September 2: Departure from the US
We flew non-stop from Newark’s Liberty International Airport in New Jersey to Shanghai, China on Continental Airlines flight CO87. Usually, we have to drive to JFK Airport in New York to catch an international non-stop flight, so it was a pleasure flying from Newark where there is (seemingly) less vehicle traffic and less air traffic, and nearby hotels and parking are more plentiful and less expensive; departing from Newark is just less stressful for us. We spent the night prior to our flight at the nearby SpringHill Suites, where you can book a room with 14 (or 7) days of included parking as part of the room rate. Our flight departed around 11:00 am, and touched down in Shanghai just 14 hours and 40 minutes later at 1:40 pm the following day. We booked extra legroom seats for an additional fee, selecting the exit row/bulkhead in row 32, seats B (middle) and C (aisle). According to Seat Guru, on the Boeing 777-200ER, there were movable armrests in those seats (despite having the in-arm tray tables), but that wasn’t the case when we actually sat down. This did not come as a complete surprise, because Seat Guru also said that on the opposite side of the plane (in a 3-3-3 configuration), seats J and K did not have movable armrests. We booked anyway, realizing that it was unlikely that one set of armrests moved while those on the mirror image of the plane did not. We had thought that we also read on Seat Guru that seats A and L (the window positions) in that row were less favorable because of the “bump out” created by the exit door, although we don’t see that information currently stated on the website. The flight went as quickly as a 14-hour flight can go. The flight crew fed and watered us three times (dinner, snack, and breakfast). Alcoholic beverages were NOT complimentary in economy class, although free headphones were provided and the back-of-seat entertainment systems provided hours of viewing and listening pleasure. We didn’t check bags, so we can’t comment on whether a fee was charged.
REMINDER: If you are an American citizen, be sure to apply for a Chinese visa well in advance of your trip. We used Travisa as our facilitator, as we have for visas to other countries, and were again impressed with their attention to detail. (Another tip - don’t use the same photo for your visa application that is on your passport or it will be rejected!)
September 3: Arrival in Shanghai
We arrived at Shanghai Pudong International Airport’s Terminal 2 at 1:40 pm. The lines at customs and immigration moved along as expected, and because we had only carry-on luggage, we didn’t wait at baggage claim at all. (Remember to keep the departure portion of your arrival document in a safe place.) The airport is located approximately 30 miles from the city, which takes about 50 minutes to drive. We had arranged an airport transfer from our private tour guide to our hotel, the Hilton Shanghai, located on Hua Shan Road in the French Concession area, for 350 RMB. (The hotel charges 950 RMB for car service, or estimates 170 RMB for a taxi.)
We hired David Tang as our private guide, and although we wouldn’t glowingly recommend him, he did a fine job. He met us at the airport just outside of baggage claim as pre-arranged, and led us through the airport and to the garage where our driver and van were waiting. David was very responsive to my e-mails and questions, but was a man of few words other than the essential ones when we were together. (He didn’t make any personal chit-chat during our time with him, nor did he suggest taking a break or having lunch during our full-day tour.) For our first day in Shanghai (which was really barely a half-day), we didn’t plan any organized sightseeing. We checked into the Hilton, we spent some time in the lounge rehydrating and refreshing, and checked into our room. We walked a bit on Nanjing Road and went to bed early.
HOTEL REVIEW: Shanghai Hilton
My spouse and I spent two nights at the Shanghai Hilton in early September 2011. We redeemed Hilton Hhonors points for our 2-night reward stay (I think it was 35K per night for a room rate of $200+ per night). Our only room category choice using the award was a standard room, and although we were told we had been upgraded, we had our doubts. The room was a decent size and condition, but it did just appear to be standard - there was no separate seating area (although there was a comfy chair and ottoman and a nice desk) and no separate bathtub and shower (and the bathroom was rather ordinary). Two complimentary bottles of water were in the room when we arrived, and were replenished at evening turndown as well as when our room was cleaned each morning.
Upon arriving at the front desk in the lobby, we were directed to the 38th floor executive lounge for check-in, where we were offered cold drinks while we completed our registration. We checked in at early-afternoon (approximately 2:00) and we were granted access to our room immediately (which wasn’t too much earlier than the regular check-in time). The executive lounge was a blessing to us, providing us with complimentary breakfast (from 6:30 am to 11:00 am), afternoon tea (from 3:00 pm to 6:00 pm), and cocktails/light dinner (from 6:00 pm to 8:00 pm). The lounge is very spacious and attractive, and has fabulous views of the Shanghai skyline toward the Bund and Pudong. The lounge is designed in such a way that it provides many places to sit in various rooms, so it is possible to find a more private area to relax. There is no smoking in the lounge, and children under 12 are not admitted. Casual attire is requested. There is a spiral staircase that leads to floor 37, so guests on that executive floor can access the lounge without using the elevators. Breakfast was the usual hot and cold choices. Afternoon tea consisted of tiny sandwiches (although not the girly tea-sandwich type; they were more like fancy sliders) and yummy miniature desserts, many of which were served shotglass-style. The evening cocktail fare was interesting, with both hot options, Asian options, and fancy small-plated items. Servers took orders for complimentary alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages; there is also an interesting (although smallish in size) sort-of sunken bar where you can sit and chat with other patrons.
As for the hotel itself, we didn't partake in any of the restaurants, although they looked lovely. Leonardo’s serves dinner only, daily from 6:00 pm to 10:30 pm. Sichuan Court serves lunch and dinner from 11:30 am to 10:30 pm. The Lobby Pavilion serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner from 7:00 am to 1:00 am. Near Leonardo’s is a cigar bar/lounge; I don’t recall the hours, but it seemed to be open continuously from early afternoon on; we had a drink there one afternoon, but we were the only patrons. The cigar bar seemed to be the only place that one could smoke publicly inside the hotel. (There are ashtrays outside the front doors, so it is also possible there.) We didn’t see the Penthouse Bar on the 39th floor, but it served dinner only from 6:00 pm to 2:00 am. Unfortunately, the Atrium Café was undergoing renovations (supposedly lasting from July 1 to September 1 according to their website [which has now been changed to say October 31], but a sign in the actual area said the changes wouldn’t be complete until October 1 [I assume that sign has been changed to October 31 as well]), which was a shame to miss, because it seemed like a really attractive indoor space where one could have a drink and enjoy the skylight views.
