China has grown up alone and aloof, cut off from the rest of Eurasia by the Himalayas to the south and the Siberian steppe to the north. For the last three millennia, while empires, languages and peoples in the rest of the world rose, blossomed and disappeared without trace, China has been busy largely recycling itself. The ferocious dragons and lions of Chinese...
China has grown up alone and aloof, cut off from the rest of Eurasia by the Himalayas to the south and the Siberian steppe to the north. For the last three millennia, while empires, languages and peoples in the rest of the world rose, blossomed and disappeared without trace, China has been busy largely recycling itself. The ferocious dragons and lions of Chinese statuary have been produced for 25 centuries or more, and the script still used today reached perfection at the time of the Han dynasty, two thousand years ago. Until the late nineteenth century, the only foreigners China saw - apart from occasional ruling elites of Mongol and Manchu origin, who quickly became assimilated - were visiting merchants from far-flung shores or uncivilized nomads from the wild steppe: peripheral, unimportant and unreal.
Today, while there is no sign of the Communist Party relinquishing power, the negative stories surrounding China - the runaway pollution, the oppression of dissidents, the harsh treatment of criminal suspects and the imperialist behaviour towards Tibet and other minority regions - are only part of the picture. As the Party moves ever further away from hard-line political doctrine and towards economic pragmatism, China is undergoing a huge commercial and creative upheaval. A country the size of ten Japans has entered the world market: Hong Kong-style city skylines are rearing up all across China, and tens of millions of people are finding jobs that earn them a spending power their parents could never have known. Whatever the reasons you are attracted to China, the sheer pace of change, visible in every part of Chinese life, will ensure that your trip is a unique one.
The first thing that strikes visitors to China is the extraordinary density of its population. In central and eastern China, villages, towns and cities seem to sprawl endlessly into one another along the grey arteries of busy expressways. These are the Han Chinese heartlands, a world of chopsticks, tea, slippers, massed bicycles, shadow-boxing, exotic pop music, teeming crowds, chaotic train stations, smoky temples, red flags and the smells of soot and frying tofu. Move west or north away from the major cities, however, and the population thins out as it begins to vary: indeed, large areas of the People's Republic are inhabited not by the "Chinese", but by more than two hundred distinct ethnic minorities, ranging from animist hill tribes to urban Muslims. Here the landscape begins to dominate: green paddy fields and misty hilltops in the southwest, the scorched, epic vistas of the old Silk Road in the northwest, and the magisterial mountains of Tibet.
While travel around the country itself is seldom problematic, it would be wrong to pretend that it is an entirely easy matter to penetrate modern China. The tourist highlights - the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, the Terracotta Army and Yangzi gorges - are relatively few considering the size of the country. In particular, recent modernizations have, quite deliberately, destroyed much of the historic architecture which would have lent Chinese cities the character enjoyed by those in Europe or the Middle East. On top of this are the frustrations of travelling in a land where few people speak English, the writing system is alien and foreigners are regularly viewed as exotic objects of intense curiosity, or as fodder for overcharging - though overall you'll find that the Chinese, despite a reputation for curtness, are generally hospitable and friendly.