China Trip Report
By Danny, Age 28
We went to a country called China. It was neet. They have a big wall there, and we ate alot of Chinese food. If your going on a trip you should go to China, because its a really cool place to go.The End
Overview – We traveled in China for two and a half weeks, from October 28 to November 14, 2005. We visited Beijing, Luoyang and Xi’an.Guidebooks – For Beijing, we relied mostly on The Rough Guide to Beijing. For the rest of the trip, we used Let’s Go China 2005. Both were well-organized and informative, though the maps in Let’s Go were not terribly accurate.
Getting There – We got tickets through http://www.skyauction.com, which worked very well. We flew from Denver to Portland, OR, to Tokyo, to Beijing. Overall travel time was about 16 hours. There are ATMs in the airport, which seems like the easiest way to get cash upon arrival. We traveled by taxi to our hostel (see below), which was near the city center. There are lots of people claiming to be taxi drivers waiting for you just outside the international arrivals area, but you’re better off avoiding them. Signs in English direct you toward the taxi rank outside. Uniformed police will direct you to a cab and may also be helpful in telling the cabbie where to take you. Our taxi driver got us directly to the hostel with very little fuss. It cost 105 RMB; 95 for the fare, plus 10 for the expressway toll.
Hostel – We stayed five nights at the Far East International Youth Hostel, which was very nice. It’s in two different buildings, a newer one and an old courtyard house. We stayed in the old building, which was charming but had certain eccentricities. The toilets are out in the courtyard, but they keep the toilet paper in the kitchen. The rooms are clean and have sinks/mirrors and probably had the most comfortable beds we slept on during our trip (save one). Lockers big enough for our backpacks were included with our basic deposit, which was also a plus.The ambience of the courtyard was interesting, though it was a bit cold for us to hang out outdoors at night. The shop/tourist office in the courtyard was quite handy. 1.5 liter bottles of water for 3 RMB, 1 liter bottles of Tsingtao for 2 RMB – can’t beat that.
We also ended up staying one night in the Great Wall Sheraton, which was kind of odd after spending so long in the hostel. It was fancy and like any Sheraton anywhere. A Filipina lounge act plays nightly downstairs, and the rooms are as comfortable as any upscale hotel. It was free for us (long story) but I think the rooms cost something like $225 US/night.
When we returned to Beijing before heading home, we spent two nights in the Saga HI Youth Hostel. We’d heard a lot of good things from other travelers, but it wasn’t very close to anything of interest or close to the subway. The rooms and beds were fine, though the showers were a little weird. One of the attractions to Saga is the proximity to the airport shuttle bus – we had to get to the airport really early in the morning, and it was a 10 minute walk from our hostel to the shuttle stop.
Sights/Activities – We joined up with a tour group through the hostel to the Great Wall. The tour we chose was for a hike from Jinshanling to Simatai, about 10km, which was absolutely amazing. It was 90 RMB per person for the round-trip bus (though the very next day, November 1, the price dropped to 70 RMB, the off-season rate), which was about a three-hour ride, plus 60 per person for admission to two sections of the wall and 5 per person for a bridge crossing. After a short hike, we didn’t see any tourists other than the other people from our bus. On the Great Wall, there are tons of locals who will try to sell you water/Coke/beer, postcards/books/t-shirts, or appoint themselves as your tour guides. Most of them speak enough English to understand a basic “No,” but a few choice phrases in Chinese can help a lot.
For such a big city, Beijing is surprisingly easy to explore on foot. Much of our time there was spent simply wandering – just watching day-to-day life in the hutongs is a fascinating way to while away an afternoon. We spent quite a while doing that, just wandering and observing city life. When we weren’t walking we were on the subway, which has a limited reach, but is convenient to use.
