My husband and I just returned from a fascinating month in China. I would like to thank all the Fodors posters for their help in planning our trip (which I worked on for over a year and had fun doing). In particular, thanks to thursdaysd, indiancouple, and Nywoman , and of course PeterN_H.
This was our first trip to China. It was also probably our only trip to China since there are so many other places in the world we want to see. Consequently, we packed quite a bit in to the month. Although we got tired at times and spent a lot of time getting from place to place, we had enough rest time to recover. Our itinerary changed a bit once we ran into transportation issues with the trains. We added Wutaishan and cut a day out of Xian. We also cut out the Longsheng rice paddies (with mixed emotions) and added a day in Guilin. Overall we were very happy with the way the trip worked out. Here is our final itinerary:
Honolulu (3 nights)
Shanghai (2 nights)
Hong Kong (3 nights)
Macau (day trip)
Mission Hills, Shenzhen (1 night)
Guilin (2 nights)
Yangshuo (3 nights)
Xi'an (2 nights)
Pingyao (2 nights)
Wutaishan (1 night)
Datong (2 nights)
Beijing (6 nights)
Shanghai (3 nights)
Honolulu (3 nights)
We started our trip on 3/21 with a three night stay in Honolulu. It’s a bit unusual to fly to China in that direction from Atlanta, but I got a great deal on frequent flyer flights to do so. We had first class seats to Hawaii and business class to Shanghai. I booked them as two separate round trips. The first full day on Oahu, we played golf at Ko'o Lau known as the toughest course in the northern hemisphere. It truly is punishing, but we had a good time. We also played at Makaha on the northwest coast of Oahu. It was also nice but a little rough. We played with a Japanese couple who didn't speak English...a taste of things to come. We got along fine. With pantomime and smiling, we were able to communicate. We even learned a word or two in Japanese! We rented a storage unit for our golf clubs and Hawaii clothes until we returned at the end of April. We took off for Shanghai on 3/24. We got in to Narita Airport in Japan at 3pm or so. We had a 2 and half hour layover and then on to Shanghai. We arrived there at 9:40 pm and then had to get through customs and find our way to our hotel in town.
It was a long day but we got to our hotel (Nanjing Hotel Shanghai) around midnight, ugh! The ride in from the airport was long but uneventful, given the time of day we did not get to experience China traffic. Still, the driver got lost once and it turned out that our hotel was on a road that dead-ended on the Nanjing Rd pedestrian street. It is just what I expected…modern Chinese looking with hard beds, but clean and serviceable and most importantly right next to the subway stop.
We went out in the morning and found a small restaurant that was serving breakfast. We wound up eating something by pointing at what some other people were eating. We each got a bowl of what I will call wanton soup. Two large bowls were a total of $3. We then began to explore Nanjing Rd, the long pedestrian shopping street. We first hopped on a little sightseeing trolley that goes to People's Square. We got off there and walked back. We went into Shanghai No.1 Department Store. Think Macy's. Then we went to Shanghai No 1 Food Store. The array of candies, pastries, dried meats, etc was amazing. We didn't buy anything as we were still getting used to not being able to speak Chinese. Next we walked back toward the hotel and took a nap.
We had arranged to meet a friend of a friend for drinks and dinner at 5pm. We waited until about 3pm and set out again. We took the little trolley again to People's Square. Having not eaten lunch we figured we had better eat something before drinks so we stopped at a Chinese fast food restaurant. We each had dumplings (what kind, I can't say) but both had some sort of pork mixture in them. One of them was crescent shaped; the other was like a little satchel gathered at the top with pork and broth inside. When we were done, we hopped on the subway to Jing An Temple. It's worth mentioning here that the subways in the big cities are very easy to use. There are ticket kiosks that you can switch to English, select the line you want, the station you want to go to, the number of tickets, and then you insert your money. Then out comes the tickets and change. The stops are announced on the subway in Chinese and English and there are electronic route maps showing where the train is on the route and what stations are coming up (again, in Chinese and English).
We spent some time walking around the temple. We tossed coins into a two story urn for financial success, and then walked to the restaurant where we were meeting Yvette and her friends. The drinks at Mesa were really good. We had different concoctions of vodka, lychee liquor, ginger, orange, etc. and a series of appetizers that meant we could have skipped our 3:00 snack. Then off to dinner. The restaurant Yvette picked is kind of a hot spot and we would not have gotten in if she had not made reservations. We ate an enormous amount of food. I really wish I could say what it was, but I will have to suffice with “it was great”. We had lamb chops, chicken, lotus root, fungus, eggplant, tofu, beef, etc. Some sweet, some hot, some not. All was fabulous. It was also a great experience and Yvette and her mother and her friends were wonderful fun. When we got back to Nanjing Rd, the lights were all lit on the buildings. We took a few photos and headed off to bed.
