For thousands of years China has kept to itself, and foreigners still find it difficult to penetrate the inner depths of this fascinating and enigmatic nation. However, since the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing showcased some of its most spectacular attractions, there has been a major increase in travellers wanting to explore this vast and exotic destination. There is a great deal to discover in China, which is the world’s most populated country (over 1.3 billion citizens), and also the third largest in the world territorially.
What makes China attractive as a travel destination for Western tourists is its unique culture and valuable antiquities. Ruins and relics from Neolithic settlements and the dynastic reigns of the mighty emperors are there to behold, and there are adventures to be had along the legendary ancient trade routes, such as the Silk Road. The Forbidden Palace, Great Wall of China, and the Terracotta Army of X’ian are just some of the incredible attractions to be seen in this ancient Eastern empire.
The People’s Republic of China has been under a communist government since 1949, but is currently undergoing a boom in social and economic development. Emphasis is being placed on tourist facilities and infrastructure. Though the country’s inconsistent human rights record makes it a controversial choice in some circles, China is opening the doors to its wealth of historical and cultural treasures and visitors are flooding in to be amazed and awed.
Organised tours are still the favoured way to explore China, but independent travel is slowly becoming easier. The major cities, like Beijing and Shanghai, are modern metropolises offering fast food and glitzy stores alongside centuries-old historical buildings and traditional eating houses. Archaeological wonders vie with amazing architecture in the interior, while majestic mountains and remote monasteries crown the northern areas. The country would take several years’ worth of holidays to explore properly!
Electrical current is 220 volts, 50Hz. Plug types vary, but the two-pin flat blade and oblique three-pin flat blade plugs are common. Adapters are generally required.
The official language is Mandarin Chinese, but there are hundreds of local dialects.
A yellow fever vaccination certificate is required from travellers coming into China from infected areas. There is a risk of malaria throughout the low-lying areas of the country, and it is recommended that travellers to China seek medical advice about malaria before departure. Vaccinations are recommended against hepatitis A and hepatitis B, typhoid (not necessary if eating and drinking in major restaurants and hotels), Japanese encephalitis (usually only recommended for rural areas), and rabies (only recommended for travellers at risk of animal bites). Tap water shouldn’t be drunk unless it has first been boiled, filtered or chemically disinfected. Street food should be treated with caution.
There is generally a high standard of health care in major Chinese cities, but it is not provided free of charge; travellers are advised to have comprehensive travel health insurance.
Tipping is not officially recognised in China, though the practice is has become increasingly common among tour guides, top-end restaurants, tour bus drivers and hotel staff. Travellers wanting to tip should leave a gratuity of about 10 percent. Large hotels and restaurants often include a service charge in their bills, usually of around 10 percent, so travellers should make sure that they aren’t doubling up.
China is generally safe, and there is currently little threat from global terrorism. The risk of terror attacks is higher in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region and travellers should exercise caution if travelling to this area. Serious crime against foreigners is rare but does occur, particularly in isolated or sparsely populated areas. There has been an increase in the number of muggings and robberies at Beijing International Airport and around the Jianguomenwai area of Beijing, as well as in Shenzen, bordering Hong Kong. If travelling alone, including following parts of the Great Wall, it is advisable to leave an itinerary and expected time of return with a third party. Travellers should take extra care in street markets and at tourist sites, which attract thieves and pickpockets, and around the popular expat bar areas at night, where lone foreigners have occasionally been attacked. Travellers should be cautious about using pedicabs in Beijing, as tourists have reportedly been mugged by the drivers; women in particular have been targeted. Seasonal heavy rains and typhoons cause hundreds of deaths in China each year, particularly those areas bordering the Yangtze River in central, southern and western China. Demonstrations have taken place in Lhasa, Tibet, as well as in some Chinese provinces in protest against Chinese rule in Tibet. Even though the situation seems to have stabilised, visitors are advised to stay up to date on the situation before travelling to the region and to avoid all protests. The Chinese government sometimes suspends the issue of permits for travel to Tibet due to unrest.
