Category Archives: China

China – my top tips for travellers

A friend asked me for some advice on planning a trip to China (I’m assuming a three week trip), here’s what I said (based on our trip, September-October 2007):

  • I’d really recommend China – it’s a very interesting place, not particularly difficult to travel independently, good value. It’s a huge growing world power and travelling there is a great way to get an insight.
  • China is richer, more educated (more globalised, lots of English spoken) and far easier to travel around if you stick with the east and south half of the country, for example from Beijing to Shanghai to Hong Kong. The far North and far West are cheaper and maybe more exciting but will be harder work and it would be harder work to get by independently. That’s a broad generalisation but if you’re planning a short trip and you want to travel around then the East will be easier for you.
  • Don’t let language put you off (at least for the south and east of China) – people speak lots of english, lots of signs in english and where there’s no english spoken they’re really friendly and keen to get by with phrase books (take one – the Lonely Planet Manderin/English one was good), hand-waving, drawing pictures, taking you to show you what they’re talking about, etc.
  • Train services are great, overnight sleepers are fine (our longest was 25 hours Shanghai to Guillin, very pleasant and quite relaxing). The harder bit was buying the tickets – not that hard really (especially if you avoid being there during national holidays and if you avoid the Beijing-Lhasa line which is booked solid by travel agents). You can make train tickets very easy by using an agency, there’s plenty of them, they speak English and they’ll charge a few quid extra per ticket (not too much).
  • There are loads of internal flights – if you’re short of time then you might want to use them (and avoid 24-hour train journeys). That said, you can get a long way on the train overnight, it’s cheaper than a flight and more interesting than a hotel and less environmentally damaging. We didn’t use any internal flights.
  • Don’t plan to spend much time in Hong Kong or Macau, they could be interesting places but after you’ve seen the rest of China they’ll just feel like a Westernised/commercialised version of the same thing, more expensive and less interesting.
  • I really liked Beijing. It’s pretty well set up for Western tourists and very interesting. Don’t forget that 2008 is the Olympics, so it will be packed in the summer. It’s a pretty good place to start your trip (and easy to get flights).
  • Check the climate carefully when you’re planning when to go (eg. avoid the north in winter and avoid the south in summer)
  • Don’t try to see everything unless you’re there for a year or three, it’s a huge place, concentrate on seeing a few bits of China properly
  • Some specific stuff I’d recommend (see my blog):
    • Yangshou Culture House (spend at least 3 nights, there’s loads to see/do around there)
    • Ping An or surrounding areas (stay in Ping An or somewhere else that’s on the rice terraces, far better than staying in one of the surrounding towns),
    • Qingdao was an interesting place (stay in the old town, maybe the Observatory Youth Hostel)
    • if you’re in Beijing then this tour is a good way to see the Great Wall (and see the Olympic Stadium as you drive past it)
    • Shanghai and near-by Hangzhou are each worth a couple of nights. The Urban Planning Museam (that may not be exactly the right title) is worth seeing if you’re there – good way to appreciate the scale of reconstruction in Shanghai (and in China in general)

Same but different

Hong Kong is part of China, but it’s not. It’s a ‘special administrative zone’ of China (as are Taiwan and Macau, I think). The Chinese from the mainland need a visa to get here, we British don’t need a visa but having left the mainland we’d need another Chinese visa if I wanted to go back. Hong Kong has its own currency, the Phooey, which subdivides into 100 MMJs (mild mannered janitors). Or something like that. It’s a globalized city, lots of Chinese but lots of other Asians, Europeans and Americans too. A sky-scraper skyline that rivals New York, with cultural diversity and prices to match. If you’ve been to a big western city and you’ve been to mainland China then you probably don’t need to spend time in Hong Kong, there’s not too much new for you to see.

After Hong Kong we came to Macau, a mixture of Lisbon (Portuguese influence), Las Vegas (mega-casinos) and China. Architecture, signs and food are a mixture of Portuguese and Chinese (although few people speak Portuguese). The city is dominated by casinos – step inside the new Venetian and you could easily be in the Vegas original. Local population 450 thousand, visitors last year 22 million, and the casino market is only just getting going – serving an international clientele who jet in from Asia for the weekend as well as the growing Chinese wealthy middle class.