The following morning we packed up and took the subway to the airport and flew to Shenzhen. From there we crossed into Hong Kong and checked in at the Salisbury YMCA. I really have to thank whoever included so much detail in their trip report so as to indicate what counter to find the Chinalink bus. All that detail was so helpful to us. I can’t find it again to thank the person directly but I hope you recognize yourself and know that it was appreciated.
All things considered, it was a long day but it went smoothly. The Chinalink bus went directly from the airport to customs and passport control and then picked us up again on the other side and took us to Kowloon. It was an interesting ride. Our first experience with Chinese drivers (this is the subject of another short note, more later). We passed lots of housing and very little open space. We didn’t see much agriculture. There were a few small plots being cultivated. There were also several large high-rise housing projects under construction.
We had a fabulous harbor view room at the YMCA from which we could view the light show in the buildings across the water. We had dinner at an Irish pub. The number of people on Nathan Rd, the most famous shopping street in HK is amazing; a true sea of humanity. There are so many people trying to sell fake stuff right in front of the stores selling the real stuff. Very, very high end stores here. After the light show, it was off to bed and on to HK Island in the morning.
March 28 was a jam packed day full of walking. We started out taking the MTR from the Kowloon side to Sheung Wan's markets on Hong Kong Island. The markets were a photographic bonanza; beautiful and very interesting. The wet markets with vats of live fish and raw meat hanging on hooks out on the street were especially interesting. From there we took the “Escalator” up to the Mid-Levels and started walking toward the Peak Tram. On the way, we walked through the Hong Kong Zoological and Botanical Gardens. We saw all sorts of lemurs as well as some orangutans and some turtles. We didn't spend a lot of time at the zoo; just what it took to walk to the other side. We waited in long lines to take the tram to Victoria Peak. At times, the tram is going up at greater than a 45 degree angle. We walked around and had lunch at Bubba Gumps. We both had shrimp while taking in the glorious (though hazy) view. Afterward, we took the tram down again and decided we missed the Man Po Temple with its very interesting spiral incense burners, so we walked almost all the way back to where we started. I wish I had my pedometer on because I bet it was miles. In retracing our steps, we had the opportunity to go down Hollywood Rd, which is known for its antiques. It was very interesting window shopping. Instead of taking the subway back, we decided to try out the Star Ferry. Unfortunately we had to walk what seemed like a million miles since we were pretty worn out by this time. Finally we made it and the ferry ride was beautiful and worth the walk. Unfortunately, everything was pretty hazy so our photos will look like shades of gray. We stopped for a treat in the Hagen Daaz store and then headed up to our room for some rest.
The next day we took the ferry to Macau. We had to go through immigration both coming and going. Unfortunately, we both didn't bring our wallets as they were in the safe so we had very little money on which to explore. Macau is not walker friendly, it turns out there is no way to walk out of the Ferry terminal to the city. After walking back and forth a few times trying different ways to get out of the ferry terminal on foot, we decided to spend some of our precious money on a bus. A woman at the bus stop told us that we could take the casino bus close to where we wanted to be for free. Great idea, except that once we got to the casino, we couldn't find out where we were. Finally I remembered that our Hong Kong map had Macau on it so we were able to navigate. We decided to take a bicycle cab on a scenic tour over to where we wanted to be. It was loads of fun having this tiny guy peddle the bike in amongst zooming traffic; scooters, taxis and buses whizzing by us on both sides! Our only stop was at a temple that was very interesting and mostly for the biker's rest. Then he dropped us off at the Ruins of San Pedro. We bought fish balls and ate them sitting on the wall near the facade. Then we walked to the Fort nearby and looked over the walls and took photos by the cannons. Unfortunately, at this point we realized we left our map at the ruins. As we were walking back to see if we could find it, we saw it in the hands of someone going the other way. As soon as we both said, “hey there's our map” the guy took off running, oh well (by the way, he was Chinese so contrary to what some people will tell you, the Chinese do use maps). But now we didn't know how to get back to the ferry. We hopped in a cab just hoping we had enough money. We did, and we paid for our ferry tickets with $HK7 to spare! We got a hydrofoil ship on the return trip which was fortunate since the waves were up a bit and the other boats we saw were doing a lot of bouncing. Back at the hotel, we did laundry in the self service laundry room on our floor, went out for McDonalds and hit the hay.
Mission Hills, Shenzhen
On 3/30 we got on the subway from HK to Shenzhen (seemed like we walked half way there just getting to the trains from the entrance) spent most of the rest of our HK money on breakfast, changed the rest, went through immigration, customs, and headed for a taxi. Here we had our first sting. A guy came up to us asking if we needed a taxi. Of course I said no and headed for the first uniformed official I saw. I asked where the taxi stand was and he pointed to the guy who had just approached us and said that it was ok to go with him. So I went along. My DH, meanwhile thinking I had lost my head, didn't say anything figuring I knew what I was doing. Hah! I didn't. We wound up taking a very nice private car. The guy told us it was 800 RMB. We questioned it and he said that the trip was over an hour to get there. Well DH asked me what I thought and I said ok. Big mistake. We paid $120 for what is probably a $40 trip. Oh well. Live and learn. We vowed to be more diligent the next time, and we were. He did deliver us as promised over an hour later. I know he was going directly because I had a map I was following along.