The indoor swimming pool/spa/fitness center is quite lovely and looks like an excellent place to relax should one have some free time (which I did not). There was also a place to eat in the spa/pool area serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner from 6:00 am to 11:00 pm. The fitness center is spacious and contains many machines of different types (I didn't actually use it, so I can't comment on anything specifically). I was given a tour of the spa, although I only saw the locker room, shower area, and Jacuzzi, not the actual treatment rooms, but the staff seemed very professional and eager-to-please. As a Hhonors Platinum member, I was able to use the spa facilities for free, and was offered 10% off any spa service, which I regrettably had to refuse.
As for other features of the hotel, it has an ATM machine in the lobby which doesn't appear to charge a fee for use. There is also a florist in the lobby area, and they keep the lobby decorated attractively as a result of their position. The hotel also features a type of walk-through coffee shop/counter, where you can buy coffee, of course, pastries, chocolates and other candies, and some other cold drinks (although no sodas). It is easy to hail cabs outside the hotel lobby at any hour of the day, and there is almost always a doorman present to assist you.
The hotel is located in the French Concession, which seems like a relatively quiet area just two blocks from Nanjing Road (although this part of Nanjing Road is not pedestrian-only, and even walking on the sidewalks proved challenging to us because of all the almost-silent motorbike and pedal bicycle traffic). The hotel is also quite near the Jing 'An Temple and People's Park. There is a row of bars/restaurants right across the street from the hotel, however, we found them a bit mysterious in their appearance - the ground-floor storefronts were clearly small bar areas, but the dining room/restaurant must have been on the second floor because we couldn't see them. There was one fusion-type restaurant at the end of the retail row which looked great, but was fully committed on the evening that we tried to dine there. Restaurants on Nanjing Road seemed to be completely missing - there was one café with indoor and outdoor seating on the edge of People's Park, but we didn't see any other options on the street level for the few blocks that we walked. There are a few malls on the road, and they advertised restaurants, but they seemed to be only fast-food types of places. We didn’t see any small stores near the hotel where we could purchase drinks or snacks, which is our usual modus operandi when travelling instead of using the minibar, but fortunately it wasn’t necessary at this hotel because of having access to the executive lounge.
Although the Shanghai Hilton was beautiful and we thoroughly enjoyed our stay there, we think that the next time we visit Shanghai, we will stay in the Bund/Pudong area to be closer to the glitz and glamour.
September 4: One Day in Shanghai
We had only one full day to sightsee in Shanghai, which was intentional planning on our part. When we began planning our China itinerary, we knew that we wanted to include Beijing, which was another Chinese city to which Continental Airlines flew non-stop. So our decision was to either fly into AND out of Beijing, or to create an open-jaw itinerary by also including Shanghai. The concept was accurate, but we didn’t count on enjoying Shanghai so much. I had posted a question on Fodors asking what I would miss if I didn’t go to Shanghai, and the few responses that I received essentially said that it was a large city with modern buildings. That part was true, but I thought those sparkling-new buildings were really intriguing, and I wish that I had allowed more time (actually, any time at all other than a cursory glance) to investigate the Bund and Pudong areas. I wish we had been able to take the train through the pedestrian tunnel to the other side and walk around a bit, maybe check out the view from the Oriental Pearl Tower, and so on. I would also have liked to climb atop the Lupu Bridge, which sounded pretty cool, chill out a bit in People’s Park, and visit the Shanghai Museum. As it was, on our one day in Shanghai, we took a quick look at the Bund facing Pudong, visited Yu Yuan Garden and Bazaar (enjoyable), Confucian Temple (this could be eliminated in my opinion), Ming and Qing Dynasty Street, Setting-Free Bridge (buy a turtle or a fish and set it free in a pond), the cricket market (fascinating!) and Zhujiajiao (a water town about 40 minutes outside of Shanghai with great photo ops). As I mentioned earlier, our day in Shanghai was much too short, but enjoyable nonetheless. (Two full days would have been ideal.)
September 5: Shanghai to Xi’an
As with our airport arrival, we had arranged an airport departure transfer from our private tour guide for 350 RMB. (The hotel charges 950 RMB for car service, or estimates 170 RMB for a taxi.) The airport is located approximately 30 miles from the city, which takes about 50 minutes to drive. We arrived at Terminal 2 at Shanghai Pudong International Airport (which was opened for the Olympic Games in 2008) about two hours in advance of our flight. Terminal 2 is enormous, and it took us a long time to walk from security to our gate, which was at the completely other end of the terminal (there are moving walkways to help you). Despite the large size of the terminal, we did not see many shops or restaurants. You can smoke in designated areas. We had a dim sum breakfast at Hopestar, which was good.
We chose to use Air China for our three domestic flights (as part of the Star Alliance, we could claim the miles flown on an airline such as Continental that would be more useful to us in the future). It was easy to book our tickets online, as well as to select our seats. The only issue we had was entering our Star Alliance frequent flyer numbers; however, we have successfully claimed those miles retroactively. We had heard stories about domestic flights being late or cancelled, and ours were no exception (but they were just late, never cancelled). The flights all boarded on time, but then we sat on the runway for at least one hour (and in one case two hours) each time before being allowed to take off. As some of the only Western-looking faces on the internal flights, it was clear that delays were “par for the course”, because no one groaned or got fidgety or complained in the slightest. We were served drinks and food on the 2.5 hour flight, even being offered a choice between two hot entrees for the meal.
