When Hong Kong reverted to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, it was as though the dragon had swallowed the pearl and Hong Kong as we knew it would be gone forever. But there is the possibility that assimilating the pearl may change the dragon, too. Mainland China has been through so many upheavals in the past hundred years that the relentless drive to change seems to be an elemental part of its modern character. In recent years, Mainland China has instituted its own form of market reforms even setting up Shanghai to rival Hong Kong as a financial center. It is building the world’s largest dam, and in the process, creating a man-made lake that will engulf one of the country’s most ancient symbols, the Three Gorges region of the Yangtze River.
Yet, in many ways, Mainland China will undoubtedly remain the old China. Even in the booming region of southern Mainland China where rice paddies have sprouted cities and manufacturing centers the people remain rooted in a rich cultural heritage. Old customs, beliefs and superstitions die hard. Even the most urbane Chinese business leader may consult a feng shui specialist about the proper placement of a building or burn joss sticks for good luck in an enterprise.
Perhaps the most critical tests will come as young Hong Kong citizens probe the boundaries of Beijing’s tolerance of dissent. As was shown in 1989, the central leadership is willing to create an atmosphere that encourages dissenters to surface and then makes examples of them. Many Westerners confuse the Chinese leadership’s embrace of open markets with an embrace of civil rights or democracy. Chinese forced-labor prisons are filled with Chinese citizens who were similarly confused.
Mystery is what makes Mainland China one of the most attractive travel destinations in the world. Not that it’s an easy visit: At times, Mainland China seems determined to discover the limits of a traveler’s patience. Restaurants tell you they are out of food, but continue to serve Chinese patrons. Your planned trip to some out-of-the-way place will be canceled without warning. Service personnel take offense when you interrupt their personal conversations to ask a question. Noise, crowds and pollution will exhaust you. But then you’ll find yourself atop the Great Wall or gazing at the blue-tiled Temple of Heaven in Beijing, and will find more-than-adequate compensation for all the hassles and stress.
When traveling in Mainland China it’s important to remember that no matter what has been promised by whom, Chinese officials always have the last word, and they’ve been known to change things around even after a tour is under way. Some decisions are based on politics (for example, which areas are open or closed to visitors). Other decisions are based on an elaborate pecking order that decides who gets preferential treatment (for everything from hotel rooms to seats on airplanes). While bumping is seldom a problem, that pecking order has led many travel agents to send their clients on package tours. Group travel may also be the only practical and legal way to visit certain sensitive areas. We recommend this course of action for most first-time visitors and for those who don’t have the time to make arrangements as they go.
While improvements in Mainland China’s tourism infrastructure have been noticeable, and some tourism officials have become very sophisticated, levels of competency and efficiency vary widely. Except in Hong Kong, the computerization of reservation systems is still only in the introductory phase.
Travelers returning for their second look should consider independent travel, possibly arranged in advance by a travel agent. Independent travel has become easier for agents to arrange, thanks in part to the introduction of competition among Chinese travel services. It’s even possible to book some reservations directly with hotels in the larger Chinese cities. Travelers who want to make arrangements while on the road should be aware that they may encounter problems trying to arrange transportation and lodging locally. If you’re patient, flexible and can put up with below-standard conditions/accommodations from time to time, the problems won’t be insurmountable. It helps to have an open-ended schedule.
Mainland China is the most populous nation (by far) and the third-largest country in the world (it’s bigger than all of Europe), with a coastline nearly 11,000 mi/17,700 km long. About two-thirds of Mainland China is covered by hills or mountains (the west is more mountainous than the east).
Travelers Advisory: While traveling by air is still safer than car or bus, air travel within Mainland China can be risky. According to the International Airline Passengers Association, China’s airlines are the most dangerous in the world. To put that into numbers: China has one fatal accident per 100,000 domestic flights, compared with a world average of one per 1,500,000 flights.
There have been isolated reports of banditry in the rural areas, but in general, travel outside of the cities is safe. The cities, too, are safe; the biggest threat to travelers is from petty crime near areas frequented by tourists (hotels, restaurants and transportation sites). Ethnic Chinese visitors from other countries should be particularly careful about theft (they are often mistaken for Taiwanese, who are a favorite target of thieves).
