imperial capital. Take time to visit the Terracotta Warriors,
still standing guard around the tomb of Chinaâs first emperor just outside the
city, and explore Xiâan’s lively Muslim district. From Xiâan, your route snakes
north-east through Gansu and Xinjiang to Chinaâs border with Central Asia. The
pick of the region’s historical sights lie in Gansu and eastern Xinjiang and history
buffs will want to stop at Jiayuguan, where the Great Wall stops dramatically
at the desert’s edge, and Dunhuang, home of the fantastic Mogao Caves.
Travellers looking to experience Uyghur culture and hospitality can hop across
Xinjiang from oasis to oasis, but the towns of Turpan and Kashgar are the best
places to focus if your time is limited. From Kashgar you can detour down the rugged
Karakoram Highway, or take the super-adventurous back road into Tibet from
Kargilik. At the end of your trip, fly back east or continue westward, tracing
the Silk Road on its epic path through Kyrgzstan or Kazakhstan.
China’s mountainous southwest holds the country’s greatest concentration of ethnic minorities, each with their own distinctive traditions and culture. Start in Guangxi province amidst Guilin‘s dramatic limestone karst scenery, before heading north to the
Dragon’s Back Rice Terraces near Longji, scored into the hillsides by generations of Yao
farmers. From here it’s a short hop into south-eastern Guizhou and a region
littered with attractive Dong and Miao villages. Master carpenters, the Dong’s
wood-built villages are fascinating to explore at any time of year, while Miao
settlements come alive for the annual Sisters’ Meal Festival. Further west, in
Yunnan, you can take your pick – travel to the province’s subtropical south for
hill-tribe treks in Xishuangbanna, or travel north to Dali, Lijiang and
Shangri-La for a quick taste of Tibet before flying out from provincial capital
will want to fly into Lhasa, but approaching Tibet overland â either by rail or
on one of a handful of adventurous road routes – is the best way to
acclimatise, both culturally and atmospherically. Once in Lhasa, spend a few
days exploring – join pilgrims circling the Jokhang, get lost in the city’s old
town and visit Lhasa’s great monasteries; Sera, Drepung and eerie Nechung. If
you’re keen for more town-based fun, head west to Shigatse â home to the vast
Tashilumpo Monastery, and Gyantse, with its dramatic hilltop fort and the
beautiful Gyantse Kumbum. Otherwise, skip ahead to take in Tibet’s natural
splendour at one of the region’s holy lakes â Nam-tso and Yamdrok-tso are the most
accessible â or at Mount Everest North Base Camp. However you spend your days
here, you’re likely to need to return to Lhasa to fly out – just make sure you
leave time to visit the iconic Potala Palace (the steep climb up to palace
entrance is best left until you’re fully acclimatised at the end of your trip).
The maritime provinces of China’s southern
seaboard â Guangdong and Fujian – have long histories of contact with the
outside world, setting them apart from their neighbours to the north. While
most visitors speed through the region on their way to Hong Kong and Macau,
thereâs much to reward deeper exploration. Start your journey in Xiamen and
stay on the pretty islet of Gulangyu, a former colonial enclave now peppered
with gracefully decaying mansions. Next, head inland to Fujianâs mountainous
hinterland and home of the Hakka people, where you can spend days exploring the
fortress-like Hakka villages around Yongding. From here you can go straight to
Guangdong’s capital, Guangzhou, for the province’s best dim sum, big city
bustle and a clutch of interesting historical sights. Make a detour to rural Kaiping,
where thousands of ornately styled
towers litter the countryside, before finishing your journey in
Portuguese-flavoured Macau or Hong Kong – although beach babes may be tempted
to slink a little further down the coast to tropical Hainan Island and Sanya.