Mission Hills is very beautiful. We got there around 10am and of course it was way too early to check in, but they got us a room in 20 minutes. It was one of the newly renovated rooms and gorgeous. Unfortunately, there was some construction going on and the noise just wasn't stopping. We complained and they gave us an upgraded room but in the older style. It was still very nice. We stayed in the room reading until our golf tee time at 12:22. If you're a golfer be warned, they do not allow sneakers, which most courses in the world do, you have to rent golf shoes if you don't have your own. You also can't wear just any shirt with a collar; it has to be a “golf shirt” by their definition which meant DH had to buy one in the golf shop. We also rented some rather pathetic clubs. We played with two Chinese men. One of them spoke a little English. We each had a caddie that rode on the back of our cart. All the caddies are women. They are so cute. DH did great at golf as usual. He had everyone oohing and ahhing. It was quite entertaining. Thankfully he stole the show away from how pitifully I was playing. I just couldn't get used to the rental clubs.
After golf, we went to dinner at the Imperial Court. It was fabulous. We started with the typical Chinese appetizer of some sort of root with spicy sauce and peanuts. For dinner, we had suckling pig with plum sauce and spicy shrimp and fried noodles with pork. And we topped it off with Mango Pudding and Egg Custard Tartlets. Then we sat at the piano bar for a nightcap. When we got back to our room, the mood lighting had been set and the mosquito netting had been set up. It was pretty and very interesting. We had our usual fitful sleep in an unfamiliar place and then went to the breakfast buffet. I had a taste of everything that was Chinese. It was all great, but I particularly liked the Congee. I even had the dried whole little fish that went with it. (Although I will skip that the next time in favor of the fried noodles you see in US Chinese restaurants.) We read again until our spa time. We went in favor of a couple’s room. It was very interesting again. You can't be modest, that's for sure. You start with a shower. Then we had the full body scrub. It was very pleasant; I can report I was totally exfoliated. Then you take another shower, followed by a full body massage. I have not had such a thorough massage before. By then it was lunch time so we went back to the Imperial Court. We opted for the dim sum. We had baked pork buns, sliced duck rice rolls, Shanghai style pork dumplings and shrimp dumplings all with various accompanying sauces. It was all very, very good. The hotel was gracious enough to give us a 2:30 check out so we went back to the room and read sitting on our balcony overlooking one of the golf courses. We then sat in a lovely alcove overlooking the pool while we waited for our 4:30 car to the airport for our flight to Guilin.
We arrived at the airport 2 hours early at the suggestion of the hotel. We had dinner then started reading and before long...our flight was delayed, then delayed again, and again. We finally took off around 10:30. Thankfully, I had arranged airport pick up by the hotel. (Grand Hotel 0773) And they were still waiting for us! Arriving at this hotel after midnight was dreadful. The hotel is definitely past its prime. The furniture is comical (think 1950's “modern”). In the middle of the night it looked pretty seedy and the area didn't look too good either. We were in no mood to go anywhere else so we figured we would have to endure. By light of day, the place still looked pretty seedy, but at least it was clean; you can’t hide much dirt in an all white linoleum room! Breakfast at the hotel (a selection of Chinese dishes) was very good. So gluttons for punishment, we decided to spend another night rather than try to make it to the rice paddies. I think it was a good decision because it rained quite a bit. We did get to go to the Sun and Moon Pagodas. It was nice riding out the worst of the rain shower on the top of the Pagoda. Then we went to Elephant Hill Park. We climbed all over that hill. There were a lot of Chinese tourists. One lady asked if she could take her photo with me. Apparently they don't get many non-Asians where she comes from. She was cute. We took photos for ourselves with her and her friends.
We had lunch and dinner at the same restaurant right outside our hotel. The food was ok. Mostly it was convenient. Something I would have done differently is to make sure we had a street map of every city we are visiting, not just the big ones. It is so hard to know where things are. This hotel, though seedy, is very conveniently located. A map would have been helpful so that we would know that we are only one block away from both the pagodas and the elephant hill. We walked way around the long way to get to the Pagodas. Fortunately DH had noticed the construction crane across the street from our hotel so we knew how to take the short cut back to the hotel in the rain. Before dinner, we went out in search of an ATM that worked with our card. We had tried about 6 during the day. Our walk took us right into a regular shopping area where many people were buying dinner from the street vendors. We passed on street food, but we did find an ATM (turns out the Bank of China worked for us, we were using our ATM card from a small bank in Georgia and it worked fine on their ATMs). For dinner we had beef with oyster oil and spare ribs with some beef filled dumplings. We still hadn't had our dumpling needs fulfilled since both lunch and dinner dumplings were not what we expected. The search would have to go on. We bought wine and walnut cookies at the little supermarket on the corner (and we always picked up a couple of bottles of water each night even though most hotels provided some.)
