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Trip Report China Trip Report April 14 to April 29

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My husband and I flew from Sydney Australia to Changsha, Hunan Province, China and spent two weeks visiting World Heritage listed mountain national parks, ancient village, water towns, classical gardens and the very special city of Shanghai. We'd like to share our experience to make it easier for you to do the same.

DAY 1: DOLTON HOTEL, CHANGSHA

We arrived Changsha, Hunan airport in the evening and had a good run by taxi into the city. I had planned to take a taxi to one of the nearby food streets for dinner but as we had been travelling since early morning with very little sleep the night before we opted to eat at the hotel. I had read reviews so had low expectations about eating in the hotel’s restaurant. Well we were warned! The hotel is lovely and the room was comfortable, I had booked a cheap deal for a twin room on Ctrip. Beds are very hard in China.

DAY 2: CHANGSHA TO ZHANGJIAJIE/WULINGYUAN - QINGHE JINJIANG HOTEL

Before we left home I pre-booked a driver for Zhangjiajie and rail tickets through a local Zhangjiajie travel agent who offered to meet us at the hotel in Changsha to discuss our plans for the park. He arrived during breakfast with our tickets for the train from Changsha to Zhangjiajie. The hotel is close to the railway station but time was getting away so Jeffrey came with us in the taxi and raced with us through the station, carrying my bag, to make sure we made it to the train on time.

Buses from Changsha to Zhangjiajie take less time and may have been a better option. The “Super Fast Train” which took over 4 hours compared to 3 to 3 ½ hours, was dirty and the seats had seen better days. Nevertheless it was a new experience for us. We were the only non-Chinese on the train. Throughout the trip rail staff positioned themselves in the aisle and launched into long loud spiels in Chinese (which we could not understand). At first we thought it may have been political but it became clear the first woman was doing a sales pitch with a book that had pictures of food on the cover. Recipes? Next came a young woman with a bucket of water demonstrating a chamois-like cloth. She wiped the floor to show how well it could be washed, probably the first time in years the floor of the train had been cleaned! I bought one of these cloths to use to wring out my laundry in our hotel rooms but it didn’t work as well as the one demonstrated. Mmm.

As we got closer to Zhangjiajie the scenery changed and we were winding through the mountains filled with spring flowers. Nevertheless, we were relieved when the train journey ended and our driver was waiting for us at the station. Because of the weather forecast Jeffrey had suggested that we change our original plan and visit Tianmen Mountain in the afternoon before continuing on to Wulingyuan and our Hotel Qinghe Jinjiang. Our driver did not speak English but kept in touch with Jeffrey by ‘phone. He suggested she take us to the beautiful Da Cheng Shanshui Hotel for lunch. This quick lunch was the best food we had in this area and included Beijing Duck and some lovely vegetable dishes. There was a huge choice but we had a mountain to climb!

The driver dropped us at the cable way for Tianmen Shan and we called her when we returned. We were told the cable way is almost 8 km long and is certainly an experience in itself. This is the setting where the movie Avatar was filmed and nothing short of spectacular.You could spend a day here if you have the stamina. Highly recommended.

After a pleasant drive from Zhangjiajie through the mountains we arrived at our hotel Qinghe Jinjiang. A beautiful five star hotel and a very comfortable place to spend the next three nights.

DAY 3: QINGHE JINJIANG HOTEL - WULINGYUAN

There are shuttle buses throughout the park. We took the Bailong Elevator which goes to the top of the mountain, an engineering feat in itself. There are lots of stairs and you do need a reasonable level of fitness. There are shuttle buses on the mountain as well, we took one to Tianzi Mountain and descended by the cable way. The scenery is awe inspiring on a grand scale.

DAY 4: QINGHE JINJIANG HOTEL – WULINGYUAN

We met an Australian couple at breakfast who invited us to visit the park with them. We went to Baofeng Lake and Yellow Dragon Cave. The day was very warm without the predicted rain we expected. The cave is huge, cool and 7 km in length including a boat trip. It is an impressive cave system with unnecessary coloured lighting. Surprisingly it was quite dry for a limestone cave. There are lots of stairs and lots of people. Once you are committed to the tour you really can’t change your mind. Our number was not large enough for an English guide and the Chinese one has the ubiquitous mega-microphone ever-ready at her lips.