When we departed Shanghai it was a beautiful, cool, sunny day, but it was raining heavily when we touched down at the Xi’an Xianyang International Airport. We were met at baggage claim by our private guide for Xi’an, Jeff Zhang, whom we would recommend highly. He is great at his job! He responded quickly and courteously to every e-mail that we sent, he was always on time, he was pleasant despite the rainy weather (even thoughtfully loaning each of us an umbrella!), and he worked long hours to accommodate our late departure flight to Chengdu. He took great care of us, making sure that we knew where the bathrooms were located, how to order from a restaurant menu, and where to check in at the airport. He even bought us some Chinese cigarettes! Jeff and his driver picked us up from the airport to begin our tour of Xi’an. (The cost of our pick-up and drop-off was rolled into the total cost of our days with Jeff, so I can’t quote an exact amount.) Because of the weather, Jeff made a change to our originally planned itinerary, so we were off to the Big Wild Goose Pagoda, which we enjoyed (50 RMB per person) except for the requisite visit to the giftshop/museum where we were given a quick lesson on Chinese writing and then encouraged to buy some local art and/or handicrafts. The weather was so uncooperative later on, so we decided to call it an early day, knowing that the next day would be action-packed.
HOTEL REVIEW: Sofitel Xi'an on Renmin Square
My spouse and I stayed at the Sofitel Xi'an on Renmin Square in early September 2011 for (sadly) only one night. We booked a junior suite because the cost wasn't much greater than the deluxe room rate, although it did not include breakfast or internet access. (We had read reviews that the standard rooms were extremely small, so that category was out of the question.) The cost for internet access was quite affordable: approximately $10 USD for a continuous 24 hours of service). The staff swarmed us upon arrival at the hotel, chatting away and standing very closely while we completed our registration, which was a bit uncomfortable.
We were upgraded to a true suite, which was spacious and trendy-looking. The living room area featured a sofa, chair, and coffee table, desk, and TV, along with a roomy powder room (half-bathroom). The bedroom area was smallish, but had its own TV, and the door could be closed for complete privacy from the living room. The bathroom, while complex (even with its own TV), didn't feel very spacious, and had an odd combination of glass doors. For example, the water closet area containing the toilet had a door, but the entire space was enclosed in glass, so it wasn't as if two people could use the bathroom at the same time. The walls of the bathroom were frosted glass, and while they provided a good level of privacy, the opacity still allowed you to see light and shadow coming from the bedroom. (This was an issue at night, when one of us got up to use the restroom and the other tried to continue sleeping, but was awoken by the bright lights. Still, I had heard that some of the room in this hotel had completely glass walls in the bathroom, so we were glad for the privacy that our room afforded.) The bathroom also had an odd door/sliding panel into the large closet in the bedroom. Robes (two types, both fluffy and silky) and slippers were provided, as well as a full-size umbrella (which we needed, unfortunately), and a safe were present. Even with the quirkiness, it was a great room and I would book it again. Two complimentary bottles of water were in the room when we arrived, and were replenished at evening turndown.
Our room looked out over the skylights for the indoor pool, as well as overlooking the small outdoor patio off the pool area. Attendants and a lifeguard were present at the pool. The fitness center was attractive, although not dense with equipment (I didn’t actually use the center, so take my comments lightly). The décor of the guestrooms and guest floors was very zen and modern looking, and the public areas were quite attractive and buzzing with activity.
This hotel is located in a complex of three other hotels also owned by the Accor brand: the Sofitel is the highest level of comfort, followed by the Grand Mercure, Mercure, and Ibis. According to their website, the lesser-branded hotels were still permitted to use all of the facilities in the Sofitel. There were myriad restaurant options in the Sofitel, both in the East Wing and in the West Wing. The lobby bar has a pianist performing in the evenings (Lobby Lounge, open 7:00 to 1:00). There is no smoking indoors at this hotel that I could tell. There is a Chinese restaurant (Chinois, open for lunch and dinner from 11:30 to 2:30 and again from 5:00 to 9:30), Japanese restaurant (Koi, open for lunch and dinner from 11:30 to 2:30 and again from 5:00 to 9:30), Moroccan restaurant (open for lunch and dinner from 11:30 to 2:30 and again from 5:00 to 9:30), and Cuban restaurant, as well as a classy-looking coffee bar/shop (Cafe Ren, open 10:00 am to 11:00 pm). There is a buffet and a la carte Mediterranean restaurant in the lobby that is open 24 hours. We had difficulty deciding amongst the restaurants so we decided to ask the concierge to see copies of the menus; oddly, the concierge was unable to comply, instead telling us to go to each restaurant individually and ask for the menu.
There are a few shops in the hotel, the largest being an art gallery. There are two ATM machines in the Sofitel itself, however, they are owned by different banks and dispense different total amounts of money each day (one dispensed up to 2000 RMB, but the other dispensed 2500 RMB). The location of the hotel is near Renmin Square, which appeared to be more of a triangle; there weren't many shops or restaurants visible adjacent to the property, but it was raining quite heavily during our time there, so visibility was not ideal. Walking directly out the front gate of the hotel, crossing the busy street, and turning right, we saw one restaurant, one very small store that sold alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages, and a larger store that sold wines and harder alcohol. The main street was a bit difficult to cross, although we attempted to do so at various points in front of the hotel, none of which were easy or felt safe (again, it was raining heavily, which obscured our visibility as pedestrians).
I would definitely stay here again when visiting Xi'an, although I might also consider the new Hilton because my spouse is a loyalty member, however, the Hilton seemed like a smaller stand-alone property, not like the sprawling Renmin Square complex of the Accor brand. (I heard from my private tour guide that the former Hyatt is no longer associated with that brand.)
