Taking any China adventure tour is like travelling through the centuries of history that have shaped this historic land, while at the same time witnessing the rapid rate of which the modern face of China is changing. Our extensive China adventure tours give you the chance to explore the capital, Beijing, then hike along the famous Great Wall of China located several hours outside the city.
Take your own slow boat in China on a cruise down the Yangtze. You could also visit the tallest stone Buddha statue in the world on a China adventure tour and explore picturesque rural towns with friendly locals. Visit some of China’s best highlights such as the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square and the Terracotta Warriors. You can also discover a piece of Tibetan culture in Lhasa and take in fantastic views of the stunning Himalayas. So join Tucan Travel on your China adventure tour and experience this amazing country through the locals’ eyes with our knowledgeable guides!
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China Travel Articles, Inspiration & Information
CEO of Tucan Travel, Matt Gannan in China
CEO of Tucan Travel, Matt Gannan, travelled to China. Here he describes his experience of exploring Shanghai, and some of the unmissable sights in this vibrant city. Read more
Sights of Asia: The Great Wall of China
The Great Wall of China is one of the country's biggest highlights. Our CEO Matt Gannan explains what it was like visiting this world wonder during the winter. Read more
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China Travel Guide
China Travel Guide
Owing to its immense size, travel in China can be both diverse and a little intimidating and it's sometimes hard to know where to start when planning an itinerary. There are a plethora of natural treasures including forests of splintered stone pinnacles, thick sub-tropical jungle, deep gorges, vast sandy deserts, verdant rice paddies and famous rivers. Historically, China is one of the oldest nations in the world and relics such as the Great Wall and Terracotta Warriors attract tourists from all corners of the globe. As one of the most developed countries in Asia, China also offers creature comforts in its modern cities and shopping in Shanghai and Hong Kong is particularly highly regarded. In a country that is still finding a balance between modernity and traditional culture, a visit to China will feel like a snapshot in time with the sense that should you revisit in a few year's time you will discover it has reinvented itself once again.
Everywhere except Hong Kong and Macau, the Chinese currency is called the yuan (symbol: ¥) and is also informally referred to as the renminbi which means 'the people's money'. Notes come in 1, 5, 10, 20, 50 and 100 yuan denominations. A yuan breaks down into 10 jiao (or mao) and the most common coins in circulation are 1 yuan, 5 jiao and 1 jiao. In Hong Kong they use the Hong Kong dollar which breaks down into 100 cents, and in Macau they use the pataca which breaks down into 100 avos.
ATMs will generally allow up to 2,500 to 3,000 yuan (about US$400-500) maximum withdrawal at a time depending on the location and bank. ATM’s can be found almost everywhere in major cities and main banks such as Bank of China, China Construction Bank and Industrial and Commercial Bank of China will have machines that accept international cards. Other smaller banks may not although this is quickly changing. If travelling outside of a large city it is recommended to take enough cash to cover your journey in the event you are unable to use your card.
China is expensive compared to the rest of Asia, particularly when it comes to entrance fees and accommodation. Food can be inexpensive depending on where you eat and there are plenty of open-fronted eateries offering local fare starting from 20-40 yuan per dish, as well as street stands offering cheap snacks. Fancier restaurants will cost more and you can expect to pay similar to what you would in a European or North American restaurant.
In markets you are expected to haggle unless prices are clearly displayed, although Chinese shoppers will generally just state the price they are willing to pay rather than starting low and negotiating up. In most other scenarios, prices are fixed and non-negotiable. Tipping in China is almost non-existent although mid to higher-end restaurants may add a service charge to your bill. Other services including taxis, hotel staff and cheap restaurants to do expect you to tip. If you’re pleased with the service, you should tip your guide and the driver if appropriate, at the end of a tour.
Major Cities and Towns in China
There is no clear route to follow when travelling in China and it is best to look at what interests you most – be it modern cities, history and traditional culture or natural landscapes – and plan your visit around your interests. Beijing, the country's capital, is a modern sprawling city with many attractions, including the Olympic park, the Forbidden City and the nearby Great Wall of China, not to mention lovely parks and palaces, and could quite easily keep a traveller entertained for a week or more, although most allow just a few days. Along the coast, Hong Kong and Shanghai shine as two of the most modern and decadent cities and Shanghai's neighbouring Suzhou with its history and picturesque canals is one of the country's biggest tourist draws. Xi'an in the Shaanxi province is often seen as little more than a jumping off point for the Terracotta Army. Although its sprawling tower blocks do not make it instantly endearing, the city was the imperial capital for 11 dynasties and evidence of this is still apparent in its city walls, bell and drum towers and old town. Guilin has a relaxed, carnival-like atmosphere and scenic setting as it wraps itself around the banks of the Li River and surrounding foliage-draped cliffs. Chengdu is home to the internationally-renowned Panda breading research centre and is also a jumping off point for visiting the holy mountain at Emei Shan and Leshan's giant carved Buddha. While you're there, enjoy some classic Sichuanese cooking, if you can stand the heat. The Yunnan capital of Kunming has a distinctly more relaxed atmosphere compared to the rest of China's cities and the surrounding countryside is home to much of the country's ethnic minorities giving it a diverse and vibrant cultural heritage.