Goodbye China, we’ll be in Thailand in 6 hours.

We heard that China was a difficult place for independent travel. I can well believe it was, but things have changed. Buying train tickets was slightly bothersome, and things are changing so quickly that the Lonely Planet published in March 20o7 is already well out of date (actually I think it’s at least their poor research and slow publishing process that’s the real problem – try a Rough Guide instead). Other than that we found China fairly easy, very friendly and very safe. Get here before the crowds (ie. before the 2008 Beijing Olympics).

Shanghai to Ping’an

We arrived in Shanghai after a night in a hard sleeper. The hard sleeper was 2 bunk beds 3 high in each compartment. We got in the train late evening and were woken up by the carriage guard early in the morning, we had high expectations of Shanghai after enjoying Beijing but unfortunately typhoon Wipha was also arriving in Shanghai and heavy rain greeted us at the station.

Shanghai seems like a very modern city we were staying just out side the centre of the city and got the metro in everyday. The signs and tickets machines are in English which made it easy to use. Shanghai is mostly like being in canary wharf, most buildings in the centre were built within the last 15 years, and everything is very organised, it’s full of Starbucks and KFC’s. The river divides the city in two and the west bank opposite the Bund was farmland 20 years ago. we visited the urban planning museum which has a 3d map of the city, about a 1/4 is still in planning stage. I’m not sure what the people who live in the city think of being moved out from the centre to be replaced by office tower blocks and hotels. we have been told that a lot of the office blocks are still empty. “In Shanghai you need to ring the restaurant before you go, not to reserve a table but to check it’s not been knocked down”.

To escape from Shanghai we headed to Hangzhou a town built around a lake we accidentally booked a hostel in the middle of the flower gardens on the west of the lake. Garden Guest House. The hostel is in an old house probably the first place with character we have stayed in china, it was surrounded by gardens, rivers and typical Chinese bridge. everyone hires bikes to get round the lake so we joined in, unfortunately they are single-gear bikes with tiny wheels and short saddles. here we visited the tea museum and took part in tea tasting, we were shown the correct process for making tea, no dunking a tea bag here. We had to try the local green tea from the dragon well tea village but to me it tasted like fish.

We were in Hangzhou for the mid Autumn festival, which takes place in the full moon in September, you are suppose to eat moon cakes and watch the moon. We joined in sitting by the lake to watch the moon, and drinking the local “great wall” wine. The best you can say it was drinkable, and it got better as we went through the bottle. Moon cakes are dense hard Chinese pastry, with various fillings, as we can’t read Chinese we got a pick and mix of small cakes at the local supermarket and discovered the filings can range from meaty (type unknown) to fruit.

Then onwards, to Yangshuo, a painless 24 hours by ‘hard’ sleeper train from Shanghai. This feels like a tourist town: hotels, bars, lots of organised trips and activities to book, people selling tat,Internet cafes. The town is busy with domestic (Chinese) tourists – unlike the Thai towns of which it reminds me, where you’d only find western tourists. We’ve hired mountain bikes and a tandem to take us through the paddy fields, climbed the limestone karstswhich give the area a very distinctive landscape and kayaked down the Li River past water buffalo and fishermen. It’s Golden Week in China, the second biggest national holiday of the year; the town is packed but as soon as you get out of the centre things are far less busy and if you cycle to villages half an hour away things are very sleepy indeed. We stayed at the YangshuoCulture House, highly recommended (not least because of theexcellent Mr Wei and the amazing diners).

Something strange that we’ve noticed everywhere in China… little kids in ‘split-pants’ instead of nappies. All the toddlers here are wearing trousers which are open from the front, through the legs to the back. Hard to imaging? Here’s a couple of photos 1 2, it looks very odd when you see this on the street or in a supermarket! I read that nappies are catching on in Beijing but we didn’t notice any. Meantime the Chinese have a different way of potty-training their kids, which involved whistling in their ears when they’re supposed to ‘go’.

Now we’re in Ping’an, a hill village on the largest rice-paddy terraces in the world. My first thought was that it feels a lot like an alpine ski village without the snow – wooden chalets on steep slopes, a few conifers and a smell of wood smoke. We’re here for a couple of days to explore the area, then to Hong Kong…