Facts and Factoids

  • Officially called the People's Republic of China (PRC), this is the world's second most populous country, exceeding 1.4 billion (just recently overtaken by India).
  • China is the world's third largest country.
  • China is the world's largest economy by GDP, at purchasing power parity (around one-fifth of the world economy),the second-wealthiest country and the world's largest manufacturer and exporter, as well as the second-largest importer.
  • It has the world's largest standing army by military personnel and the second-largest defence budget.
  • The Chinese flag was chosen via a competition - there were 2992 entries. The red colour represents the Chinese Communist Revolution. The stars stand for the unity of the Chinese people. The four small stars around one big star show that unity should revolve around one centre.
  • China spans the equivalent of five time zones (but only recognizes Beijing time)  and has land borders with fourteen other countries (tied for most with Russia). The country is divided into 22 provinces, five autonomous regions, four municipalities, and two special administrative regions (Hong Kong and Macau). The national capital is Beijing, but the most populous city and financial centre is Shanghai. Wow.
  • Football was invented in China - but table tennis (or ping pong), one of the national sports, actually came from Great Britain
  • As in Japan, the number four is widely avoided - it sounds too similar to the word for death

What's in a Name?

Trawling the internet throws up several nicknames for China. Perhaps most common is the “Middle Kingdom”. The Chinese believed that China was the centre of the world, surrounded by inferior cultures and civilizations. But the name “Land of Dragons”, also emerges. The Chinese believed that dragons are sacred creatures, symbols of power, strength, and good luck. The dragon also represented the emperor, who was believed to be a descendant of the mythical creature. Closely related is the alternative epithet,“ Land of the Red Dragon”. (Though Wales also lays claim to this one.) Red is considered lucky in Chinese culture. Finally, China is sometimes referred to as the “Celestial Empire”. The emperor was seen as the son of heaven, related to the divine beings who were in charge and gave rise to divine culture.

An Exceptionally Brief History of China

  • The Chinese have a long history.  They  trace their origins to a cradle of civilization in the fertile basin of the Yellow River in the North China Plain. This the only culture in the world to have a continuous recorded history of 5,000 years, beginning withthe The Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors - a group of mythological rulers and sheng (sages). The first was the wise, Yellow Emperor. He promoted the Tao (or the Way).
  • A long series of dynasties followed ensuring the development of Chinese culture, writing, literature, philosophy and  inventions like gunpowder, paper and paper money. It  began with the  Xia dynasty in the 21st century BC and ended with the Manchu-led Qing dynasty. The empire’s fortunes waxed and waned, but the Qing nearly doubled the empire's territory and established a multi-ethnic state. This was the basis for modern day China, as the Qing found themselves at increasing odds with European colonial powers.
  • Buddhism reached China from India in 67 AD and also had a profound effect on Chinese culture.
  • The Chinese monarchy finally collapsed in 1912, a result of  the Xinhai Revolution, when the Republic of China (ROC) replaced the Qing dynasty. The warlord era gave way to civil war between the nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). This was interrupted by the Japanese invasion in World War. The civil war ended in 1949, with the CCP establishing the People's Republic of China on the mainland while the Kuomintang-led ROC government retreated to the island of Taiwan. Today, both claim to be the sole legitimate government of China.
  • The CCP went through several manifestations and the Cultural Revolution, resulting in much hardship for the people. Today, China is governed by a UN recognised CCP,as a unitary Marxist-Leninist one-party socialist republic.

What to See in China?

If you’re a traveller, there can be few words more evocative than China. It's not the easiest or most welcoming of places to visit and it's huge. But solo travel is much more possible than it was. The choice of sights, both cultural and scenic, is exciting and overwhelming. The food is a gastronomic experience too. It varies widely across the country (you'll need to practice with chopsticks or you'll go hungry in some places), but in essence the Chinese eat everything. Rats, snakes, dogs, and many other less-consumed animals (pangolin anyone?) form some of the iconic Chinese dishes. Mostly with rice, of course. (N.B. Fortune cookies originated in San Francisco).

My first Chinese visits were to Hong Kong, then a British Overseas Territory. But you can read about my other trips:

Macau

I'm on my way home from Vanuatu, but I've fitted in a day trip on the hovercraft from Hong Kong to Macau. By the skin of my teeth, as the tour company I booked with have forgotten to come and pick me up. I’ve had varying reports on Macau. It’s reported as nothing but casinos, tawdry. But I’ve always wanted to go and never quite managed to fit it in before.

