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China may not be the oldest civilization in the world, but it’s the longest, most continuous one. Stretching back some 5,000 years, Chinese civilization slowly emerged from the fertile flatlands of the middle Yellow River and eventually developed into what is now the most populous nation on Earth. With a land mass slightly less than that of the United States, China clocks in as the fourth-largest country in the world—and many predict the Asian giant is poised to overtake the U.S. as the world’s largest economy in the upcoming decades.
Beginning in 221 BC and over the next 2,000 years, China was ruled by emperors—more than 500 in all. While its entire span of history has been rich and tumultuous, China was especially turbulent during the twentieth century. After the last of the Manchu emperors, Pu Yi, was overthrown in 1912, a revolution led to the establishment of the Republic of China. Further revolutions and civil wars ensued, and in 1949 Communists with Mao Zedong as head of state established the People’s Republic of China—while a rival government was established off China’s coast on the island of Taiwan under the leadership of Chiang Kai-shek. As mainland China transformed into a socialist society—and remained isolationist—the United States backed Chiang Kai-shek. To consolidate power, Mao embarked on a disastrous, decade-long Cultural Revolution, which ended in 1976. Shortly thereafter, the U.S. began establishing formal diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China, and officially ended ties with Taiwan in 1979.
With its vast size and remarkable breadth of landscapes, iconic sites such as the seemingly infinite Great Wall, Beijing’s Forbidden City, the Terra Cotta Army of Xian, Guilin’s limestone pinnacles, and the Yangtze gorges are just a tiny fraction of China’s myriad wonders.
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The Yangtze River
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The Chinese have a saying: “If you haven’t travelled up the mighty Yangtze, you haven’t been anywhere.” Known as cradle of ancient Chinese civilization, the Yangtze River is Asia’s longest river and the world’s third largest river after the Nile and Amazon. Fed by the melting snows of the Himalayas—and more than 700 tributaries—the Yangtze flows along a meandering 3,900-mile route across China’s heartland to Shanghai, where it empties into the East China Sea. In a section of the river known as the Upper Reaches, the Yangtze passes through a series of deep gorges—the Xiling, Wu, and Qutang—known collectively as the Three Gorges. A region of dramatic beauty with towering cliffs and forested mountains plunging to the river’s edge, this is also the site of the controversial Three Gorges Dam. China’s largest construction project since the Great Wall, the Three Gorges Dam is the largest hydroelectric dam in the world. With about a third of China’s 1.2 billion people living in the fertile plains of the Yangtze River Valley, the dam was deemed necessary both for power needs and flood control—but some 1.2 million people had to be relocated and nearly 1,300 historic sites disappeared under the reservoir’s waters. A positive result of the project, however, is that boats of all sizes can now easily navigate what used to be one of the most dangerous stretches of the Yangtze River.
Like the yin and yang, Beijing is a city of extremes. China’s sprawling capital is a dynamic ultra-modern metropolis of soaring skyscrapers and avant-garde architecture—and an ancient city of historic landmarks reflecting 5,000 years of Chinese civilization. The city radiates from the vast stretches of Tiananmen Square with its huge portrait of Chairman Mao, where you can step back in time into the Forbidden City, a collection of palaces, temples, and courtyards off limits to the public for 500 years. Or you could whisk to the corners of the city on the world’s second largest subway system or take a leisurely rickshaw ride through one of Beijing’s few remaining hutongs, ancient neighborhoods tucked into narrow alleys with single story traditional courtyard homes. Along with enigmatic Forbidden City, Beijing’s seven UNESCO World Heritage Sites include the lakeside Summer Palace and pagoda-like Temple of Heaven Park, a remarkably tranquil oasis in the heart of the bustling city. A section of the awe-inspiring Great Wall, China’s premier engineering marvel, also wends its way across the hills just beyond the northern fringes of the city.
Any conversation about the history of China would be incomplete without the Great Wall. At 13,171 miles long, it’s the largest man-made structure ever built. With construction spanning the reign of many emperors throughout China’s history, the Great Wall of China tells many different stories. The Great Wall we know today was largely built during the Ming Dynasty Period (AD 1368-1664) in an effort to keep out Mongolian invasions and cultural influence; after the Mongols were expelled from China by the Ming Dynasty, Emperor Zhu Di (the third Ming emperor) began construction of walls, ditches, and watchtowers along the northern border. Older sections of the wall, such as the rammed-earth fortifications dating back to the Western Han Dynasty, as well as other parts built in different eras, show the Great Wall was in many ways a defining pursuit of Chinese civilization.
