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Trip Report Solo, but not Alone: Three Weeks in China

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My first brief (three week) trip to China left me a tad dazed and confused; my subconscious is still gnawing on the nuances, but here are a few impressions that I hope will encourage others who wish to go independently/solo just as I was encouraged by others. It was really very easy to get around and I met many lovely and helpful people, some of whom even spoke English; the 'dazed and confused' part is simply due to the variety and sheer volume of experiences. For the most part I stayed on the well-beaten track, but there were a few spots of solitude as well. I'll try to hit the high points briefly, starting with the flight.

Having a 3AM shuttle pick-up for the airport is actually a great idea for a long flight: just stay up all night and sleep on the plane. The non-stop Continental flight from Newark to Beijing was full, but not uncomfortable; it took a bit less than 13 hours for the flight. It was right on time, as well.

I had booked the Marco Polo Beijing online, as I didn't want to arrive without any reservation. It's a very pleasant hotel (with--I blush to admit--some of the best room service food I've ever had) that is in a good location for getting about. The room was quite large--and clean--and the bed most comfy. I booked my sleeper train ticket to Xi'an right away through the hotel travel desk, at a cost of only ¥20 above the ¥417 price. (Yes, I got the wimpy Z train.)

My first full day in Beijing consisted of getting somewhat lost and ending up in Beihai Park (ballroom dancing going on to the strains of Red River Valley) and an audio guide to the Forbidden City. (I entered at the gate across from the park, even though a 'guide' outside tried to tell me there was no entrance there.) Mobs of parasol-weilding or cap-wearing tourists poured through, and I paid my obligatory visit to the 'art show': I actually recommend doing this once if you're good at saying no, as then you can tell all the rest of the 'art students' at every other location that you've already seen it. Works well! There is lots of reconstruction going on, but it's still pretty magical. But oh, was it hot. Beijing was in the grips of a major heat wave all five days that I was there: up to 44C, which made my movements somewhat slower than usual.

I visited both the 'New' and 'Old' Summer Palaces; quite a difference between the ultimate traditional Chinese of the New and the strangely structured European ruins of the Old, with its very popular stone maze. I went by taxi for ¥38 out to the Old Summer Palace and ended up paying ¥22 to go the mile or so to the New one, but that's really the only odd taxi experience I had. Almost always the cabbies were polite, obliging, and honest.

My visit to the Great Wall took place on a day of beautiful blue skies and puffy white clouds (yay!) but also of the highest temps of the week (boo!) I booked through the Far East Hotel (where good Internet access, by the way, is ¥10 an hour) for Jinshanling to Simatai; as it happens, the climb up to Jinshanling in the heat proved to be a bit much for a respiratory system already a bit off from Beijing air, so I ended up taking the 'shortcut' after about six towers, down through the farms below; my accompanying 'local people' of course had souvenirs to sell at very high prices. I climbed back up at Simatai; there are such incredible views and it truly was a highlight of the whole trip, uncomfortable 3 hour ride, souvenir sellers, and horrifying heat notwithstanding. There's just nothing like standing on the wall and seeing it continue in that jagged pattern for as far as one can see.

The main building of the Temple of Heaven complex is undergoing renovation (until April 2006 according to an electronic sign) but the cypress forests and other structures were interesting. After that I tried for the Bird and Flower market in the area, but, alas, it is no longer. Speaking of which, I used and loved Cadogan's Beijng guidebook; it worked wonderfully for me (except for the market, of course, and there is even a warning that the markets are quite subject to change!) It steered me to one of my favorite places, the Milu Deer Park.

The cabby who took me out there had to call for directions; when I tell you that I was the only person there you may understand why. (¥51 ride) The Milu (Pere David) deer were peacefully galumphing around in their big preserve; it was a most peaceful spot, and I stayed to watch them for some time, as well as exploring the 'extinction cemetery' and wetland area. I met some more lovely people here: rather than calling for a cab to take me back, a member of the staff actually drove me all the way back to my hotel! They seemed pleased that I had come, but that was certainly above the call of duty. I believe there is a bus that comes out this way, but I was running short on time when I came out.

My last day was spent in the shopping area; I also went to Quanjude for roast duck. (The rather macabre duck in a chef's hat is a tipoff to the location.) It was very good, although I'm sure there are other less touristy places as good or better. I was, in fact, a tourist, so I went and really enjoyed the whole production. (Although I did get Marx Bros. flashes when I heard, 'Here your duck soup.')

The train to Xi'an from Beijing West was very clean, very civil, quite comfy; I slept well. The Xi'an train station is a little wild, though. I ended up in Shanxi Nanfang hotel, which had a really interesting two-floor room but otherwise wasn't outstanding. However, it was only for two nights. Xi'an is amazingly full of stores; who buys all those clothes? It's no wonder they have employees calling out for business (hawkers, did they used to call them?) The Warriors are, of course, astounding in themselves, but their context is so faux-Disney that it tends to detract. I went on a bus tour which was fairly cheap but included some rather bogus 'museums' (like the root sculpture museum--what, these museum pieces are FOR SALE?) although the first one was rather interesting with its displays of money and weights from Qin's time.) It certainly allowed enough time for me at the warriors; I'm glad I saw them, but certainly would never need to go again.

