China

According to the United Nations World Tourism Organization, China has replaced Spain as the third most visited country in the world after France and the United States, having received nearly 56 million visitors in 2010. Building on that, the World Trade Organization says China will become the world's leading tourist country by 2020. Given the country's size and wide range of offerings for visitors, as well as its increasingly open borders and lighter visitor restrictions, it's no wonder the country is gaining popularity among the world's numerous and varied globetrotters. The country seems almost framed by its best known destinations, from Beijing and Shanghai in the east, Guangzhou and Hong Kong in the south, Lhasa and the rest of Tibet in the west and Urumqi in the north. In between these points, however, is where the familiar and sometimes stereotypical ends and the rest of the country begins. Lengthy train rides through breathtaking scenery, 'villages' that are small by Chinese standards and downright urban by others', and a wide array of smiles and cultures beyond expectation are just some of the things that await the more intrepid traveller. While the 'must sees' of this country inevitably include the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, the Terracotta Army in the Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor, the view of Hong Kong from Victoria Peak and the Bund in Shanghai, visitors whose open-mindedness and thirst for adventure pushes them to seek the unusual and choose the path not taken will find that a visit to this country will inevitably leave them wanting more. ~ Samantha McDonald-Amara 


15 Chinese Street Foods You Can't Miss

Without a doubt, China is one of the most adventurous countries in Asia when it comes to eating street food on the cheap. Numerous dishes boast some pretty crazy-sounding ingredients, some of which you would never consider edible. Some dishes look really disgusting but taste amazing so you should never judge Chinese food by its look. When you come to China, be adventurous! Don’t limit yourself to eating only baozi, fruits and veggies, along with plain rice. Leave your food comfort zone and keep experimenting with different dishes; from stinky tofu to grilled snake meat, you’ll be surprised by what tickles your tastebuds.

Guangzhou: Finding Serenity in a Crowd

China, renowned for its vast population and booming economy, is as rich today with tradition and culture as it is with gold and locally produced international commodities. Cities of the south within easy reach from Southeast Asia may be an entire continent away from Beijing in terms of how Europe measures distance, though they boast durable facets common to all Chinese. Travel to the urban areas of Guangzhou, Chenzhou and Zhuzhou in southern Hunan province comes complete with unique cultures, centuries old traditions and modern marvels.

Suzhou: the Venice of China

Suzhou: Lots on offerShanghai is such a massive urban centre with so much to offer, that it's sometimes easy to forget that there are other places throughout this amazing country, some of which are right on Shanghai’s doorstep. Take for example, Hangzhou, the ancient capital of China and only one hour away on board one of a fleet of new high speed trains China has developed. If one hour seems too long, however, then even closer is Suzhou. This place has been around for centuries and plays a very important part in the country's history. It was here that most of its silk was made, which not only clothed its people but also gave it one of its biggest exports to trade internationally. Because of this and its proximity to the Grand Canal, other waterways were opened up through the city. Most are gone today, but enough still remain for Suzhou to be nicknamed 'the Venice of China'.

A Modern Visit to an Ancient City

The famed Terracotta Warriors of Xi'anBefore the 1970s, not many people in the western world had heard of the ancient Chinese city of Xi'an. That all changed in 1974, when a local farmer and a few of his friends were digging a well and stumbled upon one of the most extraordinary finds of recent times: the now famed Terracotta Warriors. Today, Xi'an is a world-renowned city that attracts million of tourists annually, including both domestic Chinese and international visitors. And while it's true that people come for the warriors, they also find that there is so much more to this city. After all, the warriors were placed here because over 2,000 years ago the Emperor Qin Shihuang made Xi'an his capital of Qin Dynasty China. His reason for doing so? Apparently Xi'an has the perfect combination of Feng Shui, the right level of wind and water balanced with the surrounding hills and rivers.

Lhasa: Knocking Gently at Your Heart

Potala Palace - Lhasa, TibetSo much has been written about Lhasa, Tibet, that it has been transformed in our minds from an everyday city to a mystical destination. Now governed by the Chinese and visited frequently by the increasingly mobile Chinese population, one might start to question if there is any magic left. Happily, however, there is. There are very few places where we can travel that have an extra fourth sense on top of the usual sights, smells and sounds, but Lhasa has it: a spiritual essence. Centuries of devoted religious practice has enriched the city with a spiritual feeling that floats gently towards you with every flutter of a prayer flag and every flicker of a burning yak-butter candle. It is well worth a visit just to breath it all in.

Visiting Lhasa and other parts of Tibet will take some planning, as special permits are required and a tour guide must accompany foreigners to all major sights. However, you can request Tibetan guides to make your trip more authentic, otherwise you may end up with a Chinese guide. Many travel agencies in your home country or in China can make arrangements for you, but shop around for a deal you feel happy with. It is possible to fly from many Chinese cities, but the more exciting option is to take the train which officially starts from Xining, the capital city of Quinghai province, although you can buy tickets from other starting points around the country too. The journey from Xining to Lhasa takes 23 hours, with a choice of either seat or sleeper carriage. This gives you plenty of time to see the vast plateau and landscape of Tibet, and the whole journey makes your arrival into Lhasa all the more dramatic. Summer is the peak season for Chinese visitors so train tickets are usually sold out. However, third party agencies are available to source tickets for you at an inflated rate, and a number of them can help you organize tickets and travel permits if you're short on time or would rather avoid the hassle of doing it yourself.

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 Full name: People's Republic of China

 Population: 1.34 billion (CIA, 2012)

 Capital: Beijing

 Largest city: Urban Shanghai (by population)

 Area: 9.6 million sq.km. (3.7 million sq. mi.)

 Major languages: Mandarin, Cantonese,  Other

 Major religions: Taoist, Buddhist, Christian  Muslim

 Monetary unit: Renminbi Yuan

 GDP per capita: US $8,400

 Internet domain: .cn

 International dialling code: +86

 Source: CIA World Factbook