Introduction

China has grown up alone and aloof, cut off from the rest of Eurasia by the Himalayas to the southwest 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.

The first thing that strikes visitors to the country 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, grey skies, shadow-boxing, 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 scores of 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.

Fact file

• With an area of 9.6 million square kilometres, China is the fourth largest country in the world – practically the same size as the United States – and the most populous nation on earth, with around 1.3 billion people. Of these, 92% are of the Han ethnic group, with the remainder comprising about sixty minorities such as Mongols, Uyghurs and Tibetans. The main religions are Buddhism, Taoism and Christianity (Confucianism has died out as a religious system, but its tenets remain embedded in the Chinese psyche), though the country is officially atheist. A third of China comprises fertile river plains, and another third arid deserts, plateaux or mountains. China's longest river is the Yangzi (6275km) and the highest peak is Qomolongma – Mount Everest (8850m) – on the Nepalese border.

• China is a one-party state run by the Chinese Communist Party, the sole political organization, which is divided into Executive, Legislative and Judicial branches. The chief of state (President) and the head of government (Premier) are elected for five-year terms at the National People's Congress. After decades of state planning, the economy is now mixed, with state-owned enterprises on the decline and free-market principles ubiquitous. China's main exports are clothing, textiles, tea and fossil fuels, and its main trading partners are the US, Japan, South Korea and Europe.

When to go

China's climate is extremely diverse. The south is subtropical, with wet, humid summers (April– Sept), when temperatures can approach 40°C, and a typhoon season on the southeast coast between July and September. Though it is often still hot enough to swim in the sea in December, the short winters (Jan– March), can be surprisingly chilly.

Central China, around Shanghai and the Yangzi River, has brief, cold winters, with temperatures dipping below zero, and long, hot, humid summers. It's no surprise that three Yangzi cities – Chongqing, Wuhan and Nanjing – are proverbially referred to as China's three "furnaces". Rainfall here is high all year round. Farther north, the Yellow River basin marks a rough boundary beyond which central heating is fitted as standard in buildings, helping to make the region's harsh winters a little more tolerable. Winter temperatures in Beijing rarely rise above freezing from December to March, and biting winds off the Mongolian plains add a vicious wind-chill factor. In summer, however, temperatures here can be well over 30°C. In Inner Mongolia and Manchuria, winters are at least clear and dry, but temperatures remain way below zero, while summers can be uncomfortably warm. Xinjiang gets fiercely hot in summer, though without the humidity of the rest of the country, and winters are as bitter as anywhere else in northern China. Tibet is ideal in midsummer, when its mountain plateaux are pleasantly warm and dry; in winter, however, temperatures in the capital, Lhasa, frequently fall below freezing.

Overall, the best time to visit China is spring or autumn, when the weather is at its most temperate. In the spring, it's best to start in the south and work north or west as summer approaches; in the autumn, start in the north and work south.

Getting around

Public transport is comprehensive and good value in China: you can fly to all regional capitals and many cities; the rail network extends to every region; and you can reach China's remotest corners on local buses. Tibet is the one area where there are widespread restrictions on independent travel (

However, getting around a crowded country with over a billion people often requires planning, patience and stamina. This is especially true for long-distance journeys, where you'll find travelling in as much comfort as you can afford saves a lot of undue stress. Tours are one way of taking the pressure off, and may be the only practical way of getting out to certain sights.

Public holidays – especially either side of the three "Golden Weeks" – are rotten times to travel, as half China is on the move between family and workplace: ticket prices rise (legally, by no more than fifteen percent, though often by up to fifty), bus- and train-station crowds swell insanely, and even flights become scarce.

History

As modern archeology gradually confirms ancient records of China's earliest times, it seems that, however far back you go, Chinese history is essentially the saga of the country's autocratic dynasties. Although this generalized view is inevitable in the brief account below, bear in mind that, while the concept of being Chinese has been around for over two thousand years, the closer you look, the less "China" seems to exist as an entity – right from the start, regionalism played an important role. And while concentrating on the great events, it's easy to forget that life for the ordinary people wavered between periods of stability, when writers, poets and artisans were at their most creative, and dire times of heavy taxation, war and famine. While the Cultural Revolution, ingrained corruption and clampdowns on political dissent may not be a good track record for the People's Republic, it's also true that since the 1980s – only yesterday in China's immense timescale – the quality of life for ordinary citizens has vastly improved.