We arranged for a car from the Li River Retreat to pick us up at 10am. We had a thrilling hour ride to the hotel. We passed many towns and stores on the way. Most interesting was the ride. There is a line down the middle of the road merely suggesting which direction cars should travel. There are sort of two lanes of traffic going in each direction. Don't be surprised to see cars, buses, or trucks coming directly at you in your lane, so you have to swerve to the right to be missed.
We arrived right around lunch time so we first had lunch in the hotel restaurant. We had spicy chicken and beef in oyster oil with beer to drink. It was very good. Next we went to our room, unpacked and read a while. Since I caught a cold, I took some Dayquil and it put me right out. I napped until dinner while DH read. Dinner was the famous beer fish and Gong Bao chicken. The food is good, plentiful and cheap. We inquired about a trip for the next day but they suggested we check back in the morning. We also had our laundry done for 40rmb. I took a Nyquil and again I was out for the night.
Saturday, we woke up to rain. We had breakfast in the restaurant. I had Chinese breakfast of dumplings and fried noodles and DH had Western breakfast of eggs, bacon, toast and “hash browns”. (We don't think they were potatoes, maybe sweet potatoes?). The area looked lovely, but with the rain we mostly got some rest.
When the rain slowed a bit, we took a cab into town and walked around Yangshuo. It is very picturesque. We ate lunch at a place serving wood fired pizza (go figure). Then we walked around some more. We left the tourist area and went to the place where the locals are buying their vegetables and meats and fish on the street. Then we went back to the restaurant in town run by the hotel we were staying at. We had a drink, some tea and a chocolate pancake (basically a blini with chocolate syrup drizzled on top). Then we were picked up at the restaurant by a woman who walked us to a raft. We took the raft back to the hotel. The raft guy paused for our photos and turned the boat so I could walk out to the end and he took my picture. The attraction here at the Li River is the Karsts which are basically little steep mountains pointing up sporadically out of the ground.
That night we went to see Impression Liusanjie Show in Yangshuo. It was quite a spectacular sight even though we didn't understand much of it. It was mostly performed on water and the lighting of the Karsts in the background was spectacular. It is definitely worth seeing. We got the hotel to arrange tickets and a taxi to pick us up, get the tickets, wait for us and take us back. The taxi was the cheap part. I think we probably paid a total of about $15 more having the hotel make the arrangements, but all things considered, it was worth it not to have to figure things out. It was quite a mad house with people waiting to get in. Our taxi driver met us right on time and got us back to the hotel quickly.
The next day it was (you guessed it) raining! We waited until the afternoon and then we took a car up to Xingping. From there we got a raft to take us up the Li River. Unfortunately it was pretty misty/rainy the whole time, but it was still pretty and interesting. The view at one of the bends in the river is the same as on the 20 yuan note. We stopped on one of the banks for a “shopping opportunity”. We hadn't had lunch so we had two fried sand crabs and a small patty made of fried miniature shrimp-like things. It was ok, not great. Then the boat turned around and took us back to Xingping. Our driver picked was waiting for us. She let us off at one end of the old town and we walked to the other end where we met her to go back to Yangshuo. The town was very old. It was interesting to be able to peer into the homes of some of the people living on the main street. They seem very uncomfortable by US standards. A number of families were gathered around a TV while sitting on short wooden chairs. When you think about how hard the beds are in China, it is clear that they are not a people that are accustomed to the comforts we are used to. On the way back to Yangshuo we saw quite a few farmers out walking their water buffalo on a leash.
We also were now seeing where the agriculture is and how it is done. There are very, very few of the farm machines we use in the US. There are lots of small plots tended by from one to a hand full of people. They use hand tools and the plow pulled behind a horse or ox to till the soil. I'm still amazed they can grow enough food for the number of people here. Yet everywhere we went there were fresh fruit stands and people selling meat and fish.
After a short rest, we went back into town to have dinner. We opted for good old hamburgers at an Aussie bar owned by the same people that own the hotel we are staying at. Then we walked around town again and made a few souvenir purchases. Then we went back to the hotel for a night cap and then an early night.
Check out of the Li River Retreat was at noon so we had breakfast, packed and spent time relaxing on the deck listening to firecrackers, lots of them. Turns out it was Tomb cleaning day. This is when the people go into the hills (typically, although other places are used) where they have the ancestors buried and literally clean the place. Apparently they also like to set off fireworks. One tomb across the river from us had about a five minute burst that we could clearly see the flashes from at a half mile away. After we checked out we had lunch and then took a cab to the airport an hour away. Every so often we would see the smoke or hear the firecrackers from another tomb cleaning party and there were lots of groups walking along the road going to or coming from a tomb cleaning. The flight went smoothly and on time.