We visited two temples in Beijing – the first was a Tibetan Buddhist temple, Yonghe Gong, also known as the Lama Temple. It’s an interesting place, but a little too touristy to feel especially spiritual. The highlight is the 18-meter tall Maitreya Buddha, carved from the trunk of a single sandalwood tree. It is to say the least, impressive. The second temple was Baiyun Guan, the White Cloud, a Taoist temple. This one is much quieter, more peaceful. During our visit, we only saw one other Westerner, and most of the people there seemed to be devotees.We spent a lovely afternoon in Tiantan Park, which contains several museums and the Temple of Heaven, the Echo Wall, and The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests. The latter was undergoing repair while we were there (as were aspects of many of the attractions we saw – everything is being gussied up for the Olympics).
The Forbidden City is impressive, definitely a must-see, though in my opinion, it doesn’t really warrant the entire day that guidebooks seem to insist it does. I donno…I might have been more into it if we had gotten the Roger Moore-narrated audio tour and gotten more in-depth info on what I was seeing. Still, quite a sight, overall. It’s kind of interesting just in that it feels like a huge series of temples, but you also know that the emperor and his wives, concubines, and eunuchs actually lived there. (Mle’s favorite part was the Imperial Garden on the north end)
Food – As we’ve mentioned elsewhere, we ate a lot of street food in China. Jianbing is the local Beijing street food specialty – a pancake and egg with scallions, cilantro and sesame seeds wrapped around a bit of fried dough, and absolutely delicious. There are lots of places to find a variety of pastries, too.As far as restaurants go, our biggest night out was at the Hepingmen branch of the Quanjude Roast Duck restaurant. I’d heard the term “Peking Duck” before without really knowing what it meant; it’s definitely worth seeking out. Pancakes, roast duck, plum sauce and onions all wrapped up together…yummy!
The language barrier can make eating out a bit tough. Even places that advertise an English menu aren’t always easy. We went to the “restaurant of Muslim” in the hutong near our hostel that had an English menu. I ordered “fried mutton” and got a salad plate of mutton, onions and peppers. Mle ordered “chicken with pastry” and got an enormous serving platter loaded with chicken, veggies, sauce and a yummy pastry, which could have fed six people.
Shopping – Bargaining is the order of the day, of course. Silk Alley, the most famous and touristy shopping center, is an overwhelming experience. Everyone shouting at you, “Hey, sir, lady, come look!” You can’t show the slightest interest in anything without being harassed. They don’t seem to understand that the aggressive hard-sell is really off-putting to a lot of Westerners. We had a slightly better experience at a lesser-known market in Sanlitun near Worker’s Stadium, but it was still fairly aggravating. We probably could have gotten some reasonable deals on clothes if we’d had the energy for bargaining hard, but their starting prices were way too high and many merchants weren’t willing to drop especially low. We got the feeling that many Westerners either don’t bother to bargain or think “it’s Chinese money so it must be cheap” without doing the math. We weren’t as easy marks as some others might have been, and there are always enough other tourists who will pay the outrageous prices.
We got lots of good deals on souvenirs and gifts, though, mostly at the Panjiayuan Market in the southeast of the city (only open on weekends). Start low, stand your ground, and don’t betray too much interest. We had a lot of luck pointing out how many other places we could get the item we were looking at.
Getting There – We took an overnight train from Beijing, which got into Luoyang an hour or so late. We went with hard sleeper berths, which worked out well. According to other travelers we spoke with, soft sleeper berths aren’t a whole lot fancier, but quite a bit more expensive. We were quite happy with two top bunks – a bit more privacy and access to luggage storage.
Hotel – We stayed at the Lijing Men Hotel, which is built into the base of the old city walls. The room was adequate, though the bed was very odd. Rock-hard in some spots, soft as foam rubber in others, and source of dozens of weird noises. Still, it was a private room with a western-style toilet for 100 RMB a night (about $12.50), so it’s hard to complain too much. And the location is great.
Sights/Activities – We were in Luoyang for two reasons – the Longmen Grottoes and the Shaolin Temple.
