China travel guide
Colossal, dizzying and fiercely foreign, China isn’t easily compared to anywhere else on the planet. Home to approximately one fifth of the human race, it variously dazzles, befuddles, frustrates and thrills. The key visitor attractions are renowned around the globe – think the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, and the Terracotta Warriors – but it’s the sheer scale and off-kilter energy of the place that leave the most lasting impression.
The economic drive of recent times means many of China’s cities are as shaped by modernity as anywhere you care to mention, but it’s also somewhere underpinned by dearly held customs and a near-unfathomable amount of diversity. China’s landscapes unfurl across the map in vast swathes of territory, and its sights, sounds and infinite oddities collectively amount to one of the world’s truly great travel experiences. The food’s fantastic too, and getting to grips with the different regional cuisines can be hugely enjoyable.
In other areas, tradition only counts for so much. The pace of development in its key cities – Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou and increasingly others – has thrown up skylines to rival almost any in the world. They’re emblematic of the ‘new’ China, a powerhouse both economically and politically; somewhere eager to make the rest of the world sit up and take notice. Even the ego-driven rulers of the past, from Qin Shi Huang through to Mao, would surely be amazed at just how influential their country has become.
Shift away from the urban sprawl and out into China’s rural areas, however, and you’re confronted with a very different reality. The scenery veers from lush terraced rice paddies and the harsh peaks of the Himalayas to the gorges of the UNESCO-protected Yangtze River. In some of the rural heartlands, indeed, the tableau of life can seem little changed from 50 years ago, at least on the surface. China is full of endless quirks and contradictions, but that’s half the charm.
9,596,960 sq km (3,705,406 sq miles).
1,382,323,332 (UN estimate 2016).
142.5 per sq km.
People's Republic. China comprises 23 provinces (China considers Taiwan its 23rd province), five autonomous regions, two special administrative regions and four municipalities directly under central government.
President Xi Jinping since 2013.
Premier Li Keqiang since 2013.
220 volts AC, 50Hz. However, most 4- to 5-star hotels are also wired for 110-volt appliances. American-style plugs with two flat pins and Australian-style plugs with three flat, angled pins are most commonly used.
Last updated: 13 March 2017
The travel advice summary below is provided by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in the UK. ‘We’ refers to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. For their full travel advice, visit www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice.
Foreigners can be targeted for passports, laptops, mobile phones, purses and handbags. Major tourist sites and areas frequented by foreigners attract thieves and pickpockets. You should take extra care at major tourist sites, on shopping streets, at street markets, Beijing International Airport, major international events and conferences and popular bar areas after dark. The number of thefts can increase in the weeks leading up to Chinese New Year. If your passport is lost or stolen, report it to the nearest police station or Public Security Bureau, who will issue a ‘confirmation of loss’ report. Don’t resist any attempted robbery.
Serious crime against foreigners is relatively rare, but incidents do occur. There have been incidents of sexual assault and robbery of foreigners, particularly when travelling alone in a taxi late at night in major cities. Where possible, take an ‘official’ taxi, make sure someone knows where you are and try to take a note of the taxi’s number.
There are occasional incidents with taxi and pedicab drivers who insist the passenger misunderstood the fare. Avoid travelling in unmarked or unmetered ‘taxis’ and insist on paying only the meter fare. Ask the driver for a receipt (fapiao), on which the taxi number should be printed. You can take this to the police to lodge a complaint.
Counterfeit bank notes (especially RMB100) are increasingly common. They are generally crumpled to avoid detection but you may also receive them from ATMs. Banks won’t replace these. Unscrupulous traders may try to switch your genuine bank notes for counterfeits. Check carefully before accepting notes. It is quite normal to do so.
Beware of scams particularly in popular tourist areas. A regular example is the ‘tea tasting’ scam or ‘massage’ scam. Scams usually involve a foreign national being invited to visit a bar, shop or cafe – for example to practice English or meet a girl – or invited for a massage, but results in demands for an exorbitant fee, often payable by credit card. This can result in threats of violence, actual violence and credit card fraud. This can result in threats or actual violence, and credit card fraud.
Don’t trek alone in isolated areas, including those that follow parts of the Great Wall. If you do, always leave your itinerary, mobile number and expected time of return at your hotel or with a third party.
The areas bordering on Siberia, Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Vietnam, Laos and Burma are poorly policed. In Yunnan Province, drug smuggling and other crimes are increasing. There is a risk of attack from armed bandits in remote areas.
Fire protection standards in Chinese accommodation are not always the same as in the UK. Check fire precautions including access to fire exits. Make sure your accommodation has a working fire alarm.
Carbon monoxide poisoning
There have been incidences of carbon monoxide poisoning due to incorrectly installed gas equipment. One incident caused the death of a British national. If you live in China, make sure your home has a working carbon monoxide alarm. The ‘Be Alarmed’ campaign gives practical advice on how to stay safe, and lists the symptoms to look out for.
Commercial disputes in China are rarely handled through the civil law courts. Incidents of British nationals being detained against their will to extort money or intimidate them for other gains have increased. It is rare for violence to be used, but the threat of violence is a recurring theme. You should report any threats of violence to the Chinese police.