We took the airport bus into town in Xian and found our hotel with no problem. We stayed at Citadines close to the Drum Tower and the airport bus stop. We got a studio apartment and were very happy with the room. After we settled in we walked around the Muslim Quarter scoping out the local souvenirs. We had a bit of street food and headed back to the hotel.
On 4/6 we hired a driver to take us out to the terracotta warriors. We experienced capitalism at work. The hotel called a “taxi” which turned out to be our driver for the day. The driver insisted on taking us to a factory where they make the warrior copies for sale. He told us to take as much or as little time as we wanted, so we basically rushed through the place without making a purchase. It was actually quite interesting to see the women making the warriors, weaving rugs and painting lacquer furniture. We were kind of happy to have seen that, but didn’t waste any time doing it. When we got to the museum we found that he had called a guide to meet the car. We refused at first but finally gave in. Actually, we were glad we did once we were in if for nothing else than for just navigating the site which is huge. It was worth it just to find the bathrooms! Of course she had to take us to several museum stores. We got away with just the purchase of two warrior copies which we liked. After seeing what was available on the street, they are of pretty good quality. Also, one of the farmers who found the first warriors while digging a well was there signing autographs so we bought a book about the site and had him sign it.
We then went to the Great Goose Pagoda. That was very nice. It is inside a walled temple area. The grounds were beautiful. We took tons of photos of course. Then we went to lunch. We asked the driver to take us to a place at which he eats. He took us to a place where we had noodles. I should say noodle since it seemed to be one long noodle about 2 inches wide in a bowl with some meat, tofu and spices. It was fantastic. The best meal we had up to that point and that is saying something since we enjoyed all of our meals. Lunch for 3 cost less than $5.
Next we went to buy our train tickets for the overnight train the following night. We found that there were no more soft sleeper compartments left! We went back to the hotel to regroup. We ended up getting plane tickets to Taiyuan from which we took a 2 hour train ride to Pingyao. We had to leave Xian earlier than planned and spent more awake time traveling. We took stock of what we were going to miss out on in Xian and decided we could still do it. We walked to the town wall south gate and paid to go on top (by the way, every place you want to see has an entrance fee). Once there, we decided to rent a tandem bike and ride to the southeast corner of the wall. It was lots of fun and we stopped to ask a couple of guys to take our picture while riding the bike. That was fun for us and them. We all had a good laugh. We made it to the corner, which seemed pretty far, rode back and turned the bike in.
Getting to the gate in the first place had been an experience. We had to navigate across heavy traffic. We were having trouble so we decided to tuck in behind an elderly lady crossing the street. We had good laugh thinking about an elderly lady helping us to cross the street. Some Chinese teens were on the other side watching the whole thing and I caught eye contact with one of them and we both laughed at the sight of us. So getting back across the street was also going to be fun. There were three or four lanes of traffic going in a circle around the gate building (which was about a city block big) with cars doing the typical Chinese traffic waltz back and forth. While there seemed to be an area about half way across we could get to and wait for a break in the traffic, we knew that there was no assurance that cars would not be using that area despite the clear signs that it was not for them. We stood appraising our best approach when a scooter cab (the motorized equivalent to a rickshaw) came up to us on the sidewalk. We jumped in without hesitation but little did we know we were in for Mr. Toad's wild ride. He started by going the wrong way on the road and just cutting across four lanes of traffic. We had asked to go to the Great Mosque. When we started getting close, it was clear he didn't know where it was! He kept asking directions. We got to see a lot of the Muslim Quarter we would not have seen otherwise, so except for some very close calls of nearly killing pedestrians (one young man, not looking where he was walking almost walked into the side of the cart), we had no complaints. Finally we got to the Mosque and even the driver had to laugh.
We paid to go inside the mosque and it was absolutely gorgeous. Of course more photos. Afterward, we walked back to the hotel and on the way stopped for dinner on the food street. We have had very good meals, but nothing is ever what we expect; part of the fun.
When we got back to the hotel, our plane tickets had been delivered, we went up to upload photos to the computer, take stock of our expenses and hit the hay.
We got up early the next day, ate breakfast, packed and headed to the airport to start our day of travel. We made it fine. We flew to Taiyuan then took a bus to the train station. We got on a train to Pingyao and struck up a conversation with a nice university student practicing English. He wanted to see a dollar bill so we showed him and he bought it from us. I also gave him a quarter. To say the train was not the cleanest mode of transportation we have used is an understatement. Everyone was wiping off the seats and looking like they really didn't want to sit on them. But the two hour ride cost us only about a dollar twenty for both of us.
I forgot to say that largely we are the only non-Asians we see many places. Lots of Chinese people stare at us. It's almost like we are the tourist attraction. Occasionally someone in the group will be bold enough to say hello. When we say hello back, the entire group starts laughing and pointing and a few more test out the hello. It was quite fun and we started playing along with people and posing for photos when asked.
