From the western lands of vast grassland, towering mountains, barren desserts, and mighty rivers to the uber urbanized and industrial east coast, China boasts thousands of years of history encompassed in the diverse culture within its boundaries. In the midst of the historic revolutions and industrialization in the era of global free trade, the cities and towns of the country overshadows the rural underdevelopment. In our travels and engagement with the local folk, we found astonishing details that can never be understood or learned about from outside the country even in this age of internet because of the stronghold of the firewalls (literally) and language barriers.
Regardless of politics and economy, the country possesses a wide array of cultural and historic treasures that can only be felt if a considerable amount of time is spent here. Knowing basic Mandarin is not only an asset, it can be lifesaver here, even in the cities.
No travel to China can be completed without visiting the smoggy yet vibrant city of Beijing with its numerous historic attractions and extensive food scene.
The financial center of the country, Shang-Hai is a combination of two distinct cities separated by the river.
A Tribute to Chinese History
Over 5000 years of history from the dynasties to communism, China encompasses a profound culture that can only be experienced by living there. Ancient architecture including man made wonders are everywhere in the country. The diversity of the land is displayed in the popular beliefs, food, astrology, and literature.
Starting from the first dynasties (Xia Dynasty | 21st Century B.C.), the Chinese society and geopolitical landscape changed substantially through the Imperial Era. The first centrally governed and unified state appeared under Qin Dynasty (200-300 B.C.). Building of the Great Wall of China, Terracotta Army and other royal structures were some of the features of this reign. Then came the Han Dynasty (Circa 200 B.C. to 200 A.D.) which saw the making of Silk Route. Several other monarchs and kingdoms reigned with varied success until Genghis Khan took helm (~1200’s) in Mongolia to unify the Mongol tribes, and later Kublai Khan established the Yuan Dynasty. This reign lasting almost 200 years saw the establishment of the city of Peking, foreign trade and domestic industries.
From 1300’s to 1800’s, China saw the greatest times of prosperity with the Ming and Qing Dynasties. Forbidden City in Beijing is the imperial palace constructed and held by these two great dynasties. The might of the Qing Dynasty was blooming until the Opium War (1840 A.D.), and the Chinese Revolution of 1911 ended the reign.
Modern era began in China with the end of monarchial system and the Republic of China was established. From 1949, after the establishment of People’s Republic of China (PRC), also called Zhong-guo (Central Country), it went into a state of stability and growth under the communist era. Chairman Mao founded the city of Beijing as we know now, and the country has never looked back apart from a few squandering events in the capital and in the western part.
Essential Tips for Travel to China
Before you embark on your trip to China, here are some essential tips for survival –
- Visa Situation – Citizens of most countries require visas to enter China. Visitor visas are fairly easy in terms of application process with Consulates in most major cities. As Indian citizens living in the US, we got ours within 2 weeks from the Chicago consulate (cost $45 for a tourist visa). The application process is simple and you won’t need to know Mandarin to apply; you won’t need an agent as well. Check out the process from the Chinese consulate directly. If you plan to visit the western part of the country, we heard that, there could be some complications and additional vetting.
- Language – Apart from Hong Kong and Macao, you can navigate the Chinese landscape easily if you learn at least some basic Mandarin. If you are not traveling with a group, it is a MUST to learn basic to moderate Mandarin. It is not only for you to have the best experience, but also for survival there. Duolingo app on your smartphone or investing in Rosetta Stone can be worthwhile for this trip. The written language has a few fonts – traditional and simplified which are mostly symobolic in nature. From 1983, the Government introduced a further simplified written font called pin-yin which is phonetic and uses Latin font, and is much easier to pick up for foreigners.
- Currency – Chinese Renminbi (Yuan) is the accepted currency in China. USD can be exchanged in many places, but obviously with a much lower rate. It is easier to order them beforehand or exchange in a bank. Airport and hotels provide a lower rate and you can be cheated in many ways than one.
- Food – Not sure if you had this notion that Chinese ate everything that walks, crawls, flies, or swims. It is mostly untrue. Roaches, snakes and other insects are eaten but only as a one-off event. In Beijing, we found a market where deep fried anything were sold in a skewer, and we obviously tried some. Main food is beef, pork, duck, chicken and fish along with carbs and vegetables. While you are in China, definitely try out street food as those can be the best food you may have in your entire trip. Chinese hotpot, Sichuan style whole fish, duck eggs were some of our favorites. If you are eating in cafe style joints, they will charge you for napkins and chop sticks. So be smart and carry a few chop sticks and mix up with the locals.
- Transportation – Traveling within Beijing is easy with the subway line criss-crossing the city. With only CNY 2.o0, you can travel any distance. Taxis are available as well, but you need to be fluent in Mandarin, else you will end up paying a lot more and waste a lot of time. For travel between cities, if there is a bullet train route, take it to experience the speed. But it is often more expensive than even the flights. Use Ctrip to book flights within China.
- Travel to specific parts of China are prohibited for citizens of some countries. Foreigners traveling independently are prohibited to visit the parts of Xinjiang (south silk route area), Indians cannot enter Tibet and a major portion of the Indo-Chinese border. Lhasa also has some restrictions which you should check first.