Travel Dates: Last two weeks of September
China is a land of great contrasts. Known for its manufacturing and population prowess, it is a country that has dominated Asia for centuries in many aspects. We got a chance to catch a glimpse of these aspects in our 2-week journey through only a small portion of the most populous nation in the world: Guilin, Xi'an, Datong, Beijing and Shanghai!
Highlights: Limestone cliffs of Guilin, Great Wall of China, Yungang Grottoes, Datong Hanging Monastery, spicy Sichuan cuisine, World Expo 2010 (in Shanghai)
What would we do differently: We would avoid overlapping our travel with the Chinese National Day (October 1st). That day marks the beginning of the 10-day vacation everyone gets in China, so all the locals tend to flock to the tourist destinations as well. The result: huuuuuge lines at the train station, sold out train tickets, barricaded areas, restricted entrances and very limited help from the ubiquitous Chinese policemen. I would also book transportation in advance to a couple of adjacent towns I wanted to go on side trips to (like Longmen Caves). There are many popular and trustworthy English speaking tour operators I found on Trip Advisor who were helpful in providing suggestions for transportation. In hindsight, I should have just booked them to take us on a private tour, for we didn't get to see Longmen Caves because of the ridiculously long lines at the train station and our lack of knowledge in Mandarin!
If we had more time: I would have loved to have visited Longmen Caves and the Leshan Giant Buddha. The Mongolian border and specifically Mogao Caves along the Silk Route are also on my list to visit the next time I'm in this country. Same goes for the famous rice terraced hills of Longji and the tourist and bike friendly town of Yangshuo, both near Guilin. We were supposed to go to Yangshuo from Guilin per the trip we had purchased, however the organizers spent so long picking up people from different hotels that it was already time for us to get back to the airport by the time we were done with the Li River Cruise (that takes you down through the limestone cliffs on a bamboo raft). That was only supposed to be in the first half of the day!
Other places in China that are on my list to be visited whenever we go back again are:
- Chengdu and Lijiang to experience the spicy Sichuan food and the lovable pandas
- The water towns (also called the Venice of the East) of Jiangnan, Hangzhou, Zhujiajiao and Zhouzhuang near Shanghai
- The gorgeous Jiuzhaigou Nature Reserve and the nearby Huanglong National Park
- Dazu and Baodingshan Caves, which are similar to Longmen, Yungang and Mogao Grottoes
- Lhasa and the Tibetan plateau
Prices: We found that the most inexpensive part of the trip was the food. It was awesome to eat good food for much cheaper than what we're used to! The most expensive parts of the trip were the flight and train tickets. The currency is RMB.
Massages: Foot massages were everywhere, and we heard that there is a school in Beijing that offers great massages where the masseuses are all completely blind. We didn't get to go there. If you go to the hole-in-the-wall places, it might be cheaper but go at your own risk. Many times the hotels you're staying at will have such massage services at a discount for hotel customers. Foot massages with free fruit juices were the best way to end many of our days that we spent walking all over the tourist spots!
Also, brace yourself for some major smog and pollution in the major cities (especially Beijing), and a ton of second-hand smoke, as every man in China seems to smoke!
Transportation: All the major cities are connected through flights, and I was told that you can even book flights a day or two in advance and get cheap prices (I didn't find this to be true during the peak tourist season we went in). The websites I used (and even purchased from, before we left for China) were Ctrip and eLong.
You can also travel between cities and towns via trains. There are four classes of tickets: hard seater (sitting only; seat has no cushion), hard sleeper (horizontal sleeper class, no cushion), soft seater (with cushion) and soft sleeper (sleeper class with cushion). Of course the Soft Sleeper is the most expensive, but sufficiently comfortable class. During our 16-hour overnight train ride from Xi'an to Datong, we got the soft sleeper, which had blankets and pillows as well. There were four "beds" in a bunk bed fashion per compartment, and we had air conditioning, which meant you couldn't open the windows. That was not cool especially when our two compartment-mates started smoking in the walkway outside our compartment :(
The trick to buying train tickets is they can be purchased 5-10 days in advance of your trip, from the departing station ONLY. This can put a damper in your logistics if you need to leave from a place within 5 days of arriving there. Train tickets tend to sell out if you're going in peak travel season or during the Chinese national holidays. I used a travel agent (Travel China Guide) to get around this issue when I booked my tickets from Xi'an to Datong. They do take a cut, so be prepared to shell out a little more than what you would need to if you purchase them yourself at the station. We didn't want to risk not getting the tickets, and also didn't want to deal with the language barrier. Our train tickets were promptly delivered to our hotel concierge who we collected them from upon our arrival in Xi'an.
