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The third-largest country in the world, China is bounded to the north by the deserts of Mongolia, to the west by the inhospitable Tibetan plateau and Himalaya, and to the east by the East and South China seas. China's 22 provinces and five autonomous regions are governed from Beijing, along with some 5000 islands. Hong Kong has now returned to the fold as a Special Administrative Region (SAR) and Macau will do the same in 1999. Disputed territories are dotted near and far around China's south-east coast. Taiwan - which is bound to be next on China's shopping list - is the best known. Then there's the oil-rich Spratly Island group which every country in the region wants to suck dry, the Diaoyutai Islands (known as Senkaku to the Japanese), the Paracels (or Xisha, if China gets its way), and the Pescadores (or Penghu).

The topography included in China's vast panorama runs the gamut from towering mountains to featureless plains, the terrain descending across the planet from Tibet's `roof of the world' in the west, down through the Inner Mongolia Plateau and east to the plains of the Yangzi River valley. In the south-west, the Yunnan-Guizhbou Plateau has a lacerated terrain with numerous gorge rapids, waterfalls, underground caverns and limestone pinnacles, making it one of the country's most spectacular regions. Inland features include the Taklamakan Desert shifting salt lakes and the Turpan Depression (China's hottest region, and known as the Oasis of Fire). Melting snow from the mountains of western China and the Tibetan Plateau provides the headwaters for many of the country's major trade routes: the Yangzi, Yellow, Mekong and Salween rivers.

Given China's size, it's only to be expected that its plant and animal life are diverse. Unfortunately, much of the country's rich natural heritage is rare, endangered or extinct, largely due to the destruction of habitat caused by agriculture, urbanisation and industrial pollution. Magnificent animals endemic to China - but found in increasingly low numbers - include pandas, snow leopards, elephants, argali sheep, wild yaks, reindeer, moose, musk deer, bears, sables and tigers. Bird-watchers can spot cranes, ducks, bustards, egrets, swans and herons in the country's lakes and nature reserves (of which there are more than 300). China's plant life has fared a little better under the crunch of a billion people, but deforestation, grazing and intensive cultivation have all taken their toll. The last great tracts of forest are in the subarctic north-eastern region near the Russian border, while the tropical south is home to the country's most diverse plant life, including rainforest. China's many useful plants include bamboo, ginseng, angelica and fritillary.

China's climate ranges from bitterly cold to unbearably hot, and a whole lot in between. Temperatures in the north can drop to -40 degrees Celsius in winter (December-March) and rise to 38 degrees in summer (May-August). The central Yangzi River valley area also experiences extreme seasonal temperatures. In the far south, the hot and humid summer lasts from April to September and, as in north China, coincides with the rainy season. Typhoons can hit the south-east coast between July and September. The north-west experiences dry, hot summers, with China's nominated hottest place - Turpan - receiving maximums of around 47 degrees Celsius. Winters here are as formidably cold as in the rest of northern China.