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China

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Revision as of 02:45, 7 May 2005 by Heschong (talk | contribs) (Cities)
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China

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Quick Facts
CapitalBeijing
GovernmentCommunist state
Currencyyuan (CNY)
Areatotal: 9,596,960 sq km
land: 9,326,410 sq km
water: 270,550 sq km
Population1,284,303,705 (July 2002 est.)
LanguageStandard Chinese or Mandarin (Putonghua, based on the Beijing dialect), Yue (Cantonese), Wu (Shanghaiese), Minbei (Fuzhou), Minnan (Hokkien-Taiwanese), Xiang, Gan, Hakka dialects, minority languages (see Ethnic groups entry)
ReligionDaoist (Taoist), Buddhist, Muslim 1%-2%, Christian 3%-4%
note: officially atheist (2002 est.)
Calling Code86
Internet TLD.cn
Time ZoneUTC +8

Note: This article covers only Mainland China, which excludes Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan.

China (中国 Zhōngguó), formally the People's Republic of China (中华人民共和国 Zhōnghuá Rénmín Gònghéguó) is a country in Eastern Asia that is only slightly smaller than the United States of America. With coasts on the East China Sea, Korea Bay, Yellow Sea, and South China Sea, it is surrounded by Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar(or Burma), Laos and Vietnam to the south, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan to the west, Russia to the northeast and northwest, Mongolia to the north, North Korea on the northeastern coast.

Regions

Autonomous Regions

Map of China

Cities

Chinese has many large and famous cities. Below are a list of the most well-known. For other cities, check specific regional sections.

Other destinations

Sacred mountains

China (including Tibet) is home to five sacred Buddhist mountains.

Sacred sites

  • the 1,500-year-old Yungang Grottoes near Datong in Shanxi Province. There are more than 51,000 Buddhist carvings in the recesses and caves that cover the mountain-sides in the Yangang Valley. The grottoes are a Unesco World Heritage Site.

Understand

Keep in mind that China is a very diverse place with large variations in culture, language, customs, and economic levels. The economic landscape is particularly diverse ranging from the major cities such as Beijing and Shanghai which are basically first world to rural areas in the interior which are still at third world levels.

Something else to remember is that China has recently experienced a huge economic explosion, catapulting rural residents into the status of metropolitan businessmen or "migrant workers". This results in a large class of people who have not yet become accustomed to living in a modern society.

Things you can expect from the richer Chinese (as well as their compatriots who earn 10% of their salary) are:

  • Spitting: in the street, shops, supermarkets, or even in restaurants.
  • Shouting: even if the speaker is 15cm away from you, you can expect an unusually loud voice. Shouting is also standard for having a conversation on a mobile phone.

The climate is also extremely diverse, with it being tropical in south to being subarctic in north

There is also a wide range of terrain with mostly mountains, high plateaus, and deserts in west; while plains, deltas, and hills can be found in the east. On the border between Tibet and Nepal lies Mount Everest, at 8,850 m, being the highest point on earth. While Turpan Pendi, in northwest China is the lowest point of the country, at 154 m below sea level. This is also the second lowest point in the world, after the Dead Sea in Israel.

History

For centuries China stood as a leading civilization, outpacing the rest of the world in the arts and sciences. But in the 19th and early 20th centuries, China was beset by civil unrest, major famines, military defeats, and foreign occupation. After World War II, the Communists under Mao Zedong established a Communist government that, while ensuring China's sovereignty, imposed strict controls over everyday life and cost the lives of tens of millions of people. After 1978, his successor Deng Xiaoping gradually introduced market-oriented reforms and decentralized economic decision making, and output quadrupled by 2000. Political controls remain tight even while economic controls continue to be relaxed.

Basic services

Electricity is 220 volts/50 hz. Most buildings have universal outlets that can handle a wide variety of plug shapes.

Get in

Citizens of virtually all other countries need a visa. Getting a visa is easy for Western tourists as you don't need an invitation, for example. It is also quite cheap compared to other countries' visa fees, with approx. 20 €. The usual tourist single-entry visa is valid for thirty days and must be used within three months after it was issued. Obtaining a visa on arrival is possible at some airports but not recommended. For a list of services and frequently asked visa questions and answers, travelers can view the Chinese Embassy’s web site at http://www.china-embassy.org/.

By plane

While several major airlines fly to Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong, flights are usually not too often and budget seats can prove hard to come by. For good offers, book as early as you can. Particularly busy periods are usually when Chinese students are flying home for Summer, flying back to Universities around the world after Summer or around Chinese New Year.