September 6: Xi’an Sightseeing, Then Off to Chengdu
We began our day relatively early (approximately 8:00 am) en route to our first stop, and our main reason for visiting Xi’an: the Terracotta Warriors! I won’t go into great detail about the excavation itself other than to say that it was amazing, and it was worth the effort that it took to get there. It took approximately one hour to drive from our hotel, the Sofitel, to the Warriors sight because of the heavy traffic and the inclement weather. (It was raining even HARDER today than yesterday!) Fortunately, the Warriors are inside, although you do need to go back and forth outdoors to travel between the various buildings enclosing the pits. The town surrounding the Warriors seems like an enjoyable place to spend an hour or two shopping, dining, or people-watching, but none of that could occur pleasantly on the day that we visited because of the downpour. It is necessary to take a golf cart (which probably holds about 10+ people at one time and costs 5 RMB per person) from the entrance area to the actual pits, but people queued nicely and the lines moved quickly. (I had heard that you used to be able to walk to the buildings from the entrance, but that didn’t appear to be the case anymore, although everyone must walk back from the buildings to the entrance upon departure.) There is a movie about the discovery and creation of the warriors, but it is old and in desperate need of updating (it is played in a theater-in-the-round type setting where you stand to watch it). They appear to be building a fabulous new theater on the grounds, so that should improve the quality of the movie-viewing experience immensely. There are some photo ops inside the buildings where you can don a recreation of a warrior outfit, but you can take your own photos for free near the movie theater. The Terracotta Warriors of Xi’an are a must-see, in my opinion (110 RMB per person). Afterwards, we visited a factory that produces all types of recreations of warriors in every size imaginable, from something tiny that you could keep on your desktop, to a full-size figure that can even be personalized with your own face. Although this was clearly a stop to encourage tourists to buy souvenirs, we found it interesting. They also made lacquer furniture and other artwork at this factory, and many demonstrations were given to the patrons.
Our next stop was a great lunch where Jeff helped us to order some tasty dishes. The rain stopped for about one blessed hour, and we took that opportunity to visit the Ancient City Walls. We strolled along the top of the wall, but none of the bicycles or golf carts were available to rent because of the weather. On a beautiful day, spending time on the wall would be a great way to pass the morning or afternoon. The rain began again, and we were off to tour the Bell Tower (which is a mirror of the Drum Tower, 27 RMB per person). We climbed to the top, although that isn’t a must-do, in our opinion. We also visited the Muslim Quarter and the Great Mosque, which we enjoyed (25 RMB per person), but it was such a shame about the rain! Not many vendors were in sight, and since returning home and seeing other people’s photos who visited on good-weather days, we really missed out. But what can you do? We ended the day by going to a dumpling banquet near the Bell Tower, which we thoroughly enjoyed. It is served to you sort of family-style, so you simply choose the price you want to pay. There are three menu variations, and the dumplings increase in price based on the ingredients used and the degree of difficulty in creation and presentation. We chose the mid-priced menu, but in hindsight, we should have gone “all out” and chosen the most expensive menu; after all, we were only in Xi’an once! The dumpling banquet is a must-do!
Jeff and the driver dropped us off at the airport for our late evening flight. (Helpful hint for Western ladies: there are two restroom outside of security in the Xi’an Airport, and only one of them has Western-style toilets. So if you open stall doors and don’t see anything you like, try the other restroom.) Check-in at the Xi’an Airport went relatively smoothly, as long as you don’t try to check in more than 2 hours before your flight. (Even checking in 2 hours and 5 minutes before won’t work; I think the computers prevent the agents from accessing the system until the exact time.) We had some difficulty getting our bags through the security scanners at the airport - although we had carried on our 21” rollaboard suitcases when we flew from Shanghai to Xi’an, apparently the scanners at the Xi’an Airport are smaller and designed to accept only narrow bags. We were afraid that we would have to go back out and check our bags, but then the security agent indicated that we should just remove some items from the suitcases so that they did not appear overstuffed, send everything through the scanner, and then re-load the bags on the other side. That advice saved the day. (We did not have this issue at either the Shanghai, Chengdu, or Beijing Airports.) We spent an hour or so in an airport bar/cafe, our gate changed (weather had delayed or cancelled some flights), and then our flight quickly began boarding. There was no jetway to access the domestic flight from Xi’an to Chengdu; we had to board a bus and be driven onto the tarmac to board, although it was done on time. And then we sat and waited on the plane on the runway for 2 hours!
I can’t comment on arriving at the Chengdu Shuangliu International Airport, because we arrived at 2:00 am and was a bit bleary-eyed. We were met after baggage claim by a car from our hotel, the Shangri-La Chengdu. Blessedly, the streets were completely free of traffic, and we reached the hotel in no time (actually, I think it took about 20 minutes).
Originally, we had arranged for our private guide, Junyun (Julie) Zhang (NOT recommended), to pick us up at the airport, but we ran into a few problems with her before we even left the United States. We had been e-mailing back and forth with Julie for a period of more than 5 months, perfecting our itinerary and agreeing on a total fee and payment method. She was always very responsive and cordial. But a few days before we departed for China, she sent us an e-mail asking us to make a wire transfer of approximately 90% of the total fee to her bank. Although it seemed “fishy”, our e-mail communications had been extensive, and we couldn’t imagine anyone going to such lengths over so many months just to steal a few hundred dollars. Julie claimed that it was the high season for travel in China and that she wouldn’t be able to reserve a driver without pre-paying him. Because it is difficult and expensive to do a telegraphic bank transfer in the US (at our bank, in any case), we agreed that we would transfer the money to her account on the day before we reached Chengdu using a Chinese ATM machine. We were never able to make the transfer successfully, whether because of user error or the incompatibility of US and Chinese banks and/or ATM machines/cards/accounts. We wondered whether she would show up as arranged. The airport transfers were another problem that crept up at the last minute; because our flight from Xi’an arrived after midnight, she no longer wanted to pick us up as previously discussed, although we e-mailed these details again and again for 5 months prior to our trip. Rather than lose her as a guide completely, we decided to have her focus on only the two full-day tours and not on the airport pick-ups. (The airport pick-up decision ended up being a “blessing in disguise” because our flight arrived quite late, and we couldn’t imagine her sitting around the airport and waiting for us.) Julie quoted us 300 RMB as a pick-up charge, but we ended up paying 450 RMB to the hotel for a private car transfer.
Check-in at the Shangri-La Chengdu went smoothly, and we were asleep as quickly as possible in preparation for our early morning to follow.
