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Trip Report Thanks for helping make my trip to China amazing!

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I recently returned from an amazing 4-week trip to China and wanted to take a moment to thank all of you who helped me prepare for my trip, whether by responding to my questions or by posting trip reports or responses to others. I learned from so many of you!

I ended up visiting Beijing, Tai Shan, Qufu, Luoyang, Xi'an, Pingyao, Taiyuan, Wutai Shan, Datong, and Chengde. I saw many things of great beauty and interest, ate some delicious local foods, met many helpful and kind strangers, and stored a tremendous array of wonderful memories.

Thank you all!

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    Thanks for your interest! Unfortunately, my work life is unlikely to allow me the time to write a trip report (thus sparing you my lack of either eloquence or wit). I will, however, happily answer any questions I can.

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    > What was your favorite part of the trip?

    Taking it.

    > What was your least favorite part of the trip?

    Returning to work afterwards.

    > Why?

    Because I love to travel and I had a wonderful time.

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    Sorry, Gpanda, I couldn't resist!

    To provide a bit more detail, I’ll start with the things I liked least: The seemingly incessant noise; the pervasive construction grit, particularly when strong winds blew it into my eyes; the press of crowds wherever queues were not enforced by barriers; the nerve-wracking and (it seemed) life-threatening perils attached to crossing streets; the frustrations of being unable to express myself well or to understand others (particularly those who didn’t know pinyin and so couldn’t use my pocket dictionary, which was alphabetized by pinyin, to find words); loud and bright restaurants that closed way too early; and the small and uncomfortable seats on most buses and some trains.

    Some of the things I liked best: Having the chance to see and experience a tremendous range of diverse cultural treasures (including buildings and objects and performing arts and public spaces and cave carvings and I don’t even know what all!); encountering the kindness and patience of so many people who offered me their assistance or otherwise made me feel incredibly welcome in their homeland; seeing men playing cards beneath their caged birds and people exercising in groups or alone, in parks or on sidewalks or wherever, and people gathering to make music together, and the many ways in which people seemed to find a way to bring some thing of beauty into their lives; tasting delicious foods and the shared laughter as groups of wait staff worked with me and my phrase books to help me order local specialties; capturing some glimpses into a culture that is quite different than mine, and finding common ground despite cultural and linguistic differences; seeing stunningly beautiful mountains and the fascinating loess plateau and the amazing views of the Great Wall snaking into the distance across mountain ridges; walking by carts and baskets filled with fresh fruits and vegetables and being inundated by wonderful aromas wafting from street vendors’ stalls and tiny shops; strolling through some of Beijing’s hutong and various side streets of other cities and sharing smiles or greetings with strangers and watching children play and watching their parents watching them; admiring the flowers and shrubs – roses, iris, lotus, lilac, countless others – in full bloom in parks and gardens and street-side plots; seeing the things I’d read about and wanted to see for so very long, even if I did have to do so with throngs of others, and visiting some less touristed, but nonetheless special, places, a very few of which I had almost to myself; and living more or less in the present (instead of the past and future, as I tend to do when not traveling – maybe there’s a lesson there?).

    Those are some of my most vivid memories. And the many things I liked best MORE than made up for the few things I liked least.

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    What a great response! You've summarized up so nicely the things we like to see. Eloquent writing skills are not your problem. Working is no excuse for your failure to provide a trip report! You can do it in dribs and drabs. It seems like you have so much to offer and we would love to hear about your experiences. PLEASE consider writing a report.

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    kja, I need a trip report ASAP. Sept we plan on going to Beijing, we were in China early 2007. Planning on seeing some missed sights and revisiting several others. Also looking at flying to Lasa for a few days. We are looking to perhaps use Beijing as a base and taking day trips if possible. We are also open to going from place to place for a day or two if that is a better plan. We are independent travelers and travel our own pace and route. Based on your previous comments I know you have a lot to add as we plan our trip. Thanks.

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    I will join the chorus of those who are eager for a report, however brief. Especially on the places you visited that are not often discussed here. PLEASE! I am considering a return visit within the next two-three years and need to read all I can!

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    It’s taken a while, but I’ve finally found some time to start a trip report. Better late than never? I’ll add when possible.

    My 29-day itinerary, starting in early May and ending in early June, included:
    • A few initial days in Beijing (3 nights)
    • Tai’An / Tai Shan (1 night)
    • Qufu (1 night)
    • Luoyang (2 nights)
    • Xi’an (4 nights)
    • Pingyao (1 night)
    • Taiyuan (2 nights)
    • Wutai Shan (2 nights)
    • Datong (2 nights)
    • Chengde (1 night)
    • And a longer, final stay in Beijing (6 nights).

    Background:
    • I’m a woman who was traveling solo and independently.
    • This was my first visit to China.
    • I learned a few (very few) Mandarin words and phrases beforehand.

    Advance planning:
    • I used quite a few different guidebooks, everything I could find on this board from a search of the last 3 years (thanks to all of you who posted!), and some other internet material.
    • I did not make reservations for intercity trains or buses before reaching China and didn’t take any internal flights. When possible, arranging a train onward was the first thing I did when arriving somewhere. I had printed out train schedules, written in both English and Chinese, which I used to indicate which train I wanted. Doing so generally worked quite well, and I was almost always able to get the train I preferred.
    • Particularly because I didn’t know exactly when I would be arriving anywhere, I accepted PeterN_H’s advice to wait to book rooms except for my 1st few nights in Beijing,. It worked surprisingly well. In almost every case, I was given a discounted rate; in a few cases, I was able to negotiate an even lower price. Before starting my trip, I identified a target hotel that was near several others that I thought would be suitable back-up options. I had the names and addresses of these places in English and Chinese, and showed my taxi driver the name and address of my target hotel. I was able to get a room at 8 of my 10 target hotels. One place didn’t exist any longer and one place had no available rooms; in each of these cases, a room was available at my second choice hotel. In one case, I probably should have left to check out other options (even with a discount, it was more expensive that I thought it was worth), but I made a choice to stay.
    • I also had lists of restaurant names and addresses and lists of local specialties, printed in both English and Chinese. It was often fun to work with the wait staff to determine whether they had one of the dishes on my list and if not, what local specialties might suit. In many cases, the wait staff did not speak English, but my lists and a phrase book / pocket dictionary (and a sense of humor) were enough to ensure that I ate some wonderful meals.

    Saturday 8 May — Beijing — Arrival

    My very, very long flight from DC, which (thankfully) was not as bad as it could have been, landed at Beijing’s modern airport in the late afternoon. It was easy to find my way around the airport and get a taxi.

    During the ride into the city, I couldn’t help but notice all the new and ongoing construction — something I was to see in virtually every location I visited. Each city seemed ringed by masses of new high-rises - clusters of them in the same not particularly attractive style next to other clusters in different, but also not particularly attractive styles, with enormous construction cranes and partially built towers surrounding them. There was some degree of construction or reconstruction going on almost everywhere I visited, with all the attendant noise and grit.

    As the taxi neared my hotel, I began to see some signs of Beijing’s traditional architecture — some of the old city gates (massive!), low buildings with gracefully curving grey-tiled eaves. . . . OMG, I’m in China!

    For my first few nights, I stayed at the Templeside — a siheyuan west of Beihai Park, about 10 or 15 minutes by foot from a metro stop. As mentioned above, I had booked this room in advance. My taxi driver left me off as close as he could; it took only a few minutes to wheel my suitcase the remaining way down the alley. I thought the Templeside had some charming features, but it also had some limitations. I was very pleased with the location: The hutong in this area seemed much less gentrified and more authentic than other hutong I visited in Beijing. Once off the major streets, there were only a few shops or businesses, and these did not cater to tourists. After my long flight, I thoroughly enjoyed a long walk around these hutong, exchanging greetings with people who seemed to be trying as hard as I was to avoid overt displays of our curiosity about each other.

    As night fell, I flagged a taxi to Han Cang, a Hakka restaurant that several Fodorites have recommended. I enjoyed dining alfresco; I also enjoyed my meal of shrimp baked in salt, celery with cashew, and beer, but perhaps not as much as some others have. It was good, but not great. The shrimp were very flavorful, but a bit drier than I would have preferred, and frankly, the service was awful. In fairness, I might have enjoyed it more if jet lag hadn’t begun to set in and if I didn’t have several minor abrasions on both hands, which made peeling the salty shrimp rather painful. The area seemed a bit touristy, but it was still quite pleasant to watch the rippling reflections of the many colored lights of the restaurants and shops that surround Qianhai Lake and watch the many people enjoying their time in this popular evening destination. A short taxi ride brought me back to my room, where I soon lapsed into deep steep.

    Sunday 9 May — 1st full day in Beijing

    One benefit of west-to-east jet lag is that I woke up very early, and I took full advantage of that unusual event (I am not a morning person!) to try to find one of the weekend-only tour buses to the Eastern Qing Tombs. Although I succeeded in locating the two bus depots from which such buses generally leave, in both cases, I was told that no buses were going there because of road construction. I won’t deny being a bit disappointed, but I know that one always needs to be flexible when traveling, and — from what I read before taking this trip — perhaps particularly so in China. At least I had learned how incredibly easy the Beijing metro is to use! (And it is, truly, a remarkably good metro system.)

    By this time, I had been up for several frustrating hours, and I was craving caffeine — enough so that a Starbuck’s sign near Qianmen was inordinately appealing. It wasn’t open yet, so I spent the few moments before it did walking along Qianmen Dajie, with its mostly name-brand Western shops. It seemed to be a recently renovated/reconstructed street and although it held some pretty features, it felt a bit contrived. I wasn’t sure what to think — after all, this was my first morning in China; could I really tell what was real and what was not? Of course the answer to that question was (and remains) no — but it seemed to me that the remodeling of this street was driven primarily by an intent to create something that would appeal to tourists.

    Starbucks finally opened, and fortified by a grande latte, I set off on foot for the Museum of Architecture / Altar of Agriculture. It was farther away than I had anticipated, but I always feel more grounded in a city if I walk some of the streets that aren’t on the usual tourist routes, so I my only concern was whether I was on the right track or not. I reached a point where I was sure I had to be really, really close to the entrance to the museum, but I hadn’t seen it, so I stepped into a hotel to ask, pointing to the Chinese characters for the museum. The staff — there were 3 — all denied knowing anything about it. That struck me as very sad, because it was actually just around the corner.

    Turning down a quiet lane, with a pleasant tree-shrouded public square to one side, I soon found it. What a wonderful place to experience my 1st Chinese temple! Only a few other people were visiting while I was there, so I could take full advantage of the opportunity to see things at my own pace and from any angle I chose. The displays of the evolution of the dougong were fascinating and the areas used for rituals seemed more intimate than other imperial structures I saw later.

    I lingered a while before walking several blocks to the Temple of Heaven. I entered by the west gate, and stopped first at the residence used by emperors for abstinence and purification before performing their obligatory duties. I found it quite lovely, with an elegant simplicity about it. I then entered an expanse of park in which there were trees planted in orchard-like regularity, under which a magnificent field of some kind of blue flower with white touches blanketed the grass as far as I could see. Glorious! There were some (but not many) people around, and it was very peaceful — quite in contrast to the congested and dusty and traffic-filled streets just outside the park. I walked to the south gate, thoroughly enjoying the flowers and trees and sunlight and glimpses of couples strolling and friends sharing picnics and otherwise enjoying this pleasant area.

    From the south gate, I walked north through the Altar to Heaven to the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests. This area was packed with tourists - and I mean packed! I don’t particularly like being in crowds, so when I become so enthralled by something that I become almost oblivious to the crowds, I know I’m seeing something special. And that was my experience at the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests. Once I reached a place where I could see inside, I was jostled and shoved and nearly knocked over and I did not mind at all - what an artistic and architectural achievement!

    I walked briefly around some of the paths lined by ancient trees outside the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest before turning to the long covered corridor and the many delightful vignettes one encounters there: Men playing cards and women belly-dancing in coin-bedecked garments and people chatting and people watching people and various performers thriving on the attentions they were receiving and a group of musicians who seemed indifferent to their appreciative audience as they played traditional songs on traditional instruments. While I watched, some arrived and others left with the kinds of verbal exchanges that suggested a long-standing coterie of people with similar interests who found a way to share their music whenever their schedules permitted. How wonderful! Stepping away from the covered corridor, I saw children playing under their parents’ watchful eyes and people enjoying picnics and people exercising and aspiring opera stars entertaining crowds with the help of blaring loudspeakers and an old man teaching a young boy how to fly a kite....

    When I was finally ready to leave, I took the metro to my siheyuan, quickly showered and changed, and then took the metro to the Huguang Guildhall for a performance of Beijing Opera. I didn’t expect to enjoy the vocals, and I can’t say that I did. Still, I enjoyed the performance much more than I expected — the costumes and make-up and stagemanship and unexpected acrobatic elements were all memorable! And I found the theater quite special — it was small enough to feel intimate, tall enough to heighten the sense of theatricality, and very nicely decorated in a style that was (I thought) pleasantly understated.

    I decided to return to my siheyuan for dinner. I was hungry, but tired, and I remembered that the in-room information included a menu that did not specify hours. It turns out that they order the food, and there was some question of whether it was too late to do so, but the caterer agreed. I had a delicious meal of steamed fish, fried rice with egg, and beer. The fish had lots of tiny bones, but it was incredibly flavorful and was well worth the effort it took to eat.

    Monday 10 May — 2nd full day in Beijing

    A bit of jet lag caught up with me, so I began this day a little later and a little more slowly than I would have preferred. I started with the boat to the Summer Palace. I enjoyed much of the scenery — especially the parks through which the river meanders, but the nearly constant blaring of a loud-speaker meant that it wasn’t as relaxing a journey as it might have been.

    Within minutes of my arrival at the Summer Palace an incredible windstorm swept through. I’d never experienced anything like it! The extremely strong, nearly unceasing, sand-bearing winds forced most people to take shelter if they could or to turn their backs to the wind and protect their eyes as well as possible while struggling to stay upright. And then, maybe 15 minutes later, it stopped just as suddenly, and the rest of the day was beautiful. VERY strange!

    I spent many hours enjoying the Summer Palace, which has lovely grounds, as well as some gorgeous and fascinating buildings. Many of the buildings and some parts of the park were packed with hordes of tour groups; other areas were delightfully free of all but a few visitors. I especially enjoyed the covered walkway, and it was obvious that others enjoyed it, too, with lots of people strolling inside or sitting on its benches or sitting outside in a place where they could gaze at it and many, many people happily putting their cameras to work. I must admit that I found the absurd and completely frivolous Marble Boat repulsively ostentatious and “Suzhou Street” (which I saw only from above) struck me as a bit grandiose. I could have spent much more time pleasantly exploring the grounds of the Summer Palace, but finally felt ready to leave.

    It was a long metro ride to Tian’an Men Square. I started at Qianmen and slowly walked north. No words or pictures had prepared me for just how vast this space is — I found it’s scale extremely difficult to comprehend. I could see that many other people were there, but the space felt empty, in part because they seemed so small in comparison to the monuments. Conversely, it was hard to appreciate just how monumental the monuments were; my sense of perspective seemed completely off. At the north end, I spent a few minutes watching the preliminary phases of the flag-lowering ceremony, but didn’t have a good position from which to watch and so soon left.

    I hurried to Wangfujing Dajie, where I reached the Foreign Languages Bookstore in time to buy a copy of Mooney’s Beijing Eats before it closed. I then strolled this popular pedestrian-only street for a while before selecting an outdoor table for a beer.

    After studying my newly purchased restaurant guide, I located Shun Yi Fu, a dumpling restaurant in a nearby shopping mall, with clean tables in a brightly lit space. Almost as soon as I sat, a waitress appeared. I wasn’t ready to order, so I tried to ask her to come back in a few moments. I tried everything I could think of to let her know that I wasn’t ready to order, but nothing seemed to work — she just stood there. Finally, another patron who spoke English translated for me and I was left to review the menu without pressure and in peace. I was subsequently to observe that in most of the restaurants I went to, a server (usually female) would arrive almost as soon as I sat down and wait for me to order, no matter how long I took. (Oh my, is that why they are called WAIT staff?!?) As I noted in my prefatory remarks, I learned to engage the wait staff in my decision-making and shared laughter with them as we reviewed my lists of local specialties. I hadn’t figured that out yet. I eventually ordered two types of dumplings - pork with chives and a mushroom/bok choy mix. Both were very tasty!

    I walked around the area for a while before taking the metro back to my siheyuan. Upon emerging from the metro, I encountered another sand storm. This time, the wind carried not only sand, but also a lot of construction dust. I walked with tears streaming down my cheeks, barely able to open my eyes enough to see the street in front of my feet. I don’t know how people who live here deal with the sandstorms and grit.