For the latest advisories, call the U.S. State Department’s Citizen’s Emergency Center (202-647-5225), the Canadian Travel Advisory Line (800-267-6788), the British Travel Service (037-500-900) or the Australian Travel Advisory Line (06-261-2093).
The Great Wall, the terra-cotta warriors, acrobats, shopping, Hong Kong, Tibet, pandas, ancient instrumental music and Chinese opera, food, the Forbidden City and a diverse landscape (from snowcapped mountains to bleak desert) are China’s main attractions.
Mainland China will appeal to open-minded travelers interested in visiting an important culture that is truly different from their own they’ll have the experience of a lifetime. Mainland China will not appeal to travelers who have respiratory problems (most of the cities are rather polluted), who demand impeccable service and accommodations, or who don’t like Chinese food (except in Hong Kong, they’ll starve!). Outside of the major tourist areas, creature comforts are few and far between.
A number of major and regional airlines provide service into Capital International Airport (PEK), which is located 19 mi/30 km northeast of Beijing. They include Air China (formerly CAAC), Northwest, China Eastern Airlines, Japan Airlines, United, British Airways, China Southern and Dragon Air. Air China, All Nippon, Qantas, Lufthansa, Northwest and United serve Hongqiao Airport (SHA), which is located 8 mi/13 km west of Shanghai. Cathay Pacific, Delta, Northwest, Singapore, United and Canadian Airlines International serve Hong Kong’s international airport.
Cruises touring Asia also stop in Shanghai, and passenger ships arrive from Hong Kong. A ferry and hydrofoil go from Kobe, Japan, to Shanghai, and from Hong Kong to Guangzhou. Entry is possible overland from Macau (bus), Pakistan (by road), Russia (by train via Mongolia, the Trans-Siberian Express and other points). You can also enter from Nepal by road and air to Tibet, though it’s much easier to go the other way, unless you’re with a group. this last route may be closed because of political or weather considerations a travel agent who books this route will be able to provide the most current information. Hong Kong is a port of call on several cruise lines and is connected to Macau, the Portuguese colony, by jetfoil, highspeed ferry and catamaran.
Domestic service, once the exclusive domain of CAAC, is now parceled out among Air China, China Eastern Airlines, China General Aviation, China Northwest Airlines, China Southern Airlines and China Southwest Airlines. (Be aware that reservations on domestic airlines flying to other parts of China from Hong Kong will not be reconfirmed through your original carrier, even if the flight is on the same ticket. Call and confirm your inbound and outbound flights as soon as you arrive in Hong Kong.) Some domestic flights don’t offer first-class service, and alcohol is never served. Though the service can be lousy, flying the new carriers can be fun: They give out souvenirs, such as key rings, tins of tea, pocket calendars and measuring tapes, and they serve breakfasts that are, to Western sensibilities, unusual (ours once consisted only of candies, cakes and pickled vegetables).
It used to be difficult for independent travelers in China to book internal flights. The situation has improved dramatically, but it may be that some travelers (not on prearranged tours) will be unable to book return flights from more remote destinations until they actually get there. Travelers may still have to rely on the old method dashing to the local airline office immediately upon arrival to purchase a return ticket. Check with carriers before departure. If you’re on a prearranged tour, this warning doesn’t apply.
Trains with steam locomotives run throughout China if at all possible, try to schedule at least one overnight train ride (perhaps between Beijing and Xian, or Wuhan and Guilin if you’re taking the Yangtze cruise). Domestic train tickets can only be bought in China. If you’re traveling on your own, it’s impossible to make advance reservations for a train departing any city other than the one you’re in. It may also be difficult to get same-day or day-after reservations unless you’re traveling soft berth (the three classes are soft berth, hard berth and hard seat). Soft berth provides a chance to travel in style semiprivate rooms (four berths), lace curtains on the windows, slippers and preferential treatment in the dining car but it costs almost as much as flying.
On Train 97, which travels between Beijing and Hong Kong, there are two first-class carriages with comfortable sleeping compartments. Hard berth isn’t much harder, but there’s no privacy, and it may be difficult to get a seat for meals. If you can’t book a hard-or soft-berth ticket in time for your departure, it’s sometimes possible to buy a hard seat and upgrade with the conductor after the train departs. Be prepared to pay a premium, as the ultimate price is up to the conductor. If you end up riding in a hard seat overnight, be sure to keep a close eye on your valuables. Professional thieves may be riding with you.