HOTEL REVIEW: Shangri-La Chengdu
My spouse and I stayed at the Shangri-La Chengdu in early September 2011 for three nights. We arrived quite late on our first night (after 2:30 am) and had hoped to be given a "Surprise! We’ve upgraded you to make your day better" room, but we were not. We had booked the deluxe room, which was one step up from the superior category. It was difficult to ascertain the differences in the room categories online (the sizes stated were all similar), but from some photos that we saw, it appeared that the deluxe room had a sofa and chair and was configured to look larger. The room was spacious (including a small sofa, comfy chair, and coffee table), as was the bathroom, which featured plenty of counter and wall storage space a separate soaking bathtub and glass-enclosed shower (and of course, a TV near the tub!). Two complimentary bottles of water were in the room when we arrived, and were replenished at evening turndown as well as when our room was cleaned each day.
The public spaces in the hotel are attractive, including the bustling Lobby Lounge where there is live nightly entertainment provided by a pianist. There is no smoking in the public areas of this hotel, but there are ashtrays by the front entrance for that purpose. The hotel seems to have a lot of convention/meeting space on the lower level, which also houses a salon (very inexpensive, haircuts were about $8 USD, I think), clothing store, bank, and Bentley dealership (just in case your Bentley was one of your forgotten items!). There is no ATM machine directly in the hotel, but during business hours, when the bank is open, it is possible to walk from the hotel hallway through the bank to the street entrance and use the ATM machine. (The machine is accessible from the exterior of the hotel at all hours.) The hotel has several places to eat and drink in addition to the Lobby Lounge. Shang Palace serves Chinese cuisine, while Cafe Z serves Mediterranean food and has both indoor and outdoor seating, although we suspect that the outdoor seating was used at lunchtime only because we never saw anyone out there. Mooney’s Irish Pub featured live music at night, as well as indoor and outdoor seating. The swimming pool at this hotel was the least decorative one that we saw on our trip to China, but it was still attractive and perhaps even more importantly, the pool was actually designed for swimming laps! There was no outdoor area attached to the pool, but attendants and a lifeguard were present. The fitness center was large but seemed sparsely equipped (I did not use it though, so I could be wrong). We utilized the hotel transfer from the airport, which although twice the price of the transfer offered by our guide and three-quarters of the price of a taxicab, turned out to be an excellent decision because our flight, which was supposed to arrive just after midnight, was over two hours late, yet the hotel car was waiting for us as we exited baggage claim.
The hotel is well-located, near three bridges that will carry you across the river to a street lined with bars/cafes, although most are not open until the evening. Nearby is Lan Kwai Fong (LKF), an upscale and hip shopping and entertainment complex (again, most restaurants/bars do not open until evening, only the chain restaurant, Tony Romas, is immediately recognizable as a restaurant rather than a bar). Directly in front of the hotel lining one of the bridges is the Verandah restaurant, which seemed very popular with the locals (we were told that it was pricey, however). The foot, bicycle, and motorbike traffic was heavy on both the streets and the sidewalks, so take care when walking around. There are a few restaurants directly outside the doors of the hotel on an adjacent street, including a Chinese restaurant (it looked great but had no English menu), a German brewhouse called Munchen Bier Reise (which we wouldn't recommend based on our own experience), and a pizza and pasta restaurant (which looked like it had potential). Amidst these restaurants is a very small storefront selling alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages and some limited snack food (for example, I wanted a chocolate candy bar, but they didn’t sell anything recognizable as that).
We had a great stay at the Shangri-La Chengdu, and would probably stay there again when visiting the city. (We had also considered the Sofitel, Kempinski, and Sheraton, but we did not see any of those hotels on our visit.)
September 7: Chengdu to Leshan and Back Again
When we awoke, we were still unsure whether our guide would meet us as planned because we hadn’t been able to wire her the money on the previous day. A few minutes before we were to meet, we received a phone call from someone named Bella who said she was running a few minutes late. We thought, “Bella? Who is Bella?” We were sure that we hadn’t misheard her; “Bella” sounds nothing like “Julie”. As it turns out, Julie decided not to show, substituting another guide in her place. We didn’t have our heart set on using Julie as a guide, but never in any of our e-mail communications did she tell us that she wouldn’t be our guide. She had no website, nor did she discuss working for a company or running her own company, so this last-minute switch came as a complete surprise to us. Our driver was called Mr. Lin, and we joked many times amongst ourselves over the next two days that he was clearly someone’s crazy old uncle, not a professional driver by any means. (Perhaps this was what Julie meant when she said we needed to pre-pay the driver; who we were left with, while amusing, was quite unsafe!) Mr. Lin owned a new-looking somewhat luxurious car (we can’t recall the make [which we also see in the US] and the model [which we do not]) which was “decked out” in Winnie-the-Pooh seat covers, seat belt covers, and matching rear-view mirror dangling bear (we found this extremely odd for a 60+ year old man, but maybe he had grandchildren who were fond of Disney). Unfortunately, Mr. Lin didn’t know how to operate his car; we only hope that he purchased it the day before, because he didn’t understand that when the car accelerated over 10 mph, the doors locked automatically, and he was flummoxed as to how to unlock the doors for us. (The doors didn’t have any type of button that we could depress or pull up to unlock the doors ourselves, so we were virtually trapped in the car until he could figure things out EACH TIME WE STOPPED.) He also YELLED at Bella the entire time that he drove; because he only spoke Chinese, we couldn’t imagine what he was talking about. Add to Mr. Lin and his loud non-stop voice, his ringing mobile phone, Bella’s ringing mobile phone, the phone in the car dashboard also ringing, the GPS spouting directions in Chinese, and the loud music that he played for all his passengers to “enjoy”! It was a comedy of errors, which would have been hysterically funny had we not felt so unsafe.
The craziest part of the Chengdu guide story occurred after we returned home, when we received a follow-up e-mail from Julie asking how we liked our trip and to comment on her as our guide! Did she not even realize what had happened and that she wasn’t our guide? We sent her an e-mail with some suggestions on ways to improve her business, saying that we would not be recommending her on Fodors or TripAdvisor. (We never received a reply to her “follow-up” e-mail.) We are mentioning her full name in this trip report only as a warning to future travelers that they might not want to use her.
