You might picture pollution-choked cities or intensely packed crowds; you might conjure images of overstuffed trains with still more people piling in, or by contrast a rice paddy field with workers bent over, wading through water.
It’s all of this. And more.
It’s baffling and fascinating.
Here are six things you should know before you go to China.
It’s impossible to cover the whole country
By area, China is the fourth biggest country in the world. By population, it’s the biggest.
The distances between places are huge – even with the superfast bullet trains.
You’re just not going to be able to see all of it.
Pick a few places, and explore them fully.
It’s not all that easy to navigate if you don’t speak Chinese
Mandarin and Cantonese aren’t easy languages to muddle through.
Unlike Spanglish – adding ‘o’ to all the English words – you won’t just be able to ‘have a go’.
And unfortunately it’s not a place where the majority speak English.
Mandarin is the most spoken language in the world: they don’t really need to cater to us.
You better brush up on your hand gestures, or make some Chinese friends, if you’re to have a hope of making it round the country.
It’s not all smog-swathed cities
Sadly, China’s reputation is mainly for overcrowded cities, but it has sites of incredible natural beauty too.
Remember those otherworldly floating mountains in Avatar? They’re inspired by Zhangjiajie in China.
There are rainbow mountains and alpine lakes and plentiful rivers and national parks, too.
A quick Google image search will inspire you – trust me on this.
Karaoke is a very serious pastime
And not just for hen parties and drunken twentysomethings, either.
KTV, a karaoke bar, is seriously popular in China, for all manner of parties, nights out and business meetings.
And people are unbelievably enthusiastic about it.
It’s fantastic; nothing beats seeing middle-aged men in suits belting out a bit of Whitney Houston.
And if you need some liquid courage, try baijiu
Not much of a singer?
Drink a few shots of baijiu and you’ll start to believe that you’re Beyonce.
It’s strong, strong stuff – think nail polish remover level.
Distilled from sorghum and rice, it might make your insides burn and your stomach churn, but you can’t deny that it’s effective.
Eating dinner can be a cultural experience in itself
There’s a whole etiquette to eating out in China.
Not only will you be exposed to all manner of intriguing dishes – jellyfish, pig trotters, yummy yummy chicken feet – you’ll have to navigate the confusing waters of meal-time manners.
Meals are usually served on a round table with a rotating plate in the middle: everyone shares, so you get to try a bit of everything.
Get your chopsticks out, but don’t stick them in the dishes – they’re strictly for use on your own plate.