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About China

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This page serves two purposes. First, it provides some very basic information about the country. Second, it will give you an idea of what to expect while traveling here. If you are seriously considering visiting China, it needs to read in full. Our Pre Departure Packet will provide a complete breakdown geared to your particular trip.

China is not Europe. China is not North America, the Caribbean, or Australia for that matter. Traveling in China, outside the eastern cities of Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen, is closer to traveling in Peru, Turkey, Cambodia, or Rwanda than it is to traveling in Belgium, Hungary, or Costa Rica. It is a developing country and is just now emerging onto the global stage. And just as the Western countries went through their development pains, China is going through them now.

Everyone envisions their own China, from the gown-wearing, pony-tailed Qing Dynasty mandarins to the Mao-jacketed, bike-riding masses each with a little red book in his hand. If you come to China, with preconceived opinions and unrealistic expectations, you will probably be ready for a flight back in four days. But if you approach each travel day with an openness, curiosity, and a positive attitude, China can be an experience of a lifetime.

Hotels

Hotels in China are relatively expensive compared to other developing countries. Low-end accommodations for backpackers are extremely rare even in the large cities. At the other end, international five-star hotel prices resemble prices found in London, Manhattan, and Paris.

Unlike many western countries, the "star" classification system in China is rather opaque. One can never be sure what one is getting solely relying on the number of stars. This is especially true once you get away from the recognizable international brands. In fact, more than a few three-star hotel rooms offer the same accoutrements and are better maintained than some five-star rooms. The difference is usually found in the number of restaurants, karaoke bars, massage rooms, meeting rooms, "fitness centers", etc. Many times the fancy lobby masks the average quality guest rooms.

The typical Chinese hotel room will feature air-conditioning, two twin beds, television (5-stars will have BBC, CNN International, and Star), telephone, small desk with chair(s), and some form of hot water for tea, whether it is a thermos or a water heater. It will have a western-style toilet and shower. Some rooms have baths, some don't. Some have one double bed in lieu of two twins, most don't. Rollaway beds are very common.

Even most two-stars will have a fax machine and some way to dial international numbers. If it doesn't have an internet connection on-site, you can be assured one is close by. Usually there is an attendant (invariably a young girl) on each floor.

Food

Actually eating authentic Chinese food is one of the highlights on any visit to China. About the only resemblance between "westernized" Chinese food and the fare on the mainland is the rice. The array of dishes is simply mind-boggling. Even a small "snack" restaurant can easily offer 100 to 200 different dishes.

The secret to unlocking the treasure of Chinese cuisine is simple. Don't ask. If a dish looks good or has been recommended, try it. If you like it, continue. If you don't, stop eating and try something else. After you've sampled a dish, then inquire as to the ingredients. To do otherwise is to limit your experience and will leave you in a constant state of anxiety every mealtime. Be adventurous. Live!

Vegetarians could have difficulties. Although the bulk of the Chinese diet is vegetables, most dishes contain a little meat or are not cooked with pure vegetable oil. True vegetarian restaurants are few and far between. Likewise those on special diets might want to consider taking a reprieve while visiting. If you are a picky eater, consider packing a lot of snacks.

Oh, and getting proficient with a set of chopsticks will greatly help.

Money

The currency of China is the renminbi (RMB). The main denomination is the Yuan. Until June, 2005, the RMB was non-convertible. It now trades against a small basket of foreign currencies. It is currently set at 1 Yuan to 8.1 US$. But there is an increasing call from China's trading partners to revalue it even higher. The paper currency comes in bills of 1, 2, 5, 10, 20, 50, and 100 Yuan denominations. The Yuan is sub-divided into 10 jiao, and each jiao is then sub-divided into 10 fen. But these are essentially worthless.

Major foreign currencies are easily converted into RMB at airports, upscale hotels, and the Bank of China. Travelers checks may be cashed at the Bank of China as well. ATM machines are slowly being integrated into the banking system, however only three banks will accept foreign bank cards, with Bank of China being the largest. Unfortunately, credit cards, both foreign and domestic are not widely accepted. It is still mainly a cash economy on the mainland.