DAY 5: OVERNIGHT GRAND CENTRAL HOTEL, SHANGHAI

This morning we checked out of our room and stored our bags with the hotel so that we could take advantage of the day, before an evening flight to Shanghai. This was my favourite day in Zhangjiajie, we walked the 6 km along Golden Whip Stream. Easy walking in the valley below the towering spires, much quieter and calming after all the crowds on the mountain. Just beautiful with flowering trees and wildflowers everywhere. There are monkeys living in the forest, swinging in the trees and seeking attention (and food which is not allowed and will make them aggressive.)

We took a taxi back to the hotel then walked through the town to find an ATM and a restaurant for lunch. When we returned to the hotel our driver was waiting to take us to the airport for our 7.10 pm flight to Shanghai.

We arrived at Shanghai Pudong Airport and took a taxi to our hotel. It was close to 10.00 pm by the time we reached the Grand Central Hotel, Shanghai. A true five star hotel. We decided to have dinner in the 24 hour a’ la carte restaurant before following our bags to our room. After such a full day we probably would have just stayed there! This hotel has a French restaurant and we tucked in to our first western meal since arriving in China.

We were delighted with our beautiful room there wasn’t anything to not like. We had an Atrium Room, one of the lower priced rooms with a little less space. You would never have guessed because it was lavish with a separate shower and separate toilet, deep soaking tub, large vanity and quality bath products. The dark timber sleigh bed was comfortable with oversized pillows. This is equal to any hotel we've stayed in anywhere in the world.

DAY 6: SHANGHAI – GRAND CENTRAL HOTEL

This morning we walked along Nanjing Road and took the metro and had breakfast at Element Fresh Xintiandi. A small Chinese girl was practicing using her "training" chopsticks. So cute! It was wet so it was a nice refuge before more walking and shopping. The metro is easy to use and very convenient.

Dinner: Xindalu at Hyatt on the Bund. It was a Friday and preferred restaurant bookings were difficult to come by. So were taxis! Our concierge booked an 8.30 pm spot and we finally got a taxi which drove along the Bund in all it’s evening glory. The restaurant is modern with an open kitchen. We ordered Beijing Duck and Mandarin Fish with a French wine. We had a wonderful evening – an early birthday celebration for me.

DAY 7: SHANGHAI – GRAND CENTRAL HOTEL

It was raining again so we took a taxi to Sinan Road in the Old French Concession. We had breakfast at La Brioche and enjoyed real French bread! We checked out the residences and decided to return to our hotel to enjoy our room out of the weather. Sometimes you need to just take time-out!

Dinner: Lost Heaven, Gao Yu Rd – There’s one on the Bund but it was booked out so we took a longer taxi ride, well worth the effort! This restaurant had lovely ambience serving Yunnan food. We’ve been to Yunnan Province so are familiar with this style of cuisine, they also serve Burmese food. Once again it was a wait to get a taxi from the hotel and we were concerned about getting one back to the hotel from a more obscure location. No need to worry! Our taxi driver played classical music, made jokes and laughed all the way back. We love classical music and laughed with him!

The concierge at the Grand Central took copies of our passports and bought our G train tickets for the next day from Shanghai to Suzhou. The charge was 30 RMB each.

DAY 8: TONGLI - ZHENG FU CAO TANG HOTEL

We took a taxi to the station for a G train to Suzhou. We arrived at Suzhou station and my husband carried my trolley backpack in front of him from the train. Suzhou train station is very big and there was a lot of pushing and shoving at the turnstile. When we arrived in Tongli we discovered my backpack was missing, it contained our folder with all our travel documents (except our train e-tickets) as well as valuables like prescription sunglasses and glasses and medication. We returned to Suzhou but had no luck finding the bag even though we were taken to the police station. We were rather concerned about going to a police station in a communist country. They found the footage on the CCTV that showed us leaving the station "without" my bag. When we told them we are Australian they relaxed and were all smiles.

Luckily with the planning I had done for the trip and the fact it was only 2 weeks, the details were all in my head. Also we had downloaded a lot of confirmation emails for hotels and domestic flights onto our new mini i-pad. Thank heavens for technology!
By the time we got back to Tongli we had lost a lot of time. Our host from our hotel Zheng Fu Cao Tang was “Andy”, he could not do enough for us.

