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Trip Report China: on our own

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Before I start my trip report, I'd like to thank the Fodorites who encouraged us to travel independently in China and provided much helpful information. You were right. Thanks! We're both delighted that we went on our own. I'll describe our three week trip to Beijing, Xian, Dazu, the Three Gorges cruise, Shanghai, Hangzhou, Guilin, and Hong Kong, in hopes that it will help others plan their travels.

We flew nonstop on United from Chicago into Beijing and out of Hong Kong, redeeming miles for upgrades to business class. Except for the almost 5 hour delay in leaving Chicago, the flights were uneventful and got us to our destination as quickly as possible. In Beijing I had arranged for an airport pickup by someone who advertised his services online. We didn't need really need an airport pickup but I figured this would be an easy way to audition the guy, his car, and his English, in preparation for a trip to the Great Wall. Although our flight was very late, Jerry was waiting for us and drove us to the Peninsula in his late model Audi A6 (cost $25; e-mail jamesjubj@yahoo.com.cn). His English was good, we liked him, and we hired him to take us to the Great Wall later in the week. I highly recommend him.

The five nights spent at the Peninsula didn't disappoint. We were upgraded to an "executive" floor which entitled us to perks such as happy hour, computers and breakfast. There is an excellent detailed map of the surrounding area in the Peninsula stationery folder in the desk. For some reason they don't tell you about this map. I had read about its existence but couldn't find it for the first couple of days, despite repeated attempts. We ate at the Peninsula's Hutong restaurant Huang Ting which was good and also at Jing which did not impress us. Beware of exorbitant charges for mineral water in restaurants. For some reason cheap bottled water which is readily available everywhere doesn't seem to be served in restaurants, only Evian and San Pelligrino, both of which are very expensive. We soon learned to decline mineral water and drink
tea. (It's possible that you can just ask for water and get bottled water, but we didn't take any chances with water.) We also ate at the Courtyard which had reasonably good food but high prices (ask for a bay-window table) and at Afunti, a minority restaurant. We enjoyed Afunti which was loud and chaotic, with singing and dancing on tables. I had spent much too much time studying the question of where to eat Beijing duck. We ended up at the restaurant Made in China at the Hyatt. It was voted to have the best duck by That's Beijing readers and by Patricia Wells. The duck was good but we probably should have gone somewhere that features a less perfect duck but more local atmosphere. We also ate at South Silk Road in Houhai, which features dishes from the southwest Yannan province, and found the mushroom dishes to be excellent. If you go there make sure your cab instructions say Lotus Lane, otherwise Houhai results in you being dropped off in an area of bars. We took a pedicab through the hutongs of Houhai. The written asking price shoved in your face was 180 RMB per person. We paid 100 RMB for the two of us. It was OK but quite congested since every tour group seems to do it. We enjoyed watching the sunset over the Forbidden City from the rooftop bar of the Grand hotel (open after 5:00 PM).

Getting around Beijing is easy. Since cabs are plentiful and cheap (10 RMB, US $1.25, gets you to most places in the central city) you don't want to waste energy walking long distances between places. Out of the 30 or so cab rides we took in the city, only one driver attempted to scam us by not turning on the meter and telling us the ride would be 20 RMB. We promptly got out of that cab and into another. We found cabbies in China to be honest and reliable. Make sure the meter is on and that you have your destination written in Chinese. Showing places on maps is not a substitute. The biggest cab scam seems to be that perpetrated by hotel cabs. We usually walked to the street to hail cabs, but at the Hyatt in Xian and the Shangri-La in Hangzhou, we were convinced to let the hotels summon a cab for the airport rides. Both times we were told that unless we reserved a hotel cab we might experience difficulties in finding a cab early in the morning (false). The "special" flat fee arrangements with the hotels increase the cost considerably. (The cabs ran their meters even with the fixed rate arrangement, so it was easy to see how much we had overpaid.) I think you always come out ahead by going with the meter and not "fixed fee" arrangements. Don't attempt to bargain with cabbies--they know what the metered costof a ride is, you don't.

We hit up all of the usual tourist spots in Beijing, including the Great Wall at Mutianyu, the Ming tombs and the Summer Palace. The first morning we woke early (not deliberately) and took a cab to watch the raising of the flag in Tienanmen square. We then strolled a nearby park and watched morning exercises. We used Jerry's services for one day to the Wall and the Ming tombs and Sacred Way. I was pleased with our decision to go to Mutianyu, since even on a Saturday the Wall itself was not crowded, there was easy cable car access and there was only one vendor, selling water, on the actual Wall. The other vendors were clustered before the cable car entry. People we met who went to Badaling found it very crowded and full of persistent vendors. Don't miss the Lama temple ,though there's not much reason that I can see for going to the nearby Confucius temple, since most of the stuff there is unavailable for viewing. After five nights in Beijing we set off for Xian.

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