You can also travel via bus between towns, which is what we did to get to Beijing from Datong. We purchased the bus ticket from the local China International Travel Service (CITS) representative in Datong. He spoke English, which was great, but I do feel like we paid a lot more than we should have. Oh well!
Within major cities like Beijing and Shanghai, you can always take the subway, or the ever present taxi as well. What proved invaluable to me was anticipating all the navigation related questions I would encounter in the day and having the hotel concierge writing those questions down for me in Mandarin, so that all I needed to do was point to the question and I'd get my direction from the locals. Also a very essential piece of paper is the address of your hotel where you're staying written down in Mandarin (or use their Chinese business card if available). It's very convenient to show your taxi driver this card/address so they can easily take you there without any hassle.
On Oct 1st, the Chinese National Day, there were no train tickets available for the times we wanted to leave to Suzhou from Shanghai, an hour long ride. Hence we hired a taxi to take us there by the meter (175 RMB). What we didn't realize is that our taxi being a Shanghai taxi, dropped us off at the highway stop and asked us to take a local Suzhou taxi to take us into town. Except it took us over two hours to figure out which direction the town was in and how to exactly get there (since nobody could speak English and they couldn't even tell us where we were on our map. Even the police wouldn't help us). We just started walking in one direction and finally got to an intersection we could recognize on our map. So the first thing we did when we got into town was hire a taxi to take us back to Shanghai after taking us to a couple of tourist spots within Suzhou (210 RMB)!
Best Time to Visit/Weather: September and October, except for the 10 days starting from the Chinese National Day (Oct 1) when all of China will be on vacation and will add to the peak tourist season. October is supposed to be the prettiest to visit Jiuzhaigou National Reserve to experience the explosion of colors from autumn leaves to the crystal clear emerald colored lakes of the valley. The weather in September is quite comfortable in Beijing and Shanghai. However it was quite hot and humid in Guilin, which would be the case anyway as it's closer to the equator.
Stay: The hostel network is supposedly very trustworthy and clean throughout the major cities in China. Some of my friends have stayed in hostels close to train stations that they strongly recommend. There are many chain hotels all over China along with smaller bed & breakfast style accommodations too. If you're visiting Beijing, be sure to book a stay in one of the many hutongs within the city. Hutongs narrow alleys with houses with traditional courtyards - how old Beijing used to look like before industrialization.
Cuisine: Different parts of China have varying cuisines. Sichuan cuisine is my favorite, for it's spicy as well as flavorful. Cantonese cuisine does not have much spice to it while the widely available varieties in dim sum/dumplings makes up for the lack of flavor. The best dumplings we had was at Luyang Huntundian (address: 88 Bifeng Fang) in Suzhou, a town near Shanghai that is famous for its water canals. We also had dumplings at the famous Nan Xiang Steamed Bun restaurant in Shanghai's Old Town. They had four levels of varying degrees of service, from lining up along the street to purchase from a set menu at the window (cheapest) all the way to seated service on the fourth floor. The menu on the fourth floor had the most vegetarian options so we had to go there! I also didn't find many desserts in China, but did find lots of tropical fruits that I enjoyed eating for the first time, like the Dragon Fruit!
Finding vegetarian food was easier in China than in Japan. Perhaps what made it easier was my handy little piece of paper on which I had my Chinese colleague write in Mandarin:
I am vegetarian. No meat, chicken or fish. No meat or fish sauce. No meat or chicken broth. Make it spicy.That worked like a charm everywhere...it was great!
Where vegetarians may want to bring their own food is on train journeys. I had brought a couple of MTR brand ready-to-eat curries (Rajma and Dal) with me from the US. All I needed to do was heat the contents of the pouch either in hot water or microwave. There are taps that dispense piping hot water in every compartment because packaged noodle bowls are very popular meals on trains. I just immersed my pouches in that hot water, bought a tray of food with rice and few other items in it, used just the rice with my curries and I was set!
Visa: You will most likely need to apply for a visa to visit China. It cost US citizens $140 and Indian citizens $30 to obtain a Chinese visa in 2010. The process was relatively simple: Apply for the visa at the San Francisco embassy where you can leave your passport with them, and pick it up about a week later.