The Daily Telegraph - China: a beginner's guide
November 24, 2012

China is a country that demands to be seen, but a first trip can be daunting. Our expert Michelle Jana Chan offers advice on how to ease yourself in – whether you want to explore Chinese history or glimpse the future.


Why go
With its high-octane energy, can-do drive, teeming population and challenging language barrier, China can be an exhausting destination for the first-time visitor. Common complaints I have heard from tourists include: “It’s so crowded –everyone’s pushing and shoving”; “We couldn’t make ourselves understood”; and “We needed another holiday after that trip”.
The best piece of advice I can give is to avoid trying to cram too much in. This is a massive country and smart travellers will winnow down their must-see list to a select few destinations. Approached wisely, China is as uplifting as it is intriguing. It is also an essential stop for anyone hoping to learn more about the direction the world is taking this century.
Some travel to China to marvel at the skylines of cranes, innovative architectural projects and the country’s artistic endeavours. They should head to the financial and commercial hub of Shanghai, as well as to Beijing’s Olympic Village and the capital’s contemporary art district, called (after a factory) 798.
Others will be keen to learn more about China’s 5,000-year-old civilisation. That is best viewed through the country’s museums and monuments, from the first emperor’s Terracotta Warriors in Xi’an to Beijing’s Forbidden City, which served as the imperial palace from the Ming dynasty until the end of the Qing dynasty. However, be aware that these must-see attractions, including Beijing’s Summer Palace and the Temple of Heaven, and the sections of the Great Wall closest to the capital (notably Badaling), are often the most crowded.
For the adventurous, there are less well-known – and less crowded – sites, such as the Buddhist caves at Dunhuang, the charming former capitals of Luoyang and Kaifeng, and the great Taklamakan Desert in the far north-west. Some of China’s exceptional but less frequented museums include Shaanxi History Museum, Xi’an Museum and the Museum of Han Yangling (all three are in or close to Xi’an), as well as Zhejiang Provincial Museum.
Those who come seeking glimpses of daily life should plan a slower-paced trip building in time to walk the city streets and explore the parks. This will naturally allow for unplanned pauses: at the threshold, say, of moon-shaped gateways leading into courtyards of plum blossom; to hear a street busker playing the haunting two-stringed erhu; and to watch children cycling to school in immaculate blue-and-white uniforms.
My strongest suggestions for anyone planning a first trip to China are to incorporate a long train journey in order to mix with locals; to spend an afternoon at a traditional teahouse; and to visit a park in the early morning to watch locals practising tai chi, sing rousing Communist songs and pair up for ballroom dancing lessons. I believe it is experiences like these which may make for the most enduring memories of all.

When to go
The best weather is during spring (March until May, but avoid Easter) and autumn (late September to early November) but hotel rates are higher at those times. Prices are lower in the shoulder seasons: February/early June and September/late November/December.
Many will prefer to avoid the three main Chinese public holidays: Chinese New Year (also called Spring Festival, usually falling in late January or early February), May holiday (the first week of May) and National Day (the first week of October). Tourist attractions become very crowded at this time. In 2013 these holidays fall on the following dates: February 9-24 (Chinese New Year), May 1-3 (May holiday) and October 1-7 (National Day).
Some trips will be seasonal, such as those to catch the rhododendron valleys of Shangri-La in bloom, birdwatching in Napahai Lake and, for example, the Harbin Ice Festival.


Travellers often want to see both China’s ancient and modern culture. Beijing and Xi’an offer the best way to explore the imperial and revolutionary past; Shanghai presents a glimpse of the future. Those interested in the natural world should head to the southern and western provinces, and consider a Yangtze River cruise for a relaxing few days at the end of a trip.
For the adventurous traveller (who does not speak Mandarin Chinese) it is a challenge, but one to relish, to set off on an independent journey around China. Be prepared to use lots of hand signals and plenty of initiative.
At the top end, one can organise a private journey with a car, driver and English-speaking guide, and luxury accommodation en route. This allows for greater freedom of movement but often means less contact with locals. Another option is to join a guided tour of a small group. The drawback then may be a lack of spontaneity, but such tours often use local guesthouses and restaurants, which allow for greater cross-cultural exchange.

Ancient China: Beijing, Xi’an, Pingyao
Beijing’s star attractions are the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace, the Temple of Heaven and Tiananmen Square. The Great Wall is a day-trip to the north. Other newer destinations are the Olympic Village, and 798, a contemporary art district full of galleries, exhibition spaces and ateliers. An informed and inspiring private guide can vastly enrich any tour.
Try to build in a break from sightseeing, perhaps at a hot- springs resort close to the Great Wall. A trip to the Jinshanling section of the wall can be paired with the Jiuhua Hot Spring Spa Resort, which offers a variety of pools fed by a prehistoric underground lake. The five-star Chunhuiyuan Resort, close to the Mutianyu section of the wall, has both indoor and outdoor hot-spring pools.
From Beijing there is a new fast train (taking just under four hours) to Taiyuan, the jumping-off point for the 14th-century walled city of Pingyao. The country’s first bank was established here, and the town is lined with traditional hotels and classical tea-houses.
Pingyao is located halfway along the old trade route between Beijing and Xi’an, the latter a city that was the political centre of China for thousands of years. Xian’s top tourist draw is the Terracotta Army, but there are also beautiful pagodas there as well as Daoist and Buddhist temples, and a fascinating Muslim Quarter.

