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|Introduction to China
China isn't a country - it's a different world. Unless you have a couple of years and unlimited patience, it's best to follow a loose itinerary here, such as following the Silk Road, sailing down the Yangzi River, or exploring the Dr Seuss landscape of Guangxi Province.
From shop-till-you-drop metropolises to the epic grasslands of Inner Mongolia, China is a land of cultural and geographic schisms. It's not that it has completely done away with its Maoist past - it's more that the yin of revolutionary zeal is being balanced by the yang of economic pragmatism.
China is a country of great contrasts, with picturesque rural landscapes and congested cityscapes, and natural beauty that ranges from the untamed to the idyllic - from the windswept plains of the Gobi Desert and Mt Everest's notorious northern face to Yangshuo's gorgeous karst scenery. China is huge and wild enough to satisfy your explorer instinct, and is a great rollercoaster ride for anyone with a little time and an instinct for travel.
Full country name: People's Republic of China
Area: 9.59 million sq km
Population: 1.28 billion
Capital City: Beijing
People: Han Chinese (93%), plus 55 ethnic minorities
Language: Cantonese, Mandarin
Religion: Confucianism, Buddhism, Taoism (no stats available); Islam (14 million), Christianity (7 million)
Government: Communist republic
GDP: US$6.4 trillion
GDP per capita: US$5,000
Major Industries: Iron, steel, coal, machinery, automobiles, petrolium, chemicals, telecommunications, textiles
Major Trading Partners: USA, Japan, Germany, South Korea, Taiwan
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Visas: Visas are required by most foreigners entering mainland China although, at this stage, visas are not required by Western nationals visiting Hong Kong and Macau. Visas are available from Chinese embassies and consulates in most countries.
Health risks: rabies (This is a fatal viral infection found throughout South America and parts of Asia. Many animals can be infected (such as dogs, cats, bats and monkeys) and it's their saliva that is infectious. Any bite, scratch or even lick from a warm-blooded, furry animal should be cleaned immediately and thoroughly. Scrub with soap and running water, and then apply alcohol or iodine solution. Medical help should be sought promptly to receive a course of injections to prevent the onset of symptoms and death), schistosomiasis (bilharzia) (This disease is carried in fresh water by tiny worms that enter through the skin and attach themselves to the intestines or bladder. The first symptom may be tingling and sometimes a light rash around the area where the worm entered. Weeks later, a high fever may develop. A general unwell feeling may be the first symptom, or there may be no symptoms. Once the disease is established, abdominal pain and blood in the urine are other signs. The infection often causes no symptoms until the disease is well established (several months to years after exposure), and damage to internal organs is irreversible. Avoid swimming or bathing in freshwater where bilharzia is present. Even deep water can be infected. If you do get wet, dry off quickly and dry your clothes as well. A blood test is the most reliable test, but it will not show positive until a number of weeks after exposure), dengue fever (Unlike the malaria mosquito, the Aedes aegypti mosquito, which transmits the dengue virus, is most active during the day and is found mainly in urban areas, in and around human dwellings. Signs and symptoms of dengue fever include a sudden onset of high fever, headache, joint and muscle pains, nausea and vomiting. A rash of small red spots sometimes appears three to four days after the onset of fever. Severe complications do sometimes occur. You should seek medical attention as soon as possible if you think you may be infected. A blood test can indicate the possibility of dengue fever. There is no specific treatment. Aspirin should be avoided, as it increases the risk of haemorrhaging. There is no vaccine against dengue fever), malaria (This serious and potentially fatal disease is spread by mosquito bites and is endemic in most countries of the region (the exceptions being Singapore and Brunei). If you are travelling in endemic areas it is extremely important to avoid mosquito bites and to take tablets to prevent this disease. Symptoms range from fever, chills and sweating, headache, diarrhoea and abdominal pains to a vague feeling of ill-health. Seek medical help immediately if malaria is suspected. Without treatment malaria can rapidly become more serious and can be fatal. If medical care is not available, malaria tablets can be used for treatment. There is a variety of medications such as mefloquine, Fansidar and Malarone. You should seek medical advice, before you travel, on the right medication and dosage for you. If you do contract malaria, be sure to be re-tested for it once you return home, as you can harbour malaria parasites in your body even if you are symptom-free. To help prevent mosquito bites: wear light-coloured clothing; wear long trousers and long-sleeved shirts; use mosquito repellents containing the compound DEET on exposed areas (prolonged overuse of DEET may be harmful, especially to children, but its use is considered preferable to being bitten by disease-transmitting mosquitoes); avoid perfumes and aftershave; use a mosquito net impregnated with mosquito repellent (permethrin) – it may be worth taking your own. Impregnating clothes with permethrin effectively deters mosquitoes and other insects), cholera (This diarrhoeal disease can cause rapid dehydration and death. Cholera is caused by a bacteria, Vibrio cholerae. It's transmitted from person to person by direct contact (often via healthy carriers of the disease) or via contaminated food and water. It can be spread by seafood, including crustaceans and shellfish, which get infected via sewage. Cholera exists where standards of environmental and personal hygiene are low. Every so often there are massive epidemics, usually due to contaminated water in conditions where there is a breakdown of the normal infrastructure. The time between becoming infected and symptoms appearing is usually short, between one and five days. The diarrhoea starts suddenly, and pours out of you. It's characteristically described as 'ricewater' diarrhoea because it is watery and flecked with white mucus. Vomiting and muscle cramps are usual, but fever is rare. In its most serious form, it causes a massive outpouring of fluid (up to 20L a day). This is the worst case scenario – only about one in 10 sufferers get this severe form. It's a self-limiting illness, meaning that if you don't succumb to dehydration, it will end in about a week without any treatment. You should seek medical help urgently; in the meantime, start re-hydration therapy with oral re-hydration salts. You may need antibiotic treatment with tetracycline, but fluid replacement is the single most important treatment strategy in cholera. Prevention is by taking basic food and water precautions, avoiding seafood and having scrupulous personal hygiene. The currently available vaccine is not thought worthwhile as it provides only limited protection for a short time)
Time Zone: GMT/UTC +8 (Beijing Time.)