The first thing I did when we arrived in Tongli was buy a silk quilt from the first shop I came across. Tongli is known for silk duvets. We had enough time to walk around Tongli and with hindsight I would have booked two nights in Suzhou and visited Tongli from there. Once we left Shanghai we had all one night stays until our final two nights. There’s not a lot of choice in hotels in the Old City of Tongli so I chose Zheng Fu Cao Tang, mentioned on the forum but not in Reviews. It is a lovely traditional hotel with an internal garden. It is quite expensive for a fairly basic room with no heating but we were quite warm under a silk quilt. A plate of fresh strawberries and banana was left in our room when we were out having dinner, a nice touch. We noticed roadside stalls selling strawberries when we were in the taxi so they must be locally grown. No breakfast was served and most cafés don't open early, we did find one serving croissants and Illy coffee overlooking the canal.

DAY 9: SUZHOU – SCHOLAR’S HOTEL PINGJIANG FU

Andy called a taxi to take us to Suzhou. We arrived at our hotel with the intention of leaving our luggage and going to see the Classical Gardens. The Humble Administrators Garden and a few others are within walking distance of the hotel. We were told that we had been upgraded to a suite! Scholars is a gorgeous hotel close to Pingjiang Old Street and a suite was the icing on the cake. This hotel was a highlight of our trip.

On our way to the gardens we stopped to watch through a shop window, perfectly behaved pampered dogs having trims and blow-dries. We spent the day visiting the UNESCO gardens and walking down Pingjiang Street with all the beautiful shops while we sampled the quality street food. I loved walking along this street, it runs parallel to the canal and is good for people watching. I’m sure they were watching us as well! In the evening we took a taxi to a large upstairs restaurant recommended by our hotel. Duck and chicken were off the menu because of the current bird flu even though we had been served Beijing duck in Shanghai. There were no other westerners in this restaurant something to which we’ve become accustomed.

The staff at Scholars was extremely helpful. They bought our G train ticket for the next day to Shanghai Hongqiao for our onward flight to Huangshan. The fee was 30 RMB each. We asked if they would also exchange our e-ticket for our final day from Taiyuan to Beijing. This is a service unfamiliar to them. Nothing was too much trouble; they wanted to learn. The concierge took our e-tickets to the station and we were only charged the required 5 RMB each with no additional charge for the hotel’s service fee.

DAY 10: HUANGSHAN (TUNXI) – HUI BOUTIQUE HOTEL

We took a taxi to Suzhou station for an 11.27 am G train to Shanghai Hongqiao Station. The traffic was very busy. Our train arrived at 12.04 pm, we walked the 700m following the signs through the station to the airport Terminal 2. Our flight to Tunxi departed later than the expected 2.20 pm time and our driver was waiting for us when we arrived to take us to Hui Style Hotel. John from CTS Huangshan met us at the hotel to discuss our arrangements. I had been in touch with John by email before leaving home and had passed on his contact details to others so it was good to meet him at last. John walked with us through the Old Street and introduced us to some of his restaurant friends. He is obviously comfortable taking charge where I prefer to make my own decisions.

We enjoyed the Old Street and bought an ink-stone and brushes widely sold here. Back at our hotel we packed small backpacks with enough gear for our night on the mountain and our stay in Xidi. Hui Style hotel is a traditional Chinese guesthouse beautifully preserved and close to the old street. I was frustrated by the lack of lighting when I was organising our gear for the journey to the mountain and villages.

DAY 11: HAUNGSHAN – YUPINGLOU HOTEL (JADE SCREEN HOTEL)

After breakfast we left our main luggage at Hui Style Hotel to be picked up on our return. Ben from the hotel speaks English and gave us his card should we require assistance. Ben also provides transport to guests. Our driver (also named John) was the same man who picked us up at the airport. He was a very careful driver and took us to the shuttle bus station. When we arrived we saw there is a “Left Luggage” secure area charging 10 RMB per large piece. It would have been more convenient for us to leave bags here if we had only known! Shuttle buses from here service all cable ways. We showed our hotel name and were told which bus number to take. The buses are quite small and comfortable and it took 15 minutes to get to Yuping Cable Way. The drive winds through forest and is very picturesque. I always wear my sea bands at all times to avoid motion sickness. The ticket office for the Park and Cable Way is after the shuttle bus terminates. Over 60’s pay half price and 70+ free. There’s no gradual build up for the mountain, there are lots of steep stairs to climb just to take the cable way. Monkeys, some quite large were swinging in the trees and were even on the pathway on the way up. You can use them as an excuse to stop to catch your breath! Be careful though because they seem to interpret the camera as an act of aggression!