We got to Pingyao around 6 and checked into the Yide Hotel. Pingyao is an ancient walled town that is still active. It is largely still intact due to the fact that it fell out of favor early enough to be left out of the modernization that resulted in the destruction of many other old buildings and city walls. The hotel is inside the city walls. It is very traditional with a brick bed platform, hard mattress (think five thin blankets stuffed in a duvet) on the platform, brick floors, etc. The door closes with a pad lock or, I kid you not, a wooden bolt on the inside. It was quite an experience but two nights were enough. The bathroom had no separate shower, much less a tub. The retrofit (clearly they didn’t have these facilities when the place was built) was simply a sink, toilet (thankfully) and shower head, no curtain. I forgot to mention that bathrooms here all have drains in the floor (and don't seem to have traps). In this hotel we could hear the water dripping down through the depths of the plumbing.
When we got here we found out we could not take the overnight train to Datong, turns out you have to make reservations for the soft sleepers in advance, they don't seem to have any left if you wait to the get them a few days before the travel. What to do? We discussed a few options. Then we saw some Americans who are traveling the opposite direction from us. They told us that we should be glad we missed the whole train experience because it was uncomfortable and unsanitary. We told them that we were going to Datong for two days. They told us that Wutaishan was the best part of their trip so far. We then decided to hire a driver to take us to Wutaishan then to Datong. It cost us about 2600 yuan, probably too much, but at this point I was willing to pay anything not to have to get on a train, bus and plane all in the same day!
We started out at 8am on 4/8 to explore Pingyao. We went to buy tickets to see some of the most ancient sites within the city walls. We right away rented bikes and we were glad we did. We rode to about 5 of the sites and walked around and took photos. We did get taken for about $30. In the temple, two monks came over to us and started doing this prayer ritual then told our fortune. It was fun until I found out they wanted $45 each! We were on opposite sides of the temple and we both told them no but wound up giving them $15 each. That was stupid. We should have just said no and walked out; we did at the next temple that tried to pull the same trick.
Pingyao (like most of China) was very dirty. You would not believe the layer of dust that was on everything. They burn coal everywhere which makes it dirty and gray. There was also dirt being blown in on the wind. Apparently it had not rained recently and the ground was very dry. What the place needed was a good downpour to clean everything off. I think it would look nicer in a few weeks as we could see that things were starting to turn green and bloom. That day the wind started blowing which meant that the dust was picked up and thrown at us. Right before the wind picked up we ate lunch on the side of the street at a little mom and pop store. We had Pingyao beef which kind of looks like sliced corned beef. We also had cold cucumber salad, dumplings and fried pork. Everything was very tasty.
We covered a lot of ground on the bikes, 10 Yuan each for all day. We returned the bikes early and walked to the Pingyao city wall. We went up and walked on the wall from one gate to the next around the corner. We were the only ones up there most of the time. Then we went to dinner at another courtyard hotel. We had dumplings and noodles. We didn’t have the same type of dumpling twice. We bought one or two little souvenirs then went back to the hotel and to bed.
Our driver picked us up at 7:30 the next morning for our 5 hour drive to Wutaishan. The drive was the same gray the entire way so we both slept for a while. We passed through several small towns and many agricultural areas. It was interesting to observe the people working and going about their day’s activities. When we got to Wutaishan, our driver helped us find a hotel. We went to look at rooms in 5 different hotels then decided the first one we saw was best. Apparently, that is the Chinese way...ask to see the room. We aren't sure why the driver kept telling us to look at others, but we spent a good 45 minutes shopping around, cutting into our sightseeing time. Once settled, we got on a tourist bus to take us to the temples. We stopped at 4 of them. Two involved long flights of steps higher and higher up the mountain. They were all beautiful. There were probably 2 more we would go to if we had time. Finally around 4pm we got tired and stopped at a restaurant to get something to eat. DH used my “Me No Speak Chinese” book and we ordered what was essentially chicken noodle soup and tea. It was very good. Then back to the hotel to rest up for the next day.
We woke up early on 4/10 and jumped up to take the tourist bus to near the temple that is very high on the mountain. Not having time to walk up the million stairs, we took the cable car up and back. As usual, the temple was gorgeous. We stopped at a grocery store for supplies for the next 5 hour drive to Datong. We called our driver and left earlier than planned. The road to Datong took us through some beautiful mountain areas, some still with snow. We probably visited about a month too early. When things are green it is no doubt more spectacular than it was all brown. We made it to our hotel in Datong (the Garden Hotel) by about 3. That gave us just enough time to jump in a taxi and go to Yungang Grottoes. The caves were amazing. The three that are most preserved were mind blowing and the rest were great too. Just think that someone carved all of that into the mountain side in 465AD; amazing! We went back to the hotel and then to dinner and bed.
