The basics

Money

The Renminbi is used throughout mainland China, while Hong Kong uses the Hong Kong Dollar and Macau the pataca. The basic unit of Renminbi is Yuan (¥) and is broken into denominations of one, two, five, ten, twenty, fifty, and one hundred. Currency exchange is available in large banks, hotels and airports.

Languages

The official language of mainland China is Mandarin, but the Chinese language has seven official dialects, including Cantonese - the common language of Hong Kong and overseas territories. Although all dialects are not mutually intelligible, they use the same set of over 50,000 written characters. In the larger cities, many Chinese have learned basic English in school, which is also sometimes used to communicate between dialects. That stated, it is useful to pick up some basic Chinese phrases before you go.

Geography & Culture

This vast mountainous country is the world's second largest by land area - just ahead of the United States and has almost every climate on the planet, yet it recognizes but one time zone (Beijing Standard Time). It descends like a staircase from the Himalayan Mountains, including Mount Everest, to the Pacific with deserts, deltas, broad plains, great rivers and a coastline of 18,000 km (over 11,000 miles). The Gobi, the world's fifth largest desert, was home to Genghis Khan and part of the fabled Silk Route between the Orient and Europe. The Yangtze River, Asia's longest, stretches from the Tibetan Highland to Shanghai and has the world's largest hydroelectric dam. The bulk of its population is settled in temperate to subtropical regions to the east where one of the world's earliest and longest running civilizations developed.

Travel tips

Slow Boat to China

Arrive by sea at the Bund, Shanghai's historic waterfront, after sailing from Osaka, Japan. The Shanghai Ferry Company offers a two-day transit between the two cities.

Smog Alert

Rapid industrialization has fueled health-threatening air pollution in major Chinese cities, particularly around Beijing. Look into packing a good air-pollution face mask that goes beyond a simple surgical mask. Don't worry. You won't look like some invader from outer space. Many Chinese are adopting smog protectors.

Tote Toilet Paper

Public restrooms in China rarely stock toilet paper, so be prepared with a packet of disposable tissues. And don't be surprised if it's a squat toilet.

No Snapshots Here!

Photography is prohibited in Chairman Mao Memorial Hall in Beiijng and the Hall of Dr. Sun Yat-Sen's Mausoleum in Nanjing as well as in most museums, some wildlife preserves and some religious sites. Follow posted instructions of "no photos" or "no flash." Military installations, airports and other politically sensitive areas are also off limits. Ask people before you take photograph them, and do not use a telephoto if it invades their privacy.

Don't Sink a Ship

When dining on a whole fish, don't turn it over to get to the flesh on the other side. Chinese superstition says that invites the sinking of a fishing boat.

Tiger Balm

Tiger Balm, an herbal heat rub around since the 1870s, is good for sore muscles but a little dab under your nose will protect you from unpleasant odors in public places like toilets. Its handy little jar is available throughout China and overseas.

Visit Visa-Free

Visitors from many countries are eligible for a three-day (72-hour) transit without a visa in 16 Chinese cities, including Beijing, Shanghai, Xi'an and Guangzhou. You have to have to arrive by air without stopping in another Chinese city on the way (Hong Kong and Macau don't count) and have a confirmed seat on an out-going flight. The clock begins ticking when your plane lands and goes until you take off. Ask for the permit as you check in at the airport. You do have to register with the local police station if you stay over 24 hours.

Transportation

Train travel is the cheapest way to cover long distances in China, with great interconnection to neighboring countries including Tibet, Russia, Mongolia, Vietnam, Mongolia and North Korea. The Trans-Siberian Express, which has linked Asia with Europe since Czarist times, is the longest train ride in the world and has bucket-list routes between Moscow and Beijing. The Beijing-Shanghai High-Speed Railway - NOT Hollywood's "Shanghai Express" - averaging 300 km/h (186 mph)  became the world's longest high-speed line connected at one time when it began service in 2100, traveling at speeds averaging 329 kph (811 mph), almost faster than flying between the cities. Sure beats hard-seat accommodations of yore. The Shanghai Maglev Train or magnetic elevation train, is the first commercial maglev line in the world and makes the 30 km (19 mile) trip from the airport to town in about 8 minutes, setting a Guinness record.

Driving in mainland China is not an option for most tourists. The International Driver's Permit is not recognized in China although it is in Hong Kong. In Macau, foreigners with valid licenses in their home countries can receive short-term permission at the police station. Licenses issued in Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan are not accepted.

Many cities, including tourist centers, have excellent bus services - for the locals. Tourists may find buses challenging, but stops are announced in English in Beijing, Shanghai and other large tourist towns.

China is served by major airlines at international airports in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou (formerly Canton) as well as Hong Kong International Airport.