Macau - in a Nutshell

  • Macau is a former Portuguese colony, occupying a small peninsula and two islands off China's southern coast, in the western Pearl River Delta.
  • Portugal started off renting the territory from Ming China, as a trading post, in 1557, thought to be the the first colonial outpost in Asia .Macau became a full colony in 1887. The Portuguese ruled here for 442 years - Macau was transferred back to China in 1999. This made Portugal the last European country to leave Asia. And Macau the first and last colony
  • Macau is designated a special administrative region of China, like Hong Kong, maintaining separate governing and economic systems from those of mainland China, under the principle of "one country, two systems".
  • Its population of about 680,000 (according to Wikipedia) and area of 12.7 square miles (8 square miles of this is reclaimed land) makes it the most densely populated region in the world.

The Asian Strip

Macau is fascinating and well worth the trip. Colonial and ultra modern combined. Firstly, it's an Asian Las Vegas (Monte Carlo would be stretching it), with 35 themed 'mega' casinos: volcanoes, glittering balls, tower with bungee jump; the lot. And more under construction. This is where China makes its money - the Chinese love to gamble and gambling is illegal in the rest of China.. Macau has capitalised on this. Foreign casino companies have invested heavily since 2002. when Hong Kong tycoon Stanley Ho's decades-long monopoly ended. Gambling in Macau was made legal in the 1850s, but then it was more about traditional gambling dens. Today, Macau is the largest casino gambling jurisdiction in the world. It has annual gambling revenues of more than $13 billion and is still growing. There are a lot of Chinese millionaires..

In addition to the burgeoning Las Vegas style casino hotels, like the Venetian, there are some giant shopping malls.

Historical Macau

The cobbled World Heritage old town is a unique blend of Portuguese and Chinese architecture. Possibly the most rewarding sights are here. The colonial areas, churches (and facades of churches), pink and white mansions, squares and city walls are spread in little clumps. There are even azulejos (Portuguese tiles). Scarlet and gold ancient Tao temples add authentic colour to the shopping streets.

Hong Kong Again

Perhaps the best part of seeing Hong Kong again is the bus journey back to the airport with marvellous views of the city and skyscrapers lit up against the whole of the bay and across the new suspension bridge onto Lantau Island. The Cultural Centre has a nightly ‘Symphony of Light Show’. The illuminations on the island scrapers dazzle to the sound of martial music and a cacophony of lasers keep time. Mmmm….

(And read more about China here.)

Arriving in Hong Kong

Despite the inauspicious date an evening flight (later than I’d intended because of a last minute very annoying change by Cathay) from Manila to Hong Kong, South East Asia 5. I've been to Hong Kong several times before. The first encounter was en Route to Australia - Round the World 1. Another time, I started a trip through mainland China here.

This weekend, I have arranged to meet friends Susanna and Irvin, on their way to Australia, on a month’s break. From the new airport, Chek Lap Kok Airport, the express train speeds me to the city in twenty minutes. It’s all very efficient, but I miss the slightly alarming view, as the plane weaved in and out of the skyscrapers and almost plunges into the sea at old Kai Tak. You could see the occupants of the apartments through their windows.

Sue and Irvin are waiting at the Century Harbour Hotel on Hong Kong Island, and we just have time for a drink in the bar before bedtime.

Hong Kong - Facts and Factoids

  • Hong Kong (along with Macau) is officially a Special Administrative Region of the People's Republic of China.
  • It's a major global financial centre and one of the most developed cities in the world.
  • It is the world's tenth-largest exporter and ninth-largest importer. It's also the least affordable and the most expensive housing market in the world.
  • Land is scarce for housing The city has the largest number of skyscrapers of any city on Earth.

A Very Brief History of Hong Kong

Hong Kong was established as a colony of the British Empire after the Qing Chinese ceded Hong Kong Island at the end of the First Opium War in 1841, then again in, in perpetuity, in 1842. The colony expanded to the Kowloon Peninsula in 1860 after the Second Opium War and was further extended when Britain obtained a 99-year lease of the New Territories in 1898. The whole territory was transferred to China in 1997, with the agreement that 'Hong Kong maintains separate governing and economic systems from that of mainland China under the principle of "one country, two systems".

Hong Kong Island

Hong Kong Island, as far as many people are concerned, is Hong Kong and that's usually what it's called - just Hong Kong. The island had a population of about 3,000, mainly fisherfolk inhabitants, when it was occupied by the United Kingdom. The City of Victoria was then established on the island by (in honour of Queen Victoria, of course).

The northern coast, facing Kowloon, is where it all happens. Central area, in the middle of this coast, is the most important, more specifically Wan Chai District. the historical, political and economic centre of Hong Kong. Victoria Harbour between Kowloon and the island is largely responsible for the development of Hong Kong, due to its deep waters. facilitating mooring for large trade ships.