The Longmen Grottoes are amazing – thousands of Buddhas carved into the cliffs, ranging in size from a few centimeters to 17 meters. Many are missing heads, but even that can’t detract from the mind-blowing grandeur of the place. It’s easy to get to from the city – bus #53 or #81 will get you there. It’s the last stop on both lines, and pretty much impossible to miss.
The Shaolin Temple was not really worth it, in my opinion. Getting there isn’t too hard – you can book a bus from the city’s bus station, which cost us 14 RMB each. We thought we were getting round-trip tickets, and we may have, but the return bus charged us 14 more, one way or the other. The Temple itself was kinda-sorta fun, but too expensive at 100 RMB a head. The mountain setting is a nice way to escape the pollution of the cities, though. The kung fu exhibition comes free with admission and is the best part of visiting Shaolin.
We enjoyed just walking around the city of Luoyang and spending time in parks, watching people live their lives and play with their children. Children have the most interesting reactions to tourists – brave ones even said “hello” to us before giggling and/or running away. The old city of Luoyang (inside the walls) is also a nice place to see people living as they’ve lived for generations, and great for people-watching.
Food – We had one of the best meals of the trip in a tiny noodle house in the Old City; two giant bowls of noodles, veggies and broth for 6 RMB total. That’s a very satisfactory dinner for two for about $0.75. We ate mostly from grocery stores for our brief stay in Luoyang. Dairy products are still fairly new in China, and they’ve got the hang of yoghurt pretty well, but I’d stay away from Chinese cheese.
Getting There – It’s a shorter trip from Luoyang to Xi’an, so we took a day train, with Hard Seat tickets. The ride was fun and fairly uneventful, but not without its oddities. Our tickets were for assigned seats, but when the train began boarding, everyone shoved to get on like Christmas shoppers going after the last Cabbage Patch Kid. Maybe they just dig shoving, I don’t know. Anyway, we got through the mob and found our seats and settled in for the five-hour ride. On the plus side, we were surrounded by women, so it was a rare cigarette-smoke-free moment. On the minus side, we were sitting right next to the toilet, and people kept leaving the door open, sharing special smells with everyone in the vicinity.
Hostel – The hostel in Xi’an, the Shuyuan Youth Hostel, was probably the best of the trip. It’s easy to reach from the train station; just hop on the #603 or #608 bus and listen for the announcement for the Nanmen stop. This hostel is close to the south gate of the city wall and in walking distance to a good many of Xi’an’s attractions and shopping. Like the hostel in Beijing, it was built in an old courtyard house. Unlike the one in Beijing, it had an indoor lounge where we could hang out without freezing our butts off. The beer wasn’t quite as cheap as in Beijing, but it was fun to meet the other backpackers and a few locals who hung out there to practice their English. We spent our first evening chatting with a girl who teaches English to middle schoolers, and who wanted us to explain the lyrics of Celine Dion’s timeless classic, “My Heart Will Go On” to her so she could explain to her students. It took a while, but I think we finally convinced her that it’s just a stupid, badly written song, and it doesn’t really make any sense in English or Chinese.
Sights/Activities – Obviously, the biggest draw of Xi’an is the Terra Cotta Army, and it doesn’t disappoint. It’s easy to reach on the #306 bus from the train station, roughly a 45-minute ride. It’s a bit more expensive than many attractions at 90 RMB, but it’s worth every jiao. The site is divided into three vaults – Vault #1 is the most impressive. There’s not much to see in Vault #2 apart from a few soldiers that have been put in glass cases, which allows for a great close-up view. The guidebooks say that there’s a war chariot in Vault #3, but if it’s there, it’s well hidden, because we didn’t see it.
The Terra Cotta Army isn’t the only site worth seeing in Xi’an. We spent an afternoon on rented bicycles riding around on top of the city walls, which was great fun. Bike rental was 15 RMB for 90 minutes, though I suspect that they know you’re not going to get all the way around the 14km circumference of the walls in the allotted time (unless you just tear through and never stop to see the view, take photos, or make out behind guard towers), so they’re all but guaranteed an extra 5 RMB when you go overtime. Admission to the wall is 40 RMB, and you can just walk around if you don’t want to rent a bike. Definitely worth doing.