Beijing and around

The Forbidden City

The Gugong, or Imperial Palace, is much better known by its unofficial title, the Forbidden City, a reference to its exclusivity. Indeed, for the five centuries of its operation, through the reigns of 24 emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties, ordinary Chinese were forbidden from even approaching the walls of the palace. The complex, with its maze of eight hundred buildings and reputed nine thousand chambers, was the symbolic and literal heart of the capital, and of the empire, too. From within, the emperors, the Sons of Heaven, issued commands with absolute authority to their millions of subjects.

The Great Wall

Stretching from Shanhaiguan, by the Yellow Sea, to Jiayuguan Pass in the Gobi Desert, the Great Wall is an astonishing feat of engineering. The practice of building walls along China's northern frontier began in the fifth century BC and continued until the sixteenth century. Over time, this discontinuous array of fortifications and ramparts came to be known as Wan Li Changcheng (literally, "Long Wall of Ten Thousand Li", li being a Chinese measure of distance roughly equal to 500m), or "the Great Wall" to English-speakers. Even the most-visited section at Badaling, constantly overrun by Chinese and foreign tourists, is still easily one of China's most spectacular sights. The section at Mutianyu is somewhat less crowded; distant Simatai and Jinshanling are much less so, and far more beautiful. To see the wall in all its crumbly glory, head out to Huanghua. For other trips to unreconstructed sections, check out www.wildwall.com or contact Beijing Hikers at www.beijinghikers.com.

Dongbei

Harbin festivals

In compensation for the cruel winter weather, the annual Ice Festival, centred on Zhaolin Park, is held from January 5 to February 5 – though with the influx of tourists, the dates extend each year. At this time, the park becomes a fairy-tale landscape with magnificent sculptures – sometimes entire buildings, complete with slides, stairways, arches and bridges – made of ice, carved with chainsaws and picks, and often with coloured lights inside them to heighten the psychedelic effect. Sculptors, some of them teenagers, work in ‑20°C December weather, earning ¥20 for a twelve-hour day. Highlights of past festivals have included detailed replicas of St Paul's Cathedral and life-size Chinese temples, though these days cartoon characters outnumber more traditional Chinese subject matter. Over on Sun Island, a snow sculpture display is held, the highlights of which are the toboggan and snow-tube pistes. It's as much fun watching ecstatic Chinese bounce down the slopes as it is sledding. You can walk across the river yourself or take a horse-drawn carriage for ¥10. Festival's end is marked with fireworks and pickaxes; visitors are encouraged to destroy the icy artwork by hand.

The Yellow River

The Terracotta Army and Tomb of Qin Shi Huang

The Terracotta Army – probably the highlight of a trip to Xi'an – and the Tomb of Qin Shi Huang, which it guards, are 28km east of Xi'an, just beyond Huaqing Pool. Plenty of tours come here, giving you two hours at the army and twenty minutes at the tomb. Alternatively, it's easy enough to get here by yourself on bus#306 (¥7) from the east side of the Xi'an train station; the journey takes an hour. More expensive, but a little quicker, are the minibuses (¥26) that leave from the same place. You get dropped off in a vast car park at the start of a newly built tourist complex of industrial proportions whose main purpose seems to be to channel visitors through a kilometre-long gauntlet of overpriced restaurants and souvenir stalls. The food is diabolical, and it's best to eat before you go.

Sichuan and Chongqing

Dafo

Impassive and gargantuan, Dafo (May– Sept 7.30am–7.30pm; Oct– April 8am–6pm; Dafo ¥70; entire site ¥110) peers out from under half-lidded eyes, oblivious to the sightseers swarming round his head, clambering over his toes and nearly capsizing their boats in their eagerness to photograph his bulk. Tang-dynasty Big Buddha carvings are pretty abundant in Sichuan, but none approaches Dafo's 71-metre height – this is the world's largest Buddhist sculpture. Statistics, however, can't convey the initial impression of this squat icon, comfortably seated with his hands on his knees, looming over you as the ferry nears.

The rough waters below the sandstone cliffs of Lingyun Shan had been a shipping hazard since before Qin times, but it wasn't until 713 AD that the monk Haitong came up with the idea of filling in the shoals with rubble produced by carving out a giant Buddha image. After Haitong blinded himself to convince corrupt officials to hand over funds, the project was overseen by various monks and finished by the local governor, Wei Gao, in 803. Once construction started, temples sprang up above the Buddha at Lingyun Shan and on adjacent Wuyou Shan, and today you can spend a good three hours walking between the sights.

