As the world's fourth largest country, China has huge geographic diversity and holds some of the world's most spectacular landscapes, many of which are little known outside of the Middle Kingdom. However, with over 1.3 billion people, China also has the world's largest population, over half of whom still reside in the countryside, and this mass of people is, and will likely always be, the biggest threat to the country's natural environment and wildlife.
Broadly speaking, the west of the country is characterized by huge mountain ranges and deserts, and as you travel east the terrain generally becomes lower, flatter, and more fertile. The bulk of the population resides in cities, towns, and villages in the gentler east of the country, and while there is a host of worthwhile natural attractions here, if you're a fan of the great outdoors, head for the spectacular but sparsely populated western provinces. Much of China's wildlife has been depleted by hunting (especially during past famines), poaching (often for traditional Chinese medicinal purposes), and more recently pollution and logging, and aside from birds, insects, and whatever you see in breeding centers and the like, you'll need to commit to spending serious time in the wild if you are intent on spotting any of the country's rarer species in their natural habitats.
Major Geographic Features & Natural Attractions -- Home of the Himalaya, and towering Qomolangma (known internationally as Mount Everest; 8,844m/29,015ft.), much of the Tibetan Plateau lies at an altitude of over 4,000m (13,123 ft.). Wild yak and argali sheep are commonly seen roaming the uplands here, but the reclusive and endangered snow leopard is seldom sighted. Many of Asia's great rivers including the Yangzi, the Yellow River, the Brahmaputra, and the Mekong, begin their course on the Tibetan Plateau.
At 6,437km (4,000 miles) long, the Yangzi is the third longest river in the world and on its course it has carved dramatic gorges that eventually lead to flood plains, and the giant lakes of Dongting and Poyang, before spilling into the ocean. Pollution and the Three Gorges Dam Project have rapidly diminished wildlife in and along China's greatest river, and the unique Yangzi river dolphin, Chinese alligator, and South China tiger are all on the brink of extinction.
The far northwest of the country is a vast, desert land that contains China's lowest point, the Turpan Depression, but conversely, is fringed by yet more huge mountains, namely the Tian Shan, and the Pamirs that border Pakistan. This is the part of the country to visit if you want to ride a Bactrian camel through the dunes, but don't expect to see much other wildlife aside from the odd lizard or snake scuttling for cover from the relentless desert sun. The endless grasslands of northerly Inner Mongolia (and parts of Sichuan, Yunnan, Tibet, and Xinjiang) offer the chance to experience yurt life and take a horse ride out into the steppe.
Much of the little-visited northeastern provinces of Liaoning, Jilin, and Heilongjiang are made up of pristine forest, and this is one of China's best wildlife areas, noted for its birdlife. As well as cranes and herons that can be spotted throughout the summer, you might also catch a glimpse of musk deer, reindeer, or even a bear.
The southwest is characterized by mammoth limestone landscapes such as the Stone Forest near Kunming, and Guangxi's incredibly beautiful sea of karst pinnacles, between Guilin and Yangshuo. Other notable natural attractions in this region include the impossibly deep and steep Tiger Leaping Gorge in Yunnan, and Sichuan's other worldly Jiuzhai Gou. Yunnan presents China's greatest floral biodiversity and the southwest is home to the world's largest butterfly, the Atlas Moth Butterfly, which can have a wingspan of up to 20cm (8 in.)! China's most famous animal, the cute and cuddly looking giant panda, is to be found in dwindling numbers inhabiting small pockets of land in Sichuan, Gansu, and Shaanxi, and endangered golden monkeys still survive in these regions, too.
In spite of rapid development, the south (and even Hong Kong) has managed to hold onto some of its wetlands, which are vital for migrating birds. The far south also holds China's best beaches, most of which are to be found on the tropical island of Hainan; but if you're looking for a beach holiday, you're better off heading to Thailand or Vietnam.
Generally speaking, the center and east of the country has less going on for nature lovers, but there are still places worth seeking out, including Hunan's astounding "lost world" sandstone scenery at Zhang Jia Jie, and the holy mountains of Huang Shan in Anhui and Tai Shan in Shandong. In terms of scenery, the Three Gorges are wildly overrated, all the more so since the completion of the environmentally questionable Three Gorges Dam Project. Wildlife is next to non-existent in large parts of the central and eastern regions, but you can still find huge bamboo forests in Anhui, and there's allegedly a yeti-like creature stomping the forests of Hubei!
China has effectively gone through an industrial revolution in less than a quarter of the time that such monumental changes took place in the Western world, and the resultant threats to the environment are manifold and great. In spite of increasing awareness and changing government policy, the sheer scale of many of these environmental hazards makes it difficult to have too much hope for the future, and this is an issue that will continue to dominate life in China for decades to come.
China's gargantuan geography means that less than a fifth of its surface area is suitable for farming, and the most pressing environmental challenges facing the country today are the drought and desertification that is reducing this cultivable land by nearly 15,539 sq. km (6,000 sq. miles) per year. As the northwestern deserts spread, less rainfall is generated and the situation is exacerbated. Desert dust is blown from the arid west across the north of the country, and is responsible for a third of air-borne pollution in these regions. While there's plenty of rain in most of the rest of the country, three-quarters of China's lakes and rivers are polluted, which leaves a third of the population without access to clean drinking water.
China is rich in natural resources and has extensive reserves of coal, oil, gas, iron ore, and precious stones and metals, most of which lie in the north and west of the country. This has aided its unprecedented industrial and economic growth, but has done much damage to its natural environment. Increased power needs mean that China is now a net importer of oil, but the bulk of air pollution is caused by coal emissions. Acid rain falls on a third of the country, and increasing private vehicle ownership has also dramatically worsened urban air pollution to the point that 16 of the world's 20 most polluted cities are to be found in China.
It's not all doom and gloom, though, and the government's accord with the Kyoto Agreement and pledge to host a green Olympics was also taken as an assurance that it will adopt a more sustainable approach to development and address the country's long-term environmental problems. The younger generation is far more concerned with the plight of their natural environment than their predecessors, and the current government does seem to be taking note, not least because it is estimated that environmental damage costs up to 10% of China's annual GDP.
Interest in wildlife and environmental tourism is also providing an economic incentive to protect natural habitats, although, unless carefully managed, tourism may present more threats than it does solutions. National parks and conservation areas are being expanded and better protected, and the work of a few dedicated individuals has brought the plight of endangered animal species, notably the giant panda, into the public eye. Cleaner forms of power are also increasingly used to generate electricity, and while grand hydroelectric schemes such as the Three Gorges Dam Project create as many environmental issues as they solve, wind farms are popping up all over the blowy northwest.
To be sure, there is a long way to go, and much of the environmental damage already done is irreversible, but China has at least caught onto the notion of conservation, and is starting to move in the right direction, which is more than can be said for some of the world's more developed nations.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.