Conversely, any currency in the world can be converted in Hong Kong and cash-dispensing machines are literally everywhere.

Contrary to what you may have heard, tipping is not expected in China and it is very uncommon for the Chinese to do so. However, if someone has really gone out of the way, it would not be inappropriate to offer a few Yuan in appreciation.

Shopping

There are so great bargains in China. Here are two things you need to know about shopping here—bargain hard and know what you're buying. Many high-quality products are manufactured on the mainland, but most are for export. The look-alike junk finds its way onto the street markets and it is sometimes difficult to tell the difference.

Jade, handicrafts, silk, pearls, and knock-off everything are but a few of the bargains. Electronics are not. Imported video, audio, cameras, computers, and handhelds are still subject to stiff tariffs. Some of the Chinese products are relatively cheap, but the warranties are worthless outside of the mainland. If you think you may pick up some silk, jade, or other precious stones, do some research before you go.

Prices in upscale shops are usually not negotiable but elsewhere, especially when buying tourist souvenirs, expect to bargain. The shop owner or clerk will start the process with a price somewhere in the stratosphere. But don't be surprised if you end up paying one-tenth of the original asking price. Haggling should be done good-naturedly and it is poor etiquette not to buy the items if your price is met.

Weather and Planning

China covers a large landmass, so the weather varies greatly. The winter is extremely cold in the north, including Beijing. At the same time it is extremely dry. The south can feel a lot colder than the temperature indicates because of the higher humidity. The summers in the north are hot and humid and in the south it resembles a sub-tropical climate. Spring, between mid-March and May, and fall, September and October, are usually good times to plan a trip. More specific information can be found at various weather websites on the internet.

The three major holidays are Spring Festival (falling in late January to mid February), Labor Day (May 1), and National Day (October 1). In 1999, the government converted the two latter dates into week-long holidays. The transportation system goes into overload status and it feels as if the entire country is on one gigantic Haj. But the weather's good, so if you don't mind a few more elbows and longer lines?/p>

Language

There are about 50 different languages or dialects spoken in China . The official language is Mandarin (putonghua) and is spoken by most people. In the south, Cantonese is the main language but many people understand Mandarin, thanks largely to a government campaign to make Mandarin the mainstream language.

It is a difficult language to learn. It is tonal and some words can have up to 20 meanings. The written language is a form of ideographs dating back thousands of years and it can take years to learn. Outside of the large cities, English-speakers are hard to find although the entire country is on a massive program to have citizens that come into contact with foreigners learn at least a little English. Too often, it seems the learning stops at “hello?

However, it is possible to learn a few expressions to make yourself understood. The locals appreciate even the slightest effort to speak the “putonghua?

Travelers with Disabilities

Disabled travelers will face a considerable challenge traveling in China. The infrastructure is poor in the cities and non-existent outside of them. It isn't impossible, but it takes considerable planning.

Traveling with Children

Traveling with children in China poses no more problem than traveling with children anywhere else. Parents would do well to spend some time educating them prior to the trip. Be sure to bring along time-occupiers (books, games, etc.) for the actual in-country travel.

Annoyances

There are a few aspects of Chinese culture that many visitors find, well, irksome. Topping the list has to be smoking. Smoking, next to eating and ping-pong, seem to be the national pastime. Particularly annoying is the smoking in restaurants. Some establishments are beginning to offer non-smoking sections. Well, actually one we know about. It's not going change any time soon, so you'll just have to grin and bear it or move to a different table.

A close second is the propensity for spitting. The government made spitting in public against the law after the SARS outbreak in 2003. Compliance is still lagging.

Of course, China has many annoyances found in other countries such as beggars, prostitutes (especially in hotels), line-jumpers, noise, pollution, etc. Part of the exasperation stems from the fact there are just so many people in China, period. Observe it, acknowledge it, and then move on.

For more information about China, see our Tour Information page and the FAQs.

See China for yourself!


rev 1/2009