Major cities have special booking offices for foreign independent travelers who are going by rail. You pay a small premium, but get first choice on tickets. The office in Beijing is in the main train station; in Shanghai, it’s just up the street from the Peace Hotel. Outside the major cities, it’s usually worthwhile to work through a local travel service, which can prebook tickets in other cities (if they have an office there) as well as help cut through the red tape. Don’t throw away your train ticket: you may be asked to show it as you leave the station.
In addition to the Yangtze and Li River boat cruises, it’s possible to travel by public boat. Combination bus/boat tickets can be bought in Guilin for Guangzhou.
Intercity buses tend to be horribly uncomfortable (most Chinese are a lot smaller than most tourists) and are recommended only for the experienced or unusually tolerant traveler. Avoid sitting in the back of the bus at all cost, especially on rough roads.
Some bus routes have been privatized, which has led to some perks and some problems. Perks include “sleeper” seats on some long-distance buses (usually cheap airplane seats laid flat). The biggest problem is that, regardless of schedules, conductors don’t like to leave until the bus is full. Don’t be surprised if your bus leaves the station and then drives around the city for several hours trying to lure more passengers. Be extremely careful of theft on overnight buses.
Whether you travel by boat, train or bus, it’s a good idea to stock up on snack foods. Shops at the station or port sell bottled water, fresh fruit, peanuts and candy.
When it comes to travel within cities, Hong Kong is the great exception. Buses in most large cities are overcrowded. Taxis are available there’s now such a surplus of them that you can hail them from the street (they also queue up at tourist hotels). Unfortunately, taxi drivers don’t always calculate fares honestly it may be better to settle on a fare before getting in. (Often just pointing at the meter will persuade the driver to use it, which gives you at least a chance of a correct fare.) Some cities have licensed bicycle rickshaw drivers; they’re slow and expensive, but it’s fun for a short trip. And in most cities, you can rent a bike. (Don’t worry if it breaks down there’s a repair stand at almost every major intersection.) Only Beijing has a subway system, and it’s rather limited. You can’t yet rent a self-drive car in China. Cars with drivers are available in some larger cities.
In Hong Kong, by contrast, buses (comfortable but sometimes crowded) ply the roads on Lantau, Hong Kong Island, Kowloon and the New Territories. Ferries connect the islands to Hong Kong (or occasionally Kowloon). The Star Ferry (founded in 1880) is our favorite way to cross the harbor between Kowloon and Central you get a ringside seat to harbor activity. (Be sure, when you get on in Kowloon, that you board the right ferry, or you may find yourself getting off quite a distance from where you wanted to be.) A tram system operates in parts of Central; a subway runs beneath Kowloon and the northern part of Hong Kong Island; and taxis are available everywhere. (Don’t worry too much about the long taxi queues on arrival at the airport, as they tend to move quickly. And the extra tolls levied by the taxi drivers for tunnels, luggage and waiting time are legitimate.) If your hotel is on Hong Kong Island, when you get in a taxi to or from the airport the driver may ask, “New tunnel or old?” Generally speaking, the new tunnel under the harbor is faster, but the route is longer, so the fare can be as much as 50% higher. Your answer will depend upon which is more important to you: time or money.
Rental cars are available, but they aren’t recommended unless chauffeured. Bicycles in Hong Kong are also available for rent, and there are at least 50 mi/80 km of paths set aside exclusively for pedestrians and cyclists. (A set of interconnected elevated walkways helps you pass over busy streets in the area around the Exhibition Centre on Hong Kong Island; an added bonus is that shortcuts through air-conditioned buildings are part of the network.) A funicular railway runs up to the Peak on Hong Kong Island. Take the bus on the way down for a better view of the city’s richest neighborhood.
Consider taking the Antique Trams Tours survey of Hong Kong Island it’s done on original Hong Kong trams. Harbor cruises, some passing the spot where the RMS Queen Elizabeth burned and sank, yield yet another perspective of Hong Kong.
Hotels throughout China range from deluxe (in Hong Kong) to very simple dorm rooms (the inbound travel services will not book these they’re primarily used by Chinese and independent budget travelers).