We also checked out the city’s two famous pagodas, the Big Wild Goose Pagoda, which is in the middle of a park filled with interesting art and pay toilets, and the Little Wild Goose Pagoda, which is actually bigger than the Big Goose. For an extra 10 RMB on top of the 18 to get into the park, you can climb to the top of the Little Goose, which is fun, although there’s not all that much to see.
Xi’an marked the eastern end of the Silk Road, and as such it has a large Muslim population. The Muslim quarter is fun to wander through, and the little alleyways are easy to get lost in. The main street and main alleyway in the Muslim quarter are much more touristy, both with Western tourists and Chinese tourists, than we were expecting. It wasn’t exactly super authentic, but still fun to peruse the shops and restaurants. Follow the red signs to the Great Mosque, which is definitely worth the 12 RMB admission price. It’s an interesting mix of Chinese architecture and Muslim symbolism, and remains a place of worship. The alleyway leading to the Mosque is a great place to shop for souvenirs and trinkets. Again, bargain hard for everything.
Food – Again, a lot of street food and grocery shopping. It’s worth mentioning that Chinese apples are, without question, the best apples ever. The Muslim quarter is swarming with places that make strange little red hockey-puck-sized fried pastry things, which are delicious and, like a lot of what we got from street vendors in China, hard to describe, especially since we don’t know the proper name for them.
We went out one night with a guy from the hostel for hotpot, which was excellent. For those who are not familiar, each table in a hotpot restaurant has a propane burner in the center, on which they put a pot of broth – in this case divided into spicy and not-so-spicy halves. You choose from a wide selection of skewered veggies, mystery meats, bread and tofu, then drop it into the boiling broth to cook. I was a big fan of the fish balls, mostly because it was a source of endless humor. Hee hee. Fish balls. Hee hee. At the end of the meal, they count the number of skewers you took and charge you accordingly. The restaurant charged us for napkins, dipping sauce, and pretty much anything else they could think of. I don’t think they charged us for chopsticks, but they probably would have if they thought that they could get away with it. One of the delights of being a Westerner in China, I guess.
We ate lunch one day at a place called Chinese Fast Food Restaurant, which was pretty good, and worth visiting just for the name. MLE had some soup very much like minestrone with a few added ingredients.
Curiosity drove us into KFC for dinner one night. Not all that different from KFC back home in the good ol’ USA, which is to be expected. They do have a really tasty orange drink, which tastes like real orange juice with a bit of passionfruit or something mixed in instead of the Hi-C orange drink you’d get at an American fast food place. We got better fried chicken (on a stick, no less) from a small vendor next door to a KFC. At least, I’m pretty sure it was chicken. Could have been rat, I guess, but it was deep fried and brushed with a spicy sauce, and it was damn tasty. After that, we ate a poo log on a stick.
Shopping – Xi’an is very, very commercial; much more commercial even than Beijing seemed to be. There’s shopping of all kinds and all price levels to be done just about anywhere in the city. As mentioned before, the market in the Muslim Quarter near the Great Mosque is the best place to go for knickknacks and tchotchkes and geegaws in Xi’an. Pretty much every vendor is selling replica Terra Cotta Warriors in a wide variety of colors and sizes. There’s another outdoor market area between shops selling mostly art supplies east of the South Gate. Several of the vendors will carve a name seal with the Chinese version of a Western last name – again, bargain down.
*****Language Issues – We didn’t have too many problems with language. We stumbled through with our phrasebook, and people who really needed to convey something were able to get it across mostly with pantomime and pointing. I think knowing some Chinese would make the trip more enjoyable, but it’s surprisingly unnecessary. There are quite a few people who speak pretty good English, especially younger people. There were a couple of occasions where we had people write out things in Chinese characters for us, which was quite helpful. This is very handy for taxi drivers, or when buying train tickets. Vendors in markets also generally speak enough English to bargain effectively.
