Here are 8 tips for planning your holiday to the fascinating and ever-changing region of China
China is a huge country and there is no way you can see it all in one visit. Decide what things you are interested in – be it nature, cities, cuisine, a specific attraction such as the Great Wall or the Terracotta Warriors – and plan to explore a bite size chunk that has what you are looking for.
Chinese languages are undoubtedly intimidating, but attempting to learn a little bit of Mandarin (the most widely spoken, standardized language) will be useful.
Even quite basic Mandarin will help you get around, and people will be happy you’re making an effort. Writing down or printing out addresses in Chinese characters can make things easier.
It’s also worth downloading Pleco, an excellent Chinese-English dictionary app.
Outside of China, impressions of Chinese food are still often defined by the sweet, balanced flavours of Cantonese food. Dim sum and other Cantonese dishes are delicious of course, but there’s a whole world of regional cuisines to discover: the fiery spice of Sichuan and Hunan cuisine; the freshness and sour funkiness of food from Guizhou and Yunnan.
Plus Hangzhou and Shanghai‘s light, refined dumplings and seafood, and the hearty quasi-Turkish kebabs and hand-pulled noodles from Xinjiang. You may want to travel for some of these dishes, but major cities will host restaurants from around the country.
Facebook, Youtube, Google Maps, and most Western email providers are difficult to access in China, so you may want to download a Virtual Private Network (VPN), which will help you get past the so-called “Great Firewall”.
Inside China there are a few extremely helpful apps: WeChat could simply be explained as a Chinese WhatsApp but in reality, it’s a combination of that, Facebook, PayPal, a food delivery service, and much more. Some of these features are difficult to navigate with limited Chinese, but you’ll need WeChat to talk to new friends, and you can “follow” magazines, museums, restaurants and more on the app to learn about special events and deals.
Baidu Maps is an excellent Google Maps alternative.
For many countries this suggestion would imply the romance of watching the countryside slide by your window. That factor still holds here, but China’s high speed rail network is notable mainly for its sheer convenience. With stations closer to city centres than airports, train journeys between major cities are a comfortable, cheaper alternative to domestic flights.
The five hours between Beijing and Shanghai compare favourably to the flight time, with considerably less stress. Furthermore, the bustling modern stations provide a glimpse of the direction the country is heading in.
Sure, you can buy fake goods in China. But there’s so much more on offer. Why not pick up some quality oolong or pu’er tea? In the hutongs (alleys) around Guloudongdajie in Beijing, boutiques stock clothes from local designers and nostalgic socialist-chic homewares. Stores like Closing Ceremony in Shanghai offer an array of Chinese photo books and art magazines.
7. Go to a show
Chinese contemporary art is firmly established internationally, so you should check out some exhibits at the source: prominent galleries include the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing, the Power Station of Art in Shanghai, and OCT Contemporary Art Terminal in Shenzhen.
If you’re more into music, bars in Beijing – try School – carry on the capital’s decades long tradition of gritty rock, and Shanghai’s electronic music scene is known as one of Asia’s best.
And, of course, you can't miss the spectacle of an authentic Chinese acrobat or water puppet show - both of which are entrancing and beautiful to behold.
Spring (April/May) and Autumn (Oct/Nov) are the best time to catch pleasant moderate temperatures in most regions.
Also be sure to avoid scheduling your trip during major Chinese holidays. Transport networks will be full to bursting during Chinese New Year, while Golden Week, at the beginning of October, sees locals file out of the cities in droves to explore their own backyard.