China banner trio with wordsThe People’s Republic of China

A Brief History of China

Beginning as early as 2000 BC, Chinese historians trace a single line from modern day back to the Xia Dynasty, which was China’s first unification and structural organization of early man. The Xia gave way to the Shang Dynasty in 1600BC, who in turn fell to the Zhou. It is during this troubled period that much of Chinese literature and mythology emerged and modern Chinese can recite the stories of the Warring States Period, or the scripts of the Spring and Autumn Period.

Flag of China

By 220BC the Qin had come to power and ruled with a harsh hand, eventually falling to the Han in 206BC. 91% of modern Chinese trace their ethnic roots to the Han of this period and have aligned themselves with this idealist impression of imperial China. After several subsequent dynasties (including the fames Tang and Song dynasties which are famous for their cultural and artistic advances) the Song fell to the Yuan dynasty, which was an invading group from Mongolia led by Genghis Khan and governed by Kublai Khan. Marco Polo visited his court and wrote his famous work based on his travels along the silk route to find a magnificent and advanced civilization led by the Mongols in China. The Yuan dynasty fell to the Ming, another Chinese bureaucracy based on Confucian ideals. The Ming in turn fell to the Qing, another foreign invasion from the Manchu who settled in China and established their own dynasty in 1644.

kashgar sketch | ATC

By 1911 modernity had come to China and the last dynasty collapsed under the weight of a civil war between feuding nationalists and communists. By 1912 the country declared independence from the Qing and a bloody and drawn out civil war (mixed with the invasion of the Japanese in 1938 during WWII) finally ended in 1949 when the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) declared victory and proclaimed the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The PRC exists to this day in China, and everywhere there are monuments to the fallen soldiers of the civil war and WWII.

China Regional Map | ATC

Chinese Culture and Customs

China is the third largest country by area but the first by population. With over 1.3 billion people from over 15 different ethnicity, China has a very interesting and established cultural heritage. With its roots in Confucianism, modern Chinese culture has varied little from that of centuries earlier. Family ties and guanxi, or reciprocal relationships, are of the utmost importance in Chinese culture. Where westerners want to distinguish themselves and stand out, Chinese strive to be a part of the group. Westerners say “the squeaky wheel gets the grease,” while Chinese say, “The nail that sticks out gets hammered down.” You’ll find this difference stark and unavailing in modern society. While the next generation of youth may dye their hair green and wear shorter skirts they are hard workers who send money back to their parents and who generally obey social and cultural norms which have their roots in Confucian thinking.

You’ll find Chinese art and music vastly different than in the west. Art usually portrays great thinkers or leaders presiding above a great mass of people. Nature art depicts the extremes of nature, with rugged mountains and dangerous rivers painted in watercolor or calligraphy ink. The Chinese language, which is a character-based script, is a source of great pride for Chinese, and they have one of the highest literacy rates in the world. Calligraphy is considered one of the highest Chinese art forms.

Urumqi sketch | ATC

Health is very important in Chinese culture. Chinese drink tea and exercise daily in the form of Tai Qi Chuan or communist-style group exercises. Chinese medicine is a source of great pride in the country and herbalist stalls are seen throughout the country in great number. You’ll often see elderly men and women hiking the countryside or else doing exercises with their friends by the lake early in the morning. Don’t be embarrassed when an 80 year old woman passes you on a steep slope or set of stairs, she has been training daily for an entire lifetime. Chinese culture is rich with art, music, language, health and more. You’ll find any stay in China drastically enhanced by visiting local museums and reading up on the roots of Chinese thought and culture before your visit.

Abandon the Cube | Beijing Olympics

Top Destinations in China

Spanning 9,600,000 sq km and bordering 15 countries China has a plethora of sighs worth visiting. Though the majority of China’s large population is centered on the eastern and southern coast and central regions, some of the top tourist spots are in the lesser-occupied west, including Tibet and XinJiang. Key cities in China to visit include Beijing (the country’s capital) and Shanghai (the economic and fashion capital of China). You’ll enjoy these cities for their modernity and liveliness, as well as the glimpse of tomorrow’s China that they afford. Moving west, Xi’an is a top destination because it houses the famous Terracotta Warriors and other historical/cultural sights. Moving southwest, Chongqing and Chengdu offer a glimpse of Chinese life as well as the Yangtze River and the renowned Three Gorges Dam. From here you could continue south to Guilin, one of China’s holy mountains and a beautiful world heritage site, or you could go northwest to XinJiang to discover Turpan and the amazing history enclosed in the desert there. Traveling to the extreme west you could foray into Tibet and witness the majesty of Mt. Everest and the holiness of Lhasa, or else hug the northern border and see the beautiful Tian Shan Mountains. Meanwhile, the extreme north central offers a glimpse of Mongolian and Manchu culture.