    Planning to leave Beijing the next day, I prepared as much as I could and was just about ready to go to bed when — at about 11:45 p.m. — I heard what sounded like a truck outside my room, and people talking, and heavy objects being shifted. Looking out, I saw a small truck, loaded with brick and slabs of slate, and a large group of men unloading the truck and a few men beginning to drive pickaxes into the alley. They were paving the alley, and they continued to work throughout the night, with the small truck making many loud trips in and out of the alley and the men talking to each other between swings of their pickaxes or other tools. I tried to sleep, and am glad to report that I did get some snatches of it — but not that much.

    Tuesday 11 May - Beijing to Tai’an (Tai Shan)

    At 6:45 a.m., I heard what sounded like the truck departing once again, and a lot of people — men and women — speaking with some energy, and then the sounds gradually faded away, only to be broken a few minutes later by my alarm clock. I looked outside and found that the previously dirt alley was now neatly paved. I would have liked to have a better night’s sleep, but it was intriguing to realize what could be accomplished in just one night. Too, given the reports I had read of hutong being slated for destruction, I would like to believe that the paving of this alley is an indication that it has been spared, at least for now.

    Understandably, the young lady on duty at the siheyuan that night/morning had also been thrown off-schedule by the noisy work on the alley, but she did her best to meet the needs of those of us who needed her attention. I ate breakfast, checked out, and took a taxi to the Beijing South train station, where I hoped to book a train to Tai’An. The train I had targeted was fully booked, but I was able to get a later train that would meet my needs. I checked my suitcase and got on the metro.

    It took me a while to find the Ox Street Mosque - which was actually a good thing, because it meant that I spent some time roaming the streets of this very interesting neighborhood. I’m very glad I persisted — the mosque has some lovely features and it was fascinating to see a few Arabian features in this otherwise obviously Chinese setting. I particularly enjoyed the women’s area, where covered walks and bits of greenery provided a few surprisingly pleasant niches, and the sedate, tree-shrouded walkway that marked the main entry to the mosque. There were just
    a few other people there — enough to accentuate how small the area outside the main sanctuary was. Very nice!

    It was just a short walk to Fayuan Temple, which I loved! Magnificent old trees, monks going about their business, courtyards filled with incense from beautifully crafted burners, wonderful relics, few other visitors. . . . I enjoyed a long visit here, and then returned to the train station, glad that I had had the time to see both of these sites.

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    Bravo! Very refreshing, and should be compulsory reading for many contemplating a trip to Beijing: How to do it, and how to have fun doing it, by a female solo independent traveller who also takes in lesser-known sights. I'm sure there'll be other hiccups other than this mysterious cancellation of bus trips to the Eastern Qing, and I, for one, look forward to finding out.

    > The staff — there were 3 — all denied knowing anything about it. That struck me as very sad, because it was actually just around the corner.

    Unfortunately it is very common in China for people to have no knowledge of what is beyond their own personal experience, even what is right under their noses, and there's no encouragement for curiosity from the education system. Although life for many in the big cities is far more comfortable than it was even 20 years ago, it is still a struggle. Hotel staff would feel they had better things to do with the price of entrance, and better things to do with their free time than enter some ancient monument. Sadly Beijingers tend to know very little about Beijing.

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    Definitely bravo! I'm very much looking forward to reading more.

    I was particularly glad to see that someone else visited the Museum of Architecture / Altar of Agriculture, which I loved. Like you, I had it almost completely to myself, but I had more difficulty finding it!

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    <<Unfortunately, my work life is unlikely to allow me the time to write a trip report (thus sparing you my lack of either eloquence or wit)>>

    Methinks the lady doth protest too much... your report is eloquently written and better yet, supremely informative! You have no idea how interesting your observations are to those of us preparing to depart! I am copying your report to my laptop to make sure I can refer to it upon our arrival in Beijing. I can only hope to catch a glimpse of some of your experiences and make a few of my own. Thank you!

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    If your work schedule prohibits you from making detailed trip reports, I'm very sorry about your recent firing! LOL

    Thanks for a wonderful report. My list of liked most and liked least are incredibly similar to yours. I especially laughed about the restaurants that are too bright and close too early. Couldn't they at least unscrew a few light bulbs?

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    Terrific report ! Thank you for taking the time to share your experiences in such an eloquent manner.
    Quick question: I notice that the charming Beijing B&B you stayed at has only 8 guestrooms so how far ahead of your trip did you reserve on their website. Thanks!

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    Thanks to all of you for your compliments! I’m glad you’ve found my observations informative and hope the coming installments are helpful and/or entertaining as well.

    PeterN_H – I did have a great deal of fun on this journey, in large part because of the very helpful information you have offered on this board. And yes, there were other hiccups, but nothing that proved insurmountable.

    Thursdaysd – I remember reading your account of the Museum of Architecture / Altar of Agriculture – it was part of what inspired me to make it a priority. And of course your trip report, along with those of other solo female travelers to China, was very helpful to me as I made the decision to go. Thanks so much!

    NeoPatrick – I am still gainfully employed. Things were quite hectic for a while, but fortunately, things have eased up a bit. I hope you’re enjoying your trip; I’m looking forward to reading about it when I can.

    LA_Traveler – I believe I booked the Templeside about 2½ weeks before my arrival in Beijing. I thought it had many charming elements, but it wasn’t perfect. For example, the young girls who staffed the reception desk were very sweet, but not particularly helpful. I have no regrets about spending a few nights there, but chose not to return to it for my time at Beijing at the end of my trip.


    Installment 2:
    Train to Tai’An / Tai Shan

    I reached the train station in plenty of time to buy some beverages for the trip, reclaim my suitcase, and relax a bit before boarding. Others have commented on the nearly chaotic boarding process, so I won’t elaborate, except to say that it struck me as bizarre and unnecessary. My seat on this train was incredibly comfortable and roomy — a nice introduction to train travel in China. (As it turned out, this was the only truly comfortable train seat of my journey.) For most of the trip, the tracks crossed flat cultivated land, with mountains — the kind that rise with remarkable steepness — in the distance.

    I spent part of the trip re-thinking my plans: If I had gotten an early train from Beijing, I would have tried to reach the top of Tai Shan that day and spend the night there. I didn’t think that would be possible with this later train, and so I identified a new target hotel and restaurant. Upon reaching Tai’an, I stopped at the tourist office across from the station. The non-English-speaking staff person immediately called someone, and within moments, an English-speaking person appeared — something I experienced more than a few times along my journey, at a variety of types of establishment. I soon had a map and all the information I wanted.

    Fighting my way through the mobs of taxi drivers who declined to use the meter, I finally found a metered taxi and set off for the Tai Shan Binguan. I must admit a bit of trepidation: Although I had confidence in PeterN_H’s advice about showing up at hotels without reservations and bargaining for a room rate, I did not have confidence in my ability to pull it off. But it worked! I was immediately offered a discount and I managed to negotiate an even lower price. Wow! What’s more, the receptionist didn’t speak English, so I managed with my very limited Chinese and my phrase book. (At least some English was spoken at the other hotels in which I stayed.) I was very pleased — and relieved — by my success. The room wasn’t anything special, but it suited my needs, and I had secured it quite easily. I quickly freshened up and headed to a restaurant that one of my guidebooks commended for the local cuisine — only to see it close while I waited for a break in the traffic to cross the street.

    I walked around briefly and settled on a nearby restaurant that I think was called Wei Wen Wen. This restaurant was the first one I went to where it seemed like the entire wait staff joined in the effort to help me order. The staff seemed very appreciative of my desire to sample local foods and intent upon making sure that it would be something that I would enjoy. They didn’t have any of the dishes that my guidebooks listed as local specialties, and when they realized that one recommendation was for the local fish, they took me by my hand to show me a tank of the local fish, which were at most 2 inches long! My pocket dictionary flew back and forth among various hands and we all laughed a lot. I ended up with something they indicated was one of their specialties - a tofu dish with local vegetables that was very tasty. I couldn’t help but notice that they were closing even while we were choosing my meal, but no one rushed me or otherwise made me feel uncomfortable as I enjoyed it.

    Wednesday 12 May — Tai’an (Tai Shan) to Qufu

    I managed to get up early, starting my day with the hotel’s breakfast buffet. In addition to a wide array of Chinese foods (which is not what I prefer to start the day), there was a young man who cooked eggs on the spot, and although over-easy was the usual preparation, gestures were sufficient to get him to scramble some for me. After breakfast, I went to the desk to check out and arrange to store my suitcase for the day, which required that I fill in every line of a small form.

    I soon took a taxi to the park from which buses depart for Tai Shan’s half-way point. There, masses of tourists — almost all Chinese — pushed and shoved their way to and through a series of lanes defined by railings that channeled people to the buses. The buses formed an almost nonstop stream, with departure as soon as the bus was filled. Filling them was no problem — filling them with the “right” people apparently was: As a solo traveler, I was moved from one bus to a second and then to a third as tour guides and their members struggled to ensure that they were all together.

    Eventually, my bus took off, and after a seemingly endless series of switchback turns, it arrived at the mid-way point. There was English signage there, but if there were signs indicating where to go for the cableway, I missed them. You will, perhaps, not be surprised that knowing how to say “where” is not very helpful if you don’t know the name of what you hope to find, and “cable car” was not in my limited Mandarin vocabulary. But I soon found my way.

    I shared the cable car with a middle-aged woman and an elderly man who I believe (without evidence) was her father. They didn’t speak English, but I was able to answer a few of their questions — I was American, traveling on my own, having a wonderful time.... I ran into them again at several temples, and my guess is that he had wanted to visit Tai Shan for a long time (he seemed so thrilled to be there!) and that she had made that happen. She seemed to enjoy what she was seeing, but to take even greater pleasure in his joy; in turn, he seemed to be very happy to be sharing it with her. I have no idea what their relationship actually was, but I loved seeing their interactions. We ran into each other several times while exploring the area, and they made a point of greeting me each they saw me. We found nonverbal ways to communicate, but it would have been nice to have been able to speak with them.

    The temples and lanes at the top of Tai Shan were jammed with people. I stand in awed admiration of the many, many people who climb to the top. I had read that many Chinese make climbing Tai Shan a goal and while I can’t say that those who climbed the mountain were of all shapes and ages — not surprisingly, there were more young and fit people than others — the range of those who were climbing was impressive. And the porters, OMG!!! Climbing with several cases of liquids (e.g., water or beer) or whatever hanging from each side of a wooden bar balanced across their upper backs and stabilized by their arms, stopping every few steps, and facing tourists’ cameras with every step — what a job! More to the point, what strength, endurance, persistence, and patience!

    I visited several interesting temples and enjoyed the views (it wasn’t a super clear day, but it was clear enough to see some distance). And then I began to walk down. . . and down. . . and down. It took me more than 4 hours to reach the bottom! OK, that includes visiting a few more temples and stopping frequently to take pictures, but still! I am very glad I didn’t try climbing up. Maybe I could have done it in my youth, but I don’t think there is any way I could have climbed it now! There was some lovely scenery to take in along the way — various types of trees, a few flowers, some butterflies, interesting rock formations (often with calligraphy that I didn't understand), a bit of a waterfall. . . . And it was pleasant to exchange greetings with a few other people who were descending at a similar pace, as we passed and were passed by each other and checked to see what had caught each other’s attention.

    From the base of the mountain, it is not far to Dai Miao. This temple was quite lovely, and deserved far more time that I was able to devote to it. The garden area into which one enters had some ancient and beautifully shaped bonsai, along with “regular” trees and pools with lotus and vine-covered trellises and various blooming flowers. Although I didn’t have time to linger, I enjoyed a quick walk through part of it. My goal was to see the Song-era wall mural in one of the main (and very impressive) temple buildings. It was poorly lit, but remarkable and IMO well worth seeing. I admired it for longer than I thought I should.

    I wanted to be sure to catch a bus to Qufu that day, and although there are buses every half hour during the day, the last one leaves at 5:30. I hoped to reach the bus terminal in time for the 5:00 bus, just in case there was a problem. So, I pulled myself away from Dai Miao and returned to my hotel for my luggage.

    You might imagine my surprise when I found the glass-fronted lobby taped off, with most of the doors locked, and glimpses inside of a space filled with drop clothes, plaster dust, and men wielding various tools - including power tools - hacking the walls and ceiling away! I found a way in, and was soon greeted by a startled young lady who asked (in English) how she might help me. She seemed incredulous when I handed her my luggage receipt. The key to the luggage area didn’t work; another was found and also didn’t work. Men began taking various tools to the door - a saw, hammer, crowbar. I saw men running at the door, alone or in pairs, shoulder first or feet first. I stepped outside.

    It was one of those moments when all one can do is appreciate the absurdity. Really, did they not know, that very morning when I checked my bag, that the lobby was to be renovated that day? Did they not check the luggage room before starting? Apparently not. Since it was now after 5, I was contemplating where I would spend the night when I heard a particularly loud crash. The young woman, who had been immaculately groomed and was now covered from head to toe in dust, came out with my suitcase. I commend the dignity with which she ensured that it was mine, helped me brush the dust off the suitcase (and me!), and thanked me for staying with them.

    I hailed the first taxi I could, remembered to ensure that the driver used the meter, and arrived at the bus depot with more than 5 minutes to spare before the day’s last bus left! I got the 2nd to the last ticket and watched another passenger buy the remaining one. As we pulled out I reflected on my good fortune. A few minutes later, still in Tai’an, the bus pulled off the street. I heard the driver say what I believe I had learned meant “not good” or “broken,” and then a few passengers shrugged and said the same thing. The hood went up, and I once again began considering my alternatives. But about 15 minutes later, the hood slammed down, the bus driver reentered, and off we went.

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    "I remember reading your account of the Museum of Architecture / Altar of Agriculture – it was part of what inspired me to make it a priority." - that is so cool! Thanks for telling me.

    And I'm still loving your report and impressed by your trip.

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    I enjoy reading your travels very much, too, k. You convey your thoughts and feelings genuinely. It's nice to read as if we were a actually listening to your own thoughts there ..

    BTW, hello neighbor!

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    Colduphere - sorry I neglected to respond yesterday! As you can see, my report is getting longer and longer. Be careful what you wish for!

    Tekwriter – I trust you will have a wonderful time gathering your own experiences in China. Thanks for your kind words!

    Thursdaysd and Mango7 – Thanks for letting me know that you are finding my report of interest!


    Installment 3:
    Qufu

    The rest of the rather short bus ride (a bit over an hour) was uneventful. My first goal upon arriving in Qufu was to secure a train ticket on to Luoyang. Trains don’t leave from Qufu — they leave from Yanzhou, a city about a 20- or 30-minute taxi ride away, and I wasn’t sure whether I could buy a ticket in Qufu. I was glad to learn that the ticketing office near Qufu’s bus station was able to book tickets for trains from Yanzhou for a nominal fee. I was even more delighted to obtain my 1st choice: a lower-berth soft-sleeper ticket for the next night’s overnight train. Outstanding!

    Ticket in hand, I took a taxi to my target hotel, the Mingya Confucius. The delightful young receptionist seemed both surprised and pleased that her English skills were being called into service. The room met my needs well and was very affordable (with the immediately offered discount). I freshened up and went to the hotel’s restaurant for dinner. The menu featured some of the local specialties on my list of recommended dishes. I ordered daizi shangchao — a stew of pork, chicken, chestnuts, and ginseng topped with aspic. Delicious! I also had a small serving of shili yinzing, or sweet ginkgo — also very good. Once again, I finished eating a bit after the restaurant closed; once again, no one rushed me in any way.

    Thursday 13 May — Qufu

    The breakfast buffet here also held only Chinese foods; again, a young man was in charge of an egg station. I had scrambled eggs and some sticky buns. I asked if coffee was available; it wasn’t. I assured them it was not a problem. A few minutes later, two waitresses appeared with a cup of egg drop soup and a plate of sliced watermelon, saying “sorry, no coffee.” What a wonderfully sweet gesture, but how, exactly, would these dishes substitute for coffee? I did my very best to express appreciation for their effort, even as I was fighting to suppress my laughter at the incongruity of the situation. I ate — and enjoyed — every last bit of both.

    I then checked out, stored my luggage at the desk (taking note that this hotel did not seem due for renovation), and headed off to explore the town.

    Qufu was the birthplace of Confucius, and his descendents — the Kongs — were regional officials. My first stop was the Confucius Mansion, which I found very interesting. It includes a variety of official rooms, then residential areas, and finally a garden. It was almost unbearably packed with tour groups, with people jockeying for viewing positions and posing for pictures and inadvertently blocking ingress and egress routes as they clustered around their guide and otherwise doing perfectly understandable things that, unfortunately, make it difficult to fully appreciate the complex. The garden at the far end was lovely, with several distinct areas in different styles, some flowers in bloom, and a few areas that weren’t swamped with other visitors.

    I then went to the Confucius Temple, stopping briefly to climb a tower that offered views over its entryway. This temple was quite grand, but in an understated way. The nearly empty forecourts of regularly planted trees, some seemingly very old, and a courtyard that was edged by long corridors with altars to Confucian disciples provided a peaceful prelude to the throngs of tour groups I encountered in the main temple areas. (I was surprised by how many Chinese tour groups were in Qufu.) The main temple and some of the gates held remarkable pillars of carved rock in the shape of coiled dragons – truly impressive.

