Is it on your list of countries to visit? By 2015 it is predicted to get more visitors than any other country.
Quite a change from four decades ago, when China was closed off behind the Bamboo Curtain, having its self-inflicted Cultural Revolution while the Western world was having its Free Love beaknik revolution.
It's easy to revert to superlatives when talking about China. It has the largest population of any nation - some 1.4 billion souls. It has enjoyed rapid economic growth over the last two decades, and is set to be the next world superpower. Probably half the things you buy these days - where ever in the world you are - is made in China.
China is also the largest contributor of greenhouse gases [thanks]. And it is one of the most polluted countries on earth. But despite its size, dense population and rampant growth, China still holds a great appeal to visitors.
Why? For starters, China has an ancient culture (though a lot of this was crushed in the Cultural Revolution).
I was fascinated by China from an early age. I remember looking at a Time-Life volume on China. It featured peasant farmers in rice paddies wearing coolie hats, against a backdrop of magestic mountains. The book also showed huge buildings and squares, a legacy of the Communist dream-makers and dream-busters.
An interesting thing happened to China once Mao was dead. It started to open up. It needed the West's technology. Despite a xenophobia (still encountered in some parts) and an inferiority complex, China started allowing foreign guests to visit.
I got an opportunity to travel to China, unexpectedly, in 1996, as part of an expedition to south-west China. Using old maps from an Austrian-American explorer published in National Geographic, we followed the route of Joseph Rock from Yunnan into Sichuan.
Just before we arrived in China, there had been a large earthquake in Lijiang, a small town in north-west Yunnan. After our trekking, we returned to Lijiang, helped with the recovery effort, and I set up a project with Hong Kong Red Cross to raise funds (and awareness in the West) for earthquake relief.
Every since then, I've been re-visiting China, mainly traveling in the south-west of China, visiting places like Guilin (one of the most beautiful places in China), Guangzhou (surely the worst city on earth), and Chengdu (one of the nicer cities in China). I've taken a boat down the Yangtze, I've photographed pandas in Sichuan, I've shopped til I dropped in Hong Kong, and admired the Portuguese architecture in Macau.
Then in 2005 I travelled again to China, and after a series of events, in 2006 spent 8 months living in the Tibetan town of Zhongdian - also known as Shangri-la. Another coincidence led me to moving to Lijiang at the start of 2007, and from 2008, I've been living full-time in Lijiang, the place hit by the big quake in 1996. It's my new home.
What do I like about China? There is a certain energy in China. Sure, they don't have democracy, but they do have capitalism, and the chance to get rich.
Maybe you have in your mind that China is either crowded, polluted cities or fields with peasants? Truth is that China is so varied. No wonder most Chinese have never left their country. There's tropical beaches, snow-covered mountain ranges, vast deserts and qaint villages. While Han Chinese, the majority, are increasingly speading throughout the Middle Kingdom, there are pockets of ethnic minorities - some several hundred - inhabiting mainly poorer (and more scenic areas).
So if you come to China, be sure to go rural and get away from the cities. What do most people do? They go to Beijing (cleaned up for the Olympics), go to the Great Wall, check out bustling Shanghai, see the terra cotta warriors at Xian, and head to Guilin for the karst landscape.
Feeling more adventurous? My recomendation is to head west - to Xinjiang - and south-west - to Yunnan, Sichuan and Guanxi. Why? The scenery and people are better. You've more chance of encountering the real China. Or if you want, go to Lhasa (with an open mind).