Navigating is generally pretty easy. Most street signs are in Chinese characters and Roman letters. Signage at tourist attractions is usually in Chinese and English, as well.
Cultural Issues – The biggest culture shock issue is the Chinese lack of a concept of privacy. They will quite openly stare at Westerners walking down the street. In Luoyang, we were the only Westerners in town, which made us the subject of a lot of stares. Even in the much more touristy cities of Beijing and Xi’an, we got constant stares. This lack of privacy extends to some public bathrooms – some bathrooms have stalls with no doors.
Speaking of bathrooms, let’s take a moment to consider the sublime beauty of the squat toilet. I’ll try to spare you the gory details – suffice to say that finding a western toilet is all but essential, if possible, for certain eliminatory functions. And bring your own toilet paper, because they don’t stock it in public restrooms. Also, the sinks only sometimes work, so we were very glad of our little bottles of hand sanitizer. The worst bathroom was in one of the train stations and consisted of stalls built over a trough in the ground that had some water running through it; however, not enough to wash away anything that had been done before, so it was about as fun as peeing over an open sewer. MLE nearly barfed.
Spitting is unavoidable. It was at its worst in Beijing, but fairly common in the other cities, too. You can’t go two minutes on a street without hearing someone hawking up something foul, and sidewalks are a little like minefields.
Smoking is equally popular, at least amongst men. When Mle moved to Colorado from California, she was a little shocked to go into restaurants and be asked “Smoking or non?” In China, they won’t ask that question, but for the opposite reason: there’s essentially no such thing as non-smoking. They smoke in restaurants, on buses and trains, in stores, while cooking… It’s everywhere. The pollution is bad enough, but wading through constant clouds of cigarette smoke on top of that is a special treat.
Safety – We never really felt threatened at all during the whole trip. There was a moment where I thought a kid might be trying to pick my pocket, but I revised my opinion of that. Crime was never really on our minds. It’s quite safe for a tourist to go just about anywhere or do just about anything. MLE would have felt fine going anywhere at night by herself. The worst that might happen would be to be aggressive panhandling or being ripped off by having to pay too much in a cab (make sure you tell them to use the meter and always look at it before they stop the cab). There are some scams, mentioned in the guidebooks, but nothing to make one feel personally unsafe.
Well, that’s not quite true. Being a pedestrian is a matter of taking your life into your own hands every moment. Chinese drivers are batshit crazy. They basically do anything they feel like doing, and honk their horns constantly while doing it. Green lights and walk signals are far from a guarantee of safety while crossing the street. We found that the best strategy was to cross when everyone else did – the safety-in-numbers theory. That said, we actually only saw one minor traffic accident during our entire trip. They’re crazy and scary as hell, but they make it work somehow. When riding on a bus or in a cab, it’s best not to watch what the driver is doing, because you will go insane if you do.
Also, sidewalks are being torn up/replaced or nonexistent in some places, and highly uneven in others. MLE nearly broke her leg stepping on a manhole cover that wasn’t actually stable and will probably have her bruise ‘til 2006. Watch your step!
In Conclusion…We saw a tiny little bit of what China has to offer. We’re already thinking about what we’ll see when we go back. Ultimately, I hiked six miles on the Great Wall of China. Everything on top of that is gravy. Mle saw the Terra Cotta Army, something she’s wanted to see for her entire life. How can you beat that?
The main reason we went to China when we did was because it’s changing incredibly quickly, not only Beijing preparing for the Olympics (although that’s a huge part of it), but also that the country is trying to industrialize and catch up to the rest of the first world as fast as possible. Things are disappearing and changing so quickly. We wanted to see what it was like in Beijing before the Olympics changes the city forever.
Also, we really like Chinese food.
Of course, there, they just call it food.