By Paul Theroux

Writer and commute author Paul Theroux does what not anyone else can: he travels to the remoted, strange, and interesting spots of the area, and creates an elegy to them that makes readers think they're touring with him. Evocative, breathtaking, exciting, this is the armchair traveler's consultant to the websites of the realm he makes us suppose we all know.

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You can also choose to fly to a Chinese provincial city – Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Hong Kong airlines offer services to cities throughout China via their respective hubs. It takes around 13hr to reach Beijing from the West Coast; add 7hr or more to this if you start from the East Coast (including a stopover on the West Coast en route). New routes over the North Pole shave off a couple of hours’ flying time; these include Air Canada’s routes from Toronto, Air China’s from New York, United’s from Chicago and Continental’s flights from Newark to Beijing.

Other snacks and street food are served through the day from small, early-opening stalls located around markets, train and bus stations. These serve grilled chicken wings; kebabs; spiced noodles; baked yams and potatoes; boiled eggs; various steamed or stewed dishes dished up in earthenware sandpots; grilled corn and – in places such as Beijing and Sichuan – countless local treats. Also common are steamed buns, which are either stuffed with meat or vegetables (baozi) or plain (mantou, literally “bald heads”).

Bus station timetables – except electronic ones – can be ignored; ask station staff about schedules and frequencies, though they generally can’t speak English. Tickets are easy to buy: ticket offices at main stations are computerized, queues are seldom bad, and – with the exception of backroad routes, which might only run every other day – you don’t need to book in advance. In country towns, you sometimes buy tickets on board the bus. Destinations are always displayed in Chinese characters on the front of the vehicle.

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