Dialling Code: 86
Electricity: 220V ,50Hz
Weights & measures: Metric
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Chinese New Year (or Spring Festival) starts on the first day of the lunar calendar, which usually falls in February. Although it officially lasts only three days, many people take a week off. Ear plugs are handy at this time to dull the firecracker assaults, and prices of hotel rooms tend to go through the roof. The Lantern Festival isn't a public holiday, but it's big and it's colourful. It falls on the 15th day of the 1st moon (around mid-February to mid-March) and marks the end of the New Year celebrations. The famous lion dances occur throughout this period. Tomb Sweeping Day is in April, and sees Chinese families spend the day tending the graves of departed loved ones. Hong Kong hosts one of the liveliest annual Chinese celebrations - the Dragon Boat Festival. Usually held in June, the festival honours the poet Qu Yuan and features races between teams in long ornate canoes. Many Westerners take part in the races, but plenty of practice is needed to get all the paddles working as one.
Special prayers are held at Buddhist and Taoist temples on full-moon and sliver-moon days. Temple and moon-based festivities include Guanyin's Birthday (late March to late April), Mazu's Birthday (May or June), Water-Splashing Festival (mid-April), Ghost Month (late August to late September), Mid-Autumn Festival (September or October) and the Birthday of Confucius (28 September).
1 Jan - New Year's Day
Feb - Chinese New Year/Spring Festival
8 Mar - International Women's Day
1 May - International Labour Day
4 May - Youth Day
1 Jun - International Children's Day
1 Jul - Birthday of the Chinese Communist Party
1 Aug - Anniversary of the founding of the PLA
1 Oct - National Day
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|Best time to Visit
Spring (March-April) and autumn (September-October) are the best times to visit China. Daytime temperatures range from 20°C to 30°C (68°F-86°F) in these seasons - but bear in mind that nights can still be bitterly cold and it can sometimes be wet and miserable. Major public holidays, in particular Chinese New Year, are best avoided as it's difficult to get around and/or find accommodation.
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|Currency / Costs / Approx. Spending
Currency: Renminbi ('People's Money')
All four- and five-star hotels and some top-end restaurants add a tax or 'service charge' of 10% or 15%, which extends to the room and food; all other consumer taxes are included in the price tag.
Generally, eastern China is much more expensive than the western part of the country. Visitors to eastern China could get by on around USD50.00 a day, but it would be a challenge. Budget travellers in western China should be able to keep costs down to USD25.00 per day. The main drain on savings tends to be long train journeys. Food is cheap throughout China, and if you're careful you won't have to spend much more than USD7.00 a day on meals. However, the bottom line is that you'll be charged the 'tourist price' a lot of the time - it's a practice encouraged by the government.
Tipping is not really expected in mainland China.
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If your visions of Beijing are centred around pods of Maoist revolutionaries in buttoned-down tunics performing taichi in Tiananmen Square, put them to rest: this city has embarked on a new millennium rollercoaster and it's taking the rest of China with it.
The spinsterish Beijing of old is having a facelift and the cityscape is changing daily. Within the city, however, you'll still find some of China's most stunning sights: the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace, Temple of Heaven Park, the Lama Temple and the Great Wall, to name just a few.
Hong Kong has the big city specials like smog, odour, 14 million elbows and an insane love of clatter. But it's also efficient, hushed and peaceful: the transport network is excellent, the shopping centres are sublime, and the temples and quiet corners of parks are contemplative oases.
Hong Kong has enough towering urbanity, electric streetscapes, enigmatic temples, commercial fervour and cultural idiosyncrasies to utterly swamp the senses of a visitor, and enough spontaneous, unexpected possibilities to make a complete mockery of any attempt at a strictly organised itinerary.
Macau may be firmly back in China's orbit, but the Portuguese patina on this Sino-Lusitanian Las Vegas makes it a most unusual Asian destination. It has always been overshadowed by its glitzy near-neighbour Hong Kong - which is precisely why it's so attractive.
Macau's dual cultural heritage is a boon for travellers, who can take their pick from traditional Chinese temples, a spectacular ruined cathedral, pastel villas, old forts and islands that once harboured pirates. A slew of musuems will tell you how it all came about.
Shanghai is a scintillating city bristling with rapid cultural change. Since market restrictions were lifted, Shanghai has embraced the forces of business and design and rewritten its m.o., shaping a fresh, new city that is sophisticated, innovative and living a life it has never lived before.
In many ways, Shanghai is a Western invention. The Bund, its riverside area, and Frenchtown are the best places to see the remnants of its decadent colonial past. Move on to temples, gardens, bazaars and the striking architecture of the new Shanghai.
Xi'an was once a major crossroads on the trading routes from eastern China to central Asia, and vied with Rome and later Constantinople for the title of greatest city in the world. Today Xi'an is one of China's major drawcards, largely because of the Army of Terracotta Warriors on the city's eastern outskirts. Uncovered in 1974, over 10,000 figures have been sorted to date. Soldiers, archers (armed with real weapons) and chariots stand in battle formation in underground vaults looking as fierce and war-like as pottery can. Xi'an's other attractions include the old city walls, the Muslim quarter and the Banpo Neolithic Village - a tacky re-creation of the Stone Age.
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