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A mere holiday to China (中国), anyone who's been there is going to say, is not enough. It is a colossal land, not only in size but also in the depth of its history and the range of its natural, and even sometimes unnatural, wonders.
From the amazing sights that everyone knows - like the Army of Terracotta Warriors in Xi'an or the Great Wall of China - to places that few outsiders will ever visit - Namsto Lake or the Buddhist grottos in Guyuan - China has something for everyone to see and experience. With a varied geography encompassing the highest mountains in the world, amazing deserts, grasslands, dense jungles and rainforests, China can be a difficult country to explore - but it's well worth the effort.
China was ruled by a series of Imperial Dynasties for around four to five thousand years until the Republic was founded in 1912. The Republic fell, on the mainland, to Communist in 1949. Since then, China has - somewhat ironically - charged to the fore of the modern world, particularly in the past few decades as it has focussed on growing economically through international trade and commerce. The result is cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong, where skyscrapers tower above the horizon, but ancient spiritual practices are still maintained reverently.
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Main article: History of China
The traditional history of China extends back 5,000 years to the third century CE, when the Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors were said to have ruled over the land in a time of peace. This period was followed by the Xia Dynasty in circa 2100 BCE, which lasted for approximately four and a half centuries. From an archaeological point of view, practically nothing is know about either of these periods. There is, however, archaeological evidence confirming traditional Chinese histories of the Shang Dynasty (1600–1046 BCE), which followed the Xia period.
The Shang kingdom was overthrown by the Zhou Dynasty in either 1122 BCE or 1046 BCE. During the Zhou period, seven different states sprang up, who fought against each other for supremacy in 260 years known as the Period of the Warring States. Ultimately, it was the Qin Dynasty which triumphed, marking the beginning of the Chinese Empire.
The Qin Dynasty (221–206 BCE) can be credited with two of China's most famous attractions: it was Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi who was buried with the Terracotta Army, and it was during the Qin period that the building of the Great Wall was commenced.
Not long after the death of Emperor Qin, the dynasty was overthrown by a rebellion, which led to the rise of the Han Dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE). The Han Dynasty was an age of economic prosperity and saw a significant growth of the money economy first established during the Zhou Dynasty. A division in the empire ended the Han and initiated an age of conflict between three states known as the Three Kingdoms (220–280 CE) of Wei, Shu and Wu. Following the devastation of the Three Kingdoms period, the Jin Dynasty (265–420 CE) reunified China and fostered a brief period of prosperity.
China was divided during the time of the Southern and Northern Dynasties (420–589 CE), reunited under the Sui Dynasty (581–618 CE), and then achieved a golden age of cosmopolitan culture under the Tang Dynasty (618–907 CE). However the dynasty collapsed and divided again in the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period (907–960 CE), overrun by the Mongol in the Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368) and restored under local rule by the Ming Dynasty in 1368. The Ming Dynasty was the last Han Chinese dynasty, replaced by the Manchurians who started the Qing Dynasty in 1644. The Qing dynasty lost official political control in 1911. The Qing Emperor remained a ceremonial head-of-state until 1944.
From the late 19th century through to the early 20th century, a revolutionary movement inspired by Dr. Sun Yat-sen emerged, eventually leading to the establishment of the Republic of China in 1911. Sun Yat-sen was president for just four months, and he was followed by Yuan Shikai, who ruled until 1916. Following his death, China became fragmented. Sun Yat-sen struggled to unite the country in 1920, but his death five years later saw his followers split into two rival factions: the Nationalists and the Communists, who were led by Mao Zedong. The Nationalists and Communists fought bitterly, even throughout the Japanese occupation from 1931 until 1945. In 1949, Mao Zedong and the Communists had secured most of China, and on 1 October 1949, Mao Zedong proclaimed the People's Republic of China.
The early years of communist rule were very hectic. The first move by the central government was to purge the population of potential sympathizers to the old government. The official number is that 700,000 people were executed during the purges. Most historians estimate a much higher number around 1 or 2 million people. Then central government created several disastrous programs.
In 1958, Mao initiated what may be one of the darkest periods in human history, perversely called the Great Leap Forward. The plan behind the Great Leap Forward was to produce steel in backyard furnaces. Towns were given impossible quotas to fill, which led to people stopping to work on the field and even melting down tools and cooking equipment. The result was one of the worst famine in human history, in which between 14 and 43 million people died. The Great Leap Forward was brought to an end in 1960.
It looked like after the failure and misery of the Great Leap Forward that Mao would be forced to step down, but he declared the beginning of the Cultural Revolution in 1966. The cultural revolution was Mao's attempt to continue the communist revolution. The youth were encouraged to join the Red Guards, a military-like organization. The red guards went into cities and villages denouncing, torturing and humiliating millions of people that did not hold up their ideals of communism. The effect of the red guards was felt in every part of China, especially in major cities with academic centres and minority areas with large religious populations. The terror of the red guards continued until Mao's death on 2 September 1976.
After Mao's death, a power struggle was initiated which was eventually won by Deng Xiaoping in 1980. Deng introduced some economic reforms which sparked the modernisation process in China. His reforms were criticised by both the conservatives and the liberals. It was the latter group which led the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, protests which saw China's reputation in the world plummet.
A third generation of leadership took over after 1989, and it continued to focus on economic growth and not on liberalizing the government. Since then, China has emerged as a global superpower, with a population of over almost 1.4 billion people. In 2008, it hosted the Olympic Games in Beijing.
The geography of China is very diverse. Even though China is the most heavily populated country on the planet, it also has some of the most remote and least populated places in the world. This is reinforced by the fact that the vast majority of the population lives on the east coast of the country, making the western provinces sparsely populated.
Generally speaking, the northern and far west of China are semi arid to desert. The southwest is very wet and can suffer from extreme flooding. Most of the country is mountainous except for the large deserts in the northwest and the prairies of Inner Mongolia and Heilongjiang. The far northern provinces skirt Siberia while Hainan, in the far south, has the same latitude as Hawaii. The southwest has large areas of mountainous jungle and rain forest with many wild animals including elephants. The Himalayan plateau is one of the highest and harshest places in the world. The two major rivers in the country are the Yellow River in the north and the Yangtze River in the center, which cut through China like two horizontal lines. The south has a mild winter but extreme typhoons in the spring, while in the north the winters can be very cold with sandstorms in the springtime. Although bad earthquakes can occur in many parts of the country they are infrequent.