By train

The Trans-Mongolian railway orginates in Moscow and terminate in Beijing, stopping in various other Russian cities, as well as Ulaan Baator, Mongolia.

From Almaty, Kazakhstan one can travel by rail to Urumqi in the northwestern province of Xinjiang. There are long waits at the border crossing for customs, as well as for changing the wheelbase for the next country's track.

Regular rail service links mainland China with Hong Kong

There is also a train from China into Vietnam.

By car

By bus

By boat

There is regular ferry and hovercraft service between varying points of the mainland, such as Guangzhou and Zhuhai to Hong Kong and Macao.

To Japan

There is a 2-day ferry service from Shanghai and Tianjin to Osaka and Tokyo in Japan. Service is once or twice weekly, depending on season.

A twice-weekly ferry also connects Qingdao to Shimonoseki.

To South Korea

There is a ferry service from Shanghai and Tianjin to Incheon, the main port of South Korea.

Get around

By plane

China has a great deal of domestic flights to all the major cities and tourist destinations. Beware, though, that travelling from China to Hong Kong is considered an international flight and, as such, can be quite expensive; you can save some money at the price of some hassle by flying to Shenzhen, just across the border, instead.

Prices for domestic flights in China are set at standard rates. However, most good hotels will have a travel ticket service and will be able to save you 15%-40% off the price of tickets. Even after considering discounts, travelling by plane in China is not inexpensive. Do be prepared for flight delays; these are on the increase despite pressure from both the government and consumers.

By train

Train travel is the major mode of long-distance transportation for the Chinese themselves, with an extensive network of routes covering the entire country (with the notable exception of Tibet).

There are five classes of travel:

  • hard seats (ying zuo)
  • soft seats (ruan zuo)
  • hard sleepers (ying wo)
  • soft sleepers (ruan wo)
  • standing

Soft sleepers are the preferred mode of transportation for long distances and are relatively cheap by Western standards. The soft sleeper compartments contain four bunks stacked two to a column (though some newer trains have two-bunk compartments), with latchable door for privacy, and are quite spacious. Hard sleepers, on the other hand, have 3 beds per column open to the corridor, with the highest bunk very high up, leaving little space for headroom. Also note that the "hard" sleeper is not "hard" - the beds have a mattress and are generally quite comfortable. Hard seats are not recommended for long-distance travel, especially overnight, as the seats can feel cramped and uncomfortable, and since seat assignements are usually not available, an overbooked train may mean standing in the aisles for hours at a time.

Also note that because the train system remains largely state-owned and bureaucratic in contrast to the air and bus systems, personnel on the trains may be noticeably ruder and less concerned with customer service than air or bus personnel.

The bathrooms on trains tend to be more usable than on buses or most public areas, because they are simple devices that empties the contents directly onto the track.

Long distance trains will have a buffet or dining car, which serves hot (but generally overpriced, at 25 yuan or so, by Chinese standards) food. If you are on a very strict budget, wait until the train stops at a station; there are normally stall vendors on the platform who can sell you some noodles or fruit at a fraction of the buffet or dining car. The menu list is likely to be entirely written in Chinese, but if you're willing to take the chance, interpret some of the Chinese characters, or ask for common dishes by name, you can eat very well.

The overnight train between Shanghai and Beijing is quite a good deal. I traveled with 12 others and we were able to book berths (hard sleepers - they are three high) in a block. There was a slight misunderstanding with a family who thought they were in our bunks, but it was sorted out by the porter to everyone's satisfaction (how, I am not really sure as I don't speak Chinese) The beds are actually softer than most!! The mattresses are probably two inches thick and not rock hard ...a real treat. The shared bathroom facilities are what one would expect on a train...complete with squatters---not sitters.

Be sure to bring your own food as the things that are brought by on the carts are expensive (relatively speaking). Provided for you is a large thermos of hot water that can readily be refilled by train staff for the asking or refilled yourself from the hot-water dispenser at the end of each car. You can have your instant coffee, tea or wash grubby children's hand s well with this.

Be careful of your valuables while on the train; property theft on public transportation has gone up in the recent years.

The one recommendation I would make however is to be prepared with some motion sickness pills if you are inclined toward that type of ailment. For two days after the 16-hour trip I felt as if I was on shaky ground. I actually thought we were on a houseboat or something when we sat down for our first meal after leaving the train. If you have some things to share on the train, you'll have fun. The Chinese families and business people traveling the route are just as bored as the next guy and will be happy to attempt conversation or share a movie shown on a laptop. All in all, the opportunity to see the countryside going by (even though it's dark for several hours and heaven knows what we missed) is a neat experience. Enjoy your train trip!