    I also visited Yan Miao, a temple to one of Confucius’s disciples. In a similar, if smaller and more modest style, it was a pleasant place to visit. And in contrast to the Confucius Temple, I had the place almost to myself.

    Next, I hired a rickshaw to the Confucian Forest, an ancient cemetery. After passing the rows of shops that I came to believe were inevitable outside a tourist destination in China, I got off at the main gate and walked down a long tree-lined entryway. Once inside the forest/cemetery, I joined the crowds visiting Confucius’s gravesite. Then I strolled into the forest. An extensive area shaded by an impressive variety of leafy trees, there was a fascinating array of different types of grave markers and differently sized burial mounds. In some areas, it seemed that the terrain consisted of an unbroken nexus of small mounds. Although I could generally hear the sound of traffic from somewhere in the distance, it was a peaceful place. Every 10 minutes or so, a “golf cart” bearing tourists whisked by on the paved lanes, but I ran into at most a half-dozen others on foot during my hour or so in the forest. I thoroughly enjoyed my time here, and particularly enjoyed the spirit-way statues of a few clusters of Ming graves.

    I made my way back to my hotel, freshened up, and tried (unsuccessfully) to find a couple of restaurants I had read about. I ended up at the restaurant of the Queli Hotel, which one of my guidebooks said offered “the best dining” in Qufu. I ordered a dish of egg, shrimp paste, and chicken, which I was told was a local specialty; it was fine, but a little oily. I also ordered lotus root in ginger — I love lotus root! In contrast to the vast majority of restaurants I patronized on this trip, the wait staff seemed generally indifferent, and the prices seemed high given the quality of the food and service.

    After dinner, I visited the night market, which held merchants and food stalls and other people ambling around. It wasn’t particularly busy, but there were enough people around for it have a sense of energy. I particularly enjoyed listening to an elderly man who was playing a traditional stringed instrument. Then I roamed around the town for a bit and sat where I could admire the nicely lit Drum Tower. Finally, I returned to my hotel, sent some e-mails from its business center, claimed my luggage, and took a taxi to Yanzhou for my overnight train.

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    Just in passing, and for those who might follow, there is a station in Qufu (which has been there for several years now although some guide books seem not to have caught up), but it has fewer services than the station at Yanzhou. There is, however, the K52 to Beijing at 20.28, for instance, and the K1632 to Luoyang at 22.17, which might very well be the train that was boarded at Yanzhou a little later at 22.59 (?)

    Also just in case of interest, the Yansheng ('descendants of the sage') were very much more than simply local officials, being, at the height of their powers, very wealthy and owning vast amounts of land which funded temple and residence, as well as playing a major part in the education system, founded on knowledge of Confucian texts. As successive emperors heaped honours on them, the senior descendant in the male line reached only a step or two below the emperors, several of whom visited Qufu. The Duke himself was the only person other than the emperor allowed to ride a horse in the Forbidden City. The only recently deceased last Yansheng headed for Taiwan with the Nationalists, and his title was eventually abolished, but he spent some time in charge of the Education Yuan (ministry), and his grandson (his son predeceased him) still has a special title in Taiwan.

    The reason for the mass Chinese tourism in Qufu is World Heritage blight. Unfortunately the place was listed by UNESCO, which is, in the Chinese list-building way of thinking, to be at the very top of the very top list. Listing is requested in order to boost tourism (often multiplying volumes dozens of times) and there's been significant damage done as a result (notably to some ancient frescoes which someone decided to give a brush down in order to improve the place for tourism). Complete theme park status cannot be far away, but I'm glad the place was still found to be worth a visit. It remains, after all, the third most significant (lists again) complex of ancient buildings in China.

    Oh, and the Queli decided to charge me ten times the menu price for some dumplings the last time I was there. Worth avoiding.

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    PeterN_H — I had no idea I could catch a train to Luoyang from Qufu! Nor did my advance research identify a train leaving Yanzhou around 11 p.m. That train would have suited me really well. The one I took was scheduled to leave Yanzhou around 1 a.m. I wonder if it stopped in Qufu? . . . Thanks for clarifying the role of the Yansheng. I thought they were powerful, but wasn’t sure how much so. It’s interesting to know that the Duke had the right to ride a horse in the Forbidden City . . . I was glad that not all of the World Heritage sites I visited on this trip were as busy as Qufu. Tourism can be so destructive when not managed well.

    Colduphere — thanks again for your kind words!


    Installment 4:
    Luoyang

    I arrived in Yanzhou in plenty of time, but my train was delayed; it didn’t arrive until about 2:30 a.m. The “usual” chaos ensued — crowds massing by a locked gate in the departures hall, mad dash to the platform, and finally (in contrast to the mad dash) what seemed an incongruously long wait for the train to arrive. Upon finally boarding, I did my best to enter my compartment quietly, but I don't believe I succeeded. To their credit, none of my 3 compartment-mates provided any indication to the contrary. And I am very glad to report that I found my sleeper surprisingly comfortable - better than some of the hotel beds in which I slept!

    Friday 14 May — Luoyang

    My first task upon arriving was to buy a train ticket for the next leg of my journey (to Xi’an), which I did easily. Then I hailed a metered taxi to my targeted lodging, Christian’s Hotel. A young woman who spoke English very well showed me a beautifully appointed room, complete with a jacuzzi that was surrounded by slatted wood screens and potted plants and a few artfully arranged objects; the discounted price she offered was so low that I thought I had misheard her. I tried to bargain for a lower rate any way, but wasn't disappointed when she said no.

    I quickly showered and then went back to the hotel desk to get some information. My plan was to walk to a museum, take a quick walk through a nearby park, and then take a bus to the Longmen Grottoes, a set of caves with Buddhist carvings outside of town. I wanted to confirm that my map was correct and make sure I knew where to get the bus. The young lady and the other desk staff kept assuring me that they could take me to these places. I’m sure they could – for a price! But these are all places that I was sure could be easily reached by foot and/or public transportation, and I wasn’t willing to pay for what I could easily manage on my own. I refused as politely as I could.

    The nearby Luoyang Museum holds some fascinating relics and beautiful objects, and they are well displayed. After a very pleasant hour or so, I stepped outside, where I was surprised to find the young lady from my hotel, now out of uniform. She said she had been sent by her manager to make sure that I understood that their offer to escort me around Luoyang was free. Free? Yes, free. Really? Yes, really, free — it is a service that they provide to their guests. OMG!

    So we went to the nearby Wangcheng Park, which must be stunning in April when its myriad peonies are in bloom. After a brief visit, I said I was ready to go to the Longmen Grottoes. She called the hotel’s driver; soon, the car and driver appeared and off we went. Upon arriving at the grottoes, I bought my ticket while my companion hired an English-speaking guide for me — at the hotel’s expense. Oh my! I didn’t learn much that I hadn’t already known from my reading, but I enjoyed chatting with the guide, and she made sure I saw some things that I might not otherwise have noticed. The Longmen Grottoes are definitely impressive. The Buddhas range in size from minute to massive; they have different features, reflecting changes in ideals of beauty; some still show the colors in which they had been painted. One cave was covered with characters that are apparently medical prescriptions. Barriers had been erected to keep people out while two men made rubbings of them. It was fascinating to watch the characters emerge! When we reached the end of the main caves, the guide returned to the entrance. I decided to cross to the far side of the river that flows beside the caves, and am glad I got to see the grottoes and some of the larger statues from a more distant perspective while walking along a tree-lined lane.

    I was later in returning than I had promised my escort, but she and the driver were there and seemed unfazed by the delay. They took an indirect route back to the hotel so that they could show me Luoyang’s new museum and a few other things they thought might interest me. They also asked about my dinner plans, and when I told them that I wanted to sample the local cuisine — perhaps a few dishes of Luoyang’s “water banquet” — they suggested a restaurant right around the corner from the hotel and offered to accompany me there to help me order. I appreciated the offer, but begged off because I wanted to shower and change first.

    A little while later, when I was ready to go to the restaurant, I found that the hotel had called in another English-speaking staff member to escort me to the restaurant and help me order. I am not accustomed to such service! This woman helped me choose two delicious soups, one with pork and one with local vegetables.

    After dinner, I walked around a bit. This section of the city has some interesting tree-lined streets decorated with colored lights and a shopping mall, and there were quite a few people out. When I returned to my room, I found a basket of fresh fruit with a note in English saying that it was safe to eat. I took advantage of free internet access using the computer in the room and then, finally, luxuriated in the jacuzzi. Perfect!

    Saturday 15 May — Luoyang to Xi’an

    The hotel’s car was not available this day, but the staff again insisted on helping me. I wanted to go to Baima Si, so a bellboy took me by taxi, at the hotel’s expense, to the bus stop from which I could reach it. I didn’t have enough time to do justice to this large temple complex, but I was glad to see what I did see, including several gardens where many flowers were in bloom. There was also an exquisite display of porcelain, some with incredibly intricate details that could only be appreciated with the help of a magnifying glass. I know that because a curator showed me — and I’m so glad he did! All too soon, it was time to return to my hotel (my wonderful hotel!), pick up my suitcase, and head for the train station.

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    Installment 5:
    Xi’an

    Time to go to Xi'an! For this train, staff appeared to be ensuring that foreigners boarded before Chinese people. I admit that it made it easier for me, because I could get my suitcase on board and in place with relatively uncrowded aisles, but my hard-seat ticket was no different than any of theirs, so it made me feel a bit uncomfortable. BTW, my seat was not as hard as I feared, but was a bit more cramped than I would have preferred. Still, it was manageable, even for a rather long train ride.

    The train was quite full, and as the hours passed, I enjoyed observing the interactions among my neighbors - card games, conversations, shared snacks, naps on one another’s shoulders.... A charismatic vendor came through selling tiny LED flashlights; I couldn’t tell what he was saying, but he engendered a lot of laughter. I also enjoyed the scenery - sometimes flat and often cultivated, sometimes with hills or mountains to one side or the other, sometimes terraced with caves here and there.

    Finally arriving in Xi’an, I went straight to the ticket office to try to buy my ticket on to Pingyao. After a very long wait, I reached the window, handed the woman my written train information, and watched her quickly close the window. Another agent came, looked at my printout and also closed the window. Then someone else came and told me to go to window 20. I had no idea what the problem was, but I fought through the crowds, looked at the signs, and realized that window 20 was closed! Just then, a young English-speaking woman approached. She said she had witnessed what had happened, and perhaps she could help. We had a nice chat while we stood in another line and waited (and waited and waited). When we finally got to the window, I learned, with her help, that the train I had targeted actually left from the Xi’an South station, which I hadn’t even known existed and which was apparently some distance away. I pointed to my 2nd choice train, which left and arrived at similar times, and soon had a ticket in hand. I barely had time to thank this young woman — her train (I didn’t know she was waiting for one!) was to leave in minutes! I sincerely hope she caught it!

    It took patience and perseverance to find a taxi that would use a meter to take me to my target hotel, but I finally succeeded, and reached the Ibis Hotel, where I quickly determined that a suitable room was available at a very low price. I took advantage of the free internet in the lobby and then took care of some chores (like handwash). It was quite late when I finally went to bed.

    Sunday 16 May — 1st full day in Xi’an

    I didn’t wake up as early as I would have preferred, and even when I did, I was moving slowly. I must not have been thinking very clearly either, because the first place I went was the Small Goose Pagoda – a place I had specifically singled out for visiting late in the day because it would be open longer than most places. I had a much-needed cup of coffee at a place just beside the temple before entering.

    I had never seen an all brick pagoda, which made this one particularly interesting to me. I spent some time roaming the grounds and then some time admiring its museum, which holds some remarkable pieces. There were some youngsters practicing what looked like martial arts outside the museum, and when they saw that I was watching, they really hammed it up. I also stopped in the craft stores on the grounds. I didn’t purchase anything, but enjoyed looking — some of the goods seemed of very high quality.

    When I was ready to leave, I took a taxi to Daxingshan Si. This temple was under restoration, so only a few parts were open. It was fascinating, if disconcerting, to see the two side temples in which “hell” is depicted, for example, statues showing people enduring horrific torture at the hand of demons. I hadn’t seen anything like this in a Buddhist temple before.

    From there, I walked through drizzly rain to the Shaanxi History Museum. I had been prepared for a long line, and so was pleased to find that it wasn’t very long. Nonetheless, it took me almost 2 hours to reach the ticket booth, in part because everyone had to complete a form once they reached the counter and show proof of identity to obtain a ticket (which was free). I don’t know why people weren’t given the chance to complete the form before reaching the counter. This museum holds some exquisite and priceless pieces and they are well displayed with English signage. IMHO, well worth visiting, even if it does mean waiting for a long time.

    When it closed, I walked toward the Great Goose Pagoda, but even as I reached the public park to its west, I realized that I was unlikely to reach the ticket gate before it closed so I didn't go all the way to the gate. Instead, I walked around a bit, enjoying the modern sculptures that adorn the park and various vignettes of people visiting the area.

    My next stop was the Bell Tower Hotel. Once there, I obtained information about one of the very few tours I had planned to take while in China - a tour to sites west of Xi’an. From what I’d read, it would be far easier and less costly to see these particular sites with a tour than on my own. I didn’t find a tour that would be conducted in English, but I wasn’t worried about that – I had done some reading before the trip and had a Kindle with a couple of guidebooks that I could consult while on the bus. I booked a tour for the next day, and then walked around that area for a while before returning to my hotel to freshen up.

    Once I was ready, I had a pleasant 15 or 20 minute walk to the branch of Lao Sun Jia just outside Dong Men, which was decorated with strings of colored lights. I was seated by two ornately clad hostesses, who conferred with the wait staff before showing me to a table; after a while I was asked to change tables; then I was completely ignored for a long while (perhaps 20 minutes); and then I was told that I could order yangrou paomo but NOTHING else, not even a vegetable dish, because the kitchen was closing. That news did not sit well with me, given that I had been seated for so long, but what could I do? I ordered the yangrou paomo, which was what I had come there to try. I was soon given a bowl and some buns. Thanks to my guidebooks and previous posters on this board (and not to the wait staff), I knew what to do - I shredded the buns into the bowl. As I was doing so, a group of four people arrived; they were seated and ordered. And while I awaited my paomo, the table of four was served various appetizers. Then my paomo came, but without anything else - no herbs, no vegetables, noodles, nothing other than the broth, meat, and shredded bun. It was a nourishing, but very bland meal, made even more disappointing when I saw that various side dishes were served with the paomo delivered to the table that arrived after me. I felt “cheated” of the chance to taste something I’d been looking forward to trying. Very disappointing!

    Monday 17 May — 2nd full day in Xi’an

    I woke up early, as was necessary to join the “Western” tour that I had booked the evening before. En route, a thoroughly delightful woman who spoke English fluently introduced herself and offered to translate for me. How kind! I agreed, as long as it didn’t detract from her enjoyment of the day.

    Our first stop was a re-creation of a workers’ village from the Tang dynasty. According to our guide/my translator, the people who lived here would have been involving in building the Western imperial tombs. A series of cave dwellings and underground corridors led to an above-ground square and above-ground home; mannequins and other displays created vignettes to show how people lived, produced vinegar and other foods, and wove fabrics. It was very touristy, but interesting nonetheless.

    From there we went to the Tomb of Prince Zhang Huai, where we walked down a long mural-lined ramp to the burial chamber. The murals were stunning! If they are the originals, they were also appallingly poorly protected. We were given a brief amount of time to visit the small museum by this tomb before heading to lunch, which I skipped.

    Next, we went to Qian Ling, where Emperor Gao Zong and Empress Wu Zetian are buried. The tomb itself is not open, but the entryway is well worth seeing IMO. There were some impressive stellae, rows of headless statues, and a wonderful Spirit Way. Broad and long and edged by impressive pairs of guardian statues, it is quite grand in scale and easily absorbed the sounds of the many tour groups who were there at the time. The setting itself was also pleasant - rural and relatively flat except for the conical hills into which the tombs had been dug.

    We eventually climbed back onto the bus for the trip to Famen Si. This temple is - and has long been - a pilgrimage site because it is among China’s oldest Buddhist temples, and moreover, is believed to have a fragment of Buddha’s finger. The recipient of many subsequent gifts, it amassed a remarkable collection of fine objects before that collection was (as I understand it) buried and eventually given up for lost. It was re-discovered relatively recently, while the main pagoda was being rebuilt after an earthquake. The collection is small, but includes some exquisitely crafted reliquaries and other objects that were well displayed and well signed. The site has, however, been expanded recently to include a grand new entryway (it is, I suppose, possible that those were real lotus in the formal ponds); an avenue lined with enormous gold-painted Buddhas that is so long that just about everyone takes (and pays for) a sort of trolley rather than walking; and an oversized museum. I appreciated the symbolic architectural depiction of praying hands created by the new museum, but otherwise, this area struck me as too vast and too overdone.

    After our visit, we re-boarded our bus for the long (about 2.5 hour) ride back into Xi’an. My volunteer translator was a delightful companion for the day; I hope she knows how much I appreciated her kindness!