China shares borders with many countries: East China Sea to the east; North Korea to the north-east; Russia and Mongolia to the north; Kazakhstan to the north-west; Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan to the west; India, Nepal, Bhutan to the south-west; Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam and South China Sea to the south.
China has 33 province-level divisions in six geographic administrative regions. Out of these 33 divisions, there are 22 provinces (省 shěng), five autonomous regions (自治区 zìzhìqū), four municipalities (直辖市 zhíxiáshì) and two special administrative regions (特别行政区 tèbié xíngzhèngqū). 
|Eastern||Anhui, Fujian, Jiangsu, Jiangxi, Shandong, Shanghai, Zhejiang|
|Northeastern||Heilongjiang, Jilin, Liaoning|
|Northern||Beijing, Hebei, Inner Mongolia, Shanxi, Tianjin|
|Northwestern||Gansu, Ningxia, Qinghai, Shaanxi, Xinjiang|
|Southwestern||Chongqing, Guizhou, Sichuan, Tibetan Autonomous Region, Yunnan|
|South Central||Guangdong, Guangxi, Hainan, Henan, Hong Kong, Hubei, Hunan, Macau|
Minorities by region
The northern region of Heilongjiang has a distinct Russian feel to it, with even a Russian church St Sofia in the city of Harbin. The Mongolian minority occupy Inner Mongolia while the Uighers, Tajiks, Kygyrz, Uzbeks, and Khazaks live in Western Xinjiang and the Tibetans are spread around Tibetan Autonomous Region, Qinghai, Northern Yunnan, Southern Gansu, and Western Sichuan. These minority groups are just the tip of the iceberg because officially there is 56 different minority groups strung across China.
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Beijing is the country's capital and was host of the 2008 Olympic Games. It is a sprawling city of over 17 million people. Home to such attractions as the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square, Beijing is a must for any traveller visiting China. Dozens of other attractions, including temples, the zoo and the relatively nearby Great Wall are other features which make this city worth at least five days to a week, if not more.
Hong Kong was reunified with China in 1997, and it is one of the Asia's most important cities. A hub of business and a city of skyscrapers, it blends modernity with tradition. Quite a few temples, green islands and deserted beaches make Hong Kong more of a small country, and not just a world-class city of its own.
Shanghai is the current day economic center of China and boasts an interesting colonial past. Built along the Yangtze River, it has the world's largest cargo port. It's also one of the most modern cities in China, though you can still find some great temples and gardens spread around the city.
There are a lot of very large cities in China. This is a list of some of the most interesting ones to travellers.
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The Forbidden City located in Beijing was the home of the Emperor and the Imperial Chinese government for almost five centuries. The site was orginally just an Imperial City of the Mongol Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368). After the fall of the Mongols, the emperor of the newly established Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), Hongwu Emperor, moved the capital from Beijing in the north to Nanjing in the south, and ordered that the Yuan palaces be burnt down. When his son Zhu Di became the Yongle Emperor, he moved the capital back to Beijing, and construction began in 1406 of what would become the Forbidden City. Contructed in 15 years by more than a million workers, this is one of the most amazing palaces in the world with thousands of rooms facing dozens of major courtyards. Remember to take some time to relax and enjoy the nice gardens, explore the side chambers that few visitors go to see and walk on the royal highway down the center of the Forbidden City.
Many cities built walls to protect themselves some of them very large and impressive. Only the Chinese would build a wall to try to protect the whole country! Although the Great Wall of China does not go around the entire country it does stretch along it for over 8,800 kilometres from the Pacific all the way deep into the desert in Gansu. This makes it the longest wall in the world. From massive towers of brick to a pile of dirt only two meters high, the Great Wall can impress at any part along its path.
Located in Xiahe, Gansu, the Labrang Monastery is one the best Tibetan temples in the world. Sitting in a beautiful mountain valley the large monastery, with over 1,200 monks, dominates the town. Year round travellers can hear pilgrims turning the thousands of prayer wheels that line the sides of of the temples and walls around the monastery. There is also several nice day hikes around Xiahe that make this town a wonderful place to visit. Lastly because Xiahe is not in the Tibetan Autonomous Region is much easier to visit with less red tape the majority of the time.
Learning a little Kung Fu or Wushu is a great addition to any trip to China. These two terms can mean anything from martial arts to very precise movement exercises. For most westerns they believe that kung fu and wushu just mean fighting but they also encompass traditional arts like tai chi quan (太極拳), which is non violent and people can be seen doing in the parks every day. If wanting to learn to kick some butt or just a better way to relax after a hard day taking a few classes or just joining some people in the park for a little kung fu or wushu can be a great experience.
The Taklamakan is located in the northwestern Chinese subdivision of Xinjiang or the Uygur Autonomous Region. Its boudaries are the Kunlun Mountains to the south and Pamir Mountains and Tian Shan mountain ranges to the west and north respectively. It forms part of the Tarim Basin and is one of the largest sandseas in the world. Just like the Gobi, it is a cold winter desert, which is reflected by temperatures sometimes below -20 °C and occasional snow cover. In summer, it's extremely hot, with generally around 40 °C, but sometimes way higher than this. Although up until recently it was only possible to travel north or south of the Taklamakan along two branches of the ancient Silk Route, now there is the Tarim Desert Highway, linking the cities of Luntai and Minfeng. It's well over 500 kilometres long and 80% of the route travels through high shifting sand dunes. The completion in 1995 came together with bushes along the road to prevent the shifting sand dunes, and an irrigation system for that same vegetation. You can fuel up somewhere in the middle of the desert, the rest is totally deserted, making this trip a once in lifetime experience!
The Terracotta Warriors were built by the first emperor of the Qin Dynasty, Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi. After unifying China (which at that time was the area just around Xi'an) in 221 BCE he started work on his tomb and died eleven years later in 210 BC. To protect his tomb and rule another empire in the afterlife he ordered the construction of 8,099 soldiers and horses. The warriors were left alone until the March of 1974 when a peasant digging for a well discovered the tomb by accident. The warriors were a mythical part of local folklore, and very few people actually believed they existed. During peak times more people visit the warriors a day then there are actual warriors, so be prepared for crowds at times.
