Covering 9,596,961 square kilometres of central and east Asia, China is the third largest country in the world. Its topography divides into three major regions: the south-western mountains, the north-western uplands and deserts, and the eastern plains.
In the south-west, the Yunnan-Guizhou Plateau has spectacular scenery with many steep gorges, waterfalls, underground caverns and limestone pinnacles. Mount Everest, which is known as Chomolangma, meaning ‘Goddess Mother of Snows’ in Tibetan, lies on the border with Nepal. It is the highest peak in the world at 8,850 metres.
The north-west includes the Taklamakan Desert, shifting salt lakes and the Turpan Depression, which is 154 metres below sea level.
Melting snow from the mountains of western China provides the headwaters for many of the country’s rivers: the Yangtze (Ch’ang Chiang), Huang Ho (Yellow), Mekong and Salween rivers, which flow east through the plains.
China's wide latitudinal and altitudinal ranges lead to many extremes of climate. In the far south, the hot and humid summer lasts from April to September with average temperatures ranging from 26 °C to 31 °C, although in the Turpan Depression maximums of around 47 °C can occur. Winters (December to March) in the north are extremely cold, with a daily range in temperature from –6 °C to –18 °C, but sometimes dropping as low as –40 °C.
Rainfall reliability also varies, with the heavy average annual rainfall of 2,225 millimetres in Hong Kong to the dry 250–750 millimetres on the North China plains. Typhoons can hit the south-east coast between July and September.
China’s wildlife includes giant pandas, golden monkeys, snow leopards, Asian elephants, crested ibis, Chinese alligators, argali sheep, wild yaks, reindeer, moose, musk deer and South China tigers. Siberian tigers are endemic to China but population pressure threatens their survival. The last great tracts of forest are in the subarctic north-eastern region while the subtropical south is home to the country’s most diverse plant life, including bamboo, ginseng and angelica. The Jiuzhaigou Valley features a range of ecosystems, landscapes and wildlife and has World Heritage listing.
Rapid industrialisation has led to major air and water pollution and rapidly falling water tables in the north. Recent water management plans aim to improve water use efficiency and reduce usage. Over the past 20 years, China’s reforestation programs and a ban on logging have increased forest cover from approximately 12% to more than 22%.
About 51% of the total population live in urban areas. The most densely settled and cultivated areas are the coastal regions. Fewer people live in the harsh conditions of the north and west. The major cities are the capital Beijing (15.6million), Shanghai (20.2 million), Guangzhou (10.8 million), Shenzhen (10.6 million), Chongqing (9.9 million), Wuhan (9.1 million), Tianjin and Hong Kong. Rapid economic development in the cities attracts many rural people in search of employment; the urban population grows by 2.8% a year.