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China Trip

  • Submitted by: Dawn Tilbury
  • Website: None Available
  • Submission Date: 04th Feb 2005

I spent 10 weeks last summer travelling throughout China. It was incredibly exciting, frustrating, eventful, and cheap (I spent about $1000 total, including food, lodging, travel, souvenirs, etc.) I travelled with a friend who had spent the year in China teaching english; she speaks and looks Chinese, so that helped alot. I met quite a few foreigners who were doing it alone (well, you're not alone if you have the "Lonely Planet: China Travel Survival Kit"!)

[For more about Lonely Planet, see]

My travel route was: Beijing -> Qingdao -> Suzhou -> Shanghai -> Hangzhou -> Huangshan -> Yangshuo (near Guilin) -> Hainandao -> Kunming -> Dali -> Lijiang -> Chengdu -> Xi'an -> Lanzhou -> Dunhuang -> Turpan -> Urumqi -> Beijing. I had known that China was quite diverse, but to actually see the minority towns and villages in the southwest, and the Moslems in Central Asia (Xinjiang) was a fascinating experience. You will miss out on alot of you stay near the coast and in the large cities.

We mostly travelled by train (it turned out to be harder to buy plane tickets than we thought) but we flew from from Lanzhou -> Dunhuang (it took us forever to convince CAAC that they acutally flew that route--the lonely planet told us they did!) and Urumqi -> Beijing (avoiding a 72+ hr train ride!) I paid foreigner price on the planes but it still wasn't too bad, about $300 combined. We wanted to fly out of Hainandao but couldn't get tickets for 2 weeks (common reply from CAAC). In Chengdu we wanted to fly to Urumqi but it was a 3-week wait---however that CAAC office had computers (wow!) so we bought the other two plane tickets there; we wouldn't have gone to Xinjiang if we couldn't at least fly back (we were ready, willing, and able to sit hard seat all the way there---breaking the journey every 14-18 hours or so, at Xi'an, Lanzhou, Jiayuguan, Dunhuang, and Turpan. The one other flight we managed to get saved us 18 hours on a train.) And we took a boat from Zhanjiang to Haikou; we left a day late because of a typhoon and got stranded on a sandbar and literally had to wait for the tide to come in before we could continue!

Getting train tickets was not always easy either; they go on sale a specific number of days in advace (2-4, depending on the city). If you get on a train in the city it starts from, you can usually get an assigned "hard seat." You also have a better chance to get a "hard sleeper", which is the ideal thing to have. As a foreigner, you can get your tickets through CITS (which won't save you any money but you will get a ticket) or stand in the special "foreinger" line at the train station (much faster). You also have a better chance of getting a sleeper once you're on the train (a better chance than a chinese person would have.)

The only thing we missed on our original plan was Jiuzhaigou, a natural reserve in northern Sichuan province that is supposedly quite beautiful. The summer is the rainy season there (as it is thruout much of china) and the roads were washed away in landslides. We thought about going to Tibet but it was closed to foreign tourists at that time (it is now open again I hear) so our only option was one of the CAAC tours, which were booked until september.

I'll give you some of my impressions of the places we went.

Qingdao. Where the brewery is (Tsing Tao) we didn't get a tour since it was closed for repairs (should be open this summer). A previous german concession, lots of bavarian-style architechture. a resort town--nice beaches (it was cool in early june). Lots of cadres on vacation at the beaches.

Suzhou. Gardens. Lots of classical chinese style gardens that were built by the scholars who used to live there. Very relaxing to go around to the different gardens (rocks, ponds, plants---very different from western gardents) a beautiful small city (only 1-2 hrs from Shanghai).

Shanghai. Lots of people. Use your elbows to jam onto the bus! Don't miss the jade buddha temple, or Nanjing lu at night.