Transportation in China

Most locals in major cities use the local bus and metro systems, both of which are clean, organized and trustworthy. Long distance trains are lovely for traveling, especially the hard or soft sleeper trains. Flying is a bit of a hassle in China, but of course worth it if you are in a hurry.

Cabs in China are fairly straightforward, make sure you use a ‘real’ cab company that has a meter. Even so, check your destination on a map and make sure the driver is going the right way. Often, to earn more money, they will drive in circles before dropping you off.  Just be a smart traveler and keep an eye on your belongings and your direction.

Money in China

The Renmenbi.  exchange rate: 6.2RMB = 1USD (2015)

There is a saying in Chinese “you can always fool a foreigner,” and many Chinese take great pride in their bartering skills, especially against unknowing foreigners. The rule is, cut whatever price they demand to a quarter of the original asking price, and you’ll be close to comfortably ripped off.

XinJiang - GaoChang

Food in China

Every Chinese will tell you that Chinese food is the best in the world. You’ll find a variety of seafood-themed dished along the coasts, and vegetable-based dished in the interior. Meat, owing to the scarcity of land and massive population of mouths to fed, is a bit sparse in most dishes. You are unlikely to encounter beef or turkey, but will find chicken, duck and pork at every turn. Blander food is in the North, with spicier food in the middle and south. The far west has Muslim food in the north and Tibetan food in the south, both of which are vastly different from Han cuisine.

Interaction with Locals in China

Medium. If you want a trip with interaction you can head into the countryside, where some will poke at your furry legs (boys) or pull at your long spider-web hair (girls) and point out odd features on your person as compared to theirs. Many regions have low or no westerners visit, and they are quite the novelty and you will be surrounded instantly by curious and friendly locals. If you want to be ignored, head to a large city where cosmopolitan trends have taken over and you can order a Cordon Blue and martini in English.

Suggestions for Visiting China:

In China no establishment will provide toilet paper outside the major cities, and only fancier places within the cities. Make sure to bring your TP everywhere. Additionally, many do not believe in germ-theory. Bring hand sanitizer or soup, which you will not find outside the cities. Bug spray and suntan lotion are also very hard to come buy in China.

Total Recommendation Level for China: 8

China can be am amazing experience, if you are patient and willing to go with the flow. If you attempt to bring western morality or customs into the country you will find it a difficult stay. Time has a different meaning in China, as does friendliness. In China, because of the large population, shoving is common. Try not to be offended when people shove you around on local transportation. Standing in line is a western practice; it does not work in China. Be patient and join the throng of people pushing towards the front, be it the subway, McDonald’s or Police station. China is also a bit below western cleanliness standards, so be prepared by bringing your own soap, TP and bathing and sleeping products.

Try to visit a few areas. China is a massive country, attempt to reach somewhere in the north, south, east and west. I’d suggest Beijing (north) Shanghai (East) Hong Kong (South) and, Chengdu (West) if you are interested in major cities. If you are into a more rural experience then grab a long distance train from your arrival port and just go as far west as it will chug- you’ll be in for an adventure.

Visas for China:

Getting a tourist visa for China is quite easy. Apply via your local consulate. Laws change frequently so a phone call will save you endless trouble later. For a workers permit and residence visa, you’ll need quite a bit of time, patience and local help once in country. Its best that you hire a visa professional to set this up for you as laws regarding foreigners living and working in China change daily.

Travel Route in China:

Below is a map of our actual route in China. Though we saw many other cities (listed above) the map shows a general outline of our travels.

China Route Map | ATC

Cities we visited in China:

Beijing, Shanghai, Chongqing, Hangzhou, Xian, Wuhan, Urumqi, Tashkurgan, Yarkand , Kashgar, HuangShan, Hong Kong, Tongli, Ganzi, Chengdu

What we saw:

Olympic Village, three gorges, taklimaka desert, West lake, Terracotta Warriors,
Yellow Mountain,The Stone city, Covered bazaars, Silk Route, Lake Karakul, Sunday market, mosques, Water towns, Turpan, National Parks, Forbidden City, Great Wall of China, Summer Palace

How we funded this escape:

China images | ATC

Both studying Chinese and East Asian Studies, we moved to China after graduation. Initially we taught English in Beijing for about 7-8 months after we graduated  in 2006. We spent one year in Minneapolis / St. Paul, and then moved back to Shanghai, where Lauren worked for a British financial research company, and Mike for a local Chinese company then an Australian online marketing company.

Lauren and Mike picked up their first consulting contracts in Shanghai, which will hopefully allow them to keep going.

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