Located in Yunnan, southwestern China and sandwiched between Jade Dragon Snow Mountain to the south, and the vast mountains of Deqin to the north, a 3-day hike along the side of the world's deepest river gorge is an unforgettable experience. Note that the Gorge should not be attempted by the faint hearted, and absolutely not by anybody in bad weather - the path is only several feet wide in places, and next to a sheer drop of several thousand feet this would be a dangerous and unpleasant experience.
The Spring Temple Buddha in China is the tallest statue in the world. It was build as China's answer to plans to erect a 152-metre-high Buddha in India (Maitreya Buddha), which still is only in the planning stages. The total monument will become even heigher as the top of the mountain on which the monument is situated, is being reshaped to add two more pedestals under the already excisting pedestal of 25 metres. The statue is named after the nearby Tianrui hot spring.
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China has three "Golden Week" holidays per year. People get a mandatory two or three days off work for each holiday, and workers' companies can grant them the rest of the week off, making each holiday a total of 7 days. As you can imagine, having almost 1.4 billion people with the same days off can make travelling at these times arduous to say the least.
Travelling during the Spring Festival/Chinese New Year is incredibly difficult. Chinese New Year is China's Christmas, so the millions of migrant workers and students flood back to their home towns. Everybody else takes the opportunity to spend their hong bao (gifts of money traditionally given at CNY) and go travelling. Most of the time, since you are only allowed to purchase train tickets 6 days in advance and must be present in the city of origin, sometimes only standing room tickets are available. Be aware! The Spring Festival is undoubtedly the busiest time for the Chinese transportation system. Flying will avoid the crowded trains, but book early and expect to pay higher prices. All the main tourist attractions will be crawling with tourists (worse than usual), so unless you like crowds, it's best to avoid it altogether.
Chinese New Year is based on the lunar calendar, so the date changes each year. The Chinese New Year/Spring Festival holiday is 7 days long and usually starts on New Year's Eve. Dates for Chinese New Year for the next few years are: 14 February 2010, 3 February 2011, 23 January 2012, 10 February 2013, 21 January 2014.
The two other national holidays are October 1st, National Day, celebrating the founding of the People's Republic of China and May 1st, which is International Labor Day. Almost all Chinese get the two holidays off and many take the opportunity to travel. If you want to avoid the crowds, fly, but it should get a lot less busy towards the end of the week.
The Harbin International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival is an annual event officially taking place for a month starting on January 5th each year. It is held in the city of Harbin in the Heilongjiang province. It is one of the world's largest ice and snow festivals, along with Canada's Quebec City Winter Carnival, Japan's Sapporo Snow Festival and Norway's Ski Festival.
The weather in China is very extreme. The summers are hot unless you are in the mountains and the winters are very cold, except for a small subtropical portion in the south. Beijing is cold and dry with sporadic snowstorms. Bring a hat, gloves, a scarf and at least 3 to 4 layers of clothing when you are visiting the north of the country in winter.
The best times to visit the entire country are spring (April to June) and autumn (late September to November), when temperatures in most parts of the country are somewhere between 15 °C and 25 °C, though nights can be chilly, particularly up north and in the mountains.
The north and northeast of the country are dry with occasional snowstorms in winter. Harbin is famous for its ice sculpture festival in late winter. Temperatures can drop below -40 °C at night during this time.
In summer, it is usually dry and warm or even hot in some places. This especially applies to the northwest, with Turpan being the oven of China, recording temperatures near 50 °C during some years.
The central parts of China are a bit less extreme, but note that in summer a combination of high temperatures (up to 40 °C) and high humidity can make things more unbearable than the hot and dry weather further north. Winters here are usually less cold, but freezing temperatures and snow do occur. Summertime sees more rain in this area as well. This also applies to the mountainous parts in the central west, with Tibet being relatively wet in July and August. Winters here can get almost as cold as in the north.
The south of China has warm and humid weather year round, but even in Hong Kong it is not uncommon for temperatures to drop below 5 °C in winter. Normally it is more like 20 °C, though. Tropical storms hit the Chinese coast occasionally during the July to September period and the hot and humid weather make this time of year not a good time to visit.
Most tourists enter China by airplane. Almost all the major airline companies have services to and from China directly or by a feeder. Many foreign airlines have code-sharing agreements with Chinese airlines, so it is not unusual to see a United Airlines flight flown on a China Eastern plane.
The major airports serving as main gateways to China are:
Several smaller cities have busy airports with mainly domestic flights, but a growing number of intrnational connections, mainly to countries in the eastern half of Asia. These include:
See also: International Trains
Travelling by train into China is possible from many neighbouring countries.
Main article: Overland Border Crossings In China
Crossing a land border with China can be an option for many travellers. The border crossings near Nanning, Hong Kong or Macau are near major population centers making them easy to access. The other land crossings in China, open to foreigners, drop people off in the middle of nowhere making them harder to access. This does not mean these areas should be skipped. In fact, the opposite is often true, as some of the border crossings are in the most remote and some of the most interesting areas in China, where few travellers go. These areas can make for great stories and experiences.
The Turbojet offers several connections between Hong Kong and Macau, between Macau and Sekou in China and between both Hong Kong and Macau and the Shenzhen Airport Fu Yong Ferry Terminal in China. To add, it also connects the Hong Kong International Airport with both Macau and the Shenzhen Airport Fu Yong Ferry Terminal.
New World First Ferries also has regular connections to and from Shenzhen. There are connections to Shenzhen itself (Shekou) from the Inner Harbour as well as the Outer Harbour. Check Yuet Tung Shipping Co (Tel: +853-28574478) or Shenzhen Xunlong Shipping, the latter also has connections from Taipa Temporary Ferry Terminal to Shenzhen. CKS has ferries to/from Jiangmen near Zhuhai, while Yuet Tung also goes to Zhuhai (Wanzai).
Chu Kong Passenger Transport Co offers many services between Hong Kong (Tsim Sha Tsui Ferry Terminal) and Hong Kong Airport and dozens of places in mainland China.
There are many options of travelling by boat between China and South Korea.
Huadong sails between Incheon and Shi Dao, while Weidong travels between Incheon and Qingdao. Dandong Ferry plies the route between Incheon and Dandong and Musung has boats between Busan and Yantai.
Other possible connections to and from the South Korean port city of Incheon include those to and from the Chinese cities of Yantai, Dalian, Shanghai, Tianjin and Weihai. These cities can be reached from Busan as well, including Yingkou.