Tourist hotels offer a variety of Western amenities (everything from putting greens and bowling alleys to “business centers” and fitness rooms). Though many hotel employees get an A for effort, service often falls short; keep your expectations low and you’ll be happily surprised by how often things go well.
In many cities, there are only a few hotels that are allowed to register foreign guests (in each city, CITS can provide a list). These hotels can be very primitive at times, so it is a good idea to bring your own blanket and pillowcases to ensure cleanliness. Most package tours offer the choice of “good” or “deluxe” rooms. All that distinction ensures is that the deluxe are good more often than the good are. Be aware that the majority of government hotels and less expensive hotels have scheduled times for hot water, usually in the early evening, so you may have to rearrange your day if you want to take a shower. Some of the cheaper hotels often lock their front door at around 11 pm. If you are locked out, bang on the door and the night watchman will let you in. Travelers should expect to pay more than Chinese citizens.
In areas such as Inner Mongolia and Tibet, accommodations can be simple government-run rooming houses, though Lhasa now has a Holiday Inn. It’s even possible to arrange (locally) an overnight in a Tibetan yak-hair tent or Mongolian yurt.
In Hong Kong, accommodations range from five-star deluxe to dives, guest houses and flats. Because there are plenty of good hotels, first decide where you want to be (there are excellent properties in Kowloon and on Hong Kong Island). The conventional wisdom is to stay on the island for business, on Kowloon for pleasure. Given the excellent transportation facilities, however, we really don’t think it makes much difference which side you choose. The deluxe Peninsula, built in 1928, deserves mention as an enduring classic built in the grand old tradition. But it’s not the only fine hotel. Hong Kong probably has more highly rated and award-winning deluxe hotels than any other city in the world. Other honorable mentions: the Mandarin Oriental, the Regent (best unobstructed view over the harbor from Kowloon toward Hong Kong Island), New World Harbor View and the Island and Kowloon Shangri La Hotels. There are resorts on Lantau Island, Tuen Mun and Cheung Chau.
It’s possible to make direct reservations with good hotels in China that are owned by Western hotel chains. It can also be done, but with less confidence, with other hotels. Avoid travel to Guangzhou during April or October, when all rooms are held for the international trade show.
Many visitors develop respiratory problems because of polluted air, high altitude, cold weather and the stress that comes with travel. Currently, immunization against polio, tetanus, typhoid, cholera and hepatitis A and B (especially if you’re going to Shanghai) may be recommended, though not required consult your physician. Also ask your doctor about malaria suppressants (chloroquine-resistant strains have been reported) if you will be visiting rural areas other than the northern provinces bordering Mongolia or the western provinces of Heilungkiang, Kirin, Ningsia, Hui Tibet and Tsinghai. Transmission generally occurs north of 33 degrees latitude between July and November; between May and December for areas between 25 and 33 degrees; and year round in areas south of 25 degrees latitude. Take along insect repellent. Take along all prescription and over-the-counter medicine needed for the trip as well. You’ll need a pair of comfortable shoes and, if you’re going to sunny areas, a hat.
Note: Be aware that RH negative and O type bloods are not commonly stored in China. Also, China has yet to be candid about how it safeguards its blood supply to prevent the spread of HIV, and any blood products must be viewed with skepticism.
In Hong Kong, sanitary conditions are much higher than in the rest of China, where hot, freshly cooked food should be safe (especially if it’s included on a package tour), but peel fresh fruit and raw vegetables and make sure meat is cooked thoroughly. It is also a good idea to use your own cup and utensils, which should be washed in boiling water. Outside of Hong Kong, do not drink the tap water (stick with prepackaged or boiled drinks). Most hotel rooms come equipped with a thermos of boiled water for tea.
Tibet presents its own problems: Going from Xian or Chengdu (450 ft/140 m) to Lhasa (12,000 ft/4,000 m) in a few hours means you’ll likely experience altitude sickness. Symptoms include nausea, headaches, insomnia, dizziness and chest pains. A mild case may be gone in a day, or it can linger for weeks. Rest and aspirin seem to help, but altitude sickness can have serious complications, so report your symptoms to your tour leader or a doctor (as altitude sickness can be fatal, you may be required to return to lower altitudes). The startling unsanitary conditions in the Tibetan quarter can indeed threaten your health. Make sure your teeth are in good shape, as dentists in Lhasa work on the sidewalk with treadle-powered drills (we didn’t notice any diplomas hanging on the fences).