By bus

Travelling by bus, and by coach, is inexpensive and ideal for in-city and short distances transportation.

Local buses start at around 1 RMB and can be quite packed during rush hour. More modern buses with air conditioning charge 2 RMB. Fares are marked on the outside of bus doors and no change is provided, so have exact fare.

Coaches tended to be reasonably comfortable with most being air conditioned with soft seats or sleepers. They are often a better, though more expensive option than trains. The bathrooms on the buses are generally in very bad shape. Bus personnel tend to try to be helpful, but they are much less familiar with foreigners than airline personnel and English ability is very rare.

Drivers in China often disregard the rules of the road, and accidents are frequent. Suddden swerves and stops can cause injury, so keep a good hold wherever possible.

By taxi

Taxis are generally common, and reasonably priced. In most situations, expect between 10 and 30 RMB for an ordinary course within the city. There is no extra-charge for luggage, but at night it does get a bit more expensive. While drivers trying to cheat you by taking a longer way are not unheard of, it is not that common, and on average shouldn't be a nuisance.

Note that sitting in the front passenger seat of taxis is the norm -- some taxis even mount the taxi meter down by the gearbox, where you can only see it from the front seat.

Finding a taxi during peak hours can be a bit hard. But it really gets tough if it is raining. Away from peak hours, especially at night, it is sometimes possible to get a 10% to 20% discount, even if with the meter on, and asking for the receipt.

Note that even in major cities like Shanghai or Beijing, it is extremely unlikely to find an English-speaking taxi driver. Chinese language phonetics being quite far from English, keep in mind that even if you say the name of your destination in Chinese (but with your native pronunciation), you can easily be mis-understood, or not understood at all. Therefore, it is advisable to keep a written place where you want to go to by taxi, if you can't speak mandarin. Chinese characters will work better in this goal than romanized (pinyin) version.

In most (all?) cities, taxi companies use a star-rating system for drivers, ranging from 0 to 5, displayed on the drivers name-plate, in front of the passenger seat. While no or few stars do not necessarily indicated a bad driver, many stars tend to indicate good knowledge of the city, and willingness to take you to where you asked by the shortest way. Another indicator of the drivers ability can be found on the same name-plate, in the driver's ID number. A small number tells you he has been around for a long time, and is likely to know the place very well.

By car

It is disputed if International Driver's Permits can be used in mainland China (the ROC, or Taiwan, is a signatory to the convention which created IDPs, but not the mainland). If IDPs cannot be used on the mainland then one must pass a local exam to get a PRC driving licence.

See more at: Driving in China

By pedicab

In some mid-sized cities, pedicabs are a much more convenient means of travelling short distances.

Talk

The official language of the People's Republic of China is Mandarin, or PuTongHua. However in southern China, the language of day to day speech is a dialect which is mutually unintelligable to the official language. It always helps to have a guide that can speak the local dialect as it marks that person as an insider, and you as a friend of the insider.

Beware that although most Chinese are taught some English at school, the focus of the instruction is formal grammar and writing rather than conversation. Therefore, very few learn it to a sufficiently high standard to be able to understand an English conversation.

Useful hint: it's often helpful if you try to simplify your English. Stay away from using complex phrasing like "Would you mind if I come back tomorrow?" and stick to simpler, more abrupt phrasing like "I come back tomorrow."

That said, locals who have studied English to University level generally have an excellent standard of English. This is in large part because English is a required topic for university examinations.

See also: Chinese phrasebook

Buy

Currency

The official currency of the People's Republic of China is the renminbi (人民币 "People's Money"), often abbreviated RMB. The official base unit of this currency is the yuan (元), international currency code CNY. All prices in China are denoted in yuan, usually either as ¥5 or 5元.

The official subdivisions of the yuan are the jiao (角), at 10 jiao to the yuan, and the fen (分) at 10 fen to the jiao. A coin worth ¥0,10 will thus say 壹角 ("1 jiao"), not "10 fen", on it. But in colloquial Mandarin, nobody ever speaks of yuan; the standard term is kuai (块), and the jiao is also dubbed the mao (毛) instead. The fen remains the same, so a price like ¥3,75 would thus be read as "3 kuai 7 mao 5 fen" (although the trailing unit is often omitted).

Note also that most Chinese currency will be in the form of bills -- even small change. Also note that counterfeiting is a major problem, especially of 50 and 100 RMB bills -- when you buy currency, ask the teller how to spot counterfeit bills and examine all such bills you receive as change.