There are regular ferry services linking Chinese ports, like Tianjin with Kobe in Japan on a weekly basis. Chinese Express Line is the major carrier on the Tianjin to Kobe route.
To add, there are also weekly ferries crossing the sea between Shanghai and Kobe and Osaka in Japan. The ferry's destination alternates each week between Osaka and Kobe and the journey takes two days. Another line travels weekly as well between Shanghai and Osaka only. And everyday Thursday, there are ferries between Shanghai and Nagasaki. Orient Ferry plies the route between Qingdao and Shimonoseki.
From Fuzhou, China, there are two daily ferries to Matsu, Taiwan. The trip takes two hours. From Matsu, there are two daily ferries to Keelung in Taiwan. This trip takes 10 hours. Bookings can be made at +886 2 2424 6868.
There are also several ferry services between Xiamen and Quanzhou on the mainland and the island of Kinmen, Taiwan. Now there also is one weekly ferry from Dongdu Harbor in Xiamen to Keelung, that leaves on Thursdays at 6:00pm, as well as one to Taichung leaving on Tuesdays. Call 0592-2393128 for information or 0592-6011758 for bookings from China.
The Cosco Star leaves Xiamen every Thursday at 6:00pm and arrives in the north end of Taiwan (Keelung) at 08:30am the next morning. The ship also leaves Xiamen every Monday evening to arrive at the south end of Taiwan (Kaohsiung) the next morning and then central Taiwan (Taichung) the day after that. From Taiwan back to the mainland, the ship leaves Keelung every Sunday at 7:00pm, arriving Xiamen the next morning at 09:00am. The ship also leaves Taichung every Wednesday at 9:00pm for an overnight sailing to Xiamen.
All of China's major cities and many of its minor ones are linked by airports. Many of these airports have only been built in the last decade. Although Chinese airlines have had a bad reputation in the past, airline safety records have improved dramatically. Air travel is a little cheaper than most Western countries, but going on a few flights can still hurt your budget if you are a backpacker. However, China is a very large country and you can save considerable time by just flying one or two long legs. The major online airline booking companies are Ctrip and Elong. All of the major airports mentioned above, also have numerous domestic routes. To add, there are several airports which have mostly only domestic flights, like Shanghai Hongqiao International Airport.
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China has one of the most extensive train systems in the world. They are usually very reliable and for overnight trains the attendants provide boiling hot water and tidy up every hour or so.
The train system is divided into several classes. Trains with an "N" signify that the train travels within a province or district only. "K" means fast, "T" means Super fast, and a train with no letter in front usually means it is a common passenger train and will make more stops. "Z" is a direct train and is probably the most expensive, but well worth it. The hard bunks on the Z train are as nice as a bed in a hostel.
While soft sleepers are appealing, they aren't necessary. Hard sleepers are equally safe and comfortable, unless you are stuck in one with no air-conditioning during sweltering National Day. Depending on the class of trains, hard sleepers may or may not have air-conditioning and heating.
When purchasing train tickets remember that for the majority of cities tickets can only be purchased for that city. Sometimes a person can purchase roundtrip tickets but this is pretty rare. If a traveler wants to buy train tickets that go from Beijing to Xi'an then to Chengdu the traveler will have to buy the Xi'an to Chengdu ticket in Xi'an. In most cases train tickets can only be purchased 2 weeks in advance. Sometimes CITS can buy train tickets for other cities but for a large fee.
At this time there are no rail passes of any kind for Chinese trains. There is a very good student discount though. Although, depending on where you are in China, the ticket vendor will only give the discount to people with Chinese University IDs only.
This link gives free access to a quick reference timetable of Chinese trains. For a modest fee, you can order a comprehensive timetable from the owner of the website. For a map of Chinese railroads, click here.
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China has one of the best bus networks in the world. Even during the busiest times of the year, such as Chinese New Year, bus tickets are easy to obtain. In larger cities, the main bus stations are attached to or near the train stations making for an easy transfer. Most larger cities still have multiple bus stations, but almost all bus stations have buses that go to the same towns.
In towns without train stations, the bus is the main artery of transport and usually there is only one bus station per town. In smaller towns, many of the bus stations do not even have computer systems, meaning you can't book tickets in advance. Also, many of the buses that serve smaller towns can be quite old and in bad shape. Remember that you can always ask for a bathroom break.
As a general warning, most bus stations in China only have signs written in characters. There will be no pinyin and certainly no English. Just ask one of the attendants for help and as long as you're polite they are usually happy to help you.
Although boat services within China are limited, there are still a few decent options which make for a totally different experience. They’re most common in coastal areas, where you can use a boat to reach offshore islands such as Hainan, or the islands off Hong Kong. The Yantai–Dalian ferry is still a decent option if you want to avoid the detour across land. There are also several inland river routes worth considering like the three-day boat ride along the Yangtze River from Chongqing to Yichang. The Li River boat trip from Guilin to Yangshuo is a popular tourist ride.
Although technically international, both Hong Kong and Macau have services with mainland China cities like Shenzhen and Zhuhai and there are possible links further on towards Guangzhou, a very memorable journey.
Finally, but way less a decent option, there are ships along the coast, mostly cargo ships which might take you for a fee, to ports like Xiamen.
There are now countless travel agencies in China, although due to some weird outsourcing system they all seem to outsource to each other and back again. While many of the local travel agencies are very good, many can be shady. If you want to guarantee an English speaking guide it is best to stick to one of the national chains. But even then, the national chains often outsource to local travel agencies.
China International Travel Service (CITS) is the state owned travel agency and can be a little pricey although will give any traveller information for free. There are CITS offices in almost every major city in China. Most of the time there will be at least one person that can speak English and they can help book just about anything. CITS is one of the few places that can buy train tickets for other cities for a surcharge.
China is the land of red tape, and, indeed, red stamps. Known as a 'chop' in English, most administrative tasks require at least one red chop, and sometimes two.
Most countries require a visa before entering China. You can apply for a visa in your home country at a Chinese consulate or embassy. Rules and costs vary depending on which country you come from. The Chinese government is notorious for changing rules and paperwork frequently, so it may be easier to let your travel agent (or a visa company) arrange your visa, rather than doing it yourself.