    Upon returning to Xi’an, I went straight to the Bell Tower. I took in the views, admired the interior beams, and thoroughly enjoyed a brief concert that began just as I was about to leave - it was musical and visually interesting as well.

    It was not far to the Muslim Quarter and Anjia Shaocai, a restaurant recommended by one of my guidebooks as a place where I could get good food and have a beer with it, even though it is a Muslim establishment. Good food - yes; beer - no. (BTW, I later saw a number of restaurants in the area where people were drinking beer.) I ordered lamb kebobs (very tasty and tender!) and a dish of local vegetables – bok choy and a type of mushroom with which I was not familiar in a sauce that was absolutely delicious. Perfect! (An aside - almost every time I ordered mushrooms in China, someone tried to confirm that I like mushrooms. Why was that???)

    After dinner, I explored the Muslim Quarter Night Market. What a great place! There were enticing aromas from every one of the many stalls and restaurants (thank goodness I ate before roaming!) and vendors selling all sorts of things and glimpses of people eating at outdoor tables or ordering at street-side grills or shopping or people-watching or otherwise taking advantage of what was a very pleasant evening. There was a delightful aura of hospitality and conviviality about the area.

    There is a Folk Museum within the market; it’s in a courtyard house and is open late. I began with a brief (perhaps 10- minute) shadow puppet show, for which there is a small additional fee and which they will present even if you are the only person there. I thoroughly enjoyed it! I have an interest in traditional performing arts and hoped to see a bit of this ancient variety “live” (having previously seen it only in movies). Loud and overdrawn and geared toward uneducated masses, it nonetheless requires skill. I was glad to catch a glimpse of this vanishing genre. Next, I participated in what was described as a “tea ceremony.” If it was, it was not what I expected (but my only comparison point was a Japanese tea ceremony). A charming woman served me four different teas, and it was interesting to compare and contrast the tastes and aromas. Not surprisingly, it ended with a suggestion that I might want to purchase some of the teas, but there was no pressure whatsoever. Then a voluble English-speaking guide took me through the rest of the building. It held some pleasant courtyards and various rooms furnished in ways designed to recreate the sense of what they would have been like in the house’s heyday.

    I strolled around the market a bit longer, admired the Drum Tower, and took a taxi back to my hotel.

    Tuesday 18 May — 3rd full day in Xi’an

    My priority for the day was to see the Terracotta Warriors. Just a few months before, I had seen a wonderful exhibit of some of these pieces, and I was really looking forward to seeing them in situ. I got there easily by bus, walked through the long stretch of tourist shops and restaurants, and finally reached the ticket gates.

    Once again, I found that nothing I had read or seen fully prepared me for actually seeing something - WOW!!! The scale of the pits, the imposing phalanxes of soldiers, that the uniqueness of each piece can be discerned even from a distance, the incredible challenges of the excavation and restoration. . . . I was enthralled! There were masses of tourists everywhere, but especially so in the museum. I focused on things I hadn’t previously seen, and was glad that I wasn’t trying to take it all in for the first time. It really is an extraordinary place. I spent much longer there than I had thought I would and enjoyed every moment.

    After taking the bus back to Xi’an, I walked around the area near my hotel for a while. I particularly liked a small park outside the gate at the south end of Heping Street, where a group of men had gathered under their birdcages. They (the men, not the birds) were talking or exercising or just sitting quietly in each other’s company. Very pleasant!

    I returned to my hotel and prepared for the Tang Dynasty Dinner Theater. That this dinner theater is clearly intended for tourists did not diminish my enjoyment at all. The “imperial banquet” included a number of dishes that varied in quality, but none were awful, some were quite good, and all were beautifully presented. I also appreciated getting to taste small portions of multiple dishes. (During my time in China, I almost always ordered only two dishes at any one meal. The food is so inexpensive that I could have ordered more, but I hate wasting things.) The show itself was enjoyable — gorgeous costumes and makeup, incredible staging and theatricality, a pleasing variety of performances, and some compelling musical pieces, including a memorable performance using a traditional instrument that the announcer said is rarely played today and that I had never seen or heard before. I’m glad I went.

    Wednesday 19 May — 4th full day in Xi’an, then overnight train

    After preparing for the day and leaving my suitcase at the desk, I walked to Ba Xian An, the Temple of the Eight Immortals. Just outside is a small flea/“antiquities” market where the majority of buyers seemed to be Chinese and where I was largely ignored — quite in contrast to the vast majority of market areas through which I walked on this trip, where it sometimes seemed that every vendor called out for my attention. Within the temple, I took particular note of several carvings and paintings and a small, pleasant garden to the rear.

    From there, I headed to the Great Mosque. A gate with impressive dougong, an interesting pagoda-like minaret, some wonderful old trees, and numerous pleasant corners are some of the things that made the Great Mosque well worth seeing IMO. As I had found at the Ox Street Mosque in Beijing, the feel was distinctly Chinese, but there were some elements that reveal Arabian influences. After a leisurely visit, I walked quickly through the surrounding market stalls, through the now day-lit Night Market area, along several busy streets, and through an area filled with shops and stands selling arts and crafts.

    My destination was the Beilin Museum / Forest of Stelae. This museum holds an extensive collection of stelae — a sort of library of stone books. Given that I can’t read Chinese script, I passed through much of it fairly quickly, stopping only to admire a few stelae with particularly lovely drawings or calligraphy and to appreciate the many Chinese who were there to see these priceless legacies of their history. The museum also has an impressive collection of statues and some lovely courtyards.

    From there, I walked to and around the Yongning Gate to begin my visit to the City Wall. As I was exploring the gate itself, with its impressive views, an English announcement indicated that there would soon be a free performance of military maneuvers and drums in the interior courtyard. I found a parapet and soon the performers arrived. The first drum beat set off every car alarm in the area (and there were quite a few!), and the “military maneuvers” were about as polished as an American high school marching band’s first few practices, but the drum performance was engaging. It was an unexpected and fun diversion!

    One of the “golf carts” that circles the wall was about to leave and had a spare seat - why not? I quickly bought a ticket and got on board. The ride took a bit more than an hour, counting stops to walk around at the main gates. I’m glad I spent the time here, but admit that I was not nearly as enthralled with my time atop the city wall as many posters on this board seem to have been. Maybe the difference is that I didn’t bike around it, as so many do.

    I descended and hailed a taxi for the Big Goose Pagoda / Dacien Si. Traffic seemed even worse than usual. Have I mentioned how incredibly busy Xi’an’s roadways are? Or how chaotic the traffic seems to someone who doesn’t know the local rules or norms? Or how frightening it can be to cross a street there? In any event, it took a while to get there. I paid the taxi driver, spotted the ticket window, and was literally less than 2 yards from it when the clerk shut the grille. I moved to the counter just in case, but she left without a second glance. I don’t know if she saw me, but even if she did, I can’t blame her — I wouldn’t be surprised if at least one tourist shows up every day just as she is about to leave, pleading to be allowed in.

    I took a few moments to admire the gate of the temple and then walked around the promenade and park-like area to the south and west of the temple. With occasional glimpses of the Big Goose Pagoda, scattered clusters of modern sculpture (some quite humorous), and lots of people strolling around, it was quite pleasant. To the north is a vast fountain with a series of pools descending a gentle slope. I spent a few moments admiring the scene from the top. My goal was to see a water show here a little later in the evening, so I began to explore the area to find a suitable dinner. I selected a dumpling restaurant, where my shrimp with bamboo shoots in a nearly translucent dumpling were so delicious that I ordered a 2nd batch rather than a different type.

    Wanting to be sure to get a good viewing spot, I soon walked across the plaza in anticipation of the Fountain and Light Show and got a seat on the edge of the fountain. What a fun show! With a mix of western and eastern music and a delightful variety of nicely lit and playfully choreographed fountains, this event was well-attended by an audience of all ages. One of the best things about the show was watching the many children who were there, wide-eyed and laughing and thoroughly enjoying themselves (as was I). It lasted about 20 minutes, as I recall. Saying my farewells to Xi'an, I took a taxi back to my hotel, retrieved my suitcase, found another taxi (with some difficulty), and reached the train station in plenty of time for my overnight train to Pingyao.

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    Biking the city wall was a highlight of our trip. The ancient bikes, the solitude (for once in China), the views. Oh well. The food in the Muslim Quarter looked good to us as well. But we were too nervous to eat much street food unfortunately.

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    colduphere, I too am nervous about street food, but the place I went to in the Muslim quarter was a full scale restaurant -- three floors in fact -- inside.
    Not much nervousness there.

    kja, I know what you mean about ordering two dishes, but not wanting to waste much. Of all the things I'm finding on this trip that I miss the most by traveling alone (other than missing my life partner sometimes more than I can stand) is that Chinese food is meant to be shared -- and it's difficult ordering for just one. A few times, someone has been surprised that I was only ordering one dish when I really wasn't very hungry and invariably they will say, "That one very small" encouraging me to order a second dish which I do, then both come out looking like they could satisfy a crowd.

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    I didn't worry too much about street food in China - it was always cooked in front of me in very hot oil. But I definitely avoided it in India!

    Do agree about the problems of eating solo in China . Sometimes I'll just decide that I want to try multiple dishes regardless, but I do feel bad about wasting food.

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    It's got to the point in larger cities on the tourist conga line that it has to be assumed that anyone one who approaches you with good English and offering to be helpful is going to be practising the language student scam, the tea ceremony scam, or the art exhibition scam, and there has to be a general warning to treat friendly English-speaking people with caution.

    So it is pleasant to see repeated accounts that off the tourist conga line (which can include, for instance, just turning off main streets even in Beijing or taking Chinese rather than foreigner-targeting one-day tours), and even sometimes on it, helpfulness not in any way connected to your wallet can be found. The experience of travelling even slightly off the usual routes discussed here can be profoundly different, and small-town and rural China, where foreigners are rarely seen, can be a very welcoming and friendly environment, whether or not there's a word of language in common.

    Peter N-H

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    Kja, thanks so much for a beautifully written and detailed account of a fascinating trip! I'm not sure if you ever visit the Travel Tips section of the forums (not many people do!) but there's an ongoing list of solo travel reports there and I'd love to see this added on. If you care to, here's the link: http://www.fodors.com/community/travel-tips-trip-ideas/goin-solonothing-like-it-a-trip-report-collection.cfm

    I think it's become kind of a mission with me to make sure people know how rewarding it can be to travel alone and independently!

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    Colduphere – I’m glad you enjoyed biking Xi’an’s city wall, and I can certainly understand that some solitude can be quite precious after a while in China! And there were some great views from up there.

    NeoPatrick – I hope you did find some good meals on your journey. I remember that you recommended the Grotta Palazzese to me (I’m so glad you did!), so I know you know a good restaurant when you see it! And I hope you are finding ways to make your journey a testament to the memory of your life partner, but I’m sure there have been some very difficult moments.

    Thursdaysd – I had to laugh when I read your comment about eating solo in China – you actually responded to a pre-trip question I had about that, and gave me confidence that it would be entirely manageable! (As it was.)

    PeterN_H – I found so many instances of “helpfulness not in any way connected to my wallet” that the kindness of the Chinese people I encountered is among my most enduring memories of this trip. There are a few priceless examples in today’s installment on Pingyao. My sense was that people were both intrigued and pleased that a solo Western woman would make the effort to visit the places where they live or that they treasure, especially if many tourists skip those places, and that they sincerely wanted me to enjoy my journey and have a good experience in their country. Many, many people helped make that happen!

    Amy – Thanks for letting me now about that thread on solo travel, and thanks for your praise! I’ve added a link to this report on that thread. I know it isn’t for everyone, but I find it amazingly rewarding to be able to travel alone and independently!


    Installment 6:
    Pingyao

    The Xi’an train station had a separate lounge for those with soft-sleeper tickets, and that - in combination with early access to the platform - made boarding easier than it was for the other trains I took. I was soon on board my overnight train for Pingyao, ready for bed, and asleep in my comfortable lower bunk.

    Once in Pingyao, I hired a pedicab to take me to my target lodging, Yide, a small courtyard house where - to my delight - a room was, in fact, available. But it wouldn’t be ready for me to see for another hour or so. The Yide’s pleasant dining area serves excellent coffee, so I enjoyed a cup or two while reviewing my notes and examining the map I had been given at the desk. It wasn’t long before the room was ready - what a lovely place! The sturdy wooden “period pieces” with which my small (but adequately proportioned) room was furnished showed some signs of wear and tear, but gave the room an appreciated air of authenticity. The Yide’s two simply adorned courtyards also held tremendous appeal. I was offered a discounted price and managed to bargain that down a bit. I was very well satisfied with the hotel, my room, and the cost. I showered and changed clothes and was soon ready to explore the city.

    The main streets through the district with most of Pingyao’s museums are clearly geared to tourists, with lots of souvenir shops and restaurants. Notwithstanding, it is an interesting area, and I thoroughly enjoyed walking through it.

    Many of the museums are small and share features common to the style of the courtyard houses of Pingyao’s Ming and Qing era development: An entry way; a small courtyard that is longer than it is wide between symmetrical one-story buildings; a “focal” point in the courtyard, often a stone basin that was probably originally intended to hold water to fight fire, but might now hold plants or whatever; a two-story building to the back, often with a balcony, facing the entrance; and decorative details in paint, stone, or wood. I found it interesting to see the how similar the various buildings I visited were, and it was fun to identify their unique features. The main thing that sets these small museums apart is their history and focus: I visited the Ri Sheng Chang (a former bank); Hui Wu Lin (a martial arts training hail); a museum that was, apparently, once home to the first armed escort agency in northern China; and a newspaper museum. I also visited one residential museum - the former residence of Lei Lutai. Each held a few interesting displays.

    The City Tower offered a wonderful vantage point - from here, it is easy to see that the broad, tiled roofs of this city, with their gracefully uplifted and edges, define a rectangular grid, with some streets (like the one straddled by the City Tower) being much broader than others.

    The Yamen, a former seat of government, is a fairly extensive complex including governmental and residential buildings. The prison was interesting, and I enjoyed a pair of gardens, one larger and more formal near the governmental buildings and one smaller and more intimate in the residential complex.

    I also took some time to step away from the most touristed areas. I walked long, dusty, narrow alleys lined by tile-tipped walls of a uniformly drab color that were only rarely broken by a tiled awning over a locked wooden door. They seemed relatively untouched and were oddly fascinating.

    The Confucian Temple and Daoist temple complex each held some impressive and interesting elements, and the differences between them were intriguing. Between these two temple complexes, I saw my first Nine Dragon Screen - not the largest or most colorful or best preserved one that I saw, but wonderful nonetheless, and a perfect one to see first.

    I then walked part of the City Wall. I went 3/4 of the way around, starting at the south gate and ending at the west gate, stopping for lots of pictures. I thought the most interesting area was the southeast corner, so just doing that 1/4 of the walk might be a reasonable option. When I descended from the wall, I came upon a wonderful market - people had placed their produce in artfully arranged displays on white cloths in the center of a then closed-to-traffic street and some vendors were preparing and selling food. People seemed to be having fun as they visited with one another and haggled over prices.

    At that point, I returned to my room to shower and freshen before dinner. After a few relaxing moments in “my” courtyard, I decided to try the Yide’s restaurant, one of the few places I ate a meal that was not overly bright. I ordered local braised beef (cooked with green peppers) and buckwheat noodles served with both tomato and vinegar sauces. Absolutely, thoroughly delicious!

    Friday 21 May - Pingyao to Taiyuan

    I slept VERY well - the traditional bed (kang) at the Yide was surprisingly comfortable! My plan for the day was to see the Wang Family Courtyard outside of Pingyao (I believe it’s in Jingsheng) and then travel on to Taiyuan. I readied for the day, checked out, and was taken to the bus station by a hotel employee, who also helped me buy my ticket to the Wang Family Courtyard and pointed me to the correct bus.

    I was a bit surprised to find the bus nearly full – there was just one seat left. The people who were already on the bus were also surprised. We quickly established that I don’t speak Chinese. After much discussion among them, one gentleman stood, and explained – in English - that they were all together, and that they were concerned that I was on the wrong bus. He asked where I was going, I told him, and then he had a long discussion with the bus driver and ticket person. (All of the intercity buses I was on had a person who handled tickets in addition to a driver.) He then told me that the bus would, in fact, stop at the Wang Family Courtyard. Having established that, they insisted that I take the best seat on the bus – the front right seat. They were NOT going to take NO for an answer! The woman who had been in the first seat moved back one seat, the woman who had been in that seat moved, causing another move, etc. It was sort of like musical chairs as everyone rearranged themselves. It was very kind of them, and quite unnecessary. Then, when the bus pulled out about 15 minutes before it was scheduled to leave, I thought – oh my, I guess I am on the wrong bus! But they had assured me it would go where I wanted to go, so I settled in for an adventure.

    After a while, we did in fact reach the town that holds the Wang Family Courtyard. Several people got off the bus to make sure I knew where it was. They also took great pains to make sure I knew that if I wanted to take that bus back to Pingyao, I would need to be at that exact corner at 12:30. Then they all waved as I walked away, and stayed there until we could no longer see each other. I felt like I'd been adopted! and by such kind people!