Shanghai-Suzhou-Hangzhou Triangle
Shanghai is China’s commercial heart, with the country’s best hotels, restaurants and shopping. Yet must-see attractions are not glaringly obvious. Visitors should stroll down the riverside Bund, explore the old colonial neighbourhoods, and wander among the boutiques and cafés of cobbled Xintiandi, a district of rebuilt traditional stone architecture called shikumen.
The best hotels in Shanghai include the historical Astor House, the Park Hyatt, with its shock-and-awe views, the Thirties-inspired Langham Yangtze and the contemporary PuLi Hotel & Spa.
Within striking distance of Shanghai are two wonderful day-trip destinations, Suzhou and Hangzhou, both reached by high-speed city trains. Suzhou is renowned for its classical Chinese gardens, and Hangzhou’s natural landscape and ancient tea plantations have been an inspiration for much of the country’s literature, art and religion.
Another possible trip from Shanghai is to Huangshan, the mountain peak often seen in classical Chinese painting. Visitors can trek to the summit up nearly 60,000 steps, some of which are more than 1,500 years old, or take a cable car.

Southern and western China
For anyone interested in the natural landscape rather than the urban environment this region offers some of China’s most beautiful countryside.
Guangxi and Guizhou provinces have dramatic limestone peaks and lush rice paddies, particularly along the banks of the Li river and around the villages of Yangshuo and Longji.
Farther south is Yunnan province, which is geographically and culturally close to Tibet. Worth a visit are the towns of Dali and Lijiang (home to the Naxi people, descendants of matriarchal Tibetan nomads).
Anyone keen on seeing Tibet itself can consider taking the “Roof of the World” train from Beijing; it moves across the world’s highest plateau and terminates in Lhasa, home to the Potala Palace, the chief residence of the Dalai Lama until the 1959 Tibetan uprising when the 14th Dalai Lama fled to India. Tourists keen to see Tibet should check the most recent regulations governing travel to the region.
Other popular options in this region include a visit to the Chengdu Panda Base in Sichuan province and a cruise on the Yangtze river through the Three Gorges.


There are direct flights taking approximately 12 hours from Britain to China on Air China (Beijing), British Airways (Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong), China Eastern (Shanghai), Virgin Atlantic (Shanghai, Hong Kong), China Southern (Guangzhou) and Cathay Pacific (Hong Kong). There are also connecting flights through the Gulf. Expect to pay from £700 for a return ticket in economy. You can generally fly into one city and out of another for no extra cost.

British nationals require a visa to enter mainland China but not Hong Kong or Macau. Visas must be obtained before arrival and take around four working days to process, costing about £66. They can be obtained from the China Visa Application Service Centre in London.
Travellers must have a passport valid for at least six months from the date of arrival and containing at least three pages for affixing visas. Children are no longer able to travel on a parent’s passport.
If your entry point is Lhasa, in Tibet, the visa must state Entry Place – Lhasa airport or Zhangmu (the border between Tibet and Nepal), or entry will be refused. It is possible to make a stopover in Hainan and Shanghai without a visa for stays of up to 48 hours. Beijing is also considering adopting the idea of offering visa-free stays of up to 72 hours.

A certificate of vaccination against yellow fever is compulsory for travellers arriving from infected areas. You may also want to consider the recommended immunisations, against: cholera, diphtheria, hepatitis A, hepatitis B, Japanese B encephalitis, malaria, TB, tetanus and typhoid. Malaria is present in some areas of China.


There has been a rapid growth in the number of international chain hotels operating in China and rooms can usually be booked directly online. Reservations may be less straightforward with smaller one-off hotels and guesthouses that do not have an online booking service and where receptionists may not speak English.


By air
China’s air network is extensive and airports are regularly being built and upgraded. On domestic flights, economy passengers usually have a free baggage allowance of 20kg and 5kg of hand luggage. Excess baggage charges can be steep.

By train
China has taken rail travel into the modern age with punctual high-speed networks crisscrossing the country. Although sometimes crowded, trains are a great way to mix with locals.
The ‘soft seats’ for day trains and ‘soft sleepers’ for overnight trains are the most comfortable. Soft sleeper has two tiers of two bunks in each compartment separated from the aisle by a door (with Western as well as Asian toilet facilities). For anyone who prefers to mix more with locals the ‘hard sleeper‘ option has a similarly comfortable bunk but the carriage is completely open with three tiers of bunks (the middle bunk is preferable). Mark Smith's rail website - - has excellent advice on what to expect when travelling on China’s railways.
Some particularly good rail routes include between Beijing and Shanghai (the express train takes just 4 hour and 45 minutes); Shanghai to Hangzhou; Shanghai to Suzhou; Beijing to Xi’an, and Chengdu to Chongqing.