There are several classes of visas for China: Tourist/Family Visit Visa (L), Business Visa (F), Work Visa (Z), Study Visa (X), Transit Visa (G), and Resident Visa (D). Tourist visas range from 30 days to 12 months in length. Visas can be single entry, double entry, or multiple entries. With a multiple entry visa, you may enter and leave the country as many times as you like, while a single entry visa will only allow you to enter the country once, regardless of whether you wish to come back before your visa expires.
Visa requirements are different for going to Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, Tibet and mainland China, despite the fact they are technically all part of the same country. If you are travelling in Asia before going to mainland China, it may be easier to get a Chinese visa in Hong Kong or Macau before crossing the border into mainland China. Many hotels, hostels and guest houses offer visa services. Some nationals need a visa to enter Hong Kong and a different visa for Macau.
Once you are in China, you will be required to register with local authorities everywhere you stay. If you are staying in a hotel, you will fill in a Temporary Residence form when you check in and the hotel will register for you. Hotels will usually ask to see your passport and may make a photocopy of it. If you are staying at a private home, you will need to register with the local police station within 24 hours and fill in a Temporary Residence form there. If you register after more than 24 hours, you will be charged a fine for each day you are late. In reality, registration is only really necessary if you wish to apply for a new visa, or extend a visa. When you register with the police, you will receive a carbon copy of the Temporary Residence form. You will need this piece of paper when you apply for a new visa or extension. The copy you will receive will variously referred to as a "yellow paper" or sometimes a "blue paper". It may, in fact, end up being pink or some other colour, though the content and use is all the same. If you do not intend to get a new visa, registering may be more hassle than it's worth. All visa are administered by the Public Security Bureau (公安 gōng ān). If possible, try and go to a large office, as the smaller offices' staff tend to get bored and may make your application more troublesome.
See also: Money Matters
The currency used in Mainland China is the Chinese Yuan (CNY) and has the symbol ¥, the same one used by the Japanese Yen. It is also referred to as Renminbi (人民币 rénmínbì) (RMB) or literally the "people's currency".
Yuán (元) (pronounced like the two letters 'u' and 'n' in English ie. U.N.) literally means "round", after the shape of coins. More casually, it can also be referred to as "kuài" (块), which is a measure word for money. These are the English equivalent of saying "dollar" and "buck", or "pound" and "quid", respectively, if you're from the UK. Each of these expressions refers to the same unit of currency. In other words, CNY 1 = RMB 1 = 1元 = 1 yuán = 1 kuài.
The smallest denomination is the fēn (分), which is the equivalent of a cent, or a hundredth of a yuàn (0.01 yuàn). This unit is very rarely used, as most prices are rounded to the nearest jiǎo (角), or 0.10 yuàn. In spoken Chinese, a jiǎo is called a máo (毛). Chinese Yuan come in denominations of 1 jiǎo, 5 jiǎo, 1 yuán, 5 yuán, 10 yuán, 20 yuán, 50 yuán and 100 yuán. All of these denominations come in a note form, though 1 jiǎo, 5 jiǎo and 1 yuán also come in a coin form (though this is most common in Shanghai).
Prices are written in a few different ways.
China is still a cash economy, so card transactions are quite rare. Most big department stores will accept local and foreign bank cards and credit cards, but market stalls, most restaurants, and small shops will not. The ATM network is growing (especially in the bigger cities), though you should still scout out an ATM near where you are staying because you can't rely on one being where/when you need it. Not all ATMs will accept foreign cards, so check the symbols carefully. ATMs usually have an English option. Beware also that some ATMs will only accept personal identification numbers (PINs) that are six characters long. If this happens, you will get a message saying "PIN error", so just try a different machine.
Only very touristy places accept US$. RMB is essential but easy to exchange. The Bank of China will exchange travellers' checks for a small commission. Be wary of the Chinese peddlers outside banks that claim to give you a better exchange rate. Counterfeit money is not uncommon (watch for notes 10 and above) Fake 100s are very common in some regions. Also, do not accept any damaged notes. A bill missing even a tiny corner must be exchanged at the bank - few people will accept it.
RMB is no longer a restricted currency. This does not mean you can exchange RMB into a different currency at every bank or with private businesses. The Bank of China will let you exchange up to US$500 worth of RMB into any currency daily, but exchanging money is more difficult at smaller branches or remote cities. At the Shanghai Pudong International Airport and Beijing Capital International Airport you can exchange RMB into other currencies at the different bank representatives outside and inside the terminals. They are suppose to only let you exchange up to RMB4,000, for a 50 RMB charge, but the tellers can usually be convinced to exchange more. If worse comes to worse just walk to the another bank window and exchange more money.
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China is an incredible place to work and live. There tend to be three categories of expatriates that work in China: the Executive, the Young Professional, and the English Teacher.
Executives have usually been sent by their companies to China to take advantage of the economic boom and the cheap but skilled labour force. They generally have large expat packages that include free education for their children at expensive international schools, large villas or apartments paid for by their company, and a company car complete with driver.
The Young Professional has also usually been sent to China for the same reasons as the Executive. The YP is usually a bit lower on the management scale and has a less extravagant salary package. Their work tends to be more hands-on, and their experience closer to "China" than the Executive villa allows.
The rest tend to be English Teachers. It is often said that there are more people studying English in China than there are native English-speakers in the world. For this reason, there is usually no shortage of teaching jobs available in China. The work can be fun and interesting, and you can meet fascinating people from both China and the rest of the world.
Jobs with government schools will usually not pay very well by western standards (RMB3,000-4,000/month - less than US$500). There are more and more private language schools opening to meet demand, so there are better-paying options, especially in the bigger cities. In Shanghai, for example, a teacher with a degree and some experience will usually get a minimum of RMB150/hour part-time (roughly US$20). A full-time teacher can get anywhere between RMB8,000 and RMB15,000+ per month (US$1,000-2,000). An average full-time teaching load is about 20 teaching hours per week, with some specified preparation time. While this salary is still not a lot by some western standards, the lower cost of living in China means you can live very comfortably off this salary. You can also bear in mind that the average rural Chinese worker earns less than RMB1,000 per month, and a city-dweller is lucky to get RMB2,000.
It is easy to find websites advertising jobs: just google "TESOL job China" and you'll find a bunch of websites to choose from. Asia Expat and China Splash are also good for browsing TESOL and other jobs. You need to be discriminating when looking at schools to join. There are always stories of underpayment or no payment, working over time with no pay, visa troubles and other problems. Research the company you are thinking of working for and see what other people have to say about them.