Knowing that we would arrive in Chengdu late in the evening (which was actually early on the morning of) our first full day in Chengdu, we arranged to travel to see the Leshan Grand Buddha, thinking that if we were exhausted, we could catch a nap in the car. (Leshan is located approximately 100 miles from Chengdu.) You can see the Buddha one (or both) of two ways: by boat or by foot. (Had I to do it over again, I would see it BOTH ways.) We chose the boat option, paying our fee of 70 RMB per person, boarding the boat, and donning lifejackets. (There is a small “head” [bathroom] on the boat, and smoking is allowed. Some boats sell drinks and snacks, although ours did not.) It takes less than an hour for the boat trip; fifteen minutes to reach the buddha, fifteen minutes to come back, and fifteen minutes passing by it twice. We enjoyed the boat tour, but as I said earlier, next time we would combine it with a land visit as well. There is a small outdoor food market near the area where the boats dock which we found enjoyable. It is only about two blocks long, but is authentic and serves the local population, with stalls showing a nice variety of fruits, vegetables, grains, spices, meats, and live fish. We had lunch in Leshan before driving back to Chengdu, which was quite good. I think the restaurant was called the Old Mill, which was clean and featured an extensive menu in English and Chinese; the restrooms were also clean; however, this was the only stop in all of China that did not feature at least one Western toilet.
We spent some time walking around Chengdu in the early evening, and ate dinner at the Munchen Bier Reise (not recommended) on the street outside the main entrance to the Shangri-La Chengdu hotel before retiring for the night.
September 8: Pandas in Chengdu
The pandas were our reason for visiting Chengdu, and the effort and expense was completely worth it! We set out for the Chengdu Research Base for Giant Panda Breeding around 9:00 am, and reached the site about an hour later (it isn’t that far in distance, but the traffic!) We spent about two hours walking around to different pens, watching and photographing the pandas. General admission to the preserve is 58 RMB per person. The highlight of our trip was holding a 1-year old Giant Panda cub! For just 1,000 RMB per person, you can hold the panda for about five minutes while his keepers use your camera to take photographs. If there are two of you, and if you both want to be in the photo, both of you must pay the fee. It was a very expensive 10 minutes (a few minutes alone for each of us, and a few minutes together), but so worth it! Where else can you hold an endangered species like that?
After our trip to see the pandas, we visited Wide and Narrow Lanes and Jingli Lane (all recommended). Wide and narrow lanes are more modern recreations of ancient streets, with many, many restaurants, bars, and shops. Jingli Lane is more authentic, but also containing many restaurants and shops. Unfortunately, our guide, Bella, spent most of this day on her cell phone, both accepting and receiving calls, which we didn't find acceptable.
In the early evening, we walked around the city of Chengdu, later eating dinner at Lan Kwai Fong (LKF) at Tony Roma’s (not recommended, and one of our pricier meals at approximately $120 USD). We joked amongst ourselves, wondering whether the Chinese say, “I want to be full for the next three days; let’s go out for some American food.” in the same way that we might say “I would love some Chinese food, but five minutes later, I’ll be hungry again.”
September 9: Chengdu to Beijing, Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, and the Hutongs
We took a cab from the Shangri-La Chengdu to the Chengdu Airport before flying on Air China to Beijing. Although cabs were usually waiting in front of our hotel, we had stopped at the bellman’s desk the night before and reserved a cab to be waiting for us at an appointed time. Traffic was light, and we reached the airport in less than 30 minutes. Check-in took longer for the Chengdu to Beijing flight than any other domestic flight. Security also took longer than any of the other domestic flights, but we had no issues with either process. Our flight took off from the lower-level of the airport, what we would call a commuter departure area in the US. Flights to Lhasa were delayed that day, so the area was terribly overcrowded with passengers waiting for earlier flights. Lines for the restrooms were long, as were lines for the one or two shops/cafes on the lower level. There is also a smoking lounge on the lower level. We were bussed onto the tarmac and then to the plane, where we (surprise!) sat onboard for approximately one hour before taking off.
Arrival at the Beijing Capital International Airport (PEK) went fine, and we were glad that we carried our baggage onto the plane with us, because the baggage claim area was immense and it seemed like the wait for luggage could be lengthy. We had arranged for our guide, Catherine Lu (NOT recommended) to meet us after baggage claim and ride into the city with us using a taxi. She had travelled to the airport on the subway, but when we suggested taking the subway back to the city, she said that a cab would be better. The system for hailing cabs at the airport is orderly, but our wait was fairly lengthy. The rid into the city went smoothly, with minimal traffic even though it was a Friday. The Hilton Beijing Wangfujing is located 16 miles from the city, but the drive takes approximately 40 minutes without traffic. A taxi cost 125 RMB from the airport to the city; however, our guide charged 250 RMB to meet us at the airport and travel with us in a cab to the city. (A hotel car cost 550 RMB.) Catherine has a website, and she was responsive to our e-mails over a period of a few months, but when we met her in person, she lacked any desire to actually communicate with us. She clearly had the ability, just not the drive.
We checked into the Hilton Beijing Wangfujing, made a quick stop for lunch at a local restaurant, and then began our half-day tour of Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. Catherine sat with us to eat at the local restaurant, but was completely uninterested in making any conversation with us. She chose a restaurant that had a Chinese-only menu, but then didn’t want to help us when it came time to ordering food. We worried what the next two full days would be like with her, and they did not get much easier. But on to the good parts of this part of our journey!