    The Wang Family Courtyard is amazing, and amazingly extensive! Spreading upward along a hillside, there were a few “common” areas - including a lovely garden area - among the many concatenated courtyards. The courtyards were of a similar design and would have afforded their occupants with intimate settings (but not necessarily private ones - that would presumably have depended on how many residents occupied each courtyard). I think some of the oldest parts began as cave dwellings — the English signage referred to them as caves and the ceilings looked like they could have been carved out of the hillside. I spent several pleasant hours roaming around, noticing artful architectural details here and there and appreciating broader perspectives from vantage points on the surrounding walls.

    By chance, the timing of my visit worked well if I was to catch that bus back to Pingyao, so I returned to the corner, reaching it by 12:15. I was quite an object of curiosity: several people stared at me, generally (but not always) from a bit of a distance and a few people tried to speak to me. One very young girl ran over to me and said, very clearly, “Hello. What is your name?” When I answered, her jaw dropped, her eyes became enormous, her eyebrows shot up, and she stared, agape, for a moment before running away. Five minutes later, she did it again, and then she did it a third time a little while after that. So cute! No one else who approached me spoke any English.

    Although I had been told to be at that corner by 12:30, I wasn’t sure what time the bus was really supposed to be there. I figured I would wait until 12:45 or 1:00 and then, if the bus hadn’t come, I would return a different way (by taking a minibus to the town of Jiexiu and then a bus to Pingyao). More and more people gathered in the area as I waited and then they began to express concern that I must be lost. I tried to assure them that I was not, that I was waiting for a bus. More and more people came to see what was going on. Eventually, a teenage boy who spoke a little English was brought to me and everyone gathered closely around to hear what we said. By the time I explained, there must have been two dozen people pressed around me. I was ready to find the minibus, and so the young boy and another English-speaker who joined us around that time led me to the place where the minibuses stop, with the entire crowd of people walking behind us and others joining in to find out what was happening. I felt like a Pied Piper, with all these people trailing behind me! Then they wouldn’t let me on a minibus until they were sure there were others who were also going to Pingyao, and they ensured that those people (a group of three young ladies) would make sure I got to Pingyao safely. Then the dozens of people who had become involved in this effort to help me stood and waved as the minibus pulled out. That so many people came to my aid (no matter how unnecessarily) with such kindness and concern and helpful intent is one of my most treasured memories from this incredibly memorable trip. Wow!

    The young ladies escorted me safely to Pingyao, where I retrieved my suitcase and took the next train to Taiyuan.

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    Installment 7:
    Taiyuan

    My target hotel was the decidedly tired - but clean, serviceable, and extremely affordable - east building of the Yingze Binguan. The staff of the east building spoke little English, but the staff of the west building spoke English very well, and they were available to me even though I was staying in the other building.

    I showered and stopped at the east wing’s desk to confirm the directions to a nearby restaurant, Taiyuan Mianshiguan. A young woman insisted on walking me there! It was very close (and BTW, it is just north of Yingze Da Jie, not just south as indicated in one of my guidebooks). I thoroughly enjoyed my mao erduo (pasta shaped like tiny cats’ ears in a meat sauce). The pasta was cooked a bit more than I had expected, but was nonetheless very tasty. I also had a local vegetable dish, which featured spring onions and was wonderful. This place is not for those seeking haute cuisine or 1st class service, but if you want to sample extremely affordable local specialties in a friendly, unpretentious setting, it is worth considering IMO.

    After dinner, I spent several hours arranging to hire a taxi to Wutai Shan. I hoped to visit two temples - Nanchan Si and Foguang Si – that are located between Taiyuan and Wutai Shan, and from what I’d been able to learn ahead of time, a taxi is about the only way to see them. First, I went to the west building of my hotel, where I asked an English-speaking receptionist to write out my requirements for a taxi for the day after the next. And then I flagged down taxi drivers to see if they were interested and if so, attempt to negotiate a price. The process proved quite a challenge for me, and I didn’t bargain very successfully. The cost was higher than I had hoped, but I really wanted to see these sites (which I believe are two of China’s oldest wooden temples), and at some point I had to decide whether to give up entirely or accept a higher price than I preferred. I decided to view this ride as a splurge. After nearly 3 hours, I found a driver who was willing to take me for a price I was willing to pay. The driver came into the hotel with me to finalize the agreement: I would pay my admission fee to the Wutai Shan, he would pay his, and he would also pay for any tolls, gas, etc. I had him write his name, taxi number, and phone number and, with the help of the English-speaking receptionist, confirmed all the particulars. With that, I went to my room and soon fell asleep.

    Saturday 22 May -Talyuan

    After a quick breakfast, I left my hotel in search of an ATM, and en route came across a flea market. It was packed, but if there was another westerner there, I didn’t see him/her. And quite in contrast to a most other markets I visited (excepting the flea market outside Ba Xian An in Xi’an), I was basically ignored - which was fine with me!

    After a quick walk through the market, I found the ATM and took a taxi to the Shanxi Museum. I thought the collection here was remarkable. It was also very well displayed and, with the exception of the top floor (which held calligraphy and painting), there was good English signage. If there were any tour groups there that day, I don’t remember seeing them; instead, the other visitors were, I believe, Chinese people visiting on their own. There were no crowds, but there were young people sketching and people of all ages taking their time to appreciate what they were seeing. And if anyone was more curious about a solo western woman than the exhibits themselves, I never noticed. It was very pleasant!

    The museum has a café that serves very good coffee. Bonus! While I was sipping it, I consulted my map to determine what bus to take to Jin Ci and, with the help of my pocket dictionary, confirmed the bus number and the location of a stop with the young man who was working at the café.

    I soon set off and was walking down the road outside the museum when the young man from the café caught up with me: He had realized that there was another bus I could take, and wanted to let me know. Yet another example of the kindness of those I encountered!

    I soon found a bus to Jin Ci. This temple was one of the most beautiful ones I saw on this trip! It had a delightful combination of lovely grounds (including a gorgeous plot of iris in full bloom and a charming man-made canal), a stunning temple (Oh! the dragon-wrapped columns!), and various other interesting buildings and nooks and crannies in its shady lower spaces or on the steep slopes to the far side. I could imagine enjoying a much longer stay than the 2 hours I had before closing.

    I took a bus back to my hotel and freshened up before returning to Taiyuan Mianshiguan - the restaurant I had patronized the night before. This time, I ordered guoyou rou (pork “passed through oil”), liangfen (a large, cold, potato- flour noodle over vegetables), and a local vegetable dish (cucumber in vinegar and fresh ginger). The pork dish was quite good; I believe it had been very lightly breaded before being quickly fried with a few vegetables (a deep red leaf and some young green shoots). The liangfen was incredibly refreshing - I think it would be perfect on a hot night, although it didn’t mesh particularly well with the pork. The proprietress was intrigued by my listing of Taiyuan specialties; she borrowed it and carefully copied it by hand so that she would have it for future English-speaking guests.

    A little later, as I was trying to fall asleep, I heard fireworks - something that happened several times during my trip, but only during the day. (That is, I had heard fireworks only during the day. I didn’t try to sleep during the day!) I quickly found that I could see them from my window, and although they didn’t last long they were enjoyable.


    Installment 8:
    Ride to Wutai Shan

    Sunday 23 May -Taiyuan to Wutai Shan

    Hoping that my taxi would be at the hotel as agreed at 8 a.m., I went to the lobby to check out a few minutes before then. I was delighted to see my driver, although I wondered why another man was also there. We soon set off, and after a few blocks, the driver with whom I had contracted exited, letting me know that the other man would my driver. (OMG, I had been subcontracted out! Did I need any further proof that I had agreed to too high a price?)

    Using the document that I had used to hire the driver to begin with, I confirmed that my new driver knew what I expected. He didn’t speak English, but I had just enough Mandarin to ask whether he understood and whether he knew where Nanchan Si and Foguang Si were; he said he did. Off we went!

    From what I had read, both temples are closer to Wutai Shan than to Taiyuan (if a bit off the direct route), but I wasn’t sure how long the trip would take. Estimates for the bus ride from Taiyuan to Wutai Shan in my guidebooks ranged from 4 to 5.5 hours; adding in delays due to construction (especially around Taiyuan), I figured I was in for a long ride. I found the scenery interesting, whether cultivated land or the shop-lined streets of towns or glimpses of distant mountains or switchbacks with breathtaking drops and vistas. Some areas were quite beautiful, and the weather was perfect. I was intrigued to see that the roads were almost all lined by lime-treated trees, including (after several hours) long stretches of lilacs in bloom. Wonderful!

    Although I didn’t know how long it would take to reach Nanchan Si, when we reached the entrance to the park that encompasses Wutai Shan, I was quite certain that we had gone too far – way, WAY too far! (My guidebooks offer discrepant information about the distance, with estimates ranging from about 45 to 110 miles.) But nothing that I said or did convinced my driver to even ask anyone - he just kept saying he knew where they were. Because there are several entrances to the Wutai Shan area, I wondered whether the construction we had faced earlier had forced him to take a different route - maybe he did know.

    Adding to my frustration, the driver insisted that I buy his ticket for admission into the park. I pointed to the written agreement I had with the original driver, which specified that the driver would pay for his admission; he showed me what I assume I was supposed to believe was all the money he had with him (which was not enough for the admission ticket). I paid for his ticket - but also made sure he watched as I recorded the payment as a deduction to the price for which I had contracted. I also showed the written instructions for my taxi to the ticket seller, and I tried to ask for directions. He and my driver had a long discussion; again, my driver indicated that he understood.

    We finally reached Taihuai - the town in the heart of Wutai Shan - and my driver finally began to ask people for directions. He obviously didn’t believe the first few people he asked. To my great relief, he finally stopped at a hotel where there was, quite fortuitously, an English-speaking receptionist. It took several people and a very long discussion to convince him that the temples I wanted to see were outside the park. At long last, the English-speaking receptionist assured me that he now understood. Given the distances involved and the now relative lateness of the day, we agreed that we should go to Foguang Si (about 20 or 25 miles from Taihuai) first. It was not at all clear that we could reach Nanchan Si before it would close, and if we went there first, we would almost certainly be too late for Foguang Si. I asked the receptionist to confirm that he now knew where they were and how to get there. She asked, he answered, she told me “yes.”

    If only that had been true!

    We left the park (thankfully, he stopped to ensure that we could re-enter without paying again), descended the switchbacks into the surrounding flatlands, and then he stopped at just about every intersection to ask people - but it was still miles and miles away! Finally, someone convinced him that it was not nearby. He looked very surprised, questioned the speaker, and then slammed his hand on the hood of the car. He got back in and off we went.

    I tried to relax, reminding myself that the situation was out of my control and I could choose to make the best of it or not. And in fact, it was an interesting journey. As we descended Wutai Shan, I saw a sandstorm crossing the plane below - a huge, angry-looking column of wind-whipped sand that caught us while we were in a town, and that was gone 5 or so minutes later. Fascinating!

    Eventually, we reached Foguang Si. The courtyard was filled with lilacs in full bloom, scenting every corner of the grounds wonderfully. I admired the murals and statues in a hall to the side of the first courtyard and then climbed to the Eastern Great Hall - only to find that it was locked. Sigh. But at least I could admire the building itself, which was part of what I had hoped to do. It is quite large and has some unusual and very interesting and impressive brackets. Then someone came to open it for me - and I am SO glad he did! The interior also holds interesting architectural features, as well as some lovely statues and murals.

    There was an English-speaking ticket-taker at the temple, and I asked if she knew how to get to Nanchan Si. She said she did, so I asked her to talk to my driver, which she did, but without apparent effect. My driver once again began driving very slowly, looking at every sign, and stopping at every intersection to ask people for directions. I repeatedly tried to tell him what I knew (we had miles and miles to go), but my attempts, whether spoken or presented visually with the help of my dictionary, met with utter failure. After the 4th or 5th stop to ask for directions, my driver re-entered the car, smacked the steering wheel, and said something that I think I’m glad I didn’t understand. He began driving at a speed that was appropriate to the posted limit.

    At long last we reached Nanchan Si. As I had feared, it was closed by then. But luck was with me - someone (the groundskeeper or gatekeeper?) saw us and let us in! It was small, simple, and exquisitely proportioned - what a gem! My driver remarked that it was very small and seemed truly puzzled that I would have wanted so much to see it and was so enamored with it. He spoke with the gentleman who had let us in for a while, and apparently learned that it was very old. He still did not seem impressed.

    Very glad that I had gotten to see both of these temples, it was time for the long drive back to Wutai Shan. I relaxed and enjoyed seeing the scenery again, this time with different lighting. I must admit that I began to become concerned about my driver - he had to have been tired after driving all day, and the switchbacks on the way into Wutai Shan required alertness. But he was a good, cautious driver, and we reached Taihuai without trouble.

    My target lodging was the Yunfeng Hotel. I must admit that I thought it seriously overpriced for what I got, and I briefly considered going somewhere else (why hadn’t I gotten the name of the place with the English-speaking receptionist who had helped us earlier that day?), but I was just too tired to bother, and I really didn’t want to ask the driver to take me some place else! It met my needs, if not my preferences.

    Once I decided to stay, I paid the driver. He protested vociferously, objecting because I had deducted the price of his admission to the park and because he had driven so much further than he planned. It was a bit awkward, particularly because he was ranting in Mandarin. But I kept pointing to the written agreement and stood firm. Once it was clear that I was not going to budge, he smiled, said he was going to stay in Taihuai that night (thank goodness!), and asked if I wanted to hire him for the next day. My answer was no, but I had to laugh at the way he switched from fierce “anger” to accommodating pleasantness. A useful lesson for someone with little experience in bargaining!

    BTW, the receptionist told me that the driver was convinced that I could speak and understand Mandarin, even though I kept saying that I didn’t understand. His reasoning was apparently that the few things I could say, I said extremely well. While I was pleased that I could say a few things successfully, it was disconcerting to find that it threw him off.


    Installment 9:
    Wutai Shan

    After that long and sometimes stressful taxi ride, I relaxed in my room for a while before heading out for dinner. I ended up at one of the nearby hotels that served taimo dunjikuai (local mushrooms stewed with chicken), one of the dishes on my list of local specialties. I can see why my guidebooks praised the mushrooms - very tasty!

    Monday 24 May — Wutai Shan

    My hotel was about 2 miles south of the heart of Taihuai, right by a stop where one can catch a free bus. The first thing I did was to go to the CITS office, where I confirmed that the only way to get to the Hanging Temple on my way to Datong would be to hire a taxi. (Although the bus passes the Hanging Temple, there probably wouldn’t be a place for me to leave my suitcase and it might have proven difficult for me to get another bus to take me on to Datong.) I tried to negotiate a price with a few taxi drivers, but none of them were willing to consider the amount I was willing to pay. I soon concluded that I didn’t have the energy to continue trying, and even if I did, I wasn’t likely to save enough time to make it worth the cost. So, I made sure I knew when and where to catch the bus the next morning and began exploring Wutai Shan.

    I visited Tayuan Si, where I was entertained by a group of youngsters who made sure they spun every one of the revolving sutras that surround the pagoda and where I also admired several impressive interiors; Xiantong Si, where I strolled through some lovely courtyards and admired a sundial before climbing to the unique Bronze Hall; and Luohou Si, where I found lots of interesting angles from which to take pictures and glimpsed the Buddha positioned within the petals of a large lotus blossom of painted wood. There were a number of tourists around, but not too many; most were Chinese, although I did see a few other Westerners. There were quite a few visiting monks, wearing quite an array of colors – gold, red, grey, black, brown. . . .

    It was a beautiful day, so I crossed a small stream to reach the chair lift to Dailou Terrace. Partway up, I heard a bird call, and as the sound faded away, I thought - OMG, it’s quiet! It may well be that I experienced other quiet moments in China, but not many! Just about everywhere I went, at just about any time of day, I could hear construction work or traffic or music or people or whatever. Even here, there were some sounds from the cable machinery, but it was a very welcome respite from the constant noise. The sounds began again at the top, where other visitors spoke to each other and vendors called out to them.

    The terrace affords some wonderful views of Taihuai and the peaks surrounding it, and the air felt much cleaner than anywhere else I visited in China. In contrast to the stream of tourists on the terrace, the temple behind the terrace was very peaceful. While I was at that temple, I saw a number of monks, but only one other tourist - a young Chinese woman who spoke English. She was fascinated that I had chosen to travel to Wutai Shan by myself. I asked where she was from - Yunnan. We shared a laugh when I pointed out that she was also traveling by herself a long way from home!

    After a while, I took the chair lift back to Taihuai. There, I walked around the small area with shops and restaurants, spent a few pleasant moments by the Wanfo Pavillion and its pond, found a free internet connection at one of the hotels south of town, and spent some pleasant moments by a road-side stream.