Working visas should be arranged by your company. It is illegal to work for a salary in China unless you have a Z visa (see Red Tape). This is usually issued in China and requires a medical exam. While it tends to happen a lot, it is technically illegal to work on an F (business) visa or an L (holiday) visa. Reputable companies will get you a Z visa.
It is also important to remember that if you want to teach English as a way to see the world, you still actually have to do the teaching. Teaching children can be tiring and difficult at times. If you are teaching adults, they will expect results for the amounts they are paying. Most jobs require a degree of some description, and they usually prefer teaching experience. Most companies do not require a TESOL certificate, but some places will pay more if you have one.
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There are many ways to study Chinese language in China. Most people study two different ways, either at a program associated with a University or private language school. The other two main options are hiring a private language tutor or finding a Chinese person to do language exchange with. China did not have a mass transportation system until the last 30 years, making it that local dialects are the law of the land. When choosing a location to study Chinese remember that what you learn in class might not be useful on the street because some dialects are completely different from standard Mandarin (Pǔtōnghuà, literally "common speech") making what you learned in class seem useless.
A key thing to remember is that all the different ways to study Chinese, except language exchange, were created to make money. Now that does not mean that the teachers or tutors are bad or not committed. It means that the programs the teachers work for are a money making ventures. The only reason why Chinese universities created teaching Chinese to foreigners departments is because it is a way to generate extra income. This is not some program to further the academic field of language teaching.
Many large universities in China have programs for teaching Chinese language to foreigners. The quality and cost of these programs vary greatly. In general the more famous the university the more the tuition will cost. This does not mean the program will be better or the class size will be smaller. All of the the university programs are located on that university's campus and follow the academic schedule of that university, which is usually a semester system. The major upside of studying at a university is that you get to meet other students from all over the world who are also studying Chinese language. Some universities now even offer four year degree programs in Chinese Language and Culture.
Private language schools have now been founded in almost every major Chinese city. These schools tend to be very small and located in odd office buildings. The classes tend to be smaller than at a university but are usually much more expensive. An upside to a private language school is that the teachers can be more flexible to adjusting to your schedule or a groups schedule for studying.
Remember that the founders of these private language schools, foreigner or Chinese, did this to make money. Now they could be committed to creating a better system for teaching Chinese or just view it as another job. Many of these places are perfectly good but there is no evaluation from independent organizations. Therefore there is no way to know for sure how good the school is other than word of mouth. Make sure to ask around before enrolling at a private language school.
For more help with communicating in China, have a look at the Chinese phrasebook.
Chinese languages are as diverse as the landscape. There is a different dialect in every region, and the language/accent will sometimes change from town to town or sometimes even in the town itself. The main dialects can be loosely divided up into Cantonese (spoken in Hong Kong and nearby Mainland China), Mandarin (the official language of the mainland), Sichuanese (spoken in western China) and Hunanese (spoken in Hunan province), although this list is a huge over generalization because the dialect in Shanghai is complete different then the dialect spoken in the nearby city of Wenzhou. The Chinese word for Mandarin, pǔtōnghuà (普通话) translates literally as common speak. It is based on the dialect spoken in the capital Beijing during the 1950s.
Chinese Mandarin is a tonal language and has the greatest number of homophones of any language in the world. The writing system uses characters, known as hànzì (汉字), and the standard romanization of pǔtōnghuà is called pīnyīn (拼音). Since pǔtōnghuà was introduced as the common language in 1955, it has been the standard language of instruction in schools. The vast majority of educated people speak Mandarin, except for some older people who went through the school system before pǔtōnghuà became the standard. Although some people quickly forget how to speak Mandarin once they leave school or speak it with a heavy local accent. Luckily most television shows and radio broadcasts are in Mandarin most people can understand it.
There are five tones in Mandarin, simply called 1st tone, 2nd tone, 3rd tone, 4th tone and neutral tone (or 'light' tone when literally translated from Chinese). Tones are not indicated in Chinese characters. In pīnyīn, the tones are indicated above a vowel, for example: mā (1st), má (2nd), mǎ (3rd), mà (4th) and ma (neutral).
When reading pinyin, most English pronunciation rules can be followed. For example, b, d, f, g, h, j, k, m, n, p, s, t, w, y and z are all pronounced in a similar way as in English. Some exceptions include x (pronounced 'sh'), c (pronounced 'ts'), and q (pronounced 'ch'). The 'r' sound when said as an initial sound has no English equivalent, but sounds close to a growled 'l'. 'Zh' is pronounced as a soft 'j' sound.
Some useful words and phrases:
As you travel around China your might get confused by names. On signs for certain places you might see several different names such as Huanghe, Huang He, Huanghe River, Huang River or Yellow River. This is because in Chinese the ending “he” means river. So Huanghe means "Yellow River," while Huangshan means "Yellow Mountain," which are two completely different place and are very far from each other. To make something a river, mountain or lake one just has to add that ending to the word. It is best to memorize some of the most common endings in order to make it easier to travel in China.
A list of common endings:
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See also: Food in China
China is a huge country with extremely diverse styles of food. Some areas eat extremely spicy food, other areas eat noodle primarily, some places sell pot stickers on every corner and some areas make pita like hamburgers. There are certain dishes that are not to be missed, while others could be skipped. There are some dishes that are sold at almost every single restaurant in China but can be very different depending on the restaurant.
Remember that Chinese food in China can be very different then from a travellers home country. In general Chinese food in China is less sweet, more oily and served with bones. Also there are no fortune cookies served at Chinese restaurants in China. Lastly don't expect to find a fork and knife anywhere except in a western restaurant on the east coast.
In recent years international and national fast food chains have exploded over the country. In general eating at fast food restaurants is more expensive then eating at a busy food stall. Some of the national fast food restaurants do not have the best hygiene, even if the sitting area looks spotless.
Chinese kitchen sanitation standards may seem horrifying to some Westerners: little or no refrigeration, meat and vegetables cut up on the same dirty chopping board, and hearing your chef hocking up behind the kitchen door. Some of this is negated, however, thanks to Chinese cooking methods. Food is usually cooked at high heat, in small pieces, and served immediately. Food is therefore thoroughly cooked, and a lot of the bugs are killed in the cooking process. Many foreigners that get food poisoning in China will get it from eating Western food, as meat is often served in large pieces (which means it is easier for it to cook unevenly), and vegetables are served raw (in salads etc). Having said that, you should still be a little cautious when choosing your dinner.
