Take a Trip to China
Jun 01 '05

OLD CHINA OR NEW--both are sure to be a revelation to first-time visitors. China 's modern face may come as a shock because of its sheer size: Millions of upwardly mobile urban residents rush about with mobile phones glued to their ears, flaunting a taste for designer fashions and late-model foreign cars. At night, they go home to suburban gated-apartment complexes complete with golf courses.

The old port of Shanghai has become a modern city of towering skyscrapers and neon lights, reflecting the remarkable economic growth that's transformed much of urban and suburban China over the past 15 years. Once Deng Xiaoping revised the country's old-style communist economics, opened it to foreign investment and development, and upended the glorification of selflessness and self-sacrifice--"To get rich is glorious," he declared-- China has been on a rip.

But there's still plenty of traditional China left to see. The most populous country on Earth comprises diverse cultures and covers 3.6 million square miles of varying climates and landscapes, with great expanses of bucolic rice-paddy-dotted countryside and spectacular natural wonders. The country has 30 UNESCO World Heritage Sites. No visitor should miss seeing the Great Wall, touring the Forbidden City in Beijing or visiting the famed terra-cotta warriors in Xi'an .

BEST SEASONS TO GO

Spring and autumn are the best times to visit China . (But avoid early October, when the Chinese celebrate National Day and most offices and many shops and restaurants close for up to two weeks.) Because the country lies roughly in the same latitude range as most of North America , summers in Xi'an can be as roastingly hot as Arizona 's, while winters in the northeastern province of Heilongjiang can be as frigid as Nova Scotia 's.

During early autumn, however, temperatures in the north average 68 to 75 degrees, and rain is scarce. September's low humidity and moderate temperatures make it the only month when the Beijing Palace Museum can display its priceless ancient paintings. They are stored the rest of the year, as extreme temperatures and ever-present air pollution pose too great a risk. Beijing 's residents still use coal to heat their homes, and a gray pall often hangs over the frigid city in winter.

JOINING A TOUR GROUP

A tour is usually the best way for new visitors to see the main attractions with minimal hassles. Professionals will arrange for you to get your visa on time, and tour prices generally include meals and accommodations. And traveling with a group relieves you of two onerous tasks: dealing with Chinese bureaucracy and navigating menus written in Chinese.

Because it's difficult to see more than a few far-flung cities or tourist sites during a visit, the key to a successful China trip is to select a tour that focuses on what you want to see the most. Some tours concentrate on urban areas, such as night-life-rich Shanghai , plus trips to the major historical sites of Beijing . Others emphasize idyllic countryside scenes, such as a cruise down the Yangtze River and visits to locales of natural beauty such as Guilin and Suzhou . Guilin is a region of craggy limestone hills and peaks often depicted in classical Chinese paintings. It's an area that you can easily explore on rented bicycles. Suzhou is the historic silk-trading city first described to Europeans by Marco Polo. It still has some of the gardens and canals that were reported by the explorer in his Travels .

There are literally thousands of tours to choose from, running the gamut from ultra-luxurious to bare-bones. Here are a few examples of the range of tours that are available:

On the high end is Imperial Tours ( www.imperialtours.net ), whose packages start at $6,280 per person, double occupancy, for a 15-day, 11-site tour. The tour price does not include airfare.

Pacific Delight Tours ( www.pacificdelighttours.com ) offers a variety of packages, including a 16-day Imperial Cities tour for $4,765 per person, double occupancy, including airfare; an 18-day "Classic China and Yangtze River" tour for $5,715; and a 10-day "Supervalue" tour from $1,795 up.

Affordable Tours ( www.affordabletours.com ) is another option. The agency's 10-day trips can include airfare and stays in four-star hotels. Prices start at $1,799 per person, double occupancy.

GOING IT ALONE

You can save money by making your own arrangements--as long as you avoid getting fleeced. But if you haven't visited China before, don't try a solo trip without bringing a copy of the Lonely Planet China guidebook, the sine qua non of independent travel in Asia .

You can obtain a tourist visa through either the Chinese Embassy in Washington , D.C. , or one of the five consulates, located in Chicago , Houston , Los Angeles , New York City and San Francisco . The Chinese have made the application process easier by posting the required forms online. Nevertheless, many travelers choose to have a private service to handle the visa paperwork, such as www.passportsplus.com , www.visarite.com and www.mychinavisa.com . Costs range from about about $90 for a standard two-week turnaround to about $190 for express one-day service.

ATMs are plentiful in China 's cities and airports. Most major international airlines, including American, Continental, Delta, Northwest and United, fly to China direct from the West Coast or through Tokyo . Round trips typically range from $700 to $1,300, depending on the season, route and availability.

Hotels in China fit a variety of budgets, and the major international chains offer rooms in most major cities. Getting around without speaking Chinese shouldn't be a problem, either. In major cities, the main points of interest and thoroughfares usually have signs in English. Tourist information booths give out free maps and guidance. Many urban Chinese, particularly the young, speak some English, so by pointing to a map and asking for help, you can usually get from site to site without a glitch. However, as in any country, it pays to learn at least a few words of the local language; xie xie (pronounced shieh-shieh ) for thank you and ni hao ( NEE-hao ) for hello are essential.

Outside the main cities and tourist attractions, English is less prevalent, and traveling and ordering food can be a challenge. Even experienced travelers in China often resort to an old trick: looking around the restaurant and pointing to whatever dishes look good.

WHAT TO SEE AND DO

A trip to China without seeing the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square and the Great Wall (begun in 220 b.c., about 45 miles outside Beijing), would be like visiting the U.S. and missing the Capitol, the White House and the Washington Monument. China also has the equivalent of our Smithsonian museums, including the famed Shanghai Art Museum . Another must-see is Xi'an , the ancient capital of the Tang Dynasty situated on the Silk Route . Xi'an is where legions of terra cotta warriors from 3 b.c. were unearthed in 1974.

When selecting an itinerary, consider taking a cruise into China 's interior. The Yangtze River Dam Project, now well under construction, has widened the river and made it more navigable by bigger and more-comfortable ships.

Wherever you go in China , get up early at least one morning to see residents performing their morning tai-chi exercises in public parks. As you travel, get a taste of the country's regional cuisines. Some Americans still believe "Chinese food" means takeout fare such as kung pao chicken and egg foo yong. But China 's cuisine is very regional. In Beijing , for instance, the staple is wheat, not rice. Breakfasts often consist of fried dough or a bun that resembles a miniature jelly doughnut minus the filling. In the south, breakfast is a rice soup called congee. More interesting are the variations of jiaozi ( jow-zuh ), the stuffed dumplings that inspired Italian ravioli. And if you visit Shanghai this fall, try Shanghai crab, an olive-colored crab that's sold alive on street corners for a brief period each year.

Sheridan Prasso regularly travels to Asia and is the author of The Asian Mystique, which reveals cultural misperceptions that hinder westerners from seeing Asians as they are.