The first emperor to construct any part of the wall was Emperor Shi Huangti, first emperor of the Qin Dynasty, starting in 220 BC. Subsequent emperors constructed other northern walls or continued previous efforts. Construction ceased in the 17th century during the reign of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912 BC) when China’s northern border was pushed further north of the wall. During the time of the Republic of China (1912-1949), the government found the wall useful for controlling emigration and immigration. Preservation efforts began in 1980, when the communist Chinese government saw potential as a tourist attraction. In 1987, the Great Wall of China was recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, yet only about 600 miles of the wall are considered stable today.
After completing the Great Wall in the third century B.C., China’s first emperor chose Xian as his capital—and over the next thousand years Xian became the seat of 11 Chinese dynasties. As the eastern terminus of the Silk Road, Xian attracted Arab and Persian merchants and traders from around the world. Much of Xian’s ancient pagodas and monuments are still intact, along with the 40-foot-high walls built in the 14th century that encircle the city (the best preserved ancient city walls in all of China). But if anyone assumed Xian’s glory days were well behind it, things all changed in 1974 when local farmers drilling a well unearthed an underground vault containing thousands of life-sized terracotta soldiers and horses in battle formation. Since that day, archaeologists have uncovered more than 8,000 of these life-size terracotta warriors, horses, and chariots—constructed more than 2,200 years ago to guard the tomb of the emperor Qin Shi Huang, the first ruler to unify China. It is said if you don’t visit the Terra Cotta Army while in Xian, your visit to the ancient Chinese city doesn't count.
It wasn’t always a city of 23 million people with an area five times the size of New York City. Shanghai, whose name means “City on the Sea,” is situated at the point where China’s mighty Yangtze River meets the East China Sea. Yet in spite of such prominent real estate, Shanghai remained a relatively small fishing village until the end of the First Opium War in 1842. After the Treaty of Nanking granted trading concessions in Shanghai to the European powers (and ceded Hong Kong to the British), the quiet fishing village turned into a booming metropolis carved up into autonomous concessions administered concurrently by the British, French, and Americans—all independent of Chinese law. Shanghai boomed again in 1990, when China’s leader, Deng Xiaoping, singled out the city as the engine of China’s commercial renaissance. “If China is a dragon,” he said, “Shanghai is its head.” Today, there are countless experiences to savor in mainland China’s most developed city, including the colonial landmarks of the Bund (meaning the “Embankment”), the city’s famous waterfront; the maze of pavilions and arched bridges of Yu Yuan, an elaborate Chinese garden in the heart of Old Town; and the state-of-the-art galleries at Shanghai Bowuguan, often cited as the best museum in China.
Experience Shanghai’s bustling markets, modern skyline, historic canals, and ancient treasures with travel expert Rudy Maxa.
Situated in southwestern China near the snow-capped peaks of the Himalayas, Yunnan Province is a land of deep spirituality and some of the world’s most spectacular scenic vistas. Yunnan is also home to some 26 different ethnic minorities—each with its own distinctive costumes, culture, and language—making it the most diverse province in all of China. Yunnan’s provincial capital and cultural hub is Kunming, a one-time gateway to the celebrated Silk Road. Nearby sites include the legendary Stone Forest, great limestone pillars and pinnacles sculpted by nature resembling a forest made of stone. Other Yunnan highlights include the ancient city of Dali, a center of Bai culture; and Lijiang, whose impeccably preserved Old Town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Films featuring China from international, independent filmmakers
Let travel expert Rudy Maxa guide you through the temples, restaurants, and shops of Hong Kong.
Watch things heat up in Chengdu, China, from hot pots to giant panda pens.
Learn how China is striving to protect its shrinking population of Asian elephants.
Produced by Andrew Jacobs
©2014 The New York Times
Get a taste of Chinese culture as locals lead you to food markets, an outdoor tea café, and an opera house.
Catch the excitement of traditional Tibetan horse racing as skilled riders compete in China.
Immerse yourself in China with this selection of articles, recipes, and more
Jiaozi dumplings are the perfect appetizers or snacks. Find the recipe for this traditional Chinese dish here.
Find out how China’s one-child policy has changed since its enactment in 1979.
by Meredith Rommelfanger, from Dispatches
You’ll notice that the dishes in Beijing are often not dependent on rice—which isn’t grown locally in northern China—and more likely to employ the region’s bounty of wheat. That’s why you’ll find jiaozi dumplings on so many menus. Boiled or pan-fried, jiaozi are pockets of dough filled with meat or vegetables and then pinched together so that they resemble little half-moons. Today, the definitive northern dumplings are popular all year round, but especially at New Year’s festivities.