Some tips for eating safe:
Accommodation in China comes in all sorts and sizes and in most places you won't have any problems finding a decent room for a good price. Although being very general in most cases, hotels and guesthouses tend to be in acceptable conditions and new places to stay have been built recently and in the more touristy cities and towns the competition means good quality for good prices. Remember to always ask for a discount and bargain, especially at mid range and top end hotels.
In general, places to stay in China are pretty good, but don't expect things to be organised and clean like you might be used to at home or in some other countries. Check out time is at noon almost everywhere and a late check out means you will have to pay for an extra night or part of that. You can store your luggage in most places, so that won't give to many problems. Outside the main cities, English is not spoken too well (except in top end hotels), but a few phrases of Chinese and a happy smile will probably communicate what you mean within seconds.
Most hotels are lodging only and breakfast comes at an additional cost.
Budget means that you will find yourself in a room in a hostel, guesthouse or one of the cheaper 1- or 2-star Chinese hotels. In the budget category there can be huge differences between accommodation and for the same price you can find yourself in a very clean room with airconditioning, TV and a mini fridge, but the rooms in traditional Chinese business hotels can be fairly basic or even dirty in some places. Expect to pay somewhere between US$3 and US$20 for a room. In some towns, like Yangshuo, you might get surprisingly much for your dollars, meaning private rooms with clean sheets, good showers etc. Note that in Hong Kong, Macau and a few other cities finding decent budget rooms can be a bit of headache, which means everything is full, there isn't any or it is really the lowest of the lowest. In very small towns staying in locals home may be the only option.
Midrange places can be a delight in China and as someone from the west you will get very good rooms for very little money. Most 2- and 3-star hotels (sometimes even so called 4-star hotels, Chinese stars are based on services, so a two star hotel just means there is a phone and TV in every room) and some upmarket guesthouses can be find in the midrange and basically that means that you will get more than the regular traveller will actually need. (Satellite) tv, minibar, aircon and several other thing you actually don't need will be included in the price. Many times in smaller towns the midrange hotels will have options for higher end and budget rooms. Occasionally midrange hotels are the old state owned hotel in the city.
Top end hotels are at least US$100 per room but sometimes even per person. These are the most luxurious hotels and compared to hotels in the west are a bargain. Still, for most non-business travellers this is not the most obvious place to stay. In Hong Kong prices are much higher by the way. On the island of Hainan you will even find some beach resorts which can almost compete with the ones in Thailand.
Do not drink the tap water. The locals do not drink it, nor should you. When first treated, the water is nearly at a drinkable standard, but after it has traversed along an ancient network of pipes, it has picked up any number of nasty metals and bugs. Many cities' drinking water comes from rivers, so it can also be affected by pollution, chemical spills and algal blooms. Purified and spring water is cheap and available everywhere. If you are really stuck, ensure you thoroughly boil any tap water before drinking it. When buying bottled water (especially outside the big cities), ensure the lid is properly sealed before drinking it.
Chinese culture is a heavy drinking culture. The only place you won't be able to find alcohol is deep within a Muslim Autonomous Region, such as rural Ningxia province. Most locations primarily sell two kinds of alcohol: beer (pijiu) or baijiu. Cities in China tend to sell the national beer of Qingdao and local brands. The local brands vary depending on the city: some can be great and others may be the worst beer you've ever tasted. Most of the time, you can get a big bottle of beer at a grocery store for around RMB3. Lastly the beer is usually weaker then Western beer at around 3.6 to 4 % alcohol and served chilled or just warm, in the winter finding a cold beer can be very difficult. Baijiu is a very strong tasting hard alcohol that most foreigners hate. Be careful because baijiu literally translates to white wine, and most of the time when a Chinese person offers "white wine" they mean baijiu. Making up for the horrible flavor is the price, which is sometimes cheaper than water. There are a few high quality versions of baijiu, such as Maotai, which can cost hundreds of US dollars a bottle.
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Tea is the big thing in China and everyone in the world knows it. Tea is made in almost every region, consumed in all regions and made from just about anything: leaves, flowers, grass, bark and animal parts. The big question is how do you tell high quality tea from low quality tea? There are thousands of different kinds of teas all with unique tastes. Like wine, in order to tell good from bad requires a fine taste and years of practice. Luckily there are some general categories that tea can be lumped into. Besides the categories listed below, there are hundreds of other kinds of tea. Even with all these choices most Chinese people just drink the basic loose leaf green tea that comes in giant bags.
See also: Travel Health
There are no vaccinations legally required to travel to China. There is one exception though. You need a yellow fever vaccination if you have travelled to a country (7 days or less before entering China) where that disease is widely prevalent.
It's a good thing to get your vaccinations in order before travelling to China. The general vaccination against Diphtheria, Tetanus and Polio (DTP) is recommended. Also a hepatitis A vaccination is recommended and when travelling longer than 2 weeks also typhoid.
If you are staying longer than 3 months or have a particular risk (travelling by bike, handling of animals, visits to caves) you might consider a rabies vaccination. Vaccination against Tuberculosis as well as hepatitis B are also sometimes recommended for stays longer than 3 months. Vaccination against Japanese Encephalitis is only recommended in rare cases.
Malaria is not widely prevalent in China, but does occurs in Yunnan and other places in the southwest at lower elevations and remote rural regions and mainly during the warmer and wetter summer months. Don't underestimate this tropical disease and take precautions. Buy repellent (preferably with 50% DEET), and sleep under a net. Dengue outbreaks sometimes occur, but there is no vaccination.
Finally, other possible health issues include diarrhea and other general travellers' diseases like motion sickness. Watch what you eat and drink and in case you get it, drink plenty of fluids (to prevent dehydration) and bring ORS.
China's food exports have been blamed for pet and human deaths in the United States and in Panama. While the situation on the ground is not as dire as the media may make out, you should still be careful about what you eat and drink.
