An Insider's View

  |  Gorp.com

Off limits. For years, these two words defined China's policy toward foreigners wishing to explore the country's natural wonders. As a result, most travelers only heard rumors of what they were missing—jungle-covered mountains in Yunnan; Mongolia, where nomads still make the vast steppe their home; and the mountainous West, with nine of the world's 14 highest peaks.

But things are changing. Since the early 1990s, the Chinese government has opened its doors, allowed private companies to enter the travel market and independent travelers to roam more freely within its borders. Make no mistake, though—China is a tough place to travel independently. Sure, urban hubs like Shanghai and Guangzhou are undergoing a renaissance, embracing Western culture and Vegas-style neon. But these centers quickly dissipate into remote countryside, where local transport is unreliable and few people speak English. Travelers would be wise to join a tour group; fortunately, the number of China tour operators is growing exponentially.

The business is growing because people are going—and going back. Of course, visitors have been pouring across these forbidding borders since the days of Marco Polo, lured by China's towering mountain ranges, its vast steppe, and its rivers that run hundreds of miles through some of the world's most dramatic river gorges. Indeed, it's a land of superlatives—China shares with Nepal the world's highest mountain (Everest) and boasts the fourth largest desert (the Gobi) and the fifth longest river (the Yangtze).

And don't forget its record-setting number of people. China is home to 1.27 billion people, 90 percent of whom live on just one-fifth of the land. This enormous crush of people has produced a unique reverence for open space. In their quest for solitude, Chinese seldom miss an opportunity to escape to the countryside.

Join them in exploring their ancient land. From raging whitewater to oxygen-draining peaks, China serves up as much adventure as you can handle. Best of all, much of the wilderness remains untouched. But that's already changing, and quickly. Get in on the action—now.


David DeVoss was one of the first journalists to enter China when it opened its doors to Americans in 1979. Since then he has traveled extensively through the country as a correspondent for Time, the Los Angeles Times, and Asia, Inc.

Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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