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is not so much another country as another world. Cut off from the rest of Eurasia by the Himalayas to the south and the Siberian steppe to the north, it has grown up alone and aloof. The only foreigners it saw were visiting merchants from far-flung shores or uncivilized nomads from the wild steppe: peripheral, unimportant and unreal. Apart from a few ruling elites of Mongol and Manchu origin, who quickly became assimilated, China did not experience a significant influx of foreigners until the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, something which still colours the experience of today's visitors to China.
While empires, languages, nations and entire peoples in the rest of the world have risen and blossomed - then disappeared without trace - China has spent the past two millennia largely recycling itself. The ferocious dragons and lions of Chinese statuary have been produced by Chinese craftsmen, with the same essentially Chinese characteristics, for 25 centuries or more, and the script still used today reached perfection at the time of the Han dynasty, two thousand years ago. It is as though the Roman empire had survived intact into the twenty-first century, with a billion people speaking a language as old as classical Latin.
To say that the Chinese are presently enjoying better government than at any time in their recent history may not be saying much, but it is surely true. There is little sign of the Communist Party relinquishing power, or its control over the media. However, the negative stories surrounding today's China, the oppression of dissidents, the harsh treatment of criminal suspects and the imperialist behaviour towards Tibet and other minority regions, are only one part of the picture. Away from politics, the country is undergoing a huge commercial and creative upheaval. A country the size of ten Japans has entered the world market: Hong Kong-style skylines are being constructed in cities all across China, and tens of millions of people are finding jobs that earn them a spending power they have never known. The colossal historic fact of Hong Kong and Macau, the last European colonies, being returned to China in time for the new millennium, as though by celestial injunction, only adds to the sense that Chinese destiny is being restored to its rightful place at the centre of the world.
The sheer pace of change is visible in every part of Chinese life, from the economy to the still-young independent travel industry. Travellers who visited China as little as ten years ago are amazed to hear how much the place has opened up and how many more liberal trends have emerged in the wake of the late Deng Xiaoping's free market economics. For whatever reasons you are attracted to China - its history, art, culture, politics or simply its inaccessibility - the speed at which things are changing will ensure that your trip is a unique one.
The first thing that strikes visitors to China is the extraordinary density of population: central and eastern China do not have landscapes so much as peoplescapes. In the fertile plains, villages seem to merge into one another, while the big cities are endlessly sprawling affairs with the majority of their inhabitants living in cramped shacks or in depressingly uniform dormitory buildings. This doesn't mean that China is the same everywhere - there are many regional variations in people and language; indeed, some whole areas of the People's Republic are not populated by the "Chinese", but by so-called minority peoples, of whom there are more than two hundred distinct groups, ranging from the hill tribes of the south to the Muslims of the northwest. Nevertheless, the most enduring images of China are intrinsically Chinese ones: chopsticks, tea, slippers, massed bicycles, shadow-boxing, exotic pop music, karaoke, teeming crowds, Dickensian train stations, smoky temples, red flags and the smells of soot and frying tofu - as well as the industrial vistas you would expect from one of the world's largest economies. Away from the cities, there is the sheer joy of crossing such a vast and ancient land - from the green paddy fields and misty hilltops of the south, to the mountains of Tibet, to the scorched, epic landscapes of the old Silk Road in the northwest. And the Chinese, despite a reputation for rudeness, are generally hospitable and friendly, though in the more out-of-the-way places travellers are still considered something of an oddity.
However, it would be wrong to pretend that it is an entirely easy matter to penetrate modern China. Borders are open, visas are readily distributed and the airports are teeming with foreigners, but the standard tourist "sights" - the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, the Terracotta Army - are relatively few considering the size of the country. Indeed, historic architecture is scant to say the least, and Chinese towns and cities lack that sense of history so palpable in the great cities of Europe or the Middle East. The Communists, like all dynasties before them, simply destroyed earlier showpieces. On top of this are the frustrations of travelling in a land where few people speak English and where foreigners are regularly viewed as exotic objects of intense curiosity, or fodder for overcharging.
When planning a journey through China, bear in mind that your trip is bound to involve an element of stress and hard work. If you have lots of cities on your itinerary, try to fit in some small towns as well, which tend to be cheaper as well as more relaxing. Don't stick exclusively to the famous places and sights; often your most interesting experiences will arise in places which least expect tourists. Above all, if it's your first visit, try not to be in too much of a hurry; take your time and be selective. If your budget is tight, think about staying in just a few places and getting to know them rather than undertaking lots of expensive and exhausting journeys. Even if money is less of a problem, you might do well to forego too much travel and opt instead for higher quality restaurants and hotels. Given the inevitable frustrations of making arrangements, flexibility is essential whatever your budget
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