The first thing that strikes visitors to China is the extraordinary density of its population. In the Han Chinese heartlands of central and eastern China, towns and cities seem to sprawl endlessly into one another in a world of chopsticks, tea, slippers, grey skies, shadow-boxing, teeming crowds, chaotic train stations, smoky temples, red flags and the smells of soot and frying tofu. Move west or north, however, and the landscape begins to dominate: green paddy fields and misty hilltops in the south-west, the scorched, epic vistas of the old Silk Road in the north-west; home to scores of distinct ethnic minorities, from animist hill tribes to urban Muslims.

China has grown up alone and aloof, cut off from the rest of Eurasia by the Himalayas to the south-west and the Siberian steppe to the north. For the last three millennia, while empires, languages and peoples in the rest of the world rose, blossomed and disappeared without trace, China has been busy largely recycling itself. The ferocious dragons and lions of Chinese statuary have been produced for 25 centuries or more, and the script still used today reached perfection at the time of the Han dynasty, two thousand years ago. Today, the negative stories – of runaway pollution, the oppression of dissidents, and imperialist behaviour towards Tibet and other minority regions – are only part of the picture. As the Communist Party moves ever further from hard-line political doctrine and towards economic pragmatism, China is undergoing a huge commercial and creative upheaval.

While travel around the country itself is exhausting rather than difficult, it would be wrong to pretend that it is an entirely easy matter to penetrate modern China. The main tourist highlights – the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, the Terracotta Army, and Yangzi gorges – are relatively few considering the vast size of the country, and foreigners are regularly viewed as exotic objects of intense curiosity. Overall, however, you’ll find that the Chinese, despite a reputation for curtness, are generally hospitable and friendly.

China’s climate is extremely diverse. The south is subtropical, with wet, humid summers (April– Sept), when temperatures can approach 40°C, and a typhoon season on the south-east coast between July and September. Though it is often still hot enough to swim in the sea in December, the short winters (Jan– March), can be surprisingly chilly.

Central China, around Shanghai and the Yangzi River, has brief, cold winters, with temperatures dipping below zero, and long, hot, humid summers. It’s no surprise that three Yangzi cities – Chongqing, Wuhan and Nanjing – are proverbially referred to as China’s three “furnaces”. Rainfall here is high all year round. Farther north, the Yellow River basin marks a rough boundary beyond which central heating is fitted as standard in buildings, helping to make the region’s harsh winters a little more tolerable. Winter temperatures in Beijing rarely rise above freezing from December to March, and biting winds off the Mongolian plains add a vicious wind-chill factor. In summer, however, temperatures here can be well over 30°C. In Inner Mongolia and Manchuria, winters are at least clear and dry, but temperatures remain way below zero, while summers can be uncomfortably warm. Xinjiang gets fiercely hot in summer, though without the humidity of the rest of the country, and winters are as bitter as anywhere else in northern China. Tibet is ideal in midsummer, when its mountain plateaux are pleasantly warm and dry; in winter, however, temperatures in the capital, Lhasa, frequently fall below freezing.

Overall, the best time to visit China is spring or autumn, when the weather is at its most temperate. In the spring, it’s best to start in the south and work north or west as summer approaches; in the autumn, start in the north and work south.

Photo by stuckincustoms on Flickr