Tiananmen Square is immense, but because of the various barriers and heavy traffic, it is difficult to photograph properly. The Forbidden City is enormous, with each section opening into another section, a sort of city-within-a-city. Crowds are easily “swallowed up” by the huge size of the property. We followed these two must-see sights with a bus ride to the hutong area. We tried to hail a cab outside the back entrance of the Forbidden City, but the lines were extremely long. Catching a local bus was easy in the company of our guide, and we reached the hutong area in about 15 minutes (the distance was not too great [although unwalkable], but the bus stopped several times). We hired a golf cart to drive us around the hutong area; with three of us, riding in a traditional pedicab/rickshaw was not possible. We would have liked to have some time to ourselves to stroll around the hutong, perhaps stopping for a drink or snack to “soak in” the atmosphere, but time did not permit. It was difficult to catch a taxi to take us back to the hotel, and even when we did, the driver did not understand the location of the hotel, even though our guide provided the address written in both English and Chinese. As a result, our guide accompanied us back to the hotel and went home from there. Her original plan was to put us in a taxi and send us back to the hotel ourselves, but when the driver did not understand, she accompanied us back to the hotel even though it was out of her way, for which we give her a lot of credit.
We walked around the streets surrounding our hotel a bit in the evening, ate a light dinner at the executive lounge in the hotel, and called it an early night.
HOTEL REVIEW: Hilton Beijing Wangfujing
My spouse and I spent three nights at the Hilton Beijing Wangfujing in early September 2011. We redeemed Hilton Hhonors points for our 3-night reward stay (I think it was 30K per night for a room rate of $200+ per night). Our only room category choice using the award was a standard room, but we were told that we were upgraded, which initially seemed to be true. The room was terrific, but upon returning home and seeing photos that others had posted, our room seemed not as luxurious as others in the hotel. We can’t complain, though - the room was huge, with a separate seating and work area (but no separate TV, and the flat screen from the bedroom area was a bit far away. The room had lots of cool buttons and gizmos, even one switch to operate the drop-down curtains. The bathroom and closet area ran the length of the room, and various parts of it could be closed off by sliding pocket doors. The shower and bathtub area was really luxurious, including a TV, but the entire room became the shower, with a rainfall head as well as a wall attachment, so there were tons of jets (but be sure to use the rubber bathmat inside, because it was slippery). The vanity area featured double sinks, the toilet was in its own separate compartment, and the closet area was most impressive. Robes, slippers, and a safe were present, as well as a basket for shoe shining, a rubber ducky for the tub, and a tiny teddy bear. (We had initially packed the duck and the bear in our luggage, thinking they were “gifts” - the duck even had a tag around its neck that said “take me home to your own tub”, but we later thought we might be charged for them and decided to leave them in the room.) The minibar area was quite impressive. Two complimentary bottles of water were in the room when we arrived, and were replenished at evening turndown as well as when our room was cleaned each day. There is a dedicated Hilton Hhonors desk for check-in and check-out; these options were not available in the executive lounge as we had expected.
The Executive Lounge on the 16th floor provides free wireless internet access as well as two computers to use. The lounge is open from 6:30 am to 11:00 pm (breakfast 6:30 to 11:00, afternoon tea from 3:00 to 6:00, happy hour 6:00 to 8:30 [8:00 on Friday and Saturday] with complimentary drinks), complimentary pressing of one piece per day, and access to gym, fitness classes, pool, sauna, steam room, and jacuzzi. Smart casual attire and footwear are requested, and the entire area is non-smoking. (The entire hotel appeared to be non-smoking, except for the areas just outside the front entrance.) On the day that we arrived at the hotel (around 12:00 noon), the food offerings in the lounge consisted of some (possibly) homemade varieties of chips and dips available, along with serve-yourself non-alcoholic beverages. The food offerings provided at both breakfast and evening cocktails were terrific. There is a chef present to make omelettes and other made-to-order breakfast items, and at night, the chef prepares a signature dish on demand (one night it was an Asian soup, one night it was a fried sausage entree, and another evening he prepared a noodle dish), but there are various other hot and cold items available to serve yourself. We were able to make an evening meal from what the lounge offered, so it wasn’t necessary to leave the hotel for dinner afterwards (which was a welcome treat after some busy and tiring days of touring). The lounge area was not overly large, and space appeared to be at a premium during breakfast and evening cocktails (although we were always able to find a place to sit). The tables are a bit close, encouraging interaction with fellow guests rather than any privacy.
The public areas of the Hilton are very pretty and modern. The indoor swimming pool area was attractive, complete with daybeds for lounging, and the area opened to a small rooftop serenity garden where you could take in some fresh air. The hotel has no ATM machine, which we found surprising, and we had to walk down Wangfujing Street and try a few machines before we found one that would accept the PLUS symbol cards. The restaurant options looked appealing, although we did not eat inside the hotel. Vasco’s (Portuguese) serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner, daily 6:30 am to 11:00 pm. Chynna (Chinese) serves lunch and dinner, daily 11:30 am to 11:00 pm. Flames and the Vintage Bank serve dinner only, daily from 5:30 pm. The Library (in the lobby) offers breakfast, lunch, and dinner, daily 8:00 am to 10:00 pm in a more casual setting.
The hotel is located just off the pedestrian area of Wangfujing Street and a few short blocks to Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. Although we had our own driver, we did attempt to catch a cab back to the hotel from the hutong area, and the driver had difficulty finding it, which surprised us. Even though we had the address written down in both English and Chinese, it didn’t help to locate the hotel. The hotel is steps from an indoor shopping mall with many stores and restaurants for fast food, casual food, and more fine dining, and there are many addition food options on Wangfujing Street. We purchased some drinks (both alcoholic and non-alcoholic) for our room from a stand on the corner near the hotel, as well as from a supermarket that is just across the busy main street.
Aside from the possible trouble of cab drivers locating the hotel, we wouldn’t hesitate to stay here again - the location was great, the public spaces and guestrooms were luxurious, and service was good.