For more information, call the U.S. Health Department’s International Traveler’s Hotline (404-332-4559), Canada’s Division of Health (613-957-8739), Australia’s International Traveler’s Health Information Line (06-269-7815) or the U.K.’s Medical Advisory Service (0891-224-100).
Dos and Don’ts Do be aware that riding a bicycle in China can be quite dangerous. During our last visit we saw a number of cyclists who were struck by cars or buses…Don’t be surprised if you’re stared at by local people. It’s still unusual in many places for them to encounter Westerners…Do try to experience nightlife in Beijing, from the famous teahouses offering cabaret shows along with tea, to the “dynasties” dinner shows, serving Beijing duck along with pageantry inspired by the Qing or Ming dynasties…
Do cover your mouth when you’re using a toothpick…Don’t leave your chopsticks standing up in a bowl…In Hong Kong, avoid giving clocks as gifts (the Cantonese word for clock sounds like the word for funeral)…Do be wary when purchasing antiques. We once split the lining of an “old” embroidered hat, and out poured contemporary newspapers…Don’t be shocked to come across beggars. They’re usually country folk who have found it hard to make it in the large cities…Don’t even think about taking a picture of Mao’s body, as it’s strictly forbidden. Also, don’t wear bright colors (red, especially) when visiting Mao’s mausoleum…
Don’t be surprised (or take offense) if Tibetans stick their tongues out at you. It’s a friendly greeting…If you want to visit Taiwan, go there first otherwise, Taiwan’s customs officials may confiscate souvenirs from Mainland China and hold them in bond (this isn’t a problem with passengers merely in transit through Taiwan)…Do take care of your possessions while traveling around since petty theft seems to be on the rise…Don’t get upset if the Chinese who share your table burp and slurp loudly. They are just showing they enjoy the meal…Don’t eat cheese in public, as many Chinese consider dairy products disgusting. We once cleared out a crowded train compartment by innocently opening a package of cheddar…
When discussing numbers, do write them down. In Chinese, it’s easy to confuse, say, 50 (wu shi) with 15 (shi wu). Likewise, when an English speaker says 16, it may sound like 60. And do learn to count to 10 in Chinese. this will be helpful when shopping because Western hand signals for numbers are completely different (e.g., forefinger and thumb outstretched means “eight”)…Don’t try to order chop suey, chow mein or fortune cookies. These dishes were invented in the U.S. and are unknown in China…Do try chicken feet if you get the opportunity they’re very tasty…Do expect to have your clothes brushed as you wash your hands in the men’s rooms of the fancier hotels…Do visit a factory for a look at how millions of Chinese spend their days…
Don’t go to China without first doing some reading about the country and culture…Do try White Rabbit candy or chocolate made by the Children’s Food Factory they’re the best Chinese-made brands you’ll find in Asia…Do be careful about booking Trans-Siberian Express tickets from Hong Kong there are many black-market tickets. The Chinese will not confirm any tickets that have been purchased out of the country more than two weeks in advance of the day of departure, so if you purchase one of these tickets, make sure that your ticket is “confirmed” and not just written “open”…Do try Beijing duck when visiting Beijing…Do learn to use chopsticks before going, or take a fork with you…Spitting and blowing your nose onto the ground (sans handkerchief) are accepted in public…Don’t be surprised if the authorities confiscate materials they consider to be political, religious or pornographic…Do stay clear of any political demonstrations as bullets fired randomly into crowds do not differentiate between tourists and demonstrators…
Do take the time to slow down and try to understand the Chinese way of doing things, especially if you are going for business. As in most Asian countries, business discussions are best left until a certain amount of familiarity has been established with your counterpart. Hard-driving, get-right-to-the-point tactics usually backfire…Do take the helicopter tour over Hong Kong…Do carry a bilingual map with you in Hong Kong. It’s a misconception that most residents speak English…Under most circumstances, don’t worry if you see people carrying baseball bats and trying to look tough on the streets of Hong Kong at night. They’re guarding the stores…If you get up early, take a walk around. You’ll pass dozens of residents silently performing t’ai chi chuan, the Chinese dance/meditation/martial art that is popular with the young and old. The parks, in particular, are filled with people loosening up before the start of another day….