Foreign currency and/or traveller's cheques can be exchanged into RMB in most hotels and banks, although you will be required to show a passport or identification. Keep your receipt as you will need it at the airport to exchange RMB back into your original currency. Exchanging currency outside of official channels is technically illegal although enforcement of these currency controls is lax. However, as of 2003, the official exchange rates are close to the market value, and so official exchange rates can provide amounts similar to or better than unofficial ones.

Obtaining RMB in western countries can be a difficult or impossible task, and even where available the exchange rates are generally extremely unfavorable. It's generally less problematic to wait until arrival and using your debit or credit card in a local cash machine. Conveniently, the airports in Beijing and Shanghai have cash machines which accept most international debit/credit cards.

Check with your debit/credit card company's web site to find the availability of cash machines in China. They should be widely available. However, the writer found that, while Beijing ATMs had an English option, ATMs in the southern cities of Chongqing and Yichang lacked such an option so proved impossible to use. Also most banks will allow you to get a cash advance via a debit or credit card. It's useful to carry an international currency such as British Pounds, US Dollars, or Japanese Yen to fall back on should you not have access to a cash machine.

Shopping

Outside of hotels, acceptance of credit cards is infrequent, and most transactions will require cash.

If you are buying anything which is not from a fixed price store, bargaining is normal, though you may get a much better price if you let a local person do the buying for you. Vendors will charge the lowest price to local people (who can speak the dialect), next lowest price to other Chinese nationals, and the highest price to foreigners. In general, anything with a marked price tends to be sold at that price or slightly below, but there is large room for bargaining if there is no stamped price.

In bargaining over price, local people will tend to engage in hard bargaining behavior that foreigners may consider rude (i.e. commenting unfavorably on the quality of the merchandise).

Etiquette

Tipping is not necessary. Some upscale restaurants will add a service fee to the bill. Upscale restaurants and hotels will usually accept credit cards.

Eat

The food in China varies from region to region. While visiting, loose your inhibitions and try a bit of everything. Remember that some food is prepared from endagered species and as such is best avoided. Additionally, undercooked food or poor hygiene can cause bacterial or parasitic infection.

Drink

Sleep

Hotels for tourists are widely available and are generally of good quality. They are also much, much more expensive than hotels intended mainly for local people, even when they are of comparable quality.

Booking in advance is usually not necessary but try to arrive with the addresses of a few hotels in hand.

A well guarded secret for cheap and enjoyable accommodation is the spa. Spa costs vary but can be as low as 25 RMB. When in the spa there are beds in addition to showers, saunas etc. Admission to a spa is for 24 hours, and a small locker is provided for bags and personal possessions. This is ideal if you are travelling light. Furthermore spas often provide complimentary food.

Learn

Work

Teaching a language, most commonly English, is a very popular source of employment for foreigners. Requirements and qualifications can range between possessing an internationally recognised teaching certificate, e.g. TEFL, to merely being a native speaker. It is generally best to arrange work before going to China as work visa's must be applied for from the Public Security Bureau which can take some time. This process usually includes a medical examination signed by your physician. Salaries can vary depending on location and experience/qualifications. Free accommodation, provided by the institution, is not uncommon.

Stay safe

Walking (especially in rural areas) can be very dangerous because of oncoming traffic. Pedestrians do not have the right of way. Traffic will not stop if they see you in the way. In cities, traffic signals are often ignored and the safest way to cross the street is via an overpass.

The PRC does not recognize international drivers licenses. But in some places, the police are so corrupt you can come to some kind of 'arrangement' with them. However, driving in China is not for the faint of heart and it is questionable whether you would want to even if you can.

Petty crime remains relatively low, and it is common for people to quietly carry large amounts of cash. At the same time, one should take the usual precautions against being conspicuously wealthy.

There is relatively little begging, and most beggars tend to be people with obvious physical problems. In general beggars are not aggressive as there are strong social norms against begging as it is considered shameful.

While begging is considered shameful, aggressive marketing of petty services one can perform is not. People will however often aggressively try to perform some services for you (such as watching your luggage) or steer you to a hotel or have you ride in their taxi. Be prepared to ignore them.

Be careful when offered a "free art gallery tour" by two persons, mostly girls who speak good English. In Beijing this is most common, but also in other big cities such as Shanghai it happens when strolling touristy places. They are often students on or dropouts from English teacher schools and make money by abusing their English proficiency. The tourists they lure into small shabby art shops will be pressured to buy overpriced Chinese art which is nothing but a copy.

BEWARE of the scam operating in many of the larger cities where bars or karaokes show you a menu with a price on it and once you finish your drinks and ask for the bill they produce another menu with a much higher price on it. It happened to me in Shanghai when a few drinks that I thought costed RMB 80 turned out to cost RMB 1500!