I flew the next day to Chengdu: here is where I should explain that I wanted very much to visit Three Beaches National Park, between Xi'an and Chengdu, but wasn't able to find out anything from anyone, including Xi'an train station. Had it not been so unbearably hot (and thus draining) I may have gone to Baoji and tried my luck from there, but as it stands, I just couldn't face going and finding out then that I still wouldn't be able to get there. Perhaps next time...

Chengdu is very green and a bit frowsy, but I liked it quite a lot. Part of that has to do with Sim's Cozy Guesthouse, which is a lovely little place to hang out. For ¥90 a night I got a single A/C room with private bath. Chengdu is the home of the Panda Reserve, a surprisingly pretty spot with quite a few of the awwwwww-adorable creatures hanging about eating bamboo and occasionally lumbering up and down. Very worthwhile to me; it's recommended to go first thing in the morning, as they're at there most active then. Chengdu also has the 'Thatched Cottage of Du Fu' which is, in fact, a whole garden complex, and the tiny little Mao Museum of Mr. Antrin, which I only found through the kind offices of Patty in Iowa's mom. (Mom-like, she talked more about her daughter than herself--her daughter has been in Iowa for five years, and evidently Mom liked Americans.)

From Chengdu I went to Leshan; the Big Buddha is just that, but the 'Fish Catering Complex' that is part of his park had some of the best food that I have ever had: just simple extremely fresh ingredients, perfectly cooked. I crave this food even now. It cost something like $2.

At Sim's I booked an inclusive 5 day trip to Tibet; as I had only planned on three days there, I hadn't done extensive reading and figured this would be the best way to maximize my time there. It was quite interesting in that I was the only 'lao wei' in a group of about 20 Chinese, none of whom (including the guide) spoke English. But I was served from the communal bowls with various chopsticks and encouraged to eat, and we worked out communications of various kinds.

Lhasa is oddly beautiful and depressing; perhaps that was the effect of the altitude headache combined with a fever/cold, though. The first night after dinner the whole group eagerly went to a reflexology place, where, for ¥20, your feet got soaked in a type of herb bath and then pummeled and pulled unmercifully. It actually felt great when it was done, though. These 'visits' to Tibetan medical places continued, and seemed to be very welcomed by the group.

Yak butter burning and incense wafting and pilgrims prostrating let you know you're at Jokhang Temple; the colors are gorgeous inside the rabbit warren of rooms. Potala is fascinating and has interesting signs in English; the room where the Dalai Lama met with people was one of the most intriguing to me. The 'world famous' Yangpachen hot springs, on the other hand, are just awful: a big square swimming pool of hot water, a few shops, and boiling springs, with souvenir and horse-photo vendors in one's face. (For geothermal swimming, I'd say Iceland has the definite advantage.) The scenery on the way to and from was pretty amazing, though.

The scenery on the way to Shigatse was even better: just incredible. First, though, we had some karaoke (the guide was quite good) with the American with a bad cold leading 'We Shall Overcome' to a group of Han Chinese going through Tibet. (I try to make sure that the world's irony deficiency is met.) On the way we took the hair-pin turns up to Yamdrok Lake, which is beautiful except for the decorated yaks in front of it. (I like the yaks, actually, but they looked uncomfortable. I'd rather see them ambling about, which also happens.) The craggy brown mountains and rushing rivers on the way to Shigatse made for great watching, and when the bus had to go onto a dirt trail instead of the highway it became quite exciting.

Shigatse's Panchen Lama monastery is fascinating and evocative; the worn edges actually enhance the beauty of the colors and textures to me. By this time I had a translator, as well; a Hong Kong native who had gone to UMass. There were also a number of people who wanted to have me in their pictures; I started feeling like the pet foreigner after a while--not for the first time.

I flew back to Chengdu, and the next day flew to Guangzhou--airport bus to train station--train (finally, after a nerve-wracking effort to find it; construction is all over) to Shenzen, walk through to Hong Kong, then the Kowloon/Canton line into the city and the MTR to Booth Lodge (nice big room for $54 a night.) That sounds easy, but it took pretty much all day and lots of energy to haul the luggage through the soupy humidity.

Tea at the Peninsula (tourist again!) was a highlight of Hong Kong: the food transcended to an art form, the service was very good, and the surroundings are suitably posh yet refined. It wasn't at all crowded at 2:30 when I went, and the 'traditional tea' served as both my lunch and dinner. (Their scones were the best I have ever had, and I've been 'taking tea' for a long time in a lot of places.) I spent most of my time in HK in shopping--the Night Market was quite close to Booth--and just wandering; I had an Octopus Tourist card, which worked out very well. I hiked around the Peak and stayed until dark (Ooooo...ahhhhhhhh) to round out my Hong Kong experience.

I flew home from Hong Kong, richer by the experiences that only travel can bring and poorer by about $3000 altogether (including airfare): not bad for three weeks of education, excitement, and jasmine tea.

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