The first thing you need to know about China is that you’re never going to take it all in. Even if you pack your bags right now and spend the rest of your life there, you’ll barely scrape the surface of all that is China. Not only is it the most populated country on the planet, it’s the third-largest nation in geographic terms. From the Himalayas to the Gobi Desert, here’s your chance to explore the results of 1.7 million years of complicated and beautiful human history.
The farther that you travel from home, the more you need to plan. When it comes to China, it is important to have a good idea of what to expect before you turn up at in this dizzying land with your suitcase in hand. Here are a few tips that will prepare you for the adventure of a lifetime.
Prepare for the language barrier
While you will probably never master Mandarin, every minute that you spend looking through a very basic travel language guide, like the ones offered by Lonely Planet or the BBC, will pay for itself in hassles saved on arrival. Don’t expect everyone there to speak English. Get an offline dictionary on your phone or pick up an old fashioned one. Carry city maps and business cards for your hotels so that you can always be prepared to communicate in a language-free way.
Try Chinese food for the first time
Prepare for the unexpected. Believe it or not, there is no General Tso’s chicken or fortune cookies in China. You will find just about everything else though. There are nearly 1.4 billion people in China. You can be sure there is a wide array of tastes. Generally speaking there are four primary types of cuisine: Mandarin, Cantonese, Shanghai and Szechuan. Try as many variations as possible and keep an open mind to streetside grilled scorpion stalls too.
Understand the geography
China has 23 provinces. There are 40 cities in China that have a population over one million- that’s more than the entirety of Europe has! This is really important to understand. You wouldn’t go to Europe for two weeks and expect to see everything from Lisbon to Moscow. You can easily spend a week exploring each one of China’s megacities so don’t try to rush yourself through it too quickly.
A Capital Idea: Beijing
If you are only going to one city in China, make it Beijing. The capital city has been the seat of Chinese culture and government for the past 700 years. Some of the most famous Chinese landmarks, the Great Wall of China, the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven, and Tian’anmen Square are all there for your exploration.
Soak in the history
If you are looking to take a step back in time, make your way to Xian. This historical wonderland served as the capital for the Han Dynasty from 206 BC to 220 AD as well as the Tang Dynasty from 618 to 907. Lay eyes on the wonder that is the Terracotta Army. See the historical Buddhist Pagodas of Big Wild Goose Pagoda and Small Wild Goose Pagoda. Visit the Great Mosque, Ancient City Wall, and the Banpo Site. Last but certainly not least, explore the home of the Silk Road, the lifeblood and trade route for the ancient empires that used to extend from Asia to Europe, proving economic and cultural exchange between the West and the East.