When you finally arrive at the Cable Way the ride takes another 15 minutes climbing above spectacular granite rock formations.

When the Cable car arrives you are not there yet! More climbing, up and up and up! We checked into our hotel Yupinglou (Jade Screen Hotel) then did some walking in the general vicinity. All stairs! In front of this hotel is what is referred to as the “Welcome Pine”. Jade Screen Hotel is built in amongst the rocks almost at the top of the mountain. It is an amazing sight and has outstanding views. The weather was perfect so we didn’t have any cloud cover to enhance the peaks. There were lots of people and the ubiquitous megaphones were very annoying in such a gorgeous place. As usual there were no other people who looked like us. When we sat on a bench to rest Chinese tourists sat beside us for photos. I moved sideways but they wanted us IN their photos. One man shoved his little girl next to me for a photo and she burst into tears and loud crying. We must be exotic creatures!

The problem with staying overnight in this location was that there is no circuit to walk (or should I say climb)? We would have had to retrace our steps. As reported on TA hotels on the mountain are overpriced and substandard. The food is the same. In hindsight I would take one cable way up, walk (climb) across and descend at a different location. There are plenty of hotels in Tangkou.

We seem to collect “pen pals” (email pals) in China. Yupinglou Hotel has a small sitting area open to the foyer and reception. It has breathtaking views across the mountains. I didn’t see any other guest lounge in the hotel. There was a small group smoking, even though a “no smoking” sign was displayed. I’m allergic to cigarette smoke and was very annoyed. I asked “Bin” at reception if smoking was allowed. He was embarrassed and explained his boss was entertaining important guests. I asked if we were not important guests also? Poor Bin it was not something he could control.

Later my husband went to reception to ask for tea and Bin gave him some good quality green tea leaves. He said that his mother grows green tea and he would bring some for us.

DAY 12: XIDI – PIG’S HEAVEN INN

The next morning true to his word Bin brought us a large bag of his mother’s tea, last year’s which must be better than this year’s. Rather like wine I suspect? We exchanged email addresses and Bin was in touch even before we left China. Descending the stairs to the Cable car in the morning is much easier than climbing. I had a scare with one of the large monkeys they are very intimidating. We shared the car with three Chinese girls from Tongli. They kept smiling at us then indicated they would like us to pose for photos with them. We are rather bemused.

Our driver was waiting for us at the Shuttle Bus Station and drove us to Hongcun and Namping before going to Xidi. The day was perfect, warm and sunny. Hongcun is surreal, like a painting everywhere you look. There are art students with their easles and paint brushes set up in every nook and corner. When we arrived at Namping we were assigned a guide to take us through the village. She spoke no English but without her we would not have known to visit all the protected buildings and houses.

Our final destination for the day was Xidi . We checked in to our hotel then set off to explore the village. UNESCO has protected these villages :

“The two villages are graphic illustrations of a type of human settlement created during a feudal period and based on a prosperous trading economy. In their buildings and their street patterns, they reflect the socio-economic structure of a long-lived settled period of Chinese history.”

We spent the night in a 400 year old building of the Ming and Qing dynasty – not the most comfortable but definitely one of the more memorable places we’ve stayed.

DAY 13: HANGZHOU – COURTYARD BY MARRIOTT

Our driver John arrived to take us to the bus station in Tunxi for our trip to Hangzhou. We stopped off on the way to retrieve our bags from Hui Style Hotel. We walked past a bakery and I took advantage of the opportunity to take some fresh buns with us for our three hour bus ride. I’m not a fan of bus travel; John had purchased our tickets the day before and we had front seats. We were surprised to find our “bus” was in fact a brand new comfortable coach with reclining seats. On the way we had a “comfort stop” and arrived in Hangzhou in the early afternoon. We had visited Hangzhou with a small group tour some years ago and this stay was just overnight to take an early morning flight the next day.