We’ve included one of our favorite recipes for jiaozi, avoiding the most difficult aspect of dumpling preparation by using store-bought wrappers, available in Asian grocery stores or sometimes frozen in large supermarkets. (Don’t try to substitute wonton wrappers—they’re the wrong shape and not thick enough.) Once your dumplings are wrapped and sealed, the cooking method is up to you: steamed, pan-fried, boiled, or simmered in soup. You can even freeze for later use. We prefer to serve ours with a flavorful dipping sauce—that recipe follows as well.
Pork and Leek Jiaozi
Ingredients:¾ lb ground pork2 cups leeks, roughlychopped½ cup Napa cabbage,roughly chopped1 ½ tbsp corn starch1 tbsp soy sauceGround pepper, to taste1 package store-boughtChinese dumpling wrappers
Jiaozi Dipping Sauce
½ cup soy sauce2 tbsp rice wine vinegar1 tbsp fresh grated gingerSesame oil to tasteOptional: minced garlic, chili oil, chopped scallions
Stir to combine ingredients and allow sauce to sit at least one hour before serving.
Makes about 50 dumplings
by Jesse Logan, from Dispatches
A new generation of Chinese girls and boys may soon know what it’s like to have a brother or sister. Unlike their parents—many of whom were the only child in their family—these children will experience the promise of China’s recent decision to ease its controversial one-child policy and transition into a two-child policy nation.
Having a second child is already permitted if both the husband and wife were only children. But the relaxation of the one-child limit will now allow couples to have up to two children if either spouse is an only child—as opposed to both—without being fined.
China hopes the policy change will address dwindling population growth, low birth rates, and a looming shortage of young people entering the workforce. While it may not spell another baby boom, Chinese officials say the change could mean an additional one million births—on top of 15 to 16 million babies born each year—and help bolster the country’s place as the world’s second largest economy.
Even more significant though for families and the population at large is the possible emergence of a slow paradigm shift for the Chinese government. For decades, the communist state has been reluctant to make changes to any of its policies. However, the easing of the one-child policy is among a suite of 60 proposed social, economic, and legal reforms—including the abolishment of labor camps—that could represent the government’s attempts to overhaul some of its most notorious policies amid growing public scrutiny.
By the time the one-child policy was enacted in 1979 by China’s Communist Party, the population had soared to more than 975 million people (compared to 807 million in 1969). In the early 1970s, birth rates in China reached nearly five children per woman, according to the United Nations. And the government feared that a surging population rate in the country’s largest municipalities would put a strain on the availability of food and other natural resources.
As a consequence of the one-child policy’s population control methods, officials estimate 250 to 400 million births were prevented over the last three decades. In cities like Guangzhou, Shanghai, and Beijing, many couples were restricted to having one child, and were forced to pay exorbitant fines if they had more. More than 500,000 paid employees from China’s National Population and Family Planning Commission enforced the policy by levying fines on those they deemed in violation of the strict mandate. By 2011, the birth rate dipped to 1.64 children.
Wealthier couples simply went ahead, had more children, and paid the fine, whereas middle-income families didn’t have that luxury. In less populated rural areas, the family planning rules were more relaxed if the first child was a girl or if the couple was from an ethnic minority.
But the bureaucratic enforcement of the policy has not been without human and moral costs. The fines, or “social compensation fees,” as the Chinese government calls them, could be three to ten times a household’s annual income. And the fees have been widely criticized for leading to rampant abandonment of baby girls by poor couples who could not afford to pay the fines for a second female child, let along raise them, and feed themselves.
In a historically patriarchal society, where sons not only carry the family name but are primary breadwinners for the family, the policy has exacerbated a gender imbalance with boys outnumbering girls by about 117 to 100, according to the latest Chinese census numbers. As a result, some reports claim that as many as 40 million Chinese men haven’t been able to marry or have children of their own, because of the imbalance.
Calls to end the one-child policy have also grown, following reports of forced and sex-selective abortions, involuntary sterilizations, and female infanticide. Opponents of the policy, including human rights groups working in the U.S. and in Hong Kong, are urging the Chinese government to dismantle the system because of its brutal effects on women and children. On the bright side though, many of these children have found homes in the U.S. China has reportedly placed more than 80,000 children (91% female) with families abroad—70% of which are American.
Despite reports that the new administration will lift all birth restrictions by 2020, senior officials with China’s National Health and Family Planning Commission tell The New York Times that there are no plans to further relax the policy to allow for more than two children.
