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Trip Report China - Sadly, a bit underwhelming

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China – Sadly, A Bit Underwhelming

Ever since my college days when I considered majoring in Asian Studies, I have wanted to visit China. Despite it being highest on my list of travel destinations, we have always put it off as we were told how difficult independent travel is in China. My husband and I have visited much of Europe and have made three (3 ½ wk) independent trips to: Thailand & Cambodia, Vietnam and India. Finally, after reading countless Fodors trip reports, and despite our family’s misgivings about traveling to China without taking a tour, we decided that it was time to travel to China independently. After approximately 9 months of research, much reading on China and endless hours on Fodor and Trip Advisor forums, we were armed with enough material to comfortably make our travel plans. Along with trip notes, we were equipped with train schedules and options, hotel directions written in Chinese and a language translation application on my iphone.

We had enough frequent flyer miles for only one plane ticket. Delta Airlines allowed us to use the miles to pay for 2 one way tickets to China from Ft Lauderdale and we paid approximately $1,200.00 for two return tickets. We flew Delta Airlines from Ft Laud to Atlanta, GA, then Korean Air to Seoul, Korea and finally to Beijing. Our return flight was on Korean Air from Shanghai to Seoul; Seoul to Atlanta and then Delta Airlines from Atlanta to Ft Lauderdale. As in the past, I have nothing but praise to say about Korean Airlines. The leg space in Economy class was comfortable, the service was impeccable and the food was good.

Our Itinerary:
Oct 9 –Tues - arrive Beijing (Novotel Beijing Peace Hotel)
Oct 10 – Weds - Beijing
Oct 11 – Thurs - Beijing
Oct 12 – Fri - Beijing
Oct 13 – Sat - Beijing
Oct 14 – Sunday - Beijing
Oct 15 – Monday - Beijing
Oct 16 – Tues - Beijing
Oct 17 – Weds - train to Datong – ½ day Datong
Oct 18 – Thurs - Datong – night train to Pingyao
Oct 19 – Friday - Pingyao
Oct 20 - Saturday - Pingyao – night train to Xian
Oct 21 – Sunday - Xian
Oct 22 – Monday - Xian
Oct 23 – Tues - Xian
Oct 24 – Weds - AM train to Luoyuang –late train to Nanjing
Oct25 – Thurs - Nanjing
Oct 26 – Friday – Nanjing
Oct27 – Saturday – AM train to Hanghzou
Oct 28 – Sunday – Hanghzou
Oct 29 – Monday – Train to Shanghai – Fodor meetupat Lost Heaven
Oct 30 – Tues - Shanghai
Oct 31 – Weds - Shanghai
Nov 1 – Thurs - Shanghai
Nov 2 – Friday - train to Suzhou – day trip
Nov 3 – Shanghai
Nov 4 – Sunday - Return to Shanghai - Leave for home 2:00 pm flight from Shanghai to Korea – overnight at Seoul Airport Hotel
Nov 5 – Monday - Arrive home

General Impressions of China:

Prior to our trip, we had heard that traveling to China was considered a trip of a life-time by many travelers. We were also told how much China was developing and knew that it would be hard to see the China of the past. Perhaps we are jaded, but after having visiting Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and India, we were a bit underwhelmed by China. Both my husband and I felt that China lacked the challenges and foreign feel of those other Asian countries we had been to.

Had we visited China first, would we have felt that it was more of a challenge? That’s hard to say. There are certain similarities that we found in China as we did in our other Asian destinations. Crossing the roads in China is certainly a challenge, as the pedestrians do not seem to have the right of way, but often the crossings were more manageable in China as there were many underground cross walks. We had learned to manage the difficulty of crossing Asian streets from our prior trips.

Food stalls alongside the road are common throughout Asia and while we found them in China, restaurants were plentiful and frequented by Chinese and foreigners alike. As in our prior trips, we found a variety of vehicles on the streets including carts, bicycles, pedicabs, tuk tuks, motorcycles, etc., but in modern day China the predominant vehicle is the car. The traffic and craziness of drivers was something that we were already used to from our past travel experiences.

In general, we found the Chinese people to be louder and more pushy than other Asians…often cutting in front of lines and not waiting their turn. While we were told that the spitting is a great problem, we did not find it to be as predominant as we had anticipated. The smoking was also not as bothersome as expected, but the smog was horrendous and it was a rare day that we saw blue skies. Prior to our trip we were concerned about asthma, but thankfully, this never became a problem. We were impressed that there was very little littering in China and the cities were generally very clean other than the air quality.

We were disappointed that we did not encounter the same level of graciousness that we experienced in our hotels in our past trips to Asia; there were no welcoming drinks or fruit in the rooms as was the standard previously. We found the hotel staff to be less accommodating and less interested in our needs than in Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam or India.

In China, we found a “sameness” that made touring less interesting. The pagodas all seemed to look alike, the ancient architectural style of homes and buildings seemed to have little variety and most of the “old town” areas seemed to have a Disney-like feel, with the Chinese obviously trying to keep some semblance of the old town for tourism purposes. Most of the storefronts carried the same souvenirs for tourist. Along with an old town, each town that we visited had a central shopping area and pedestrian walking streets where the Chinese congregate to shop, eat and socialize. While most of these areas had street food sold in stalls and people walking around eating constantly, there was no shortage of KFCs, McDonalds or Starbucks and all were packed. Most stores and brands found in the USA could be found in China and often the merchandise was even nicer and more plentiful in China. There was no lack of high end stores such as Gucci, Burberry, Cartier, etc.

What we enjoyed most was wandering through the parks in various cities, seeing the people exercising, doing Tai Chi, playing cards, maj jongg, singing, playing instruments and interacting together. The Chinese people’s strength and level of physical fitness is remarkable and something to be truly admired.

While old china is for the most part gone, the level of industriousness of its people and their ability to build a modern society in such a short time-frame, is truly remarkable. Instead of the billboard advertisements so typical in our cities, there were movie sized picture screens everywhere with beautiful pictures and advertisements atop large modern buildings that are cropping up everywhere.

More on our daily itinerary and impressions later.

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