Exploring Hong Kong Island

The number one must do in Hong Kong is taking in the panorama across Victoria Harbour from The (Victoria) Peak. It's incredible. Most of the tourists take the tram up (it dates from 1888), but I like the bus or the car. It wiggles up the steep hill, past all the expensive houses and apartments with their prime real estate views here.

You can't come to Hong Kong and not go shopping. Window-shopping around Western and the back of Central and all through Hollywood Road, where all the Chinese antique shops are. Also into the atmospheric Man Po temple, incense wafting from suspended coils and gilded statues of gods. The temple was built in 1847, in homage to Man, the god of Literature, and Mo, the god of War.

South and Middle Island

A bus, past the beaches of Repulse Bay, to Stanley Market, in the south. It's crammed with prints, cheap Chinese clothes, tea sets, chopsticks, Tiger Balm and gaudy ornaments. None of them are tempting, but I do need to stock up on Flex hair conditioner. The meal on the terrace in Stanley Oriental restaurant is much more satisfying. We eat on the third floor terrace looking out over the lights of the bay. The local food is excellent, though the Chinese waiter rather spoils it by sulking very loudly because he deems his tip (on top of 10% service charge) to be insufficient. The meal is expensive even by English standards.

Surprisingly, as the coastal areas are so built up, the centre of the island is relatively empty. The mountain ranges here are famous for hiking. There's even a trail called Dragon's Back Hike. I've never had time to explore out here. Back on the top of a double decker bus which crashes along knocking against all the overhanging trees and swaying ominously into roundabouts. We survive and then take a tram onto our respective hotels.

On Sunday, the streets round the ferry terminal are closed. They are crammed with women picnicking, playing cards and gossiping - the Sunday social reunion for all the Filipina maids working in Hong Kong. (Four percent of the population of Hong Kong are from the Philippines.)

Kowloon Peninsula

Another tram, to the Star Ferry terminal, where we catch the famous green ship across Hong Kong Harbour to Kowloon, or more specifically, Tsim Sha Tsui (TST) to Central. (There are road tunnels, but no bridges.) Every evening, by the water here, you you can catch Hong Kong's Symphony of Lights show. Lasers are choreographed to highlight the main scrapers, each side of the harbour. It's very pretty.

Kowloon is the area on the mainland, just north of Hong Kong Island, across Victoria Harbour. Yesterday’s weather was wet and cool (for Hong Kong); today is drier and permits the famed, spectacular island views from the boat. There's also a really great view from the promenade at TST, when we arrive. We get to see the many scrapers soaring to the sky in both directions. The Tsim Sha Tsui Cultural Centre is impressive, (Home to the Hong Kong Space Museum and the Hong Kong Museum of Art). As is the Meccano shaped Bank of China Tower, on the opposite side. But it’s a shame that the iconic fishermen’s sampans and junks have almost totally disappeared.

Kowloon is the most densely populated area of Hong Kong, home to many really upmarket hotels, such as the iconic Peninsula. It's also the main area for the compulsory shopping. We wander up the Nathan Road, through numerous markets and Chinese department stores that aren’t much different from each other. Temple Street Market just off Nathan Road is definitely worth a slight detour. It's mainly a night cum flea market. This is what you expect from Chinese nightlife. Neon signs galore.

Copy watches abound. I almost feel guilty that I haven’t bought one. Three prints and a MacDonald’s instead. Kowloon Park and another gilt and scarlet lanterned Tao temple.

The New Territories

I've travelled twice through the New Territories. Once on the train, going through to Guangzhou and China. People are often surprised when they find out about this area. We tend to think of Hong Kong as just the island. In fact, the New Territories makes up 86.2% of Hong Kong's territory, and contains around half of the population of Hong Kong. The New Territories proper, is all the territory north of Kowloon (wetlands, parks and mountains), as well as the outlying islands. These include Lantau Island to the west (larger than Hong Kong Island and home to Hong Kong Disneyland theme park and the giant bronze Tian Tan Buddha) and Lamma Island (land of beaches) in the southwest.

And it was just this area, which the British leased from the Qing Chinese for 99 years. They owned Hong Kong and Kowloon, but chose to cede them back to China, at the same time, as it was deemed to be too difficult to govern them effectively on their own.

On the MTR

The first time I visit, with Raye, we take the the mass transit railway (MTR) as far as the border. It is crammed and the occupants stare silently. The carriages roll through endless grey high-rises and halt at a string of stations with names to match – Mong-Kok, Sha-Tin.