However, there is progress. And with time comes more hope for Chinese families. China’s provinces are beginning to set their own timeframes for implementing the new reforms, with the Chinese government encouraging them to do so posthaste. While couples nationwide will have the added liberty to welcome a second child without scrutiny, they will have to apply for a permit. Some couples may choose not to have a second child—despite being eligible—because of economic constraints and the pressures to be successful and prosperous in Asia’s competitive market. But the silver lining is that now with the two-child policy, they at least have a modicum of flexibility to expand their family. And of course, there’s still hope expressed around the world that China will eventually scrap limitations on family size altogether.
There are pros and cons to visiting a destination during any time of the year. Find out what you can expect during your ideal travel time, from weather and climate, to holidays, festivals, and more.
China is a vast country, and winter weather varies dramatically from the north to the south, and east to the west. Northern cities like Beijing and Xian are very cold in these winter months, with temperatures averaging below freezing (and well below freezing in Tibet), while places such as Hong Kong are very mild, with little rain and temperatures averaging around 60º F. And although it may seem that the entire nation is traveling during Chinese New Year, winter months see far fewer crowds at the Great Wall, Beijing, Xi’an, Chengdu, and other iconic destinations.
Chinese New Year: The country’s most important traditional festival, Chinese New Year (also known as Spring Festival) is a week-long celebration of family and friends, and includes cultural activities, temple fairs, dragon dances, concerts, and parades throughout the country.
Spring is one of the best times to explore China. Fruit trees begin to blossom and temperatures slowly rise into the 70s (ºF)—except in the extreme northeast and northwest parts of the country. And it’s still dry in northern cities such as Beijing and Xian, while summer rains have already begun in the south. Major sites are still relatively uncrowded throughout China, although with temperatures also warming up in Tibet, May is the start of the tourist season there.
Must See: Spring flowers in bloom. With some 600 species of rhododendron native to China (some of which can grow to 30 feet high) spring is the time to view clusters of these flowers carpeting the meadows and mountains in vivid colors. In March, large peach orchards come into bloom in China’s southern city of Guilin. And every April, millions of brightly colored tulips and lilies are on display at the Tulip Cultural Festival in Beijing’s Shunyi District.
Summers are hot and humid in China, and daytime temperatures can reach 95+°F in all but the northeast and mountainous areas. Summer rains are often brief but heavy, making the flora vibrant and high water levels in the Yangtze and other rivers. It’s also a great time to visit places like Tibet and the beaches of southern China, although bear in mind that typhoon season begins in August in the south.
Considered the best time to visit China, these are the months when the summer rains have ceased (except in Hong Kong) and the weather is at its optimum. Cooler weather also makes this an ideal time to climb the Great Wall, and fall colors start to appear in parts of the countryside.
The Mid-Autumn Festival in Beijing (also called the Moon Festival) is China’s second most important festival (after Chinese New Year). Traditions center on family life, eating sweet pastries called mooncakes, and releasing festive red lanterns.
This is still a great time to explore China, with temperatures cooling down and smaller crowds at popular destinations. Plus, it’s the best time to see fall colors at their peak across the country, including gingko trees turning a beautiful golden color in the south.
Fall foliage is at its peak in places like the Great Wall, the Yellow Mountains, and the Yangtze River, and clear skies add to the colorful display and dazzling views.
Click 'Select to Compare' to see a side-by-side comparison of up to adventures below—includingactivity level, pricing, traveler excellence rating, trip highlights, and more
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Our Activity Level rating system ranks adventures on a scale of 1 to 5 to help you determine if a trip is right for you. See the descriptions below for more information about the physical requirements associated with each rating.
Activity Level 1:
Travelers should be able to climb 25 stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 1-2 miles over some uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last at least 1-2 hours at a time. Altitude can range from zero to 5,000 feet.
Activity Level 2:
Travelers should be able to climb 40 stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 2-3 miles over some uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last for at least 2-3 hours at a time. Altitude can range from zero to 5,000 feet.
Activity Level 3:
Travelers should be able to climb 60 stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 3 miles over some steep slopes and loose or uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last for 3 or more hours at a time. Altitude can range from 5,000 to 7,000 feet.
Activity Level 4:
Travelers should be able to climb 80 stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 4 miles over some steep slopes and loose or uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last for 4 or more hours at a time. Altitude can range from 7,000 to 9,000 feet.
Activity Level 5:
Travelers should be able to climb 100 or more stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 8 miles over some steep slopes and loose or uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last for 4 or more hours at a time. Altitude can range from 10,000 feet or more.
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