Chinese people usually have three names, the first of which is their surname, or family name. As a result, visitors should be prepared for hotels mistakenly reserving rooms under their first names. For clarity, surnames may be underlined. When addressing Chinese people, the surname should come first and official titles should be used. Chinese handshakes last longer than those in western countries, and it is customary to stand close together when in conversation. Politeness in western terms is often foreign to the Chinese, and they rarely bother with pleasantries. All foreigners should carry their ID on them at all times, as spot checks are common. Failure to show evidence of ID when requested by an official may result in a fine or detention.
The Chinese are strict timekeepers and being late for a meeting is considered rude. When meeting people for the first time it is normal to shake hands and say ‘ni hao‘, which means ‘how are you’. Note that handshakes generally go on for longer in China than in most western countries. Business cards are commonly exchanged at the start of meetings in China; it is customary to have one side printed in Chinese and one in English. When giving or receiving business cards or a gift, it is customary to hold it with both hands. Chinese consider gifts an important show of courtesy. During a meal or reception, your host is likely to offer a toast; foreigners may be expected to offer them one in return.
Women are generally treated with respect and courtesy when doing business in China and it is increasingly common to find Chinese women in senior positions, especially in the big cities. Businesswomen should, however, avoid showing too much skin. Business dress for both men and women tends to be conservative and plain without much ornament or bright colour.
Business hours are 8am to 5pm, Monday to Saturday. A five-day week is more common in larger cities and international companies. Workers usually take their lunch break between 12pm and 2pm and it is not unusual to find offices empty during this time.
The international dialling code for China is +86. Phone booths on the streets are usually for local calls only. In hotels, local calls are generally free or will be charged only a nominal fee. Hotels, cafes and restaurants offering free wifi are widely available. As international roaming costs can be high, purchasing a local prepaid SIM card can be a cheaper option.
Travellers to China do not need to pay customs duty on 400 cigarettes or 100 cigars or 500g of tobacco; 1.5 litres of alcohol; perfume for personal use; and personal articles up to the value of ¥2000. Prohibited goods include arms, ammunition, or printed material that conflicts with the public order or moral standards of the country. Also prohibited are radio transmitters and receivers, exposed but undeveloped film and fresh produce. Strict regulations apply to the import and export of antiquities, banned publications, and religious literature. All valuables must be declared on the forms provided.
China covers extensive territory and has a complex topography, therefore the weather differs substantially from region to region. The southeast, below the Nanling Mountains, tends to be very wet with high temperatures all year round. In the central Yangtze and Huaihe River valleys there are four distinct seasons with very hot summers and extremely cold winters, and rain all year round. The dry north experiences a short but sunny summer, with long, bitterly cold winters (between December and March), with temperatures in Beijing dropping as low as -4ºF (-20ºC). The coast is humid and experiences Typhoons during summer. Travellers are advised to research the climate for the specific region they are visiting.
ENTRY REQUIREMENTS FOR SOUTH AFRICANS
South African nationals require a passport valid on arrival, and a visa for entry to China.
Persons holding an APEC Business Travel Card do not require a visa, provided that it is valid for travel to China. Travel to Tibet will also require a special Tibet Entry Permit. There are a few complex exceptions to Chinese visa requirements, which will not apply to the majority of visitors, but all requirements should be confirmed with a Chinese embassy before travel. All documents necessary for further travel and sufficient funds to cover intended period of stay are required. Period of validity is stated on visas, and care should be taken when reading dates on visas for China as they are written in year/month/day format. We always recommend that passports be valid for six months after intended period of travel.
China’s currency is the Renminbi Yuan (CNY), which is divided into 10 jiao or 100 fen. Make sure you exchange your leftover Yuan before returning home because you may have difficulty exchanging the currency outside China’s borders. Foreign cash can be exchanged in cities at the Bank of China. Banks are closed weekends. The larger hotels and the special ‘Friendship Stores’ designed for foreigners will accept most Western currencies for purchases. Major credit cards are accepted in the main cities, but acceptance may be limited in more rural areas. ATMs are scarce in rural areas.