Photo by Tristan Zhou

THE BASICS

  • Capital city: Beijing
  • Area: 3,705,000 sq miles (9,595,906 sq kilometers)
  • Population: 1,379,000,000
  • Official language: Mandarin Chinese
  • Currency: Yuan renminbi (CNY)
  • Time Zone: China Standard Time (GMT+8)
  • Drive on the: Right

WHERE IN THE WORLD

Spanning 3.7 million square miles (9.6 million square kilometers), China is second only to Russia in terms of total land area. Comprising a massive chunk of the Asian continent, it claims the longest combined land border in the world, bordering 14 other nations — Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar, India, Nepal, Pakistan, Bhutan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Russia, Mongolia, and North Korea.

Because it covers so much area, China features a wide variety of landscapes and climates. There are shorelines and alluvial plains to the east, while mountain ranges and high plateaus dominate the west. To the north, you’ll find sprawling grasslands, while hills and smaller mountain ranges rise in the south. China contains both the world’s highest point (Mount Everest, on the Sino-Nepalese border) and its third-lowest point (Ayding Lake).

Photo by Tristan Zhou
Photo by Tristan Zhou

A BIT OF HISTORY

China’s complex history can be divided into three main periods: ancient, imperial, and modern.

Chinese tradition says that its first dynasty, Xia, began around 2100 B.C., though the earliest confirmed archaeological records date back only to the 17th century B.C.

The Imperial era marked a long succession of warring dynasties who competed for rule of the land. This began with the Qin dynasty, which lasted only 15 years before the harsh authoritarian policies of its first emperor led to rebellion.

Photo by Jon Collins

During the 13th century A.D., Mongol leader Kublai Khan conquered China and established the Yuan Dynasty, and the population was cut in half over the next several decades. However, a peasant named Zhu Yuanzhang overthrew the Yuan in 1368 and established the Ming Dynasty, which brought with it a prosperous golden age of economic, military, and cultural development.

The Qing dynasty, which lasted from 1644 until 1912, was the last imperial dynasty of China. Following decades of internal unrest, famines, catastrophes, and a massive diaspora, the dynasty was brought to an end and the Republic of China was established in 1912. Although China was one of the four major Allies of WWII, the Chinese Civil War gave way to communist control of the mainland. This is what led to the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, which exists to this day.

TRANSPORTATION MATTERS

The main international air travel gateways in China are Hong Kong, Beijing, and Shanghai. Beijing features Capital Airport, Hong Kong has the Hong Kong International Airport, and Shanghai features both Hongqiao and Pudong International Airports. Baiyun International in Guangzhou also offers a limited amount of international flights.

Photo by Aaron Zhou
Photo by Ryosuke Kosuge

Once you’re there, there are many options for land travel. In the past few decades, China’s road network has expanded drastically, and it currently boasts the longest highway system in the world. It features an extensive rail system as well, including a series of high-speed railways, which can transport you across the country at speeds as high as 268 mph (431 kph). The Shanghai Maglev Train is also the fastest commercial train system in the world. You can also ride on the Trans-Siberian and Trans-Mongolian railways, which extend across the continent.

KNOW BEFORE YOU GO

Photo by Jessie Li

Summer is a busy tourist season in China, so if you visit between May and August, expect crowds and high prices, not to mention summer downpours. From November to February, the crowds will thin out, but you should still expect soaring prices during the Chinese New Year. In the southern parts of the country, winter weather remains relatively warm, but the north turns frigid. The shoulder seasons (September to November, and March to May) are the optimal times to visit for refreshing temperatures and clear skies.

Much of your time in China may be spent visiting Buddhist and Taoist temples and mosques. In general, the Chinese people are rather relaxed regarding etiquette, but do make sure to dress sensitively when exploring religious spaces. When greeting someone, shaking hands is acceptable, but avoid kissing them on the cheek. During a meal, help fill the plate belonging to the person next to you, and always toast the host before you first drink from your glass. If you smoke, be sure to offer cigarettes to your dining mates.

Photo by Joshua Joe
Photo by Kate Newman

Credit cards are not widely used throughout the country, so make sure to always carry cash. That said, most large cities and towns will have ATMs readily available. Tipping is not expected at most low and mid-range restaurants, but if you plan to dine at fancier establishments, check the bill to see if a service charge has been added. Taxi drivers will not expect tips, though hotel porters might. And, at markets and shops, haggling is standard. In touristy areas, sellers may even drop prices to as low as 25 percent of the asking price.

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Finally, keep in mind that China is a massive country with so much to explore — don’t get overwhelmed! Pick a few cities or regions to discover and enjoy yourself. Meet new people, try the local food, and remain open to new experiences. And, don’t forget your camera!

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Devon Shuman
Devon Shuman is a creator, a storyteller, and a traveler from Boston, Massachusetts. He caught the travel bug at a young age when his family would take camping trips in southern Maine and New York’s Adirondack region. Since then, his adventures have taken him all across the globe. His favorite journeys include island hopping in the Galápagos, thru-hiking Vermont’s Long Trail, and summiting Mount Kilimanjaro. He currently works as an editorial consultant for Passion Passport, helping explorers from around the world tell their stories.