    After freshening up for dinner, I took the bus back to the heart of town to find a restaurant that one of my guidebooks recommended for its local dishes, Furen Ju Jiulou. If it still exists, I couldn’t find it, so I decided to splurge a bit on dinner by going to the Yinhai Shanzhuang Canting. This restaurant is in a hotel near where I was staying, so I went to the nearest bus stop. No bus. Apparently, they stop running after a certain time. The only taxi driver I saw wanted much more than I thought the trip worth, so I opted instead to enjoy a long walk in the comfortable coolness of early evening.

    Once at the restaurant, I ordered what I believed to be pheasant stew and a dish of wild greens. What I got was a cup of pheasant soup and a small plate of chopped herbs with vinegar. By the time I realized I hadn’t ordered a “real” meal, it was too late to order something more substantial. Oops! At least both dishes were delicious.

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    I'm really enjoying this! Not only is it well written, I'm so impressed with your trip (and that you can manage any Mandarin at all - I simply can't distinguish the tones). Plus we have more ammunition for the "can you do it yourself" argument.

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    I can confirm that these two temples can be visited by minibus, hopping off at (well-marked when I did this) turnings, and taking one of the waiting taxis to get to each temple. Moving on involves simply waiting at the roadside and flagging down buses that pass. It requires having only a small amount of luggage, however, if you're doing this en route between the two (as I also did).

    The communication problems here probably stem from the fact that while Wutai Shan is a massive tourist destination, almost no one goes to the two temples mentioned. Few people (as discussed earlier) pay much attention to anything not in their immediate orbit or related to daily needs, so few have heard of them. Furthermore some care is needed when asking third parties to write down the characters since everyone who thinks they know what you want will mistake famous Nanshan Si at Wutai Shan for less-famous Nanchan Si well before it.

    There will be a tendency to presume that you aren't saying it properly before it will be considered that you might be talking about somewhere else. It's a consequence of the innumerable homophones in Mandarin that it is difficult to say anything surprising in it. The subject under discussion must be clearly established, and then you go on to say something about it. Non sequiturs are also a problem, particularly for foreigners, and in general when what is heard isn't what's expected, the assumption will be the problem lies with you and the native speakers know best.

    I'm glad you at least got to these two, though, since very few people get to see original Tang temple buildings, and the solidity of the single and very chunky bracket sets, mostly only at the top of columns and not in between, the low pitch of the roofs and the 'owl's tails' do tend to make you think that it has been all downhill with Chinese architecture since, especially since in both cases single Tang halls stand next to those of later date. Amongst Chinese architects and architectural historians the two halls are famous since they were described, drawn, and catalogued by their doyen, Liang Sicheng, the man who advised Mao to preserve the heart and city walls of ancient Beijing, and was ignored. There's more of similar antiquity in Datong (Shanxi is well stocked with truly ancient buildings, probably because, except during its brief heyday as a grain and banking centre, and certainly in modern times, it has been too wretchedly poor for politically-motivated campaigns of destruction to get going.) I hope we're going to discover you saw that, too.

    Peter N-H

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    Thursdaysd – Once again, thanks so much for your kind words! I fear that I’ve been (and will continue to be) far too long-winded, so I appreciate hearing that you are enjoying my report. And let me be clear – I managed to learn very little Mandarin, really just the pleasantries and some basic words and phrases. A friend had lent me her Pimsleur CDs and several friends who have lived in China were kind enough to help me with some words. The biggest benefit was probably not any actual ability to communicate, but rather my hope that people would know that I had at least made an effort to try to do so.

    PeterN_H – Your proposed explanation for the communication difficulties makes a lot of sense. I had been worried that people would confuse Nanchan Si with Nanshan Si, and had been careful to ensure that the characters on the written agreement with the taxi driver were correct, but the driver (and others) could easily have assumed that the characters were incorrect, particularly since the driver was obviously not familiar with Nanchan Si. But despite the problems, I DID get to see those two wonderful temples and I had quite an adventure in doing so! As you suspected, I saw some other magnificent and ancient structures in and around Datong, and had wondered how so many had escaped destruction in this part of the country – thanks for the explanation!

    Krgystn – I’m glad you’re enjoying my report! If you choose to go to China, I think you will come away with many wonderful memories.


    Installment 10:
    Datong

    Tuesday 25 May - Wutai Shan to Datong

    I caught an early morning bus to Datong, and again found the scenery intriguing as we traveled through mountains and then onto a broad plain.

    On the way, I decided to try a different hotel than I had originally planned so that I would be closer to the heart of the city. I arrived, found a metered taxi, and showed him the name for my newly selected hotel - the Yuzeyuan. But when the driver stopped, we were in front of the Yungang International Hotel. Its name had been just below the one I had selected on the list I had shown the driver, so I could understand the error. It was actually my new 2nd choice hotel, but it looked pricey, so I still wanted to go to the Yuzeyuan. A staff member helped identify the address and gave my driver directions; it was only a few blocks away, but many roads were closed due to construction. We finally reached the Yuzeyuan’s address, only to find that it was gone. Everything on the street for several blocks was in piles of rubble! With many sincere apologies, I asked my driver to return to the Yungang International Hotel. It was much less expensive than it looks: With a discount, it was one of the least expensive hotels I stayed in over the course of my trip, and it was also one of the most accommodating. And it was extremely well located.

    My aim for the afternoon was to visit the Yungang Grottoes. When I checked with the hotel staff, they told me that the normal bus had been cancelled due to road construction. I decided to check with the CITS office to see if they were going there that afternoon, but it was closed when I reached it. So I once again decided to try to hire a taxi. This time, I managed to get a bidding war going, and was reasonably satisfied with the final agreement.

    The Yungang Grottoes were incredible! I had been impressed with the Longmen Grottoes; IMHO these were even more amazing! Caves 4 and 5 are the crown jewels here, and I was glad that I visited them last (as recommended in some guidebooks). It really is an astounding place.

    Upon returning to Datong, I went straight to the CITS office to see if I could join a tour of the Wooden Pagoda (Muta) and Hanging Temple the next day. I got there only minutes before it closed, and Mr. Gao informed me that no one else had signed up for that tour. He suggested that I could hire a car, but the price was fairly high. I didn’t want to do that because I knew I could get to them by public transportation; I just didn’t know if I could get to both in the same day. He agreed to call me in the morning if anyone else signed up, but since he was about to close, I wasn’t optimistic.

    While I considered my options, I went to the Nine Dragon Screen. Set in a protected courtyard that provided a bit of a respite from the chaos of the surrounding streets, it is impressive. I believe it is the longest such screen in China. I enjoyed sitting on a tree-shaded bench as a few people (not too many!) came in to admire it.

    I then walked around town for a while. The Drum Tower is at an intersection where uniformed officers stand on step-stools to direct traffic - something I’d seen in many pictures of China from years ago, but which I saw no where else on my trip - fascinating! The area was very dusty and dirty because a major street and the extensive Huayuan Temple were under reconstruction. And Datong is the most polluted city I visited; I can’t imagine living there.

    By the time I returned to my hotel, I was tired and dirty and desperately in need of a shower. I stopped at the desk first to ask them to confirm that my target restaurant was open late. It was! So, after a long, welcome shower, I hailed a metered taxi to take me to Laozi Hao Hotpot. My driver called them for directions, and when we got to the right area, which was a street with a lot of restaurants, he called them again. After a while, he pointed to a place and I started to get out, but then he said no; I got back in. He drove up and down the street, pointed to another place and I started to get out, but again, he stopped me. He called the restaurant again, drove a bit further, pointed to a place, and this time, nodded as I waved good-bye. But the place he pointed out was not the right one, and if it was anywhere in the area, I couldn’t find it! It was somewhat reassuring to know that a Chinese-speaking taxi driver also had trouble finding the place. Unfortunately, though, none of the many restaurants on the street were admitting new patrons by that time. I walked around until I was sure there was no where that I could eat, and then returned to my hotel.

    The hotel kitchen that is open latest - the one for their lounge - had just closed. I hadn’t eaten at all that day, and had only had small meal the night before, so I was hungry! I asked the staff at the desk if they knew where I could get something to eat, and was immediately ushered into the lounge and given a menu. I tried to find the thing that would be easiest for them, and so ordered the only Western food I ate during my time in China - a ham and cheese sandwich. The menu said “grilled,” but I tried to tell them that I would be happy if they served it cold. It seems that my effort was unsuccessful - I was soon presented with a delicious and perfectly grilled sandwich. They must have had to fire up the grill again! How accommodating!

    Wednesday 26 May - Datong

    I was awakened at about 7:20 a.m. by Mr.Gao from the CITS office - he had found a couple who wanted to take the tour to the Wooden Pagoda and Hanging Temple that day! Bonus! My travel companions were a delightful English-speaking Dutch couple who wanted to take their time seeing these places, as did I. Our fee - 100 yuan each - covered a car and driver; none of us felt the need for a guide.

    Muta, which is described in some guidebooks as China’s (or even the world’s) oldest and/or tallest wooden pagoda, is truly remarkable! The brackets were fascinating, and it was mind-boggling to see this place, knowing that no nails were used in its construction. (Some have been used in subsequent repairs.) We spent quite a while admiring it from outside and in, and for most of the time, the three of us were the only people there. Some of the interior space is not open to the public, but the Buddha and paintings on the lowest level and the statues on the top level could be seen. Amazing place!

    My companions treated my driver to a light lunch while I read, and then we all traveled to Xuankong Si - the Hanging Temple. It is just as unbelievable in person as it is in almost every picture of it I’d seen! I had read that the structural supports are vertical and drilled into the cliffs; whether true or not, I never felt any danger while on the temples’ narrow (VERY narrow) walkways. There were other tourists there while we were, but not very many, so it was easy take our time to see this incredible temple.

    After the long drive back to Datong, I walked to Shanhua Si, passing a nearby remnant of Datong’s city wall. The courtyard in front of the temple, which holds a five dragon screen, was quite lively, with at least two performing groups and various clusters of people talking or playing cards or people-watching. The temple held some remarkable statues; I particularly remember the fierce temple guardians in the main gate and a set of five Buddhas in Daxiongbao Hall. That hall is another magnificent and very old, very large building with fascinating architectural features. Photography is not allowed, as I learned when I tried to take a picture after ensuring there were no posted prohibitions in the particular hall that I was then visiting. (There were signs in other buildings.) A woman ran, shouting, to stop me, pointing to the security camera that had alerted her. So a minor peeve: If photography is prohibited, post a sign! With the exception of that interruption, this temple seemed very serene to me, and not only because there were few other people around.

    When the temple closed, I walked to Mujia Zhai, a restaurant one of my guidebooks recommended for local hotpot. I found it easily, and was greeted with what seemed a combination of astonishment that a solo Western woman would enter their doors and a sincere commitment to ensure that I was made to feel welcome. No one spoke more than a few words of English, but it seemed that all available staff wanted to help me. They had the ingredients that a different guidebook recommended for hotpot in Datong - lamb meatballs, potato, Chinese cabbage, a sesame sauce. I had to make a few other choices, like which broth and what side dishes; the staff found ways to help me. Soon, an array of small dishes arrived - bean sprouts with red bell pepper; green beans; celery with tofu; and apple with zucchini. Each dish was beautifully presented and delightfully fresh. This was my first hotpot, and my young server made it seem perfectly normal for her to begin the cooking process so that I could see what to do. And it was absolutely wonderful! This was one of the best meals I had in China, and one of the few meals that I couldn’t finish because there was simply too much food.

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    We are off to China for the month of October (4 weeks in total) and like you are doing it totally on our own. Your report covers several areas we have also planned to see (Datong, Pingyao, Xian and Beijing). I am truly enjoying your report and learning lots! Thanks for posting and providing such entertaining details.

    Question -- what did you pay for a taxi to Yungang grottoes as well as the Hanging Monastery and Wooden Pagoda? We have one whole day to see the sights around Datong (staying overnight and taking the train to Pingyao the next day). We know it will be a full day!

    What a great trip you have had!

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    It's not really a question of a 'full day'. The sights around Datong are too widely spread to make seeing them all in one day feasible, unless perhaps pointlessly brief visits are made, and not with any chance of seeing the ancient temples in the city itself, too. The Yungang Caves can be reached by ordinary public bus, by the way, although obviously a taxi is better if you're in a rush. The CITS one-day tours are caves and temple or caves and pagoda, and convenient so long as you don't shop.

    Purchasing train tickets out of Datong has historically been difficult thanks to collusion between CITS and the railway station (although things might possibly have improved, you never know), and trying to make a plan that involves metronomic precision when travelling in China is almost always a mistake. Never put yourself in a position in which catching a particular rail or air service is crucial to your plans.

    Only two of the five services between Datong and Pingyao actually start in Datong and will thus have a significant quantity of seats available. Of these one starts at 16.40 and arrives at 00.06, rather impractical, and the other at 07.45 and arrives at 14.39. The only overnight train with a half-decent timing, the 2453 at 23.04, arriving 06.27, doesn't start at Datong and quite possibly only six soft sleeper berths or so will be on sale, or as few as two (the most shown available over the next few days). There's always the chance of an upgrade after boarding if there are other unsold berths, and there's a large allocation of hard sleepers if you're happy with those, but even those are sold out for the next couple of days.

    Peter N-H

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    Thanks Peter for your input.

    I don't mean to hijack this thread but what we had planned was to take the CITS tour to the Caves and Temple (Pagoda only if time) but we are not sure if we can make it to the CITS office in time for the tour as we arrive from Beijiing via air at 8:30. I have read that if you phone CITS in advance they might wait for you. So we wanted to have a plan B (taxi).

    Also is there any reason why we can't book a soft seat on the 7:45 train out of Datong the next day, getting off at Pingyao (booking in advance or through CITS when we arrive, or even just showing up at the train station that morning)?

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    Again, this problem may have been solved, but on the three occasions I've visited Datong the ticket office refused to deal with foreigners (and I speak Mandarin, so there's no ambiguity) and it was necessary to cross the station forecourt to the CITS office, and pay them a booking fee (which they no doubt split with the ticket office staff) in order to get a ticket. There's a ticket booking office in the town itself, but when I last checked that was only selling hard seats, not sleepers. That may have changed.

    Looking at tomorrow's K7807 (tomorrow as I type, actually the day of travel in China) there are currently 5 soft sleepers, 9 hard sleepers, no hard seats, and standing room available. Soft seats are found only on a limited number of daytime only short-run expresses. The next day's train has 3, 26, 63, and standing room. This suggests that if you book on arrival you may be fine, but some parts of early October see vast amounts of domestic travel so if your timing is poor you won't be able to board this train.

    If calling ahead to CITS about a one-day tour, and if your schedule is really so tight (a mistake if so) you should possibly capitulate and ask them to secure your tickets, although without cash in hand they may take no action. Check what the booking fee will be, too. Should be not more than ¥20 or so per ticket (and daylight robbery at that). Soft sleepers should cost ¥120 or ¥125; hard sleepers ¥78, ¥80, or ¥83; hard seats and standing room ¥39.

    As for 'booking in advance' note in general:

    Although there are variations, tickets for most trains within most railway bureaux only go on sale ten to twelve days ahead including the day of travel

    Tickets for travel starting within a particular railway bureau's area are only available at stations within that bureau, and often only from the station where you wish to board

    The availability of return tickets is very limited, only available between certain bureaux.

    Train remains the most popular form of long-distance transport, many trains have reserved seats only, and you should never assume you can board any train at will, although given the large number of services you can generally get on some train or other on a particular day. Indeed, in general if your plans depend upon assumptions that Chinese systems operate in a way you consider 'normal', whatever you may think that to be, then you are likely to encounter problems, and need to check through your plans.

    Peter N-H

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    Thanks Peter (I think you are in China and it should be the wee hours of the morning there so I can't believe how fast you responded)! Good information and suggesions! I think we'll try to phone and book the tour and train through CITS in advance while in Beijing. If we can't do this, we will have to take our chances and do it the day we arrive (Oct 11). We do have some flexibility as we have 2 days to get to Pingyao and see sights before flying out of Taiyuan to Xian (which I know is probably not long enough to truly enjoy Pingyao but its all we have).

    kja-Looking forward to your next installment!
    Cheers!

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    LvL – I’m glad to hear that you’re enjoying my report and finding it useful. Unfortunately, I don’t recall how much I paid for the taxi to the Yungang Grottoes. I’m pretty sure the CITS tour was 100 yuan per person and I’m glad to say that the one I took included no shopping stops. As PeterN_H says, it really isn’t possible to see the grottoes and the wooden pagoda and the Hanging Temple in the same day – the distances between them are simply too great. If you aren’t able to reach Datong in time for a CITS tour, I would think a taxi would be your best option. Alternatively, CITS might be able to arrange for you to hire a car, though that could be expensive. Also, my hotel there – the Yungang International – had a car and driver that one could hire (or at least, that guests could hire), but I have no idea what that would cost. I hope you are able to see at least two of these magnificent sites and that you have a great trip!