Stay healthy

Public bathrooms are generally between dirty and unusable but high quality ones can be found inside major tourist attractions (e.g. The Forbidden City) and at hotels catering for westerners. Public bathrooms in restaurants and hotels are moderately usable, although the one's in rooms tend to be very clean. Make sure to bring your own toilet paper and soap when you leave the hotel. People will stare at you while you use the toilet (and although separate facilities are generally provided for men and women, where there are several cubicles within, for example, a men's toilet, there may be no doors on the front of the cubicles).

Also beware that the sit-down toilet familiar to most Westerners is not quite so popular in China in public areas. Hotels will generally have them in rooms but in places where Westerners will be in more of a minority, you can expect to find crouching toilets more often than not. Most private homes in urban areas now have sit down toilets, and one major benefit with knowing a local host is that they have clean bathrooms.

There are no widely enforced health regulations in restaurants. However most of the smaller restaurants will prepare the food in front of you. Most of the major cities have chain fast food places, and the hygiene in them tends to be good.

The water is not drinkable without boiling. However, all hotels (or boats!) provide either a thermos flask full of boiling water in your room (refillable by your floor attendant) or a kettle you can use to do it yourself. Purified drinking water in bottles is available everywhere, and is generally quite cheap (don't pay more than 2 or 3 Yuan for a litre).

One other interesting quirk is that Chinese tend to distrust the cleanliness of bathtubs. Most homes have plastic movable tubs or showers. In hotels with fixed bathtubs, they will generally make available plastic bathtub liners in the rooms.

Parts of southern China have mosquitos which carry malaria. If you will be visiting any such parts, your local travel clinic will be happy to provide advice. Generally, this means taking one anti-malarial tablet per week for two weeks before you depart, during your stay and for four weeks afterwards.

Drugs are generally available from a pharmacist without prescriptions. You can usually ask to see the physician instructions that came with the box.

Always check needles if you require any sort of injection, or any procedure that requires breaking the skin. In many parts of China it is acceptable to re-use needles, albeit after some attempt at sterilisation. In hospitals you may wish to watch as the sterile packaging is opened.

China has only officially recognised the threat of an AIDS/HIV epidemic since 2001. Recently Chinese Premier Hu Jintao has pledged to fight the spread of AIDS/HIV within China. According to the United Nations "China is currently experiencing one of the most rapidly expanding HIV epidemics in the world. Since 1998, the number of reported cases has increased by about 30% yearly. By 2010, China could have as many as 10 million infections & 260,000 orphans if w/out intervention."(Source: http://www.unaids.org/nationalresponse/result.asp?action=overall&country=573 )

Respect

Sensitive topics include local politics and the status of Taiwan. Generally the level of political repression is low enough so that there is not a major fear of having private conversations on these topics, but many Chinese have extremely strong feelings on these issues. One particular faux pas involves implying that Taiwan or Hong Kong are separate nations (i.e in maps or incidental descriptions).

Chinese tend to be very concerned about correct behavior and face, and also tend to be very conscious of social status. Drawing attention to mistakes or failings, even for innocent reasons, may cause intense humiliation and embarrassment. There is also a strong difference between members of the in-group and strangers although there is a considerable gray area between the two.

When cheering or toasting using drinks it is seen to be a mark of respect if, when your glasses contact, your glass is lower than that of the most important person drinking. If attending a formal dinner it is customary to go from table to table in order to toast the other diners.

Sticking your chopsticks into your rice is sometimes seen to be taboo. It is reminiscent of sticks of incense burning at a shrine or funeral and therefore you are seen to be wishing death on people at the table. Many times it is seen as a forgivable mistake.

As a traveller you may find that your language, hair and skin colour, manner of dress, behaviour etc. will draw long and sustained stares especially in rural areas or outside the major cities. While there is a great deal of diversity in China is it also the case in some areas that people have little contact with people outside of their village or social circle. Therefore there is some degree of fascination with the 'foreigner'.

Contact

Internet

Most major cities will have a special three digit number and access code which will provide public internet services. International internet roaming services are therefore a waste of your money. Internet cafes are widespread, although many of them are designed mainly for gaming and are not useful places to do business.

China is notorious for having a firewall, although this can be circumvented without too much difficulty. If you have access to a corporate VPN outside of China, then this will let you bypass the firewall.

External links

  • China Tourism - courtesy of the Chinese National Tourism Administration
  • Tips for Travelers to China - Information from the U.S. Department of State on travel to China, including general information and specific tips for U.S. citizens.
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