Out towards Fan-Ling (and ultimately China proper) urbanisation, it is definitely wet. The railway is lined with muddy duck farms. Too many jostling people and the crowds increase as the day wears on. I have Heard Hong Kong described as east meets west, but it's decidedly more east than west. And it’s very aggressive. Old Chinese ladies seem to take a delight in barging you deliberately out of the way. One sticks her tongue out at me, because I am in her way, when she is pushing a cart.

No time to venture out so far, this weekend. A final meal in a basic little Chinese restaurant, where we make the mistake of accidentally ordering enough for six. Then back to Manila.

(And read more about China here.)

Distilled Memories of China

My first trip to China (if you don’t count Hong Kong) was in the nineties. This was pre-digital camera when the images are scanned from old prints, so they are a little grey and dull. That’s pretty well how the weather was when I was there- and the smog. It was a really good route, right up through the middle of China, (with a wiggle to the west and Sichuan/Yunnan), taking in all the major tourist sights. In those days touring was still very controlled and there was a lot of army surveillance. Hotels were dubious and the many diverse sights amazing.

Hong Kong

The visit starts in Hong Kong and we catch the train over the border. Hong Kong. (Click for more recent trips.)

Guangzhou

The city of Guangzhou, which the British used to call Canton, is our first stop. It's just 75 miles north of Hong Kong. Guangzhou, a city port on the Pearl River is one of China's largest cities. That makes it huge enough. But it's at the centre of the Guangdong–Hong Kong-Macau Greater Bay Area, which is the most-populous built-up metropolitan area in the world. Approximately 65,594,622 residents. That's about the same as the population of the UK.

Many of the Cantonese temples' contents were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, but some Chines and Buddhist temples remain here. Perhaps the most famous is the The Temple of the Six Banyan Trees, which dates back as as far as AD 537. The Flower Pagoda, the main structure of the temple, was built in 1097, rebuilt again in 1373 after a fire and restored in 1900.

Another landmark is the Sun Yat Sen Memorial Hall, on the site of Guangzhou's Presidential Palace. It was used when the Nationalists operated a rival "Chinese" government to the Zhili Clique's Beijing regime. The instigator of the Chinese Revolution remains the only relatively recent Chinese leader to be revered by both the Chinese and the Taiwanese.

But, my most distinct memories are of the amazing market. Just about anything that lives (or has lived) is for sale. Snakes, preserved in jars, dried bats and seahorses. The cutest of puppies. eat them or take them home for a pet. You choose.

Guilin, Painter's China

A cruise down the Li River from Guilin to Yangshuo is one of China's must dos. The boat passes through some of China's most spectacular scenery as the shallow water winds through the wobbly karst peaks. They've all been named, of course, like stalactites. "Five Fingers Hill", "Penholder Peak" or "Dragon Head Hill". The misty pinkish sky frames the the water buffalo and fishermen wafting past on their low bamboo rafts. You can see where so many Chines painters have got their inspiration.

"By water, by mountains, most lovely, Guilin". says the tourist board. But they are right.

Some of the fishermen still use cormorants to catch their fish. The cormorants perch on the ends of their rafts, attached by a line. If a net has been deployed then they bring in the fish in their beak and are rewarded with smaller ones. Rings round their necks prevent them swallowing the larger catch. At night, the fishermen use lights to attract the fish and guide the birds. It's apractice dating back over 1,000 years, but it doesn't seem very kind to me.

Kunming

East to Kunming. Kunming is the capital of Yunnan province, located on the shores of Lake Dian. The tourist attraction in this area is the Petrified Forest, about 60 miles south east. Here are more karst formations: rock caves, arches, pinnacles and pavilions. I would have thought it scenic if I hadn't seen Guilin first.

Kunming also has markets, temples and mountains. and incidentally, some horrible toilets. China has to have the worst toilets in the world. Open trenches round the back of the markets where you squat along with everyone else. amongst all the ordure already deposited. Ugh.

Back to the mountains. Yuantong Mountain, in the northeast corner of Kunming, has a popular urban 'Green Park'. It boasts cherry blossom, which comes earlier than in Japan and a zoo. Sitting at the foot of the mountain, is the Yuantong Temple, a series of Buddhist shrines, which have been expanded, but date back to the late eighth and early ninth century,

Leshan and Mount Emei

Now onto Leshan, picking up the Min River, a major tributary of the Yangtze, and following it north to its confluence with the Dadu river, just outside the city. There's a Buddha here, carved out of the red sandstone cliffs. It's 71 metres tall and dates to between 713 and 803 (during the Tang dynasty). That makes it the largest stone Buddha in the world and the tallest pre modern statue.

