A trip to China is a humbling experience. From its preserved first-century monuments to the statuesque silhouette of Mt. Everest, the country demands respect. It is a land that bridges the gap between nature and humanity, whose people devote themselves to living harmoniously with each other and their surroundings. Whether you’re seeking the seclusion of a UNESCO-listed national park or the bustle of city life, this Insider’s Guide to China will help you wade through the country’s bounty of riches to find the perfect place for you.
Name a geographical feature and China’s got it. Mountains, deserts, and high plateaus occupy the north and west. In the center and east of the country are broad, arable plains and deltas—China’s agricultural region. The far west is home to the Turpan Depression, the third lowest spot on Earth. Add to that more than 9,000 miles of coastline along the southeast border. Of the country’s thousands of rivers, the Yangtze and the Yellow are two of its most important. Notable among the country’s peaks is Mt. Everest, the tallest in the world, in the Himalayan Range. China neighbors so many countries—14, to be precise—that it’s probably faster to name the ones it doesn’t touch. Kazakhstan, Mongolia, and Russia share the largest of these borders.
Standard Chinese, also called standard Mandarin, is the most commonly spoken language in the country, though Cantonese also has official status. Linguists estimate that there could be close to 300 living languages in China today. The most widespread foreign language is English, spoken by around 10 million people in mostly urban areas.
Money & Tipping
China’s official currency is the renminbi, more commonly known as the yuan. The Chinese use cash more frequently than credit cards, especially in smaller, more isolated cities. However, credit cards are widely accepted at hotels, upscale restaurants, and most foreign brand name stores. More common than credit cards is WeChat, a messaging, social media, and mobile payment app whose popularity is soaring in China. If you want to pay like the locals pay (except where cash is required), download the app and make your purchase by scanning the QR code.
Tipping is neither expected nor required in most of China, though many establishments that cater to foreigners, like hotels and restaurants, are accustomed to receiving small tips.
Culture & Etiquette
The Chinese believe that the stability of society comes from cultivating harmonious relationships among people. The Confucianist ideals of loyalty, respect, honor, and duty form the cornerstones of Chinese culture.
When meeting a group of people, always greet the eldest person first as a sign of respect. Expect questions about your personal life—marital status, income, age, etc.—that may seem forward or inappropriate to you. The Chinese are welcoming, curious people and only wish to establish common ground.
In Tibetan areas: Don’t photograph elderly people without their permission (and if you do ask for a photo, be prepared to pay.) Don’t tread in a lama’s shadow. Take off your hat in temples. Try to avoid pointing, but if you can’t, do so with your palm up and fingers together. Do not walk between a person and the Buddha statue to which they are praying.
Weather and When to Go
The climate in China is as varied as its topography. Hot, dry summers and freezing winters in the northeast give way to less hot summers and less freezing winters (plus frequent rain) in the central regions. Rain is plentiful in the southeast, where summers are semi-tropical and winters mild. Flooding is common in the central, southern, and western regions. The whole country is subject to occasional seismic activity.
The best times to visit are the spring (March to April) before the monsoons hit, and fall (September to October). If you’re thinking about traveling during Chinese New Year, pack your patience along with your heavy coat. Many businesses are closed in the winter and the crowds can be overwhelming.
Rice and noodles are staple foods in Chinese cuisine and feature in practically every dish you can imagine. Tofu’s popularity here began over 2,000 years ago when the emperor’s grandson set off into the mountains to find an immortal elixir and, failing at that, returned instead with bean curd. Poultry and meat, especially pork, are as prevalent as tofu. Eggplants, daikon radishes, soybeans, and bamboo shoots are widespread, as are ginger, garlic, and chilies. Common dishes include wontons and dumplings, kung pao chicken, chow mein, and Peking duck.
China is a relatively safe country, though petty crime can exist anywhere in the world. If you’re walking around at night, stick to busy, well-lit roads. Be aware of high-risk pickpocketing areas like bus and train stations, and avoid traveling in a taxi by yourself if you’re a woman. As China has an estimated 600 deaths per day due to traffic accidents, your greatest danger as a foreigner will most likely be crossing the road. Be alert to vehicles that approach quietly but quickly, and note that many drivers disregard green pedestrian crossing lights.