Electricity in China tends to run on 220 volts and they mostly use a dual flat prong outlet such as that most commonly found in Australia, New Zealand and Argentina. Some hotels also have multi plugs that will take various plug pin sizes but it is best to take a universal adaptor and cover your bases. In Hong Kong they favour the UK-style square triple prong plug.
Etiquette and Culture
92% of China's population are ethnic Chinese, also referred to as 'Han Chinese'. The other 8 percent are made up by the 55 minority groups that are found in China, most of which live in the western half of the country. Traditional religion is in fact a melding of three religions – Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism – which is sometimes expressed in the phrase san jiao fa yi, 'three teachings flow into one'. Chinese are not overly religious, but are often quite superstitious and you may see lucky symbols outside homes and businesses and symbolic use of colour such as red which is considered auspicious and white which represents death or mourning.
When using chopsticks, do not use them to point or gesture at others and do not stand them upright in your food as this resembles the burning of incense symbolising death. If you are invited into someone's home, take a small gift such as a bottle of spirits or tea as a polite gesture. When being introduced it is considered disrespectful to introduce yourself; you should wait to be introduced, stand up, smile and look at the person, before shaking their hand in greeting.
As the world's third largest country, China's landscapes are vast and impressive, encompassing everything from over 18,000 kms of coastline to craggy mountains and barren desert. Roughly speaking the east can be characterised by plains, hills and river deltas and the west by mountains and high plateaus, as well as desert landscapes to the north and sub-tropical forest in the south west. Mountains, foothills and plateaus make up almost two-thirds of the country in a sort of ladder-topology that starts lowers in the east and increases in altitude to the west. This geography has meant the majority of the population live in the eastern half of the country. China is also characterised by its natural landmarks including the Yangtze River, Asia's longest river, and the Yellow River, both of which are important for transport, ferrying and surrounding agriculture.
China has a fascinating and tumultuous history which is one of its major draws for travellers. Early history is divided up into dynasties and artefacts and buildings are identified by the dynasty in power at the time of their creation.
Earliest of these periods was the Three Dynasties from 2100 BC to 771 BC which was made up of the consecutive Xia, Shang and Zhou dynasties. The Zhou established their capital in Xi'an and introduced the doctrine of the 'Mandate of Heaven' which states that heaven grants or removes the right for leaders to rule over their subjects with its favour. This mandate would provide the impetus for many of China's uprisings and rebellions in years to follow, right up to modern days.
The Zhou dynasty descended into violence at the start of what is referred to as the Spring and Autumn and the Warring States period, with hundreds of city states and kingdoms battling for power and territory. The unsettled politics of the time gave rise to ethical thinking and Confucianism and Taoism were both born of this era. War was also a catalyst for industrial advancement; iron-working was developed, more sophisticated methods of agriculture, irrigation and transport were invented and discoveries in astronomy, medicine and mathematics were made.
The Warring States period was brought to an end in 221 BC by the Qin dynasty (221 – 207 BC) who were only in power for a mere 14 years. The Qin armies united China in one centralised state for the first time in its history, making Qin Shi Huang the first Chinese emperor. His rule was brutal and absolute and he drove many peasants off their land to work on large state projects such as the Terracotta Army and the first version of the Great Wall. When he died, his heirs could not keep the empire together leading to rebellion and the beginning of the Han dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD).
The Han dynasty lasted some four hundred years and during its rule experienced rejuvenated culture and expansion. Owing to its success and longevity, it became part of the Chinese identity and to this day many Chinese people will refer to themselves as 'Han Chinese'. Learning from the mistakes of the Qin dynasty and to avoid further rebellion, Liu Bang, the founder of the Han dynasty, decentralised some of the empire's power, entrusting areas of land to relatives which ensured a period of stability, taxation and wealth. His successors opened up trade along the Silk Road and Confucianism became an institution within the civil service. Eventually however, the state became overstretched and so began over a decade of civil war which would tear the empire asunder.