It's astonishing to find this scene so close to major road networks and conurbations. The river washes its feet and the Buddha faces Mount Emei, You can look down from the top, or descend ladders to the bottom. It is huge and horribly vertigo inducing. It's in the UNESCO recognised Mount Emei National Park.

Emei is one of the four sacred Buddhist mountains of China, an hour's drive west of Leshan. It is the site of the first Buddhist temple built in China, in the 1st century AD. There are seventy-six Buddhist monasteries now, altogether, most of them of the Ming and Qing dynasties, most of them built near the top of the mountain, which is over 3,000 metres high. it's not very warm either, even in August. You can visit them all on a winding 31 mile path, which takes several days to hike. Or you can cheat and take a cable car partway. The monkeys are another deterrent. They bite your fingers if you have food.

Chengdu and the Giant Pandas

We are well into Sichuan province now. Spicy food - liberal use of chilli, garlic and Sichuan pepper, of course. I love the beef, but other dishes such as Kung Pao chicken and Yuxiang shredded pork have become increasingly known in the UK. This is also one of the main tea growing areas in China.

Chengdu is the capital of Sichuan. It's also famous for giant pandas. The Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding was founded in 1987. with six giant pandas that were rescued from the wild. These gorgeous black and white bears are endemic to China and live almost exclusively on bamboo. It takes a lot of bamboo to provide enough nutrition, so the bears spend a great deal of time eating. For many years they were endangered, as deforestation drove them out of their natural habitats. They are now classified as vulnerable. China sends other countries pandas - zoos love them, due to their audience appeal, so they make good bargaining tools. But they are never given, always loaned.

I'm sure the centre does a good job in breeding giant pandas, but viewing is more than a little frustrating. They're nibbling away at their bamboo behind plate glass. Even photography is difficult, because of the reflections.

Xi'an

We fly north to Xi'an, as it's a very long drive. Our first journey on internal Chinese airlines. I've been lugging my fat Lonely Planet guide to China round with me. There's a long section describing the poor accident records, and detailing horror stories. They use their own manufactured parts in their Russian fleet to test them out. Both pilots got locked out of the cockpit on one instance and had to use a fire axe to hack their way back in. A kind member of our group goes to great lengths to point this out, as the plane is taking off. In the event, I survive and we are given ice cream for our in flight meal.

Xi’an is the capital of Shaanxi Province in central China, the eastern terminus of the Silk Road. It has historical ties with several of China's ruling dynasties, but it's mostly famous for the Bingmayong (Terra Cotta Army), thousands of life-size, hand-moulded figures buried with China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang. They date back to 209-210 BC and were placed there to protect the Emperor in the afterlife. I'm lost for words. (Cameras were banned in those days!)

Also in Xi'an, the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda. This enormous Buddhist pagoda (64 metres) was built in 648/649 (Tang dynasty) to store the translations of Buddhist sutras obtained from India. An earthquake in 1556 Shaanxi reduced its height to 43 metres. The other tourist must-see is the Bell Tower. It's comparatively young, only built in 1384 (Ming Dynasty), but it's said to be one of the grandest in China.

The Great Wall of China

A final flight, even further north, to Beijing. Aaargh, but more ice cream. And we take a day trip to the Great Wall, 'one of the most impressive architectural feats in history'.

Sadly, it's not true that The Great Wall can be seen from the moon. It's debateable whether it can even be seen from space. And it's not just one wall, its several, built at different times, starting in the seventh century BC. Some pieces run parallel, most were eventually conjoined. The best-known parts of the wall were built during the Ming dynasty (1368–1644). Watchtowers, troop barracks, garrison stations and signalling capabilities (through smoke or fire) were all incorporated. Collectively, the wall sections stretch from Liaodong in the east, to Lop Lake in the west and from the present-day Sino–Russian border in the north to Tao River (Taohe) in the south. It spans an astonishing 13,170.70 miles in total.

The purposes of the Great Wall, all too familiar: to control immigration, keep out invaders and ensure that those travelling the Silk Road paid their taxes. It also served as a very useful transportation corridor. Some sections have fallen so badly into disrepair that they have disappeared altogether. The stones are only too handy for building houses. Attempts have been made at restoration in the areas where the tourists are taken. And here, it's thronging.

Beijing, the Capital of China

In the capital city we visit the major sites, fly kites in Tianaman Square and hit the McDonald's close by. We've been eating a lot of Chinese food.

Read more about my visits to Beijing here.

Read more about China here.

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