On the ground
In Beijing, the best way to move around the back streets is on foot (for example, between the Temple of Heaven, Tian’anmen Square and the Forbidden City). Beijing and Shanghai both have excellent metro systems, which are user-friendly, cheap, quick and reliable. It is easy to hail a cab on the street. Taxis are metered, inexpensive and plentiful but few drivers speak English so it will be necessary to ask your concierge to write in Chinese characters your destination and the name of your hotel for the return journey. Note that traffic can become very congested in big cities particularly during rush hour.


Cultural challenges
Foreigners may attract stares from curious locals especially in rural areas where non-Chinese are not often seen. Spitting in the street is not considered rude or disrespectful. Smoking is common in public places including restaurants.

How to dress
The Chinese dress casually and modestly. Men rarely wear shorts except at beach locations. It is respectful for women to cover their shoulders and avoid wearing extremely short skirts and shorts, particularly when visiting temples -- when shoulders should also be covered and slip-off shoes are easiest. Wear comfortable walking shoes for long days of sightseeing, particularly if visiting the Great Wall.

Chinese cuisine
Each region of China has a different cuisine. In the north it is hearty, heavier food based around wheat rather than rice. Typical dishes include steamed dumplings, noodles, spring rolls and Peking duck, as well as Mongolian barbeque and hotpot. Shanghai boasts excellent seafood and the renowned xiaolongbao, a soup-filled steamed dumpling. In the west, the key ingredient in spicy Sichuanese food is fiery red chillies. The southern region around Guangdong is famed for Cantonese food and is home to dim sum.
Although vegetarianism is not widespread in China there are plenty of delicious vegetable and tofu dishes. Adventurous eaters should explore the night-time food markets with their busy stalls and lively atmosphere. Most eateries will not have English menus but guests can point at ingredients on display or at fellow guests‘ dishes.
One note: avoid planting chopsticks upwards in rice bowls as this is thought to resemble incense sticks and connotes death and mourning.

It is customary to tip guides, drivers and porters. A guideline amount is 100 Yuan per day for local guides, 50 Yuan per day for drivers and 5 Yuan per bag for porters. Tipping at hotels, restaurants and in taxis is discretionary (use 10 per cent as a guide). Some upmarket hotels and restaurants will have already added a service fee to your bill.
Local Chinese currency, the Renminbi (RMB) also known as the Yuan, can be withdrawn from cash machines. Credit cards are not always accepted.

Taking photographs
Ask permission before taking anyone’s photograph. Photography is often prohibited at airports, museums and military installations. Video camera fees are sometimes levied at tourist sights; charges vary but are minimal. On rare occasions there may also be a small charge for still cameras.


A head torch
Sunscreen and a sun hat
Insect repellent
Ear plugs and eyeshades for trains
An electric plug converter (in China, as in the US, most sockets are for two-pin plugs)
A mobile phone with roaming enabled
An iPad or tablet
Cutlery (for those who prefer a knife and fork to chopsticks)
Toilet paper for public WCs (and especially on trains)
Slip-off shoes (for temples) and comfortable walking shoes
A scarf (to cover exposed shoulders at temples)
Smart clothes, if you’re taking a Yangtze river cruise
Layers and waterproofs
Leave plenty of space in your suitcase for shopping (calligraphy scrolls, tea, ceramics, silks, fans, trinkets).


Lonely Planet has been publishing a China guide (£19.99) for nearly 30 years. The latest edition features new chapters on visiting the Great Wall and on train travel, as well as excellent maps. It can also be bought as a PDF e-book (£13.99) or by individual chapter (£2.99 per chapter). Lonely Planet also publishes the Discover China guide (£19.99) – the best option for trip planning. In February it will release a Not for Parents: China guide for young travellers (£9.99).
The Rough Guide to China (£18.99) is a comprehensive practical guide, particularly strong on history and culture (covered in its back pages in a section entitled “Contexts”). DK Eyewitness’ China (£19.99) is full of illustrations, floor plans and explanations of the major historical sights. For urbanites, the Luxe city guides to Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong (£4.99 each) are brimming with recommendations on where to eat, drink and shop.

Phrase books
Lonely Planet has a Mandarin phrase book (£4.99) and CD pack. Its China phrase book (£5.99) also includes the country’s dialects. Eyewitness Travel has a colourful Mandarin Chinese Visual Phrase Book and CD (£8.99).

Contemporary classics include Wild Swans by Jung Chang, 1421 by Gavin Menzies, Red Dust by Ma Jian and River Town by Peter Hessler. Less-well-known tomes include Life and Death in Shanghai by Nien Cheng, a first-hand account of the Cultural Revolution; Lust, Caution by Eileen Chang, set in wartime Shanghai; Six Records of a Floating Life by Shen Fu, an early 19th-century love story; and Poems by Li Po and Tu Fu on the Chinese landscape.

House of Flying Daggers; Farewell My Concubine; Raise the Red Lantern; Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; and Hero.

Lonely Planet has offline city guide apps (for Apple devices only) to Shanghai, Beijing and Macau.