    Installment 11:
    Chengde

    Thursday 27 May - Datong to Chengde

    I took an early morning bus to Beijing. For some reason, it completely stopped for a very long time (1.5 or 2 hours?) en route. Once in Beijing, a young man who spoke English was kind enough to help me find the bus station. (Here and elsewhere, the buses I took often discharged passengers several blocks from the actual bus station. That created some interesting challenges along the way!) Once at the bus station, I thought I bought a ticket for (and boarded) an express bus. Apparently not: About an hour after leaving the station, the bus stopped at another location within Beijing, and it stayed there until enough people bought tickets to fill the bus. And then we were all given the choice of paying an extra fee to cover the cost of a toll-way that would cut our transit time in about half. Fortunately, everyone agreed to the extra fee.

    Throughout the day, I found the scenery interesting, but between Beijing and Chengde, it is often stunning. I caught a glimpse of the Great Wall just before dark, and eventually -nearly 12 hours after leaving Datong - reached Chengde.

    I bought a train ticket for my return to Beijing, found a metered taxi, and headed to my target hotel, only to find that no rooms were available. It was a very short walk from there to the Mountain Villa Hotel. They did have a room; it seemed serviceable enough and I was offered a substantial discount. A few problems emerged after I settled in, but none serious enough for me to try to switch rooms.

    Friday 28 May - Chengde

    After walking by vendors selling some gorgeous fruits and vegetables, I visited the Mountain Resort. I began with the palace area. As I had read, the residential buildings have an elegant and lovely simplicity, but if you look closely, you’ll see that they aren’t at all rustic - the quality of the craftsmanship and materials was evident even to my inexpert eye. Several of the buildings are used to display small collections of things, many of which were quite lovely. I particularly enjoyed an exhibit in which mannequins were dressed as the emperors who had spent time at the Mountain Resort. Their costumes were beautiful, and I found it interesting to see how the style of dress changed over time.

    It had been raining off and on all morning - sometimes quite hard! - so the grounds may have had fewer visitors than normal. Still, there were people around, including quite a few groups of young people (high school and college aged). I shared their enjoyment in the blossoming lotus ponds and swirling schools of goldfish and plots of enormous yellow iris in their glory and a field of grazing deer. There were lovely pavilions scattered about, and as the rain lightened, more people came out to enjoy the park. I remember one elderly gentleman who practiced splits with an ease I couldn’t have accomplished in the most flexible moments of my youth!

    I can imagine enjoying an entire day in the park, but after 4 or 5 hours I felt ready to move on, so I took a taxi to Puning Si. There are some wonderful things to see at this temple, but pride-of-place goes to the enormous Guanyin statue. Despite her size, and despite the difficulties of getting a reasonable sight line (one can only climb to the 2nd story, across from her torso), she seemed incredibly expressive.

    From there, I chose to walk to Xumifushou Miao. It was further than I expected, but the walk was interesting. There was an area that was even then being demolished, and residents who were walking past with their daily market purchases stopped to pause and watch; and then a stretch of road with great views of the wall around the surprisingly high hills of the north end of the Mountain Resort; and then I began to glimpse the amazing gilded dragons atop one of Xumifushou Miao’s buildings. I finally reached the gate - but where was the ticket booth? I was directed further in the direction in which I had been heading. After a while, I began to doubt my understanding: I was walking along an almost deserted lane between what appeared to be a rather sparsely populated area and a garbage dump. Could this be right? Just as I was about to turn around, a “golf cart” filled with Westerners whisked by, so I decided to keep going.
    Eventually, I came to Putuozongcheng Zhi Miao (sometimes called the “Little Patola”). Apparently, tickets to Xumifushou Miao are sold in conjunction with those for the Little Patola; I bought a combination ticket and decided to start here.

    It was still raining off and on, and the very steep slope to the base of the temple was quite slippery. And then I reached the stairs, which were also slippery and steep, and I was already tired and I must admit that by the time I got anywhere near the entry to the temple itself, I was fully prepared to conclude that it hadn’t been worth the effort. But it was! I found it fascinating. The main building has three tiers of symmetrical balustraded balconies around a temple-filled courtyard and was unlike anything else I had seen in China. Inside, I enjoyed seeing a collection of traditional paintings and mandalas, a few other displays of artifacts, and pair of wooden “miniature” pagodas that were about as tall as the building and were glimpsed from vantage points on each balcony. On its top, there were some structures that struck me as distinctly Chinese, and others (here and elsewhere on the grounds) that showed their Tibetan inspiration. And the views were wonderful!

    I had seen only a few other visitors since I first arrived. As I was thinking about that, I realized that it was well past closing time! I am grateful that no one rushed me in any way - I’m sure the staff face dallying tourists every day and would prefer to close up and go home. I descended the still slippery steps and slopes; by the time I reached the base, I was reasonably certain that Xumifushou Miao would be closed, so I crossed the street and waited for a bus.

    I returned to my hotel, freshened up, and set out for dinner at Xin Qianlong Dajiudian. I ordered venison stew and a local vegetable; both were absolutely delicious!

    Saturday 29 May - Chengde to Beijing

    Before leaving Chengde, I had time to visit Pule Si. For some unknown reason, my taxi driver would not take me up the last, steep stretch of road to the temple. The upside to that was that I got some wonderful glimpses of the roof of a building designed to resemble the Temple of Heaven’s Hall of Prayers for Good Harvests. When I arrived, I was the only tourist there, and although a few others arrived before I left, it was nice to roam around in relative peace. (I can’t say relative quiet - one side building was undergoing noisy reconstruction.) The temple offered some wonderful views over the surrounding area and a few very pleasant corners shaded by tall trees. It also held an exhibit of Buddhist statues depicting sexual intercourse that I found fascinating because I hadn’t previously seen such depictions.

    I took a taxi back to the area by my hotel, spent some time walking around the market area in front of the Mountain Resort, and then retrieved my luggage and went to the station for my train to Beijing.

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    i've been telling my wife (who is chinese) about your adventure and the amazing treatment you've gotten. She couldn't believe it :) I will be doing my own solo adventure soon, your trip report has been a huge help getting an insight beforehand. Unfortunately it now sounds I will only have time to see half of what I wanted to.

    What was your budget for hotels? I am planning on taking the cheaper hostel route since all my luggage fits on my back, and splurging on the convenience (sometimes not it seems) of hiring taxi's to get me back and forth to sights when needed.

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    chinese_chicken - I'm glad that you and your wife are enjoying my report and that you are finding it helpful! If you are changing your estimate of how much you can see in the time you have because of my experience, note that I probably spend more time visiting places than most people. As for hotels, I believe I spent on average about 280 yuan per night. The cost differed dramatically from city to city, and I'm not sure what accounted for the differences. I would think that you can manage for much less if you aim for hostels. Best wishes for a wonderful adventure!


    Installment 12:
    Beijing

    My “soft” seat on the train from Chengde was surprisingly (and rather painfully) hard, but I nonetheless enjoyed the views - a river, cultivated flat lands separated by ridges of steep hills, occasional towns, some stunning mountains....

    Once in Beijing, it was incredibly difficult to obtain a metered cab. Even if I hadn’t been armed with PeterN_H’s warnings, I’d like to think that I would have asked myself why so many taxi drivers were willing to offer me such “deep” discounts off the metered rate, and why they would then protest so vehemently if I insisted on using the supposedly more expensive meter. The metered cab that I finally found (after an official intervened) cost 29 yuan – a far cry from the “discounted” rate of 150 to 250 yuan the drivers of the non-metered taxis tried to convince me to take.

    I think I’ve already noted that I wasn’t entirely satisfied with the siheyuan I stayed in when first arriving in Beijing, so I was hoping to find alternative lodging in a hutong and close to a metro. I ended up targeting the Bamboo Garden Hotel, but I did so with some ambivalence: It was extremely convenient to a Metro and was in an interesting, if rather gentrified hutong neighborhood, but it was not a traditional siheyuan - instead, it was a relatively modern (but attractive) set of buildings in Ming style surrounding pleasant gardens. The rate I was able to obtain was higher than I had hoped to pay, so I considered going to my back-up option. In the end, I decided to stay: It did have a room for all 6 nights I would need one; it had English-speaking staff; and it offered some nice options, such as free in-room internet and free transportation to the airport. That it was only a 10-minute walk to a Metro station was the deciding factor.

    By the time I settled into my room and showered, it was late enough for me to wonder whether I could reach any of the restaurants I had flagged before they closed, so I decided to try the hotel’s restaurant. The view I had of the hotel gardens was very pleasant. My braised pork with onions and side dish of celery and lotus root were both quite good, if IMO overpriced.


    Sunday 29 May - Beijing (3rd full day there, counting my stay at the start of my trip)

    I started my day at the hotel desk, where I tried to book a few performances. The staff said they could only buy tickets for me if I agreed to be at the hotel in time for transport to the theater, even if I would otherwise be near the theater at the right time. I didn’t want to commit to returning to the hotel, so I gave up on the idea of pre-booking performances - I would take my chances on getting tickets shortly before the performances.

    I soon left for the Capital Museum, where I spent most of the day. This architecturally interesting museum holds some excellent collections, almost all of which are well-signed in English. BTW, I rented the audio-guide, but must admit that I quit using it fairly early - there was too much extraneous information for my purposes. I was particularly intrigued by the display highlighting the traditions that had been typical of Beijing.

    When I was finally ready to leave the museum, I walked a few blocks to the Military Museum. I only had an hour or so before closing time, so I visited only a few collections. I found several exhibits much more interesting than I had anticipated, but what I found most intriguing here was how packed it was with Chinese tourists and how many of them (male and female, young and old) wanted to be photographed beside implements of war.

    After it closed, I took the metro to the Red Theater, where I was able to get a ticket for that night’s performance. There was a small stretch of places to eat a few blocks away, so I bought some grilled lamb and cucumbers in soy sauce while I waited for show time. I didn’t write down the name of the place, which was OK, but nothing special.

    I thought “The Legend of Kung Fu” was very entertaining, even if it was clearly targeted to western tourists (for example, much of the dialogue was in English). It was well staged and well performed, the sets and costumes were impressive, and some of the stunts were truly astounding. I thoroughly enjoyed myself!


    Monday 31 May - Beijing (4th full day)

    After considerable debate, I had decided to make Badaling the part of the Great Wall that I would visit. I easily found my way there by bus. My plan was to take the cable car to the highest point and then walk down and up the other side. Unfortunately, the cable car was temporarily closed. After ensuring that it wasn’t going to reopen that day, I went to the main entrance and began climbing the side to which the cable car would have taken me. I’d read enough reports to expect that there would be some very steep areas, but I hadn’t fully understood just how truly steep parts actually were! I huffed and I puffed and I nearly gave up more times than I can count. But each time I caught my breath, I decided to go just a little bit further. After a lot of “little bits,” I finally reached the top, and I am so glad I persisted: The views were fantastic! Seeing the Great Wall snake around the mountains that spread in nearly every direction was as impressive as I had hoped it would be and was among the most memorable images of my trip.

    I spent a while enjoying the ways the changing light (there were a few clouds) illuminated different things before starting back down. I passed the main entrance and joined the masses of tourists who were climbing the other side. The difference was marked - there had been other people on the side I first climbed, but surprisingly few. Here, I could barely take a step without running into someone or stepping between someone with a camera and the person s/he was trying to photograph. I continued climbing for quite a while, perhaps two-thirds of the way up, and then decided that I had had enough. The crowds were driving me nuts, I was getting weary, and if I waited any longer to get back to Beijing, I wouldn’t have time to see anything else that day. So I returned to the entrance, enjoying every last view from this remarkable place.

    I soon boarded a bus back to Beijing, where I went straight to the Lama Temple. What a special place! With a lovely tree-filled area to the front, many treasures in its beautiful temples, a small museum of priceless objects and some amazing mandalas, and a very grand Buddha, there was much to appreciate. I was just finishing my visit when monks began locking the various buildings. As I slowly walked back to the entryway, I reflected on how glad I was that I had left Badaling in time to reach this temple.

    It was too late to visit the nearby Confucian Temple, so I walked around for a while and then returned to my hotel. I freshened for dinner, and soon headed out for Ding Ding Xiang, a hotpot restaurant recommended in Beijing Eats and other sources. After consulting my information and the wait staff, I ordered a mushroom-broth hotpot with beef, enoki mushrooms, chrysanthemum greens, and noodles (buckwheat?), along with their sesame-based house dipping sauce. It was delicious! I must admit that I wouldn’t order this same combination again because it included too many things that were hard for me to manage with chopsticks. But everything was fresh and flavorful, and I appreciated the mix of tastes and textures. I also ordered their specialty bread, shaobing, which is sesame coated and served hot and it utterly fabulous - my mouth waters just thinking of it! The modern setting highlighted the clean whites of the table linen and walls and the staff (many of whom spoke English) were attentive and helpful. I was also pleased with the watermelon that was served gratis at the end of my meal.

    After returning to my hotel, I spent some time on the internet. On my first day in Beijing, I had learned that the tour buses to the Eastern Qing Tombs were not running. Nonetheless, visiting them remained a priority for me. While in Beijing, both during my first few days in China and since returning, I had spoken to a few taxi drivers about taking me there. Most were unwilling to even consider it; those who indicated a willingness to do so were unwilling to agree to a price that I was willing to pay. I posted on this forum and got a very helpful response from PeterN_H outlining how to get there by public transportation, but I was concerned that the trip would be long, might leave me with little time on site, and would require that I watch the time very carefully to ensure that I could return to Beijing that evening. So I also looked (warily) at tours that were advertised on the web. I identified one that promised a car and English-speaking guide with stops at the Great Wall at Huangyaguan, an ancient temple called Dule Si, and the Eastern Qing Tombs, with all costs, tickets, and lunch included. It was more than I had hoped to pay, but not much more than what I had begun to think I would need to pay for a taxi, and far less than any other option I identified (excepting public transportation). Ultimately, I decided that I wanted to see these tombs enough to pay the price, so before going to sleep, I sent an e-mail to the tour operator to see if I could book it.


    Tuesday 1 June — Beijing (5th full day)

    I woke up early, prepared for the day, and set off. I walked through my neighborhood a bit, passed the Drum Tower, and walked along Qianhai Lake, wondering how it was possible that nearly a month had passed since I had eaten my first meal in China beside this lake. I also reflected that upon first arriving in Beijing, the city had seemed alien and intimidating; now, it seemed so manageable.

    Soon I reached Jingshan Park, where I enjoyed the blooming flowers and people exercising and other people playing traditional instruments before climbing “Coal Mountain.” Along with countless others, I admired the pavilions and their views over the Forbidden City. Smog hung heavily over the city that day, but the views were impressive nonetheless. I walked down the stairs to the south and roamed around the park there for a few moments. There was a rose garden in bloom, and there were many people enjoying them and taking pictures.

    I finally crossed through the underpass to the Forbidden City. Wow! Resounding OMG wows! I had left the Forbidden City for one of the last days of my trip because I thought it would be special - sort of like keeping dessert for last. There’s always a risk, though, that one’s expectations exceed reality. IMO, it did NOT disappoint and was instead even more awesome than I had anticipated.

    I started at the north end, where the residential areas are, and proceeded slowly south. I’m glad I did so for two reasons: first most tour groups go in the opposite direction (so I avoided some of the worst crowds); second, it meant proceeding from the intimate to the grand. And that contrast was one of my most striking memories of this magnificent place. The residential areas held many exquisite touches, but they struck me as quite intimate in scale - no matter how richly appointed and no matter how rich the materials from which they were crafted, individual courtyards were generally small. One of my favorite spaces was the Qianlong garden, where small shaded niches provided more private areas than most other areas of the palace that I saw, and there was an area near the theater that was quite lovely and surprisingly free of other visitors.

    Only after roaming these private spaces did I see the grand scale of the “official” spaces - those that would (as I understand it) have been open to those who were not family - what a contrast! The spaces designed for public affairs seemed absolutely intimidating in scale and grandeur. People appeared to be dwarfed by these buildings and the vast surrounding spaces. I couldn’t help but think how terribly awesome this place must have seemed to anyone who approached it.

    I thought the museum collections quite impressive in their variety and depth, and the Treasury’s holdings seemed IMO well worth seeing. I also pleased to spend a few minutes in a very quiet area by a curving canal to the southwest corner of the grounds.

    When announcements indicated that it was closing time, I was ready to leave, but nonetheless felt that I had barely scratched the surface of the Forbidden City. (OK, I was careful not to touch anything, so I don’t think I actually left any scratches.) As I walked through gate after gate, I was even further aware of just how intimidating it must have been for anyone to enter this seat of power. I finally exited through Tian’anmen, after being made to understand, in no uncertain terms, that I could not dally to take photographs of the moat.

    Next, I headed to the new National Theater. I was too late to walk through the entryway under the manmade lake that surrounds this theater, but I nonetheless enjoyed seeing what I could. I spent a few moments beside the lake, where a number of other people were walking or talking or taking pictures or watching children play or whatever.

