Splendidly diverse in its geographic, ethnic, culinary and social make-up, China is a nation on the march. Developing at a rate unmatched in human history, already huge cities are adding sprawling suburbs and cutting-edge architecture on a day-by-day basis, even as an ever-expanding web of high-speed rail ties the country together. Nevertheless, this apparent modernity is based on a civilization that has remained intact, continually recycling itself, for over four millennia. Chinese script reached perfection during the Han dynasty (220 BC–220 AD), and those stone lions standing sentinel outside sleek new skyscrapers first appeared as temple guardians over three thousand years ago. Indeed, it is the tension and contrasts between change and continuity that make modern China so fascinating.
The first thing that strikes visitors to the country is the extraordinary density of its population. In much of China, villages, towns and cities seem to sprawl endlessly into one another along the grey arteries of busy expressways. Move to the far south or west of the country, however, and the population thins out as it begins to vary: indeed, large areas are inhabited not by the “Chinese”, but by scores of distinct ethnic minorities, ranging from animist hill tribes to urban Muslims. Here, the landscape begins to dominate: green paddy fields and misty hilltops in the southwest, the scorched, epic vistas of the old Silk Road in the northwest, and the magisterial mountains of Tibet.
While travel around the country itself is the easiest it has ever been, it would be wrong to pretend that it is an entirely simple matter to penetrate modern China. The main tourist highlights – the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, the Terracotta Army and the Yangzi gorges – are relatively few considering the vast size of the country, and much of China’s historic architecture has been deliberately destroyed in the rush to modernize. Added to this are the frustrations of travelling in a land where few people speak English, the writing system is alien and foreigners are sometimes viewed as exotic objects of intense curiosity – though overall you’ll find that the Chinese, despite a reputation for curtness, are generally hospitable and friendly.