The Three Kingdoms period (220 – 581) followed, when the three states of Wei, Wu and Shu struggled to regain control of the splintered empire. War ravaged central China. Buddhism arrived from India and was assimilated and adapted to suit native beliefs and the Confucian concept of a centralised universal order remained integral to the ruling classes.
General Yang Jian (Emperor Wen) of the Sui dynasty (581 – 618) united the divided northern states before conquering southern China to reform China. During his reign he simplified and strengthened centralised power, military authority and bureaucracy and created a new legal code. His heir, Yang Di, is best known for the forced labour he employed to complete the 2000 km Grand Canal from southern Yanzi to Xi'an where over 2 million people were believed to have died.
Medieval China (618 – 1271) was defined by the Tang dynasty and was a time where literature, art, music and agriculture blossomed. Traders and travellers from all corners were welcomed and Islamic and Indian influences found their way into Chinese society. Buddhism remained the greatest foreign influence and many Chinese pilgrims travelled to India. During this time, China's only empress, Wu Zetian ruled. She was a great patron of Buddhist art and commissioned the famed Longmen carvings outside Luoyang.
Wu Zetian's successor was to be the end of the Tang dynasty due in part to his infatuation with beautiful concubine Yang Guifei. What followed was the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms periods when, once again, China was split into short, ineffective dynasties and splintered states. The Song dynasty (960 – 1271) consolidated some of the kingdom but weakened northern defences allowed for the Mongolian invasion by Ghengis Khan. The Yuan Dynasty (1271 – 1368) was formed by the Mongolians under Kublai Khan, Ghengis Khan's grandson, with their capital at Khanbalik, or modern Beijing. Venetian explorer Marco Polo served at Kublai Khan's government and his writings of China are all from this time.
Famine and floods marked the end of the Yuan dynasty and the Ming dynasty (1368 – 1644) followed. Their policy of isolationism saw China miss out on much of the world's trade opportunities, the opening up of sea routes and expansion of territory led by the Europeans. A series of uprisings against the Ming dynasties which culminated in the last emperor hanging himself allowed the Qing dynasty (1644 – 1911) led by the invading Manchus from the north to take power.
China's refusal to take part in trade agreements with the British led to the East India Company creating a clandestine market, paying for products with opium imported from India. When demand for the drug led much of the country's tea and silver to drain out of the country, the emperor confiscated thousands of chests of opium leading to the Opium Wars between the two powers which China eventually lost, facing humiliating terms including the cession of Hong Kong.
Anti-Manchu sentiment led to the Taiping Uprising which left 20 million people dead before if was quashed. Decades later, the anti-foreign Boxer Movement began which rebelled against foreign infiltration of the Chinese culture, slaughtering missionaries and Christian converts. This marked the beginning of the end for the Qing dynasty which in turn marked the end of dynastic China.
A republic was formed and government duly elected, but almost immediately ran into trouble. In 1921 after World War I, the Chinese Communist Party was founded in Beijing and despite various attempts to suppress the movement, the Red Army was formed (mostly of peasants and miners) leading to the Autumn Harvest uprising, which though initially successful was eventually turned back leading to the Long March, an epic 9500 km retreat to safety.
Japan invaded and occupied much of China during World War II, forcing the republicans and communists into an uneasy truce. By the time the war ended, the Red Army was close to one million strong and had a widespread following and they rose up to take power as the newly named People's Liberation Army. Under Mao Zedong, China became communist. In the late 1950s The Great Leap Forward saw farmland pooled into communes, industry was driven by seasonally employed workers and propaganda promised a single great leap forward which would see China match other world powers. Due to mismanagement, peasant dissatisfaction and failed harvests, the movement was a disaster.
Mao sought to regain his authority with the Cultural Revolution where students organised themselves into political militia, called the Red Guard, with four enemies – old ideas, old culture, old customs and old habits. This led to widespread destruction of monuments and temples, burning of books and harassment of the academia. Anything Western was destroyed. The violence got out of control and Mao was forced to round up and arrest much of the Red Guard.
Mao died in September 1976 and the move away from Mao's policies was rapid. China's new leader Deng Xiaoping, introduced an 'open door' policy bringing new social freedoms and increasing Westernisation. Despite this, political reform and freedom of speech remained unrealised and in 1989 demonstrations in Tian'anmen Square led to a vicious crackdown by the government killing hundreds and perhaps thousands of people.