The vastness of China and the richness of its history make visiting every significant site impossible even in a lifetime. Though we could never sum up China’s bounty in a few paragraphs, here are our top suggestions, based on region:
In ancient Chinese lore, Mt. Tai Shan is the point at which the sun rises. Six thousand stone steps lead to the top of China’s most sacred mountain, upon which emperors as far back as 219 BC offered sacrifices to the gods. Nearly 1,800 stone tablets and inscriptions and 22 temples reside on the mountain, making it a renowned monument of history and culture. Clinging to the side of Mt. Hengshan, the gravity-defying Hanging Temple is still remarkably intact despite 1,500 years of winds and storms. Make a stop in Zhangye National Geopark on the famed Silk Road for access to the stunning Rainbow Mountains. The gradients of color in these sandstone crags remind visitors of tropical sand art bottles.
The buzzing capital city of Beijing contains an embarrassment of riches. Hike along a section of the Great Wall or go for a night row on the neon-saturated Houhai Lakes. At the heart of Beijing lies the Forbidden City, home to 24 emperors from the 14th to the 17th centuries. At 183 acres, it is the largest palace complex in the world.
Much of the magic of Harbin comes when the mercury drops below well zero. Bundle up for the city’s famed Ice & Snow Festival, the largest of its kind in the world. Since 1963 it has dazzled visitors with sculptures that are both elaborate and enormous. The tallest carving in recent years measured nearly 158 feet—that’s almost as tall as Paris’s Arc de Triomphe!
Despite the sparkle and mystical allure of the glowing ice and snow, summer in Harbin can be a fairytale time as well. Take a dip in the Songhua River or get an ice cream and stroll through the shops of Zhongyang Street. For indoor entertainment, head to the onion-domed Church of St. Sophia. Built in 1907 as a Russian Orthodox church, it is now a museum dedicated to Harbin’s history.
Outside of Harbin lies the giant blue cauldron of Heaven Lake, nestled in a caldera atop volcanic Paektu Mountain. Views from above show a perfect ring of rocky mountain peaks, and on calm days you can see clouds reflected in the lake’s mirror-smooth surface.
In China’s eastern region, the best place to start is at the top. Take a cable car to the peak of Mount Huangshan, known as the “loveliest mountain in China” and the natural inspiration for poets and painters for thousands of years. Descend from the roof of the country to its rugged floor with a stop in the city of Qingdao. Here you can sunbathe on the largest sandy beach in Asia or tour the Tsingtao Beer Museum, a still-operating brewery, and sample the country’s iconic beer. In energetic Shanghai, take a walk along the Bund, visit the Shanghai Museum, or wander the French Concession neighborhoods.
Over 3,100 sandstone pillars comprise Zhangjiajie’s otherworldly Stone Forest, the inspiration behind the floating mountains in “Avatar.” Spectacular natural vistas continue with a trip to Huangguosho Falls, the tallest in Asia. Construction began in the 13th century on the Longji Rice Terraces, nicknamed the Dragon’s Backbone because the tiered terraces resemble dragon scales. If you’re looking for some city life, head to Wuhan, capital of the Hubei Province. Tuck into a bowl of sesame noodles or pay a visit to the five-story Yellow Crane Tower, built in 223 as a watchtower for the emperor’s army. The longest commercial pedestrian road in China, Han Street features shops, restaurants, and bars that come alive at night under neon lights.
Those seeking calcified turquoise pools, waterfalls, and verdant mountain valleys need look no further than UNESCO-listed Huanglong National Park. Rockier vistas await visitors at Tiger Leaping Gorge, one of the deepest canyons in the world. In Chengdu, roam around the bonsai garden or row through the maze of streams in Renmin Park. Six miles from downtown Chengdu is the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding on Futou Mountain. Here you can witness these beloved endangered animals in protected habitat and, if you’re visiting in August or September, you just might catch a glimpse of a newborn panda. Another attraction near Chengdu is the Leshan Giant Buddha, carved in the 8th century into the hillside of Xijuo Peak. Tea connoisseurs should make a pilgrimage to Mengding Mountain, widely considered the birthplace of the world’s tea culture.
One not-to-miss site in this region is the Terracotta Warriors and Horses Museum. One of the most important archaeological discoveries of the 20th century, this mausoleum of clay soldiers dates back to 210 and was built to accompany the first emperor of China to the afterlife. When you’re done communing with the soldiers, take a drive along the Silk Road, with its expansive views of mountains, sand dunes, and glacial lakes. Along the way, stop at the Singing Sands Dune and Crescent Lake in Taklamakan Desert. You’ll work up a sweat hiking to the top of the dunes, but it’s worth it to hear the sand sing as you tread uphill or slide back down. Another noteworthy Silk Road destination is the Mogao Grottoes, whose caves contain the most important Buddhist artwork in the world.