Getting to China: most airlines fly to China, including a few budget ones like TigerAir and AirAsia. Don't want to burn carbon dioxide? Take a train via Russia. Or soon you'll be able to head up from Singapore.Getting around
: don't believe those old guidebooks - China is getting easier to travel around. And most places are welcoming, the comfort levels are rising, and there's even English speakers (everyone learns English at school). There's a good train network, which feature most high-speed trains between big cities, and sleeper carriages for those longer overnight trips. Buses and mini-buses got to most places. Or you can hire a taxi and driver. Apart from the flights, travel is cheap.What to bring
: as little as possible. Travel light. Most things you can buy here cheaply. Bring some souvenirs from home to give as gifts. Also bring some postcards of your hometown - these are good icebreakers. So are photos of your work, family, home. Sunscreen. Earplugs. If you are huge or have large feet, don't expect to find things your size. Dress smart casual - not like you've come to mow the lawns! Face is important in China.What not to bring
: toilet paper (you won't find it in toilets but you can buy it in China). Shorts - unless you want to embarrass yourself.Best and worse times to visit
: anytime is good, but in summer (June to September) it can be hot and rainy. Travel during the national holidays - the first weeks of May and October - and Chinese New Year/ Spring Festival (Jan or Feb) is not recommended, as everything is overbooked and overcrowded, as billions of Chinese go home or go on holiday.Visas
: you need to get a visa for China before you arrive. In the past you could get in Hong Kong, or another Asian country, but since the Olympics it has been more difficult to get a tourism visa (one month) without some supporting documentation, such as onward travel bookings, hotel bookings for every night of your stay, or an invitation from friends or relatives. See my China Visa blog for more info http://www.travelpod.com/travel-blog-entri.../shangri-la-la/Money
: it is difficult to get Chinese currency - the yuan - outside of China, but you can usually get in Hong Kong or other neighbouring countries. There are ATM machines in most places, banks take travellers cheques, and you can get cash advances on your credit card from the major banks.Costs
: staying in a dorm, eating local street food and taking local buses means you could live on just $10US a day. But don't be a cheapskate! Have a reason for travelling, and realise that most people in China are poor and see you as a rich, foriegn tourist. Don't be the ugly tourist!Health
: your doctor might want to give you every vaccination on earth, but check online first, as you might not need too many, apart from a Hep A&B jab. Bottled water is available everywhere, and most hotels provide boiled water for drinking. There are lots of hospitals, some even with English-speaking doctors or in the larger cities - Western doctors. Have travel insurance. Toilets range from Western toilets (don't flush any paper down there) to squatter toilets and planks across pig pens.Communication
: bring your mobile phone, or buy a new cheap one, if you are in China for a month or more. SIM cards are cheap and calls are inexpensive. It costs to recieve calls! Internet cafes are everywhere, though you may have to install Skype (if it isn't blocked) to make free calls.Language
: you don't need to know any Chinese to get around. A few basic words will make things easier, like saying hello [knee how] and thank you [share share]. A surprisingly large number of people speak English, particularly students and younger folk. Culture
: tourism can be the most exploitative industry on earth, and whether you see yourself as a tourist or a traveller, you are part of it. Be a considerate traveller, respect local customs, and try to give something back to local people. As a foreigner, Chinese people will treat you very kindly once they get to know you. Don't take advantage of this, and remember the concept of guanxi is important in China - that means building mutual relationships through gift-giving and obligation = no free lunch. Doing drugs in China is the best way to find out what it is like to be on death row. Before you take a photo, ask first, and if possible, take a print back to the person.Food
: the food in China is generally very good - and nothing like those Chinese takeaway joints back home. Western food - or imitations of it - are available in most places. There are even KFC and McD's for those who should have stayed at home. Noodles, rice and BBQ are everywhere - and very cheap. Eat where the locals eat (but ask for less chilli and no MSG). Green tea is usually served free with meals. Coffee is the new status drink, but varies in quality (Yunnan has good coffee), and is sometimes more expensive than what you would pay at home. Beer is cheap, and only a few brands like Tsingdao taste like beer.Shopping
: everything in China is cheap (except imported Western goods). Prices are marked in supermarkets, but you may have to bargain in markets.What you might not like
: China can be a culture shock. It is possibly louder, dirtier, and not as safe as you may be used to. The food can be hot and oily, most men smoke everywhere, and people are poor, but you donít get hassled by beggars Ė in fact as a foreigner you have high status value. Drivers honk their horns to indicate they are there - not in road rage. Citizens exercise their right to spit and shout. Most hotels require you to register (for the police). A quarter of the foreigners you encounter may be missionaries.Tourist information
: there is little in the way of information or visitor centres in China, but many places like travel agents and foreign-oriented guesthouses and bars are sources of up-to-date information (many also book flights, tours, hotels, etc).Chinese experiences
: blind foot massage; KTV with some new friends; BBQ from a night market; taking part in an English corner and being asked questions by Chinese students; hanging out with old folk in a small rural village, trying Tai Chi early one morning in a park.