Best time to travel in China
Given its size it is no surprise that China's weather and seasons are particularly diverse. Southern China is subtropical experiencing wet, humid summers between April and September and a typhoon season between July and September. They have short, chilly winters from January to March.
Central China has short, cold winters and long, hot and humid summers with high rainfall throughout the year. The central Yangtze cities of Chongqing, Wuhan and Nanjing are referred to as China's 'furnaces'.
Northern China, including Beijing, has cold winters which may not rise above freezing between December and March and hot summers that may get 30-plus degree celsius days. Inner Mongolia and the desert terrain of the far north-west gets clear, dry cold winters with temperatures below zero and hot summers. Due to its higher altitude, Tibet's summers are not as hot as the rest of China and can be pleasantly warm and dry.
When to travel
There are several factors when deciding on the best time to visit China and it largly depends on the area you wish to visit and what you want to get out of your trip. For most areas except Tibet, spring (April-May) and autumn (September-October) are ideal times to visit for weather, as it avoids the high rainfall and humidity that affects much of China during the summer, as well as the biting cold of winter. In addition, autumn has the advantage of colourful foliage, and several areas in China are considered particularly striking at this time of year such as the Jiuzhaigou Valley in Chengdu and the hills surrounding the Great Wall north of Beijing. Given the pleasant climate of these times, they are also peak tourist season and sites will be at their busiest during these seasons.
Of course, there are advantages to travelling in winter as well; there are several ski fields around Beijing, including one near the Badaling section of the Great Wall of China, and hot springs that can be visited. City attractions will be quieter which, in a nation with a thriving domestic tourist market, can be quite a draw. Chinese Lunar New Year falls each year in January or early February and is the biggest and most important festival of the year, lasting half a month and offering a chance to experience local cultural traditions. Harbin, located in the far north-east of the country, has a famous ice festival every year in January and February with hand carved, full-sized ice castles, temples, arches and stairways.
Summer too, has its draws. Tibet is ideally visited during the mid-summer months (January-February) due to its higher altitude compared to the rest of the country. Throughout the rest of China prices drop in the shoulder season, which runs from late March through April and from June through August, except the summer holidays in July. In summer do as the emperors did and head for the hills. Locations such as Chengde summer palace and Emei Shan mountain in the Sichuan province allow respite from the heat and China's Yunnan province in the west enjoys year-round spring-like weather.
Guide to food in China
Sampling the local food is a true highlight of any visit to China and they arguably have one of the world's greatest cuisines. Fresh ingrediants abound and you will often see your dinner still swimming (or jumping) in tanks and buckets lined up on the footpath outside each restaurant. Although some dishes are ubiquitous throughout the country, each province has its own specialty and variations, so be sure to try different foods as you travel from place to place. In the south rice is the common grain and can be found in bun, noodle and dumpling form. In the north, wheat is more prevalent and used in buns and noodles.
Pork is the most common form of meat, although you will find the Chinese eat almost any meat including bull frog and snake and almost every part of the animal including heads and feet, so there are plenty of opportunity to expand your tastebuds and experience something new. Dairy products do not feature greatly in Chinese cuisine and lactose intolerence is very common. Eggs are used however and are a popular nation-wide snack. The famous 'thousand-year-old' egg is actually preserved for several months in ash and straw and its brown-green appearance can be off-putting although it has a delicate, salty taste.
Vegetables and served with nearly every dish and soya beans are another common ingrediant throughout all of China. Some dishes that are worth putting on your 'to eat' list include:
Peking Roast Duck
A famous Beijing dish which is savoured for its thin and crispy skin. It is often served sliced and served with pancakes, sweet bean sauce, or soy sauce and mashed garlic.
These steamed, filled buns cooked in circular bamboo dishes are all over China and make a tasty snack or light meal. Also known as bao, bau, humbow, bausak, pow or pau, there are many varieties and fillings, the most popular being pork mince. Unfilled buns are also available and are called mantou.
Dim Sum (also known as Yum Cha)
A famous Cantonese food prepared as small, bite-sized portions often served with hot tea. Dim Sum can include any number of dishes but the most popular are tiny buns, dumplings, rice noodle rolls, roast meats, steamed vegetables and congee porridge.
Sichuanese hot pot
This famous local dish involves a pot of stew or flavoured stock simmering in the centre of the table where you cook various ingrediants of your choosing including vegetables, meat and dumplings. Considered a social event to be lingered over, hot pot restaurants can be recognised by distinctive, often built-in elements in the centre of the table to hold the hot pot.