DO NOT drink the tap water. The locals do not drink it, and nor should you. When first treated, the water is nearly at a drinkable standard, but after it has traversed along an ancient network of pipes, it has picked up any number of nasty metals and bugs. Many cities' drinking water comes from rivers, so it can also be affected by pollution, chemical spills and algal blooms. Purified and spring water is cheap and available everywhere. If you are really stuck, ensure you thoroughly boil any tap water before drinking it. When buying bottled water (especially outside the big cities), ensure the lid is properly sealed before drinking it.
Common medicines, such as aspirin, paracetemol, pseudoephedrine and anti-diarrhea tablets, are readily available from pharmacies and supermarkets in China. Many medications that require a prescription in other countries (such as the oral contraceptive pill and some antibiotics) are available over the counter in China. Most pharmacies (called yàofáng 药房 in Chinese) will have a book with English medicine names and their Chinese translation. One good chain pharmacy found in most big cities is "Watson's", which also sells toiletries and beauty products. Carrefour, a French food and department store, also has a section for over-the-counter medicines.
While medications are readily available, it is important to note that the quality of drugs released to the Chinese market can be highly varied. The incidence of adverse drug reactions (ADRs) is higher in China compared to other countries, and it can be difficult to tell the difference between good and bad medications - or worse, fake medications. It is always wise to carry anti-diarrhea tablets and some other simple medicines when travelling, so you may wish to bring them from home.
Due to the dense population, you don't have to travel far to find a hospital in a city. Due to the dense traffic, however, you probably don't want to rely on an ambulance to get you to a hospital in an emergency. It is usually quicker to catch a taxi. Major cities with big expatriate populations (such as Shanghai and Beijing) have foreign clinics and hospitals, with English-speaking staff and overseas-trained doctors. They are generally quite expensive, so check how much your insurance will cover before forking out hundreds (or sometimes thousands) of RMB.
See also: Travel Safety
China is a fairly safe country even for the single male and female travellers. The trains, though chaotic, are not dangerous and there is one train attendant per car that will make the rounds every hour or so. If you're smart and just use common sense everything should be fine.
Use more caution when travelling to the far western regions. Pickpockets are more common and more skilled. Heavily touristed sites are also a place to be very careful. Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City are particular hotspots for pickpockets. China is a very safe place, but like anywhere else, keep a close eye on your belongings.
Remember that in China people are very modest in different ways then in Western Cultures. In a restaurant it is perfectly fine to yell at the top of your lungs to get a waiters attention but complimenting a women's haircut is saying you want to date her. Getting angry about little details such as food coming in the wrong order or screaming at at ticket vendor can get people very upset. Recently a group of Indonesian expats in Shanghai were very rude to the waiters at an expat restaurant, which resulted in a physical altercation. Also many Chinese are very patriotic and are easily offended when foreigners insult their great leaders. In general, be more patient and polite, particularly to local women at bars.
Wangba (联网) means internet bar in Chinese. Almost every town will have an internet bar or gaming center. The best way to spot an internet bar is to look for the 网(ba) character, which means net, and large digitized images of computer game characters. Often, there will be a sign saying Green Power in English at the entrance. Most gaming centers cost about RMB3 an hour. You prepay at the main desk and are then given a plastic card or a piece of paper. Once you are done you return the card or piece of paper and get reimbursed for the money you didn't spend. Be prepared for a place that might be dingy, basic and messy. Internet bars in China tend to get crowded starting in the late afternoon to the late evenings.
Some hotels provide access from the rooms that may or may not be free; others may provide a wireless service or a few desktops in the lounge area.
Also, quite a few cafes provide free wireless Internet service. Some cafes, even provide a machine for customer use.
See also: International Telephone Calls
The country calling code to China is 86. To make an international call from China, the code is 00.
When making international phone calls it is best to buy an IP card. They typically have a value of ¥100 but sometimes can be had for as little as ¥25. The cards have printed Chinese instructions, but after dialing the number listed on the card English-spoken instructions are available. As a general indication of price, a call from China to Europe lasts around 22 minutes with a ¥100 card. Calls to the U.S. and Canada are advertised to be another 20% cheaper. There is no warning before the card runs out of minutes.
If you already have a GSM 900/1800 cellphone, you can roam onto Chinese networks, but calls will be very expensive (¥12-35/minute is typical). If you're staying for more than a few days, it will usually be cheaper to buy a prepaid Chinese SIM card; this gives you a Chinese phone number with a certain amount of money preloaded. Chinese tend to avoid phone numbers with the bad-luck digit '4', and vendors will often be happy to offload these "unsellable" SIM-cards to foreigners at a discount. If you need a phone as well, prices start around ¥100/200 used/new. Chinese phones, unlike those sold in many Western countries, are never "locked" and will work with any SIM card you put in them. China's two big operators are China Mobile and China Unicom. Most SIMs sold by the two work nationwide, with Unicom allowing Hong Kong/Macau/Taiwan usage as well. There is usually a surcharge of about ¥1/min when roaming outside the province you bought the SIM, and there are some cards that work only in a single province, so check when buying.
China Post (中国邮政) is the official postal service of the People's Republic of China, operated by the State Postal Bureau of the People's Republic of China (website in Chinese only), and has more details about price to send letters, postcards and parcels, both domestically as well as internationally. The Chinese postal service is very good. Remember that in more remote places usually only one post office in a city can handle sending international boxes or letters. Also many times it might be worth having the name of the country you are trying to send to in Chinese characters, because small town people might not know what Estonia is in English. Post offices have a striking green logo and can easily be found everywhere in the cities. They are mostly open every day (including weekends!) from 8:00am to 6:00pm, though small offices might have shorter opening times, while the bigger ones in central and touristic areas are sometimes open during evenings as well.
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Living and studying in Nanjing for a semester plus traveling extensively throughout China
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I can answer FAQ about travel in China, Tibet, the Kailash Mansarovar region in western Tibet and Lhasa. Also getting around in Tibet and getting to/from Tibet, China, Nepal.
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We backpacked through a decent amount of the enormous country for two months visiting many cities, countrysides, eating all the food we could, taking different public transport, learnt some of the language and had a blast on a budget.
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As an English major and a lover for travel in Shanghai city, I started travelling, I mean alone , about two years ago. And I've been to some well-known cities like Nanking, Tsingtao, Harbin, Suzhou, Shenzhen and so on. Questions about the cities I've mentioned, especially Shanghai, are welcomed. If you need a oral translator and native guide, just tell me.
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