It is impossible to cover China in just one small page - the country is vast and varied. A country of contrasts with diverse climates, impressive engineering feats, both old and new, from the sky-scrapers of Shanghai to the world-famous Great Wall. There are so many famous sights, including the Terracotta Army, Beijing's Forbidden City, the Potala Palace and, of course, giant pandas.
For many travellers, China beyond Hong Kong, Shanghai and Beijing is still an exotic, closed country. We have spoken to many who have some concerns about how 'different' China may be. Certainly some customs are alien to Westerners, but that's what makes travel eye-opening and stimulating. For first-time visitors to China, we would recommend combining either Shanghai or Hong Kong with somewhere a little less known, for example, Huangzhou or Guangzhou, respectively. Beijing feels very different to the two other common points of entry to China - it is clear that you are on another continent, not simply in a modern metropolis. Unless you are taking a guided tour through China, we advise choosing a small area to explore - planning an itinerary can be overwhelming.
As China is so large, the climate varies greatly depending on where in the country you are planning to visit. Chinatravelguide has a useful summary of climate in each area, as well as weather forecasts for many major cities. Note that smog can be a major problem in many industrial cities. Beijing has 4 main seasons: spring (April-May) is warm, windy and dry but sand storms may occur; summer (June-September) is hot (up to 40 C) and wet; autumn (September-October) is the best time to visit with mild temperatures and sunny days, and winter (November-March) is often very cold (-20 C) although with sunny days. Shanghai has a similar climate pattern, although winter is a lot shorter and less severe, temperatures tend to be less extreme (0 - 35 C) and air quality tends to be better than in Beijing. Spring is considered the best time to visit Shanghai, with pretty flowers, comfortable temperatures and only a few rain showers. Hong Kong has a sub-tropical climate with temperatures ranging between 15 and 30 C. Rainfall starts to increase from April to October and spring is also associated with a higher risk of fog. Winter conditions are changeable but rarely freezing cold. Between May and November, there is an increased chance of violent storms or typhoons, so if visiting during this time, be aware of any typhoon warnings. The best time to visit Hong Kong is in late autumn, when the weather tends to be warm and sunny or early winter, in the run up to Christmas.
Most travellers visiting China will need a tourist visa, which you must apply for in advance through your local embassy or visa centre. Alternatively, you can use a visa application service. In addition to a valid passport, you will need return flight tickets and proof of your hotel accommodation. Fees vary depending on your nationality, with single-entry 3-month visas costing £66 for British citizens and $140 for Americans.
Relatively recently, tourist-friendly visa-free transit has been launched, offering citizens of 51 mainly western countries who arrive by air 72 hours in Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou, Chengdu, Kunming, Dalian, Shenyang, Xian or Guilin. Note that you have to have onward tickets to a third country (i.e. not China nor country of flight origin) and you are not allowed outside of city limits. However, 72 hours provides plentiful opportunities for sight-seeing.