On 4/11 we arranged for the same taxi driver to pick us up at 9:00 to take us to the Hanging Monastery. I need a new word for beautiful and amazing, but there you go. We climbed steps up into the temple and went from level to level, seemingly to just be clinging to the wall of this mountain cliff. We walked through the entire thing and took a million photos again and then back to the hotel by 1. Our driver for both days was a guy who had been one of the tour guides for the Olympics, he was very proud of that and showed us several pictures. He also stopped several times to announce sights that we were not going to visit but he wanted us to know about (not much English but we managed). The most interesting stop he made was near some “adobe” like houses and caves. Turns out he knew the guy living in the cave and he had been written up in the NY Times during the Olympics. We went into the four room cave where he had a stone bed platform. He also had electric lights and a TV. He was very friendly and we took a couple of photos of his place and had the driver take a couple of us with the caveman.
We went to visit the 9 dragon screen on the way to find lunch. Not having found one restaurant on the way, we went to a supermarket, stocked up on chocolate and cookies and then ate lunch at KFC. We were done for the day. We rested and caught up on photo uploads to our netbook and email. We left the next day at 9:30am by plane for Beijing.
We got to Beijing and took a taxi to our hotel (The Park Plaza Beijing) by 11:30. We got settled and decided we could conquer the subway and find the Temple of Heaven. It was very nice but a bit disappointing that you could not go in to the structures, just look in from the outside. There were three different structures of interest. After passing through the park, we took a taxi back to the hotel. We had dinner at the hotel at a Japanese restaurant then had wine at the happy hour and off to bed.
On 4/13 we got up early and headed to the Great Wall. We went out to a taxi stand and negotiated the trip for the driver to take us there, wait for us and take us back. We were on the road by 6:30 and to the wall by 8am. We took a cable car up and back. We were the first cable car up and we had the entire wall to ourselves for at least an hour. We walked about a half a mile to the west and back. It was the most spectacular weather day we had so far. A little cool but very clear and sunny. We got back to the hotel and decided we would take an easy afternoon by seeing some lesser tourist sites. That worked well (sarcasm). We took a series of subways over to the Cow Street Mosque and the Fuyan Temple. We walked through a hutong to get there and had lunch of spicy beef and rice and lamb dumplings. It was a long walk and the mosque and temple were not worth the trip. We headed back on the subway and decided we may as well get to Tianamen Square while we were there. We saw Mao's mausoleum but we were not able to get in since it is only open until noon. We walked the length of the square to the south gate of the Forbidden City. Then back to the hotel on the subway. We were sore all over from walking and climbing steps. We had a small dinner with wine at the happy hour which is about all either of us could go for.
On 4/14 we went to the Forbidden City. We were hoping to go there on a sunny day but that would be Friday and I didn't want to chance waiting to the last minute because we were to leave on Sunday. We got to the gate by 8:30 when it opened and there were still quite a lot of people there. We went in and took photos of everything as usual. There was a lot of walking to be done. The place is huge. We made it all the way to the back of the complex and then started forward again to go back to the hotel. By the time we got back to the front, the crowds were unbelievable. It was good that we went early. Earlier, we only had to fight a little bit to get to the front of the line to take photos of interior spaces. As we were leaving it was hard to even get near the building, never mind up to the doors. We were completely tired by now, so we took the subway back to our hotel area. We had a hot pot lunch and it was really good. They boil some sort of soup at your table and put in ingredients (chicken in our case). Then when it is cooked, you fish it from the pot and dip it in sauce and eat it. There were quite a few bones in the chicken since they just cut it up bones and all. I am sure we gave the staff some entertainment as they watched us try to manipulate the chicken with the chopsticks to gnaw the meat around the bones. The walking took its toll on every muscle from the waist down, so we decided to rest again.
Later that night we went to the Wangfujing food street. I had to back down on my quest to eat a scorpion tail. They were much bigger than I expected and totally gross. I just couldn't do it. Not to mention that they didn't appear to be a big seller so they could be 20 years old. Yuck. We passed on the silk worm larvae, crickets, grasshoppers, snakes (whole or cut up) and squid. We did have noodles with chicken and pork pot stickers and then a fried banana. All in all the food was not that good and very expensive. But we went for the experience of the whole thing. It was pretty cold and windy so there wasn't a huge crowd.
The next day we had nothing planned. We went out to get breakfast at the hutong near the hotel. It was a sort of crepe that they make right in front of you. They sprinkle with a black seed, break an egg on it and cover the crepe with it. Then they turn the whole thing over. Now they spread bean paste, chili paste, put on cilantro and green onion on it. They put on a crisp wafer that is about 4x6 and wrap the crepe around it and fold it in quarters. Then they drop it in a bag. You eat it right out of the bag. It is so good. This was the second day we had them. Great! I would love to make it at home, but I think it would be tough to find a similar wafer thing.
We had reservations at DaDong for dinner...the place to go for Peking Duck. It was very nice. We worried that our clothes were too casual needlessly; people had on everything from jeans to sweatshirts and sneakers. We were fine. We ordered the Beijing Duck and grilled asparagus. It came with some sort of soup, and desert of fruit and a soupy mango pudding. We had a bottle of wine as well. We took photos of the chefs making the duck. It was a very nice experience. The duck was very good, although it got cold quickly. After dinner we walked down to the Wangfujing pedestrian street and went into a few of the shops.