The site can be accessed either from the north entrance or by ferry to Wuyou (¥30) – the route described below. From the north entrance, you can opt to just visit Dafo or buy a ticket for the whole site; landing by ferry you have to pay the full ticket price.

The Northwest

The Silk Road

The passes of Khunjerab and Torugut, linking China with western Asia – and ultimately with the whole of the Western world – have only in recent years reopened to a gradually increasing flow of cross-border traffic, mostly small-time traders. Yet a thousand years ago these were on crucial, well-trodden and incredibly long trade routes between eastern China and the Mediterranean. Starting from Chang'an (Xi'an), the Silk Road curved northwest through Gansu to the Yumen Pass, where it split. Leaving the protection of the Great Wall, travellers could follow one of two routes across the deserts of Lop Nor and Taklamakan, braving attacks from marauding bandits, to Kashgar. The southern route ran through Dunhuang, Lop Nor, Miran, Niya, Khotan and Yarkand; the northern route through Hami, Turpan, Kuqa and Aqsu. High in the Pamirs beyond Kashgar, the merchants traded their goods with the middlemen who carried them beyond the frontiers of China, either south to Kashmir, Bactria, Afghanistan and India, or north to Ferghana, Tashkent and Samarkand. Then, laden with Western goods, the Chinese merchants would turn back down the mountains for the three-thousand-kilometre journey home. Oases along the route inevitably prospered as staging posts and watering holes, becoming important and wealthy cities in their own right, with their own garrisons to protect the caravans. When Chinese domination periodically declined, many of these cities turned themselves into self-sufficient city-states, or khanates. Today, many of these once powerful cities lie buried In the sands.

Tibet

The Jokhang

The Jokhang (daily 8am–6pm; ¥70) – sometimes called Tshuglakhang (Cathedral), and which is the holiest temple in the Tibetan Buddhist world – can be somewhat unprepossessing from afar, but get closer and you'll be swept up by the anticipation of the pilgrims and the almost palpable air of veneration. Inside, you're in for one of the most unforgettable experiences in Tibet; many visitors end up returning day after day.

The Jokhang stands 1km or so east of the Potala Palace, in the centre of the only remaining Tibetan enclave in the city, the Barkhor area, a maze of cobbled alleyways between Beijing Dong Lu and Chingdol Dong Lu. If you're coming from the western side of town, the #2 or #3 minibus may come into Barkhor Square or – more likely – drop you about five minutes' walk away on Dosengge Lu or Beijing Dong Lu.

Pilgrims go in at the front, but the foreign visitors' entrance is on the southeast side, and entry – until quite recently free – is now a shocking ¥70. The best time to visit is in the morning, when most pilgrims do the rounds.

The Friendship Highway

Rongbuk Monastery and Everest Base Camp

Rongbuk Monastery – at 4980m, the highest in the world – was founded in 1902 by the Nyingma Lama, Ngawang Tenzin Norbu, although a hardy community of nuns had used meditation huts on the site for about two hundred years before this. The chapels themselves are of limited interest; Padmasambhava is in pride of place and the new murals are attractive, but the position of the monastery, perched on the side of the Rongbuk Valley leading straight towards the north face of Everest, is stunning. Just to sit outside and watch the play of light on the face of the mountain is the experience of a lifetime.

Everest Base Camp (5150m) is a farther 8km due south. The road is driveable, but it's mostly flat, and the walk alongside the river through the boulder-strewn landscape past a small monastery on the cliff is glorious. Base camp is often a bit of a surprise, especially during the climbing seasons (March– May, Sept & Oct), when you'll find a colourful and untidy tent city festooned with Calor gas bottles and satellite dishes. It's possible to camp near the monastery, where there's also a guesthouse offering dorm accommodation (Under ¥50). Grubby quilts are provided, but you'll be more comfortable with your own sleeping bag. Each room has a stove and pot to boil water (you collect it from up the valley) and the monks will provide fuel (although if you can manage to buy some in the villages on the way, this would be insurance against a shortage – a night here without heat would be grim). There's a small monastery shop selling mostly leftovers from mountaineering expeditions – take your own food. Don't be surprised if you suffer with the altitude here. However well you were acclimatized in Lhasa, base camp is around 1500m higher, so be sensible and don't contemplate a trip here soon after arrival up on the Tibetan plateau.