Anyone entering into a contract in China should take legal advice, both in the United Kingdom and in China. Contracts entered into in the United Kingdom are not always enforced by Chinese courts. If you are involved in or connected to a business and/or civil dispute, the Chinese authorities may prohibit you from leaving China until the matter is resolved. This is known as a travel ban. Contract fraud is treated as a crime in China and the defendant may also be placed in custody until the dispute is resolved. For more detailed advice on business risks and commercial disputes, see our guide on commercial disputes in China and the UK Trade and Investment China page.
Tibet and the Tibet Autonomous Region
You will need a permit to travel to the Tibet Autonomous Region. Applications for Tibet Entry Permits can only be made through specialised travel agents based in China and travel can only be undertaken through organised tours. The Chinese authorities sometimes suspend issuing Tibet Entry Permits to foreign nationals, and may also restrict travel to Tibetan Autonomous Prefectures in neighbouring Provinces by those who have already obtained a permit. These restrictions can happen at any time, but in particular during sensitive periods or major religious festivals – especially around February and March, coinciding with the Tibetan new year festival and the anniversary of certain uprisings in Tibet. Travellers to all Tibet areas should check with tour operators or travel agents and monitor this travel advice and other media for information about travel to Tibet.
Ongoing political and ethnic tensions can lead to unrest and violent protest in Tibet. While foreigners are not normally targeted during unrest, you should be alert to the possibility of being caught up in any unexpected demonstrations or outbreaks of violence. Security measures are tight around any large public gathering and unauthorised gatherings may be dispersed by force. There continue to be a number of self-immolations, most recently on 8 December 2016, including in Tibetan areas outside of the Tibetan Autonomous Region itself.
The Chinese authorities tend to react quickly to these incidents and will increase the security presence in the area. There are reports that housing around the Larung Gar Buddhist Academy in Larung valley, Sichuan province, is being demolished by the local authorities so this area should be avoided. Avoid becoming involved in any protests or calls for Tibetan independence. Don’t film or photograph any such activities.
Local authorities will react negatively if you are found carrying letters or packages from Tibetan nationals to be posted in other countries.
Photography in Buddhist monasteries requires permission. You will need to pay a fee, which is normally negotiated in advance.
Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region
The security situation in Xinjiang remains fragile, and conditions locally can deteriorate rapidly at short notice. There have been several instances of violent unrest in Xinjiang. In September 2015, at least 16 people were reported killed in attack on police and civilians at a coal mine in Aksu Prefecture, and in November 2015, 28 people were reportedly killed in a security operation. There have been allegations of the use of lethal force to disperse protests.
Whilst outbreaks of ethnic violence remain sporadic, and foreigners are not normally targeted, you should be alert to the possibility of being caught up in any unexpected demonstrations or outbreaks of violence. The Chinese authorities tend to react quickly to these incidents. They will increase the security presence in the area and their response may be heavy-handed. The Chinese authorities may restrict travel to some areas of Xinjiang, particularly during religious festivals and after violent attacks. You should remain vigilant, keep up to date with local security advice and media reports and take extra care when travelling in Xinjiang. Avoid becoming involved in any protests and avoid large crowds. Don’t film or photograph any such activities or anything of a military nature.
Public transport is popular, inexpensive and widely available, though it can become extremely crowded, especially at holiday/festival times like the Chinese New Year. At busy times, trains and flights are often fully booked weeks in advance.
Visitors and tourists are not allowed to drive in China. Only foreign nationals with a valid residence permit may drive in China. You will have to pass a driving test and get a Chinese driving licence. An International Driving Permit is not sufficient. You must have valid insurance.
There are harsh penalties for driving under the influence of alcohol, even at very low levels.
The poor quality of roads and generally low driving standards lead to many accidents. If you are involved in a serious traffic accident, call the police. Don’t move your vehicle until the police arrive but make sure you and your passengers are in a safe place. If there are no injuries and damage is minimal, the parties involved often come to an agreement on the spot. It is customary in China that the larger vehicle carries liability. In cases where there are injuries, you may be held liable for medical costs. You will also be held liable if you run over a pedestrian.
There are areas of disputed territory between China and other countries in the East China Sea. Mariners should be vigilant and avoid disputed areas. There have been incidents of piracy and armed robbery against ships in the East China Sea. The Regional Co-operation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia Information Sharing Centre (ReCAAP ISC) recorded 40 incidents in 2014 and 10 in 2015. See the ReCAAP ISC’s website for updates on incidents and trends.
Only cash payments are accepted for tickets, including on high speed services. You will need to show your passport to buy a ticket and may need to show it again before boarding.
Trans-Mongolian express trains (Beijing-Moscow via Ulaanbaatar) are noted for smuggling. Search your compartment and secure the cabin door before departure. Petty theft from overnight trains is also common.
China is a one-party state. Though China is very open to foreign visitors, you should be aware of political and cultural sensitivities in conversation with Chinese people.
Territorial disputes between China and neighbouring countries have caused high regional tension. There have been a number of anti-Japanese demonstrations in several cities across China. These protests have generally taken place outside diplomatic missions, but some have targeted other Japanese interests.
Avoid any demonstrations or large gatherings. The Chinese authorities enforce public order strictly and you may face arrest, deportation or detention. Foreign journalists have been intimidated, assaulted or detained for trying to report demonstrations. You may also risk becoming a target yourself when general anti-foreign sentiment runs high. Keep yourself informed of developments and follow the advice of the local authorities. During periods of tension, some news reporting, access to text-messaging, the internet and to international telephone lines may be blocked.