The Forbidden City, Beijing, China.

China

Flights to China: Colossal country, colossal culture

Meet the locals

Take the pulse of local life in Beijing's bustling parks, where locals throng to fly kites and take part in huge group dance sessions. Sophisticated Shanghainese prefer to while away hours browsing sleek malls for designer dresses and sipping wine in lounge bars. In Chengdu they're a little more laid back (the Shanghainese might say lazy!), passing long afternoons in tea houses and playing mah-jong. Hong Kong families crowd dim sum restaurants to devour steaming baskets of dumplings for Sunday lunch.

Eat and drink

Few countries cook up such a vast variety of food. Beijing's traditional Imperial dishes are fit for an Emperor. Try the sumptuous braised abalone and crisp-skinned roast duck on your China holiday. Xian showcases local Muslim influences with street foods like syrupy-sweet persimmon pancakes and flatbreads stuffed with spiced lamb. Feeling brave? Go southwest to Sichuan where chicken fried in mountains of red chilli and beef boiled in hot, spicy sauce will make the toughest man cry.

Back to nature

After your flight to China, head for the countryside. Hike Huanghshan's steep mountain paths, which climb like stairways to heaven, or at least to the craggy cloud-swept granite peaks. Trek through Jiuzhaiguo's water wonderland of surging cascades and turquoise-coloured lakes. For a pain-free exploration of the Gobi Desert's sun-scorched dunes, you might want to save your soles and climb onto the hump of a friendly local camel.

Get cultured

China's been working on its culture for five thousand years. Shanghai Museum's collection proves the Chinese were casting delicate animal-adorned wine jugs when the rest of us were still perfecting the humble spear. Mosey through magnificent red-walled pavilions with sweeping roof eaves and decorative dragons in Beijing's Forbidden City (it's not really forbidden). Or visit Xian and march between the legions of life-size terracotta warriors made to protect paranoid Emperor Qin Shi Huang's tomb two millennia ago.

Fast facts

Population: China has a population of just over 1.3 billion, around one-tenth of whom share the surname Wang.

Key dates: After the First Opium War in 1842, victorious Great Britain forced the Qing Emperor to sign a treaty opening China up to foreign trade.

Getting about: In August 2010 a traffic jam near Beijing extended for 100km and lasted 11 days. It's probably quicker to take the train.

Did you know? China uses more than 45 billion chopsticks every year. At a rough count.

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