World ? Asia ? China

China: Suggested Itineraries

Almost all mainstream tour companies tackle Beijing, Xi'an, Shanghai, Guilin, and the overrated Yangzi River cruise. Here are a few suggestions for trips -- most of which are not too far off the main routes -- you can do on your own.

China's huge size limits the number of practical ways to get around the country. While the number of cars in urban areas is exploding, private car ownership is still comparatively rare, so most people choose long-distance buses when traveling between cities. A nascent car-rental industry, poor highway conditions, substandard driving tests, and the fact that some areas are still closed to foreigners mean visitors should seek alternatives to the automobile. China's horrendous traffic accident statistics may also make visitors think twice about the safety of long distance coaches, especially sleeper buses, which can quickly become mobile torture chambers for larger western travelers.

Trains, by comparison, are cheap, reliable, and a mainstay of the middle class. China reportedly intends to increase its already vast rail network by a whopping 35% by 2020, though the downside is that trains can be very slow. For travel between provinces, air travel is the best choice, but along with growing environmental concerns, bear in mind that local airlines do not maintain the same level of service as the Asian flag carriers.

Tip: The most important advice I can offer is to avoid the Golden Week Holidays (first week of May and first week of Oct) and the Chinese New Year at all costs. All forms of transport are booked solid and popular destinations quickly become chaotic. Needless to say, the industry makes the most of this opportunity by hiking prices to unbelievable levels.

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