Close to our hotel there are several large shopping towers. Our priority was lunch and we discovered Charme Restaurant in Hangzhou Tower. It was mid afternoon so the restaurant was almost empty and the staff was having a meeting, all seated in their white uniforms looking very professional. We enjoyed our meal so much we decided to return for dinner. I usually go to great lengths to make sure we have a bath tub in our room but this hotel charges a much higher rate for a room with a tub. The shower room was very elegant with an abundance of hot water with a rain shower and travertine marble bench.

DAY 14: PINGYAO – YIDE HOTEL

It was a very early start for a 7.40 am flight to Taiyuan. On arrival we were picked up by our driver Xiao Qiao to take us to Pingyao. En route we stopped at Qiao's Family Courtyard, the setting for the film, “Raise the Red Lantern” and the residential compound of well-known financier Qiao Zhiyong. We spent about 1 ½ hours here soaking up the history. This is a site where Westerners rarely go so once again we were unique. A group of young student girls were sitting on a wall smiling at us. We asked if they spoke English and attempted to have a conversation about their studies. Two of the girls said to me “You are so Beautiful”, this was also said to me in Pingyao. In the West it is most unusual for a grandmother to be flattered in this way!

There were lots of souvenir and food stalls lining the entrance to the compound. We sampled the crisp bread dry-fried with smooth stones in a wok. It tasted like Sao biscuits reminiscent of our childhood. Do other countries have Saos?

We arrived at our extraordinary courtyard Hotel Yide, built in the same style as all the famous courtyards people pay to visit. There was still plenty of the day left to walk around this amazing ancient city. As we walked past Tian Yuan Kui Guesthouse our driver spotted us and introduced us to “Rainbow” who runs this Inn. I had emailed Rainbow from home to arrange the driver so we decided to have lunch there the next day. We enjoyed a delicious dinner at our Hotel Yide. Pingyao specialises in beef and I read it is treated with local salt and cooked in alkaline well-water. There were a lot of western tourists staying in our hotel.

This hotel has the traditional Kang bed, heated in the winter. We noticed these beds were even in the prison cells! The weather wasn’t cold enough for ours to be heated and the huge bed was like sleeping on concrete. We were quite accustomed to hard beds by now and I wouldn’t have missed this experience. I did have to send out a search party to find my husband.

DAY 15: PINGYAO – YIDE HOTEL

Pingyao is virtually a museum town. An all-inclusive ticket is 150 Yuan ½ price for over 60s. This includes about 20 scenic spots. Many are along the Ancient Ming Qing Street. I lost count of how many we visited. An abundance of history, culture, architecture, furniture, calligraphy and art.

We dropped in for lunch at Rainbow’s restaurant and were treated as honoured guests. During lunch a local young Chinese man, Jonathan who works in the guesthouse joined us. His English was excellent and we enjoyed our conversation asking lots of questions about the local history. Jonathan's family had owned a couryard in Pingyao before the Cultural Revolution. He told us the government had moved all the merchants out into the countryside and installed several families of peasants in each courtyard. He explained that English is taught through school and he improved his own skills by watching English language movies. He is a fan of Australian actresses Cate Blanchett and Nicole Kidman! I think Jonathan may provide guide services and this would be helpful to explain the history in the exhibits as there is very little Enlish.

It was very sunny and my hat was in our lost bag so for the second time I bought a “disposable” hat from a street stall for about 25-30 yuan. We munched on preserved ginger and jelly sweets coated in black sesame seeds. Our day was completed with a climb to the top of the tower where you can view the city. With extremely tired legs I insisted on taking one of the motorised tricycles back to our hotel. It was a hairy and exhilarating ride through the narrow streets! We ate dinner at our hotel so took a short walk to see the main street lit by orange lanterns.

There is so much to capture your attention in this town. It is dusty and dry which effected our noses. A raw city without glamour, evocative and reminiscent of what is past.

DAY 16: PINGYAO TO BEIJING AIRPORT

After breakfast Xiao Qiao drove us to Taiyuan train station, the traffic was very congested in the city. We took our G train to Beijing West Station, the journey was less than three hours and in first class, extremely comfortable seats and good service. It was confusing to know which exit to take from the station to get a taxi to the airport. I approached a young couple and asked if they spoke English. The young man generously walked with us to show the way. The taxi took about an hour in heavy traffic to reach the airport.

The success of our trip would not have been achieved without the help and generosity of so many. With good planning and the assistance of others it is possible to travel in China independently and so rewarding!

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