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From Great Wall to ‘gumdrop mountains’

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BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (BP)–As host of the 2008 Summer Olympics, China prepared for the August event by making the country more easily accessible to tourists — including adding new terminals at the Beijing Capital International Airport and at Shanghai’s Pudong International Airport. If you’re contemplating a visit to China, ask yourself these questions.

What do you need to know before you plan a trip? Two must-haves are a valid passport and visa. You can get your visa from Chinese embassies and consulates; you might also consider using a travel agent or a business that specializes in passport and visa services to help you obtain your visa.

Once you arrive in China, you’ll need money, of course. Some major establishments will take credit cards, but don’t count on it. You’ll mostly be dealing in cash.

You can take U.S. dollars (in cash or travelers checks) with you and exchange them in China at banks and major hotels. Or if you’ll be traveling in larger cities, you can take your ATM card and withdraw cash as you need it.

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Do you want to go on your own or with a tour group? Despite the language barrier and challenging conditions in some areas, traveling on your own is very feasible, provided you pack your sense of adventure.

Independent travel gives you the freedom to explore and even to change your itinerary as you go. If the thought of traveling without a guide intimidates you, countless tour options are available. Call your travel agent, do a quick Internet search or check out some of the websites at the end of this article to see available options.

What do you want to see? Most travelers have only a brief amount of time to spend in China. If this is your case, plan your itinerary to include some of these highlights:

— Beijing: Visit the ancient cluster of buildings that make up the Forbidden City, so named because it was off limits to all but royalty for 500 years. You also can see Tiananmen Square, perhaps best known for the infamous 1989 massacre in which protesting civilians were killed in a military operation. The Great Wall stretches for thousands of miles through China, but parts of it are easily accessible by a day trip from Beijing. You can choose from a restored area — that even includes a Starbucks — to less traveled, unrestored portions that satisfy a thirst for adventure.

— Shanghai: With a population of 17 million, Shanghai is a vivid example of China’s rapid cultural change. Besides being an historic city in its own right, Shanghai is a modern, cosmopolitan city with great restaurants and shopping.

— Xi’an: It’s best known for what’s a short drive outside the city: the Terracotta Army, made up of 2,000-year-old terracotta figures standing in rectangular battle array, guarding the tomb of Qin Shihuang, one of China’s ancient leaders. Six thousand warriors and horses have been unearthed since the 1974 discovery, but many people believe other sculptures are still buried.

— Yangshuo: For the traveler looking to get away from China’s big cities, Yangshuo has become a popular destination. It’s known for the peaceful Li River and a formation of karst mountain peaks, nicknamed “gumdrop mountains” for their unusual shape. With plenty of flat roads and quiet villages, Yangshuo and the surrounding areas are great for spending days exploring by bike or on foot.

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This is just a taste of China’s highlights. Ready to start planning your China adventure? Get started at these Web sites: http://travel.state.gov, http://frommers.com/destinations/china or http://www.lonelyplanet.com/worldguide/china.
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Manda Gibson is a freelance writer who lives in Richmond, Va. This article originally appeared in the Alabama Baptist (thealabamabaptist.org), newsjournal of the Alabama Baptist Convention.