Tipping: In Hong Kong, tip 10%. Don’t tip in the rest of China it’s not customary.
Country Facts • An environmental organization in China called Friends of Nature has persuaded the Beijing zoo to replace signs on the exhibits telling people which species are edible with slogans calling for protection of the species
• Short names are causing problems in China for bureaucrats and others trying to track down individuals. Because many families with common surnames choose short, two-character names for their children, there can be thousands of people with the same names
• China is the most populous nation on Earth. Its one billion-plus citizens make up a fifth of the world’s total population. Two-thirds are under age 35
• Surprisingly, China is the world’s leading producer of cotton, tobacco and red meat
• During most of its 3,500 year history, China has been one of the world’s technological leaders it’s the birthplace of moveable type, astronomy, gunpowder and spaghetti
• While the country’s minority groups make up only 8% of the population, their traditional homelands cover more than half of China
• Even though China is vast, the entire country maintains the same time as Beijing
• The written Chinese language is expressed by a series of ideographs in which one character expresses a certain meaning or thing. Although there are upward of 40,000 ideographs in the language, most people know only a few thousand
• The craze for karaoke appears to have peaked in China, but you’ll still see a number of karaoke bars. Chinese karaoke bars are easy to identify they have two Chinese characters followed by the letters “OK”
• Although China is moving toward a more open market economy, the “iron rice bowl” attitude among workers is still widespread. It refers to the strong sense of job security that communism fosters since no one’s “rice bowl” (job) is in danger of being broken, there’s little motivation to perform well
• Travelers interested in purchasing Chinese stamps may want to visit the philatelic center for foreigners, which is located in the Yanxiang Hotel in Beijing
• Taishan, in southern China, was built by workers returning from South America, who also imported Spanish architecture
• Yes, those are Jeep Cherokees you’re seeing on the road. They’re being built in China, as are Volkswagen Santanas
• A blue lantern in the window of a Shenyang restaurant means that pork is not served there (in deference to the Muslim population)
• Chengdu’s statue of Mao is the largest in the country
• Buddhists will want to visit four Chinese shrines: Emei Mountains (Sichuan), Wutai Mountains (Shanxi Province), Jiuhua Mountains (Anhui) and Putuo Mountains (Zhejiang)
• Inquire if your hotel accepts credit cards (some do, and then add a 4% surcharge). Don’t be surprised to see taxes and surcharges added on for every hotel service, no matter what method of payment is used
• On any given day, walking the streets of downtown Shanghai is like walking the sidewalk in front of Macy’s two days before Christmas. Don’t try to walk against the flow
• Kaifeng still has a small Chinese Jewish community. Their ancestors fled to China after the Roman conquest of Israel
• In Hong Kong, golfers can tee up at the Royal Hong Kong Golf Club, the Discovery Bay Golf Club and the Deep Water Bay Golf Club.
• In the rest of China, golfers will find courses in Zhongshan, Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen and Hainan Island
• The Chinese expression every tourist used to hear was mei you. It means “there is none” (generally used by merchants, hotel clerks and waiters who may or may not have actually understood the request). Now you’re more likely to hear a loud “hello” from vendors calling out to Westerners to buy their wares
• The island of Xiamen (Amoy) is home to a disproportionate number of China’s musicians. It’s known as the “music island,” and almost every home has a piano
• Martial-arts fans may want to make a pilgrimage to the Shaolin Temple in Zhengzhou, birthplace of kung fu
• Those looking for seaside resorts can find them on Hainan Island, Beidaihe, Zhongshan, Shenzhen and Qingdao
• Kodak film is available, but it’s quite expensive
• It’s not a bad idea to carry toilet paper with you wherever you go
• If a Tibetan approaches you and touches his throat, he’s asking for a photo of the Dalai Lama. But be careful if you decide to distribute such photos. The Chinese authorities are extremely sensitive to what they perceive as meddling in internal affairs. (They’re quite defensive about world opinion regarding Tibet. They’ve produced a series of pamphlets detailing their position, which they distribute free in train stations, hotel lobbies and other places tourists gather)
• A telephone hot line for complaints has been opened in Beijing (5130828) to help with visitors’ problems. There are also complaint lines in other cities
• The space center at the southern Sichuan city of Xichang opens for visitors to see rocket launches