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China isn't a country - it's a whole different world. From shop-till-you-dropmetropolises to the epic grasslands of Inner Mongolia, with deserts, sacred peaks, astounding caves, and imperial ruins in bet-ween. Management rec-ently stopped destroying temples - now they rip down mountains and poison rivers instead, but with over a billion people to take care of, something's got to give. Along with the stark contrasts comes.

>stark beauty; there's plenty to see once you've mastered the art of bulldozing your way through crowds and dodging spit. And don't let the old Communist Party rhetoric fool you - money-making is the number one hobby these days. Unless you have a couple of years and unlimited patience, it's best to follow a looseitinerary here, such as Beijing to Tibet via Xi'an's terracotta warriors, following the Silk Road route, sailing down the Yangzi River, or exploring the Dr Seuss landscape of Guangxi Province.


Facts At A Glance

Full country name: People's Republic of China
Area: 9,596,960 sq km (mainland)
Population: 1.3 billion (mainland)
Capital city: Beijing (pop 11 million)
People: Han Chinese (93%), plus Mongol, Zhuang, Manchu and Uighur minorities
Language: Putonghua (Beijing dialect Mandarin)
Religion: Officially atheist; Confucianism, Buddhism, Taoism (no stats available); Muslim (14 million), Christian (7 million)
Government: Communist republic
Head of State:Hu Jintao

Visas: Visas are required by all foreigners entering mainland China (visas aren't needed for tourists visiting Hong Kong for less than 30 days). Standard tourist visas are valid for 30-day visits and are generally easy to acquire. Visas valid for more than 30 days are usually difficult to obtain.

Health risks: For a start, rabid dogs are common China-wide. Then there's bilharzia (blood flukes) in the central Yangzi River basin, and dengue fever in the south. A fresh strain of cholera has emerged in the west, and malaria is rife in southern and coastal areas. Immunisation is considered essential against: cholera, hepatitis A and B, Japanese encephalitis, polio, rabies and typhoid. And with tuberculosis, diphtheria and typhus also present, hypochondriacs should have a wow of a time.

Time: GMT/UTC plus eight hours (the whole of China is set to Beijing time).

Electricity: 220V, 50 AC; plugs can be three-pronged angled, three-pronged round, two flat pins or two narrow round pins.

Weights & measures: Metric

Tourism: 42 million visitors per year