September 10: The Temple of Heaven and the Summer Palace
Catherine met us reasonably on time on our first full day of touring. (All our other guides arrived approximately 15 minutes prior to the arranged time, so we were a bit surprised that she wasn’t early, too.) We had originally planned to visit the Great Wall on this day, but the weather was uncooperative, so Catherine switched the plans for this day and the next. (This swap showed great foresight on her part, so there were definitely some good points about her.) The Temple of Heaven was beautiful (35 RMB per person), as was the Summer Palace (30 RMB), although both sights, particularly the latter, would be much more enjoyable in beautiful weather. The Summer Palace is a UNESCO World Heritage Sight, and there are many ways to while away the day there, from riding a dragon boat to the island in the middle of Kunnming Lake, to walking across the seventeen-arch bridge, to renting a private paddleboat, picnicking on the grounds, strolling the Covered Walkway (which was ideal in the rain!), examining the Marble Boat, and so on. Because the weather was so inclement, we made a short day of it. Catherine offered to take us to a porcelain factory, which we declined, as well as to a teahouse, which we also declined, although we did make a quick stop on the access road to the Birdsnest and the Water Cube from the 2008 Olympic Games so that we could take a few photographs.
We ate a late lunch in the mall near the Hilton Beijing Wangfujing. The mall seems to be named APC, with 6 floors of shops, lots of elevators and escalators, stores, souvenirs, cafes, restaurants, a cinema, and a large department store. Later, we walked around Wangfujing Pedestrian Street a bit before eating a light dinner in the executive lounge and retiring early.
September 11: The Great Wall of China
The Great Wall of China is probably at the top of everyone’s list of must-sees when visiting Beijing, and we were no different. We chose to visit the Mutianyu section of the Wall, despite the fact that it is a greater distance from the city, because we had heard that it was less crowded, less touristy, and better preserved. We also liked that there was a cable car that we could take to the top, and a toboggan/speed chute that we could ride back down. We took the enclosed cable car to the top of the Wall at a cost of 60 RMB per person. If you want to take the enclosed cable car/gondola, be sure to walk farther along the gauntlet of shops and food stalls, not taking the first open-type ski-lift cable car that you see (where the toboggan comes down). In our opinion, taking the enclosed cable car was the “way to go”, because it deposits walkers at the top of the Wall so that they can walk downhill (whereas if you take the open ski-lift, you will need to walk uphill, then either take the enclosed car down the mountain or walk to the top of the wall and then back down to the same ski-lift or toboggan). This method doesn’t mean that there won’t be any steps or uphills to do, but from what we saw, it seems to be the less-strenuous way to walk. There are restrooms (port-o-potty style) at the top of the enclosed cable car, and there are a few vendors on the wall selling drinks and packaged snacks. We spent about 1 hour walking on the wall walking from watch tower 14 to watch tower 6, then rode the speed chute/toboggan down in order to exit the Wall, at a cost of 80 RMB per person.
Our guide did NOT accompany us on the Wall, which was a great disappointment. I’m sure that she has seen it and walked on it many times in her career as a guide, but we felt that we were paying her to guide us and impart information, but she instead sat at the bottom and waited for us. Even more exasperating was when we reached the bottom of the Wall and met up with her again, she suggested that we go to the Subway sandwich shop and have lunch, and when we declined, she said it was necessary for her to eat (it was barely noon) and that she would go on her own and meet up with us in a half hour. Had we discussed the lunch necessity prior to our climbing the wall, perhaps she could have eaten when we were otherwise occupied, saving us some time. Even if we were ready to eat at that hour, Subway (which we could have in any city in the US) would never have been our choice.
After departing the Great Wall, we visited the 13 Ming Tombs property, including the inside of the Dingling Tomb at a cost of 60 RMB (not recommended). We didn’t enjoy this sight at all, despite its UNESCO World Heritage listing. The tomb area was extremely crowded, and it didn’t hold any spiritual meaning for us to make braving the crowds worthwhile. There is a small museum on the property of the Dingling Tomb that was mildly interesting, with artifacts and clothing from some of the emperors that were excavated from the tombs. We did not visit the Spirit Way/Sacred Way, although the animal sculptures sounded interesting. We ran into terrific traffic upon leaving the Ming Tombs, first being diverted one way and then the next because of closed roads due to a triathlon event (the triathlon from the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games took place in the immediate area, and this was some type of World Championship taking place on the day that we were there; interestingly, we ran into many of the US competitors at the Beijing Airport upon our departure from China the next day.) Despite being only 30 miles from the city, it probably took us about 2 hours to return, so it ended up a wise decision that we omitted the Spirit Way from this part of the tour.
This was our last evening in Beijing, and we walked around the Wangfujing Pedestrian Street for some people watching, as well as through the Night Market, taking the requisite photographs of fried scorpions, starfish, beetles, and the like.
September 12: Departure from China
Check-in begins for international flights about 3 hours before departure. Most international airlines do not have set counters, so consult one of the big boards or monitors to find out what letter/number row you need to go to. There are many shops and restaurants prior to security, so if you arrive at the airport more than 3 hours in advance, you can keep busy. (No smoking inside, though.) After checking in, you need to take a train to the actual departures area. This will also be where you pass through immigration (remember to keep the other half of your arrival slip to remit at departure) and clear security. We had some issues with a small Leatherman tool that we travel with, but the agents were very nice and handled the issue professionally. There isn’t a tremendous amount to do after clearing security: I remember seeing a duty-free shop and two very small cafes (each with two tables!), but not much else. (And unlike all the other airports that I flew through in China, there is no smoking in the Beijing Airport. In searching on-line after my return, a complete smoking ban was enacted in the PEK airport on 05/01/11.) You cannot bring any liquids onto a flight back to the United States, even liquids purchased after security. Boarding is a very slow process, five rows at a time, because there is a secondary security screening on the jetway (again, the darn Leatherman tool presented a problem; it is staying home next time!). There is no need to spend all your leftover RMBs in the airport or struggle to convert them back to dollars there; you may be able to use them on the international flight home to pay for alcoholic beverages, and you can always convert them back at your home airport or through the mail at Travelex (minus a $5 fee, and they accept bills only).
We had a great whirlwind trip through Shanghai, Xi’an, Chengdu, and Beijing, but we definitely rushed things a bit this time. Another three days (for a total of two weeks time, including travel time) would have permitted us to have more free/relaxation time to explore on our own without our guides. The sights were amazing, the food was delicious, and the people were friendly. This was our first trip to China, but surely won’t be our last. What a fantastic country!
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