Hangzhou. Bigger than Suzhou, with a large (man-made) lake in the middle of the town, with park around it. Again, classical chinese beauty, slow pace. Lots of joint ventures (including a Shangri-la hotel)

Huangshan = "yellow mountain" Classical chinese landscape (craggy, rocky, hills). You can climb the mountains, some monks carved stairs in the side of the rock. All the rock formations were given fanciful names ("Monkey looking over the Sea of Clouds, Immortals Playing Chess,...). This is filled with Chinese tourists, not too many westerners. There is a hotel at the top where you can stay, so you can catch the sunrise (fabulous).

Yangshuo. More classical chinese landscape, low hills rising out of plains, lots of water. The li river flows thru here. More people have heard of Guilin but it's bigger and more expensive. Yangshuo is where all western backpackers come, many stay for weeks. We got dorm beds for 6 yuan each (less than $1 at black-market rates). All the restaurants cater to the backpackers, you can eat banana pancakes, hamburgers, french fries, lasagne, etc. Menus in english. A great stop if you're sick of everyone speaking Chinese and couldn't eat another bite of rice. Take a bike out into the countryside and go see moon rock, or the black buddha cave, and don't forget to look down at the white lines in the road (let me know what you think!)

Hainandao. The beaches are at Sanya, on the south side of the island (a 6-hour bus ride from Haikou). Nice beaches, but not so nice that you'd have to go all the way to China for them. Lots of Hong Kong tourists (it's close to come by boat). This was perhaps the longest excursion for us in terms of how long it took us to get there and away.

Kunming -> Chengdu. In Yunnan province, where lots of the minorities live. We took the night bus to Dali, with a stop along the way for a "midnight snack" (porridge and you tiao). Dali was very touristy but we really liked Lijiang, the old town where the "naxi" people live is quite a sight; in total contrast to the new part of town (gray, communist, pre-fab buildings). Again, take a bike and ride up to Baisha, see Dr. Ho, visit the lone monk in the monastery up the hill (this is all in the Lonely Planet, everyone else will be doing the same thing, but it is fun, and interesting, and there are very clear directions)

Chengdu. It was hot, we spent 3 days here trying to get out (no plane tickets, train tickets also hard to come by). There were alot of tickets on the black market. We finally bought hard-seat tix to xi'an, Chinese price. Lots of fellow travelers booked with CITS and ended up with soft sleepers instead of the hard sleepers they wanted.

Xi'an. Terra cotta soldiers (everyone goes here). Every American tourist has three "must-sees" in China: The great wall, the forbidden City (both in/near Beijing) and the Terra cotta soldiers. The mosque is ok (women can't go in, don't know about non-muslim men) but tons of people selling trinkets in the area (so many tourists...) The vendors all speak great english. Try the night markets in the muslim section.

Lanzhou. We ran into a friend of a friend and went to this after-hours swimming club (indoors) quite a riot! I don't know if it's in the guide, but you could maybe ask the locals.

Dunhuang. The buddhist caves, painted thousands of years ago (when this was a major stop on the Silk Road, and sealed until the first part of this century) were magnificent, but so many tourists... The sand dunes outside of town were cool. There were lots of European (French, Italian,...) and Japanese up here following the Silk Road (Xi'an, Lanzhou, Dunhunang, Turpan, Kashgar, -> Pakistan...)

Turpan. Grapes, growing on trellises over the sidewalks. A big bazaar. Lots of "sights" to see in the area, most people hire a driver to take them around. The ruins of the old towns were neat (Jiaohe).

Urumqi. Another big, Chinese city. i think they say it's now 75% Chinese (the uigurs are invaded). There's a cool lake and snow-covered mountains just north (a day-trip) can't remember the name, it's in the book. All the Chinese take boat rides around the lake and snap lots of pictures; the Europeans go off hiking, maybe camp in the mountains.

We didn't make it to Kashgar (it's three days by bus and we couldn't get a plane ticket), but we heard mixed reports from travellers who had been there (many said the only reason to go was to say that you'd been there--one of those mystic places that everyone has heard of but few have actually seen).

I hope this is helpful to anyone planning a trip to China.

Dawn Tilbury