Lamian (hand-pulled Chinese noodles)
While noodles are everywhere in China in many forms, the best and freshest variety takes place in noodle restaurants where they are hand-pulled to order in front of your eyes. Lamian is made by stretching and folding dough into long strands in a process that resembles weaving as much as it does cooking. Restaurants can be identified by the usually stainless steel workbenches with large reserved of noodle dough and noodles can be served in a variety of sauces or broths with various vegetables and meat.
Top Attractions and Highlights in China
1. The Great Wall of China
The largest man-made structure on earth, set in verdant rolling hills, the Great Wall is a sight to behold and there are several locations along the wall where you can visit. Take in the easier spots where toboggan rides and gondolas make the journey less arduous, or step out to some of the more remote locations where hiking along the crumbling walls gives you a feeling of history and isolation.
2. Terracotta Army, Xi'an
Built by the founder of the short-lived Qin dynasty in around 210 BC, this vast army remained undisturbed until peasants uncovered the site when digging a well in 1974. Sunk into earth pits and protected by vast hangers, you can visit these silent warriors in their original location. They were built to protect and serve the emperor in the afterlife and each warrior has distinct facial features, some believing they were modeled on actual soldiers of the time.
3. Cruising down the Yangtze River
Take a cruise through the Three Gorges on the Yangtze River from Chongqing to Yichang, a famous journey that has been immortalised in books and movies alike. This multi-day journey will take you through grandiose scenery, stopping in at riverside settlements and historic sites along the way.
4. Tiger Leaping Gorge, Yunnan
A picturesque, steep-side canyon in the far western Yunnan province, this is believed to offer China's best hiking opportunities where you can visit welcoming homestays along the way.
5. Hong Kong's central skyline
An ex-British colony, Hong Kong retains its currency and much of its culture from its colonial heritage, although it is still distinctly Chinese . With its colossal array of shops and restaurants offering an extensive array of cuisine, Hong Kong is an urban dream. Take a twilight trip to the Peak for views of the sweeping harbour and city lights.
6. The Silk Road
An ancient trading route linking China with Central Asia and beyond. Trek through deserts on camel back visiting oases that have served merchants and travellers for hundreds of years. Monasteries, stupas and grottoes dot the road from China's early Buddhism.
7. Dali and Lijiang
Travel to the heart of China's ethnic minorities in these two old towns in the Yunnan province. Lijiang was the capital of the Naxi kingdom and its picturesque surroundings of fields, pine forests and mountains make its historic cobbled streets all the more charming. 150kms south is the old town of Dali where indigenous Bai people trade and live alongside other ethnic groups.
8. The Bund, Shanghai
A skyline that it instantly recognisable, no visit to Shanghai is complete without viewing and multiple picture-taking of the Bund, a strip neoclassical colonial buildings along the west bank of the Huangpu River.
9. Guilin and the Li River
Bordered by towering limestone kaarsts, the Li River meanders through some of China's most dramatic scenery. Cruise between Guilin and Yangshou through the best of the scenery and watch traditional fishermen on their bamboo rafts use comorants to hunt for fish.
10. Giant Buddha, Leshan
More than one thousand years ago, carvers built the giant Buddha overlooking the waters of the convergence of the Qingyi, Min and Dadu rivers. At 71 metres tall it is the world's largest Buddhist sculpture and took 90 years to complete.
10 Interesting Facts about China
1. China is the most populous nation on earth with over 1.35 billion people.
2. It is the third largest country by total area including all land and water surfaces, after Russia and Canada. If calculating by land area only (excluding areas covered by water) China becomes the fourth largest country in the world after the United States of America.
3. In recent years, China has come under global pressure as the world's largest producer and consumer of coal and has four of the world's 10 most polluted cities.
4. Throughout China, pairs of carved stone or bronze guardian lions are often placed at the entrance of palaces, restaurants, banks or civil buildings, one female restraining a playful cub under her paw and one male with an embroidered ball under its paw. This tradition goes back as far as the Han dynasty and they were believed to have mythical protective powers.
5. Mt Everest's summit straddles the border separating Nepal and China in the Mahalangur section of the Himalayas.
6. China has the second largest economy in the world after the United States of America.
7. China successfully sent a person into space in 2003, making it the third country in the world to do so.
8. At 5,500 miles long, the Great Wall of China is considered the largest man-made structure on earth
9. China has an extensive railway network which, with 93,000km of track, could wrap around the Earth twice.
10. Over 30 million people live in caves, most of whom live in the Shaanxi province. That's more than the entire population of Australia.