The next day we started with breakfast at the same Hutong behind the hotel. However, we discovered that the place next to the one we had been going to made these excellent little dumplings for 1 Yuan each, we had a couple each and then went back for a couple more. After breakfast, we went to the Summer Palace. We took a taxi after having read that there was no subway nearby. All of my resources must have been out of date because the taxi dropped us off at the north gate just a block from a subway station! The 10 line now goes all the way to the palace and also to the dirt market. I had forgotten my guide book, so we decided to take on a guide. The palace area is large with winding and intersecting paths, so we were glad to have the guide. We spent about 2 hours walking around and taking photos. It was beautiful. We had a mother and 5 year old come up to us and ask if we would have a conversation with her son in English. He was adorable and did very well with the normal simple questions about name, age, how are you, etc.
Afterward, we came back and had a glass of wine and napped. We had tickets for the Beijing Opera at the Huangang Guild Hall. We took the subway over to the theater where we were going to meet the guy we were to pay for the tickets. We got there somewhat early so we could have dinner in the area. We had shrimp balls and roasted duck with plum sauce. Both were good. We then met “Terry” and he brought us into the theater and sat us down and we paid him for the tickets which we got at a discount. It was a bit scary since I got the tickets over the phone and they told us we would not receive paper tickets since we were paying in cash for a discounted ticket, but the people at the theater recognized him and came right over with tea etc, so it worked out OK. We paid for the most expensive seats with snacks and we got a table to ourselves right up front. We couldn't have been closer unless we got on stage! They say Beijing Opera is an acquired taste and the first act certainly demonstrated why. It was like listening to screech owls. The second act was much better since there were more actors and lots of juggling and acrobatics and hardly any singing. It was very colorful and impressive. We got great photos.
The final day in Beijing we went to the Pinjanyan market to shop for souvenirs. DH was in search of a ceramic dragon similar to the one in the hotel shop. We spent quite a bit of time at the market. It was lots of fun. We had packed really light and we knew we had to watch the weight of our suitcases on all of our internal flights and we still had one more to go, so I didn’t want to buy too much. Alas, we could not find a similar dragon so the one in the hotel just hopped into our bag. We mostly bought cheap souvenirs, heeding the warnings about everything cheap being fake and everything expensive not being a bargain. Even though I was looking forward to our last stop at the Yuyuan Bazaar in Shanghai, we managed to buy enough little stuff to fill up our luggage allotment.
The next day we left for Shanghai. We checked into the Shanghai Classical Hotel in the old town. That was clearly our worst hotel. There was a two inch wide rim of dust that surrounded the entire room. It was the only place that I felt the need to wear something on my feet at all times! However, you could not beat the location and it was only for two nights. We loved being right in the old town. We were disappointed in the Bazaar. People were not that willing to bargain and things were more expensive than we had seen up to then. We were glad to have gotten most of what we wanted in Beijing. We went to the acrobat show that night. It was great; an amazing show, especially the 5 motorcycles in the same sphere. I don’t think I have seen that many before. For our last night we decided to stay at the Motel 168 at the airport. It was very convenient for our 9am flight and a very nice room. We just walked to the terminal in the morning as easy as could be. I would definitely recommend this option.
We arrived in Honolulu at 7am. After clearing customs and immigration, we got a car and went straight to the storage unit and picked up our clothes and golf clubs. We had a 1pm tee time, so I called the hotel to see if we could check in early. We were in our hotel by 9am. We got settled and drove to the course a bit before our tee time so we could have lunch. We were glad that we had planned an afternoon activity because being in the sun helped us adjust to the time change. The next day we drove around the island. Our final day, we played golf again and went to dinner at the Hilton Hawaiian Village. The food was great and the ocean side dining experience was nice. They had a great fireworks display which we stayed to see and then went back to our hotel. We finally left on April 24 and got home at 7am on April 25.
It was a fabulous trip; very interesting and educational and at times fun and funny. We saw everything we wanted to. We had very little trouble communicating. We ate fabulous food and we ate weird food. We didn’t have any stomach issues.
I am going to do write another post to Fodors. Our packing list was unusual but very effective, so I will write about that. It was the first time we used everything in our bags. Also, certain small things were different than I expected from reading on Fodors so I would like to mention what was different for us. Both may be useful to someone. I will also be posting my photos to Shutterfly shortly. I’ll add to this post when they are out there.
Thanks again to everyone who contributed to our trip planning.
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My husband and I just returned from a fascinating month in China. I would like to thank all the Fodors posters for their help in planning our trip (which I worked on for over a year and had fun doing). In particular, thanks to thursdaysd, indiancouple, and Nywoman , and of course PeterN_H.