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Trip Report China 2013 - 17 Days, 7 Airlines, 12 Flights, 21,206 Miles

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Dunhuang, Xi'An, Chengdu, Jiuzhaigou & Hong Kong

Here is a trip report from our April visit to China. Thanks again for the advice we got here on the boards planning everything. All in all this was a very interesting, good trip for us. We went in with somewhat lowered expectations and were really happy with almost everything we experienced.

DC to Hong Kong – The most trouble we had traveling this entire trip was getting out of DC due to storms. After spending all day in the airport and having American really go to heroic lengths to try to get us on many different flights we ended up being delayed by 24 hours. We flew business class on Cathay Pacific through Chicago, and it was a very nice flight when we finally got out. We arrived in Hong Kong on Friday night, staying at the JW Marriott on points. This is a really lovely hotel, we had a great view of the Harbour from our room. We went up to the Club lounge for some wine and to work on rerouting our flights to deal with the delay. We got some nice assistance from Anna in the Club, who helped us try to get from Hong Kong into Xi’An, as our original ticket with ctrip was non-refundable for the flight we had missed earlier that day. We ended up booking a new ticket on Dragon Air for the next afternoon. Luckily, we were able to rebook our roundtrip flights from Xi’An to Dunhuang for one day later each way with no penalty. We decided to miss the day from Xi’An on the way back, as my real goal there was the Terra Cotta Warriors and there would still be plenty of time for that.

Hong Kong to Xi’An - We had a great breakfast with a spectacular view in the Club that morning (free for us due to my husband’s status with Marriott) before we headed back to the airport. Dragon Air is an American partner, so my husband’s status also got us into the business class lounge, which is very nice. We got into Xi’An in the late afternoon and checked in at the Sheraton North. We just relaxed and ate at the Chinese restaurant at the hotel for dinner. We ordered way too much food, most of which was good, spending about $100 US dollars in all. The highlight was some excellent fried chicken, which came head and all. The next morning we wandered around and found a great market nearby with all sorts of food stuff. We munched our way around by pointing at what we wanted, good savory pancakes with scallions, some pastry and stuff that probably cost $3 in the end. Walked most of the morning till we had to go to the airport. As we were returning to the Sheraton, we left our big luggage and some laundry as well for our return.

Xi’An to Dunhuang - Uneventful flight to Dunhuang, you definitely feel as if you’re traveling to the middle of nowhere as you fly through the mountains and desert. We were picked up at the airport by a driver from the hotel, the Silk Road Dunhuang Hotel. We really liked it here, they were helpful and the room was quiet and had a great view of the sand dunes. As we got in later in the afternoon we just rested and then went up to the rooftop bar (Starry Lounge) to relax and watch the sunset over the Mingsha sand dunes. It was nice but not spectacular light. We had dinner in the hotel that evening, some good lamb with cumin and a decent but forgettable chicken dish. All in all fairly good if not great food, but easy for our first night. The hotel did not seem too crowded at this time of the year.

We got up fairly early and had a very nice breakfast (included with our room) on the rooftop again, although the sunrise wasn’t great. We had booked a driver (through the hotel) to take us out to the desert this day to see the ancient Han dynasty ruins including an interesting piece of the Great Wall. We left about 8:30 in a nice van with him. The mornings and evenings were cool, but even at this time of year the sun is relentless out there as it heats up.

We started out at the Yumen Pass, about 50 kms or maybe an hour’s drive out. There was a bus load of other tourists here with us, but it was a very interesting spot. After that, we traveled 15-20 minutes out to the Hechang Ancient City ruins nearby. We were totally on our own here, it was very cool. Next we went to see the Han Dynasty wall ruins, which were very interesting (and again we were on our own). Those three stops took us all morning, but not, as the guide books had said, all day. The hotel had advised that we’d have time to also see the Western Thousand Buddha caves, so we stopped there on the way back. There were a few other people around, but we were the only ones touring the caves at that point. There were only 5 open to the public out of 16, but we enjoyed the stop. There is a nice area there with trees down by a (dry) riverbed where you can sit or wander around.

We went back into town and had the driver drop us there for a late lunch. He would have come back for us, but we told him we’d take a taxi. We ate at Shirley’s Café, based on his recommendation and because it was in one of my guide books. We a decent if not great lunch there. Back for a rest and then enjoyed the rooftop lounge again. For dinner we took a cab back to town ($10 Yuan to get anywhere) to go get some of the Dunhuang specialty Donkey Meat Yellow Noodles. I had the restaurant from our guidebook that had the name in Chinese characters, but the first driver couldn’t find it and we ended up at the night market. We hopped in another cab and finally made it to a place the driver was sure we should be. The name in Chinese didn’t look the same to me, but after much pointing and consultation we ended up with two plates of what looked like the house specialty as described. It was actually quite good. We enjoyed wandering around town afterwards back to the night market, there were lots of fun lights up everywhere.

The next morning we had another great breakfast (my husband loved the long noodles they made there for his soup) before we headed out to the Mingsha Sand Dunes to ride camels and climb around. We took a taxi from the hotel before we realized it was really close enough to walk (which we did on the way back.) We got there early because I wanted to be off the dunes before the sun got too hot. We got on our camels and off we went. I had a really good time, although I know it’s touristy. After a stop where you could climb the dunes to ride down on a sled or tube or go out on an ATV (we didn't care to do either) we rode back and wandered around before heading off.

We had lunch at another small Sichuan restaurant in town, again sort of forgettable food. We were coming to realize that most of the time we ordered chicken it came with bones, which would have been fine except they were sort of scary splinters almost. Although it took us several more meals to stop ordering chicken.

After lunch we took a taxi to the Mogao Grottoes. These caves were very spectacular and impressive. We didn’t wait for an English tour, but were helped out by a nice girl from Hong Kong who translated some for us. I usually prefer to just look around anyway. We saw about 15 caves I think, it was well worth it.

That night we went to the night market for dinner. After agonizing over which stall to stop at for Kebabs, we found one promising cold beer and settled in. The kebabs were delicious, but this particular place featured some of our favorite food from the trip, which we dubbed “crack bread”. They took soft sort of pita like bread and brushed it with oil or butter and then sprinkled spices all over, predominantly a cumin blend, and grilled it. So deliciously good and cheap. Our time in the desert was over, back to Xi’An in the morning. We woke up to a hard wind blowing sand everywhere, luckily we had been on the dunes the day before because it would have been less fun in those conditions. Another uneventful flight back to Xi'An.

More details to come. Let me know if I am rambling too much, this seems long and it’s only the first leg!

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