    I hoped to see an acrobatics performance that evening. Before commenting on what I saw, I’ll share what I learned beforehand: Correctly or not (or up-to-date or not), one of my guidebooks had said that the best place to see acrobatics in Beijing is the Wansheng Juchang. It took some time and effort, but I finally reached someone with that theater by telephone, only to be told that he hoped I would understand that they couldn’t perform if I was the only person in the audience. Of course not! If I understood correctly - and the speaker spoke excellent English - they haven’t received sufficient requests for tickets to open for some time. How unfortunate!

    Instead, I went to the acrobatic show at the Beijing Tiandi Theater. Another very enjoyable performance! According to the announcer, these young athletes (I think the oldest were in their early 20’s) are in the process of building their credentials in preparation for application to the National Troupe. All were highly skilled, many were truly amazing, and the relative youth and inexperience of a few members of the cast were only evident in a very few ever-so-slightly imperfect moments. Again, the staging and costumes and showmanship were impressive. I was very glad to have seen it!

    I hadn’t eaten all day, and the restaurants I passed on the way to my hotel had stopped serving. I was, however, able to order some tasty dumplings from the lounge of my hotel.

    After returning to my room, I received a call from a young man who would be my tour guide the next day — the first (and only) tour guide I hired during my trip. I must admit that I found the guide’s introductory remarks refreshingly honest - he said that he had been selected to be my guide because he had actually been to the Eastern Qing Tombs once, albeit briefly and only to Empress Cixi’s tomb. I was disconcerted, but glad that he let me know. And after all, I hadn’t originally planned to go with a guide so it didn’t really matter whether he knew the site or not. We agreed upon a time to meet the next morning.


    Wednesday 2 June - Beijing (6th full day)

    My guide and driver arrived as scheduled for our early morning departure. The car was comfortable, the non-English speaking driver was very courteous, and the guide spoke English extremely well and was a very pleasant companion for the day.

    Our first stop was the Great Wall at Huangyaguan. Quite in contrast to Badaling, there were no other visitors there when we arrived, nor did we pass anyone while we were there. If for no other reason, I would have enjoyed our stop here. Like Badaling, most of the walls are recent re-creations in the Ming-era style, with evenly cut, dark grey paving blocks and walls. Also like Badaling, some sections are very steep. I must admit that I considered suggesting that we turn around more than once – I found it a strenuous climb, and I really wanted to make sure I had enough time to enjoy the tombs that were my highest priority for the day. But after climbing a while, we could see what looked like a small stretch of lighter stone at the highest end - what was that? I was too curious to turn around. And I am so glad I kept going! Near the top, the pavement changed: This last stretch was built of unevenly shaped tan and reddish stone blocks that had been fitted together, sometimes seamlessly and sometimes with now-worn mortar. The relatively even steps of recent renovation gave way to the unevenness of ancient paving that had survived the elements. The difference was dramatic! The walls, also of stone in these lighter tan and reddish tones, had clearly been re-mortared recently, I assume to ensure the safety of visitors. There was no inner wall along the final accessible stretch: the hillside at that point dropped so precipitously that only treetops reached the walkway.

    My guide was unabashedly delighted. He said he had never seen either an unreconstructed part of the wall or a single-sided section. I was thrilled to see something so unexpected at the end of a long, hard climb. And I was rewarded by glorious views over the surrounding mountainsides, with their wall-topped ridges.

    Descending from the highest point, we could see a Ming-era maze at the base of the wall - a brick version of a shrubbery maze, it consisted of a series of concentric circles intersected by various alleys and blind alleys. My guide thought they had become popular during the Ming era, but admitted that he had never seen one before. We didn't enter it, but I found it interesting to see.

    We soon left for the Eastern Qing Tombs. On the way, I said that my priority for the rest of the day was to see the tombs, and that I would rather skip Dule Si (the other site scheduled for this tour) than shortchange my time there. Both the guide and driver were happy to accommodate me.

    Once we reached the town nearest to the tombs, we stopped for lunch. This meal was the only meal of my journey that I shared with others - and that set it apart in several ways. It wasn’t just that I had company, which was a pleasant change of pace, it was also that I got to sample a variety of dishes. My guide was very careful to make sure that I approved each of the dishes before he ordered. We ended up with a tofu dish, an omelet-like dish, a second egg dish (in which the eggs were prepared more like the eggs in an egg drop soup), corn with pine nuts and other tasty things, a dish of local vegetables (mushrooms, zucchini, etc.), eggplant with pork, a chicken dish, and sliced donkey with a sauce on the side. He also ordered a bowl of rice - the first and only rice I ate while in China. What a fantastic meal! The variety of tastes and textures, and the companionship, made it one of the most enjoyable meals of my journey. The eggplant was a little too sweet and rich for me, but I took second and even third servings of everything else. I was surprised by how much I liked the donkey - I found it tender and flavorful and not at all gamey (as I had thought it might be).

    Once we finished our meals, we drove to the main parking lot of the Eastern Qing Tombs along streets where aggressive local guides tried to get us to hire them. Our driver couldn’t take us further, so we needed to hire a little golf-cart-like vehicle if we wanted to get from place to place efficiently. We bought maps to the grounds and while I studied mine, my guide and driver talked to the cart drivers. I had given my guide the list of the tombs I most wanted to see (which he admitted he didn’t know). I’m glad to say that the cart drivers confirmed that the most important sites were the ones on my list. We hired one of the cart drivers and set off, passing a small herd of goats on the way.

    Our first stop was Kangxi’s tomb, aka Jing Ling. The lovely arched bridge at the beginning of the Spirit Way to the tomb was closed for renovation, but I could glimpse it from a bit of a distance. The Spirit Way itself was lovely! It was quiet and almost completely deserted (as was the entire area) and surrounded with greenery. The statues were beautifully carved, and although they showed a few signs of natural and man-made damage, they had withstood the centuries quite well. And it was also a fascinating Spirit Way in that it curved, dragon-like, to the main tomb area - every other spirit way I saw was straight. The main tomb area – which was extensive - held many interesting elements: a wonderful bixi, lovely side buildings, a platform for offerings, an impressive main temple.... The tomb itself was not open to visitors. Although my guide didn’t know this particular site, he did know something about the general features of a tomb complex and so was able to tell me a bit about what I was seeing.

    Our cart driver told my guide that he and his forefathers had worked on the grounds for generations, and throughout our visit, he pointed out unusual architectural features and described their purposes, with my guide translating. I was glad that he directed my attention to some things that I might not have otherwise noticed.

    Once we finished at Kangxi’s tomb, we headed to Qianlong’s tomb, aka Yu Ling. The entryway was less spectacular - if there were guardian statues, I didn’t see them - but the temple area was again quite grand. I particularly enjoyed the curved channel spanned by multiple arched marble bridges. We visited the main temple (which now functions as a small museum) and then entered the tomb. WOW - and I really mean it - WOW!!! The long entryway, multiple massive doors, and inner tomb are all covered with extraordinary carvings and reliefs - Buddhist images and secular designs and calligraphy and I’m not even sure what all! It was breathtakingly impressive! Just after we arrived, a small group of Chinese tourists and their guide entered – the only tour group we saw that day. It was easy enough to visit areas they weren’t viewing until they left. My guide and I spent a very long time here, and both of us were awed.

    We went next to Empress Cixi’s tomb, part of Ding Dong Ling. We spent only a few moments glimpsing the interior of the main temple, with its glorious gilded-dragon-wrapped red columns, before going to the tomb itself because my guide had been told that the temple would be open later than the tomb. Raided and seriously damaged in at least one attempt to do so, there really isn’t much to see in the tomb. We also walked briefly around the tomb mound, where my guide pointed to features upon which Empress Cixi supposedly insisted to ensure that water would not seep into her tomb. We returned to the main temple, only to find it closed and locked. I was glad we had glanced in briefly before entering the tomb!

    By this time, all the main tomb areas were closed, so our cart driver returned us to our car and driver. From there, we went to the Spirit Way leading to Xiao Ling, the oldest tomb at the site (which we could not visit at that hour). A long, broad, straight avenue lined with guardian statues, this Spirit Way was impressive and peaceful and awesome and an absolutely wonderful place to end a day at these tombs. There were a few people in the park-like grounds around the Spirit Way; I had the impression that they were local people who had come to enjoy a few quiet moments with family members or just to roam around. My guide and driver and I spent quite a while here, examining each statue closely. Most bore some signs of the wear and tear of centuries’ exposure to elements, and it seems that every statue that had a potentially breakable piece - a tail or horn or whatever - now lacked that piece. But that did not dent our overall delight. This was the first place we visited that our driver also got to see, and I was glad to see that he seemed to be enjoying it.

    We finally settled in for the very long ride back to Beijing. My guide spent the first hour or so telling me about Empress Cixi, and although I had read much of it before and had seen many of the places that were significant to her history, he did a nice job of putting those bits of information in sequence for me. He also spoke briefly about Pu Yi (the last emporer). I found what he had to say interesting.

    I am truly glad that I persisted in finding a way to see the Eastern Qing Tombs, and not just because they hold some magnificent features, but also because it was incredibly nice to visit this spectacular and peaceful place with virtually no one else around. And although it may sound odd, I was pleased to “introduce” my guide to some of the most precious sites the Eastern Qing Tombs offer. I never expected to have a knowledgeable guide; that I had a guide who was honest enough to let me know that he didn’t know these sites beforehand and to show me his absolute astonishment and joy in seeing them was a delightful experience for me.

    Before we reached Beijing, I asked whether our route would take us close to the Olympic City, and if so, whether they would they be willing to stop there briefly. Yes! We eventually came to the Bird’s Nest and Water Cube, which are spectacularly lit at night and larger and even more impressive than I had imagined. I was glad to have a few moments to admire them. We didn’t spend long, but it was enough time for me to leave the car at two different places to take a few pictures.

    We reached my lodging soon thereafter, hours after the tour was supposed to have ended. The original estimate was that we would return around 6 or 7 p.m., but it was about 10:45 when we got there. Because these men, and particularly the driver (who didn’t even get to see anything except that last Spirit Way), went way beyond the “call of duty” by spending hours more than anticipated to accommodate my interests, I decided to offer a small tip. This was the one and only time during my journey to China that I did so. I tried to give it to the guide, asking that he share it with the driver. To his credit, he refused to accept the tip, even when I offered it several times and explained my reasoning. He finally pointed to the driver, who also refused at first to accept it, but I again insisted and he finally accepted.


    Thursday 3 June - Beijing (7th full day)

    This was to be my day to shop for gifts for family and friends. I was seeking modest gifts (not souveniers) with some link to China. Following PeterN_H’s directions, I went first to Baigongfang. What a wonderful “market”! It’s a set of small shops selling traditional Chinese crafts, some of which were gallery-quality pieces. I browsed for a while, identifying some modest options and trying to decide what I was willing to spend for them. I then I went back to the shops to bargain. I found it a surprisingly pleasant experience, with many negotiations accompanied by a lot of laughter. I’m sure that a more astute buyer could achieve much better prices than I did, but I got what I wanted at prices that were lower than I was willing to pay.

    I didn’t find affordable gifts that were suitable for everyone one my list - nor had I thought I would. So I set off for Qianmen, where there are two silk stores that had been recommended. The area was under reconstruction, so some streets were blocked off and (I was told) some businesses were either temporarily closed or relocated. I walked around and around and around and asked several people, but never found either store. Since returning, I’ve learned that I stopped about a block short of each store. Sigh.

    Running out of time to find gifts for the rest of the people on my list, I browsed the tiny shops to the west of Qianmen and finally purchased some silk scarves and some tea. I am quite sure I paid too much for these items, but I had come to a point where my time was too precious to continue shopping or bargaining. Loaded down with packages and absolutely exhausted, I returned to my hotel.

    I then took advantage of one of the benefits of this hotel - a free spa treatment. It turned out to be a 15-minute facial, and it was wonderfully relaxing. I even felt it in my toes!

    I enjoyed a few moments in the hotel’s garden before heading to Da Dong, which has been frequently mentioned on this forum for its Peking duck. Thankfully, I had a reservation - walk-ins were being turned away when I got there. As I had hoped, Da Dong provided a magnificent last meal for my month-long trip to China. The setting was modern and elegant, the service was impeccable, the wine list was decent, and the food - OH, the food!!! I started with bamboo shoots with mustard leaves - a gorgeous and very tasty dish. I followed that with a half-duck, which was carved beside my table. The presentation and service have already been described on this board; so I’ll simply say: WOW! The duck (the truly wonderful duck) was followed by a generous gratis serving of chocolate sorbet and fresh lychees. Outstanding!

    I returned to my room to pack everything I could and realized that I had skipped one critical gift - oh no! Fortunately, I remembered seeing something that I thought would be perfect in one of the shops I had visited that morning.


    Friday 4 June - Beijing (last part day)

    I finished packing, left my suitcase at the desk, confirmed the time that I should return for my transport to the airport, and set off. My first stop was, once again, Baigongfang, where I quickly negotiated for the item I had remembered. Shopping complete!

    From there, I took a taxi to Beihai Park. After enjoying some glimpses of the moat around the Forbidden City, I entered the park. I spent a few very pleasant hours roaming around this park, visiting the Round City and Jade Islet, walking along the lake, watching goldfish swimming around lotus in a pool surrounded by covered walkways in a structure to the north (perhaps Jingxin House), and admiring another Nine Dragon Screen. It wasn’t the largest I saw, but it was in deeper relief than many of the others I had seen and it held dragon reliefs on BOTH sides - wonderful!

    Although there was much yet to explore in Beihai, I realized that it was already a little later than I had thought I should leave, so I didn’t linger any longer. I walked back to my hotel at a fairly brisk rate. I arrived just minutes before my scheduled departure and found that my taxi was already there.

    The ride to the airport was uneventful and the long flight home could have been worse. I returned very happily exhausted – it was truly a wonderful trip!

    I hope my comments have proven interesting and/or helpful. Again, my thanks to the many posters who provided a wealth of information and encouragement, whether directly or indirectly. And thanks for reading my rambling words!

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    great ending :) I'm heading there in a couple hours, happy that I got to read the rest of your trip first. It will be a busy and intimidating 6 weeks but you have gave me a lot of confidence.

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    What a wonderful trip, and wonderful report! I'm so glad that you had a good time, and I had a good time following along with such a resourceful traveler. And you've put a couple of places onto my must-see list.

    Between your report, and the evocative smells I encountered in Vancouver's Chinatown a couple of days ago, I'm beginning to regret leaving China out of my current trip. Perhaps Taiwan will substitute.

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    chinese_chicken - Enjoy your trip and let us know how it goes!

    thursdaysd - It really was a wonderful trip - I feel incredibly fortunate to have been able to take it! Your current adventure is going to be amazing, too, even without China. I'm looking forward to vicarious travels with you.

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    We leave for a month long trip in 2 weeks, visiting many of the places that you did, and I also feel more confident doing it totally "on our own" after having read your report. I have noted many great "bits" of information in your report that will be very useful for us.

    Thank you Kja! We appreciate the time you took to post this enjoyable report--I am sure you have helped many China-bound traveler...

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    Wonderful post... I really enjoyed reading about your trip. We leave for Beijing in a few weeks. Your descriptions of the food and sights you experienced are much appreciated. Count me as one of the many "China-bound travelers" you have helped! Thank you Kja.

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    LvL – I’m glad to think that my words have added to your confidence and provided some useful information! I hope you have a wonderful trip and will look forward to hearing about it.

    Erwench – Thanks for the kind words! Best wishes for a wonderful journey of your own – do let us know how it goes.

    Shanghainese – How nice to think that you found my report evocative, particularly given your love for China!

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    What a great adventure! I have not gotten through all the report, but I did want to say how much it is appreciated. So glad you ended up taking the time to write this. Thanks!

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    Very well written report. Truly enjoyed your descriptions and all the enchanting activities you indulged in. Admire how well you were able to travel solo and were also able to negotiate and find taxis with drivers. Great job in writing as it will encourage and inspire others to travel to China with greater confidence.

    Would love for you to share with us what sort of gifts you purchased at Baigongfang and Qianman.

    Thanks for sharing.

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    dgunbug – It was a great adventure! I took the encouragement that you and others gave for writing a report to heart.

    ileen – Thanks for the compliments! At Baigongfang, I purchased carved lacquerware, handpainted snuff bottles, and papercuts. There were also shops selling carved jade, carved wood, carved ivory, cloisonné, jewelry, and various other handcrafted items. I bought scarves and tea near Qianmen, where there are many, many shops selling everything from souvenirs through Western goods.

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    Very cool report. Thanks for sharing. Really like your style of traveling and writing.
    Some questions:
    Which guidebook did you like best? When you ask for a discount for your room, what percentage did you aim for? I gather you must have a plan B in case your target hotel is fully booked. Thanks.
    You reminded me how much I like lotus roots, have to go to Chinatown to get some.

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    mohan – I appreciate your kind comments!

    In general, I find that different guidebooks are helpful for different things and have different weaknesses; I suspect the guidebooks that are most helpful depend very much on the traveler and the journey. As with most of my travels, I found the books with high quality photographs and graphics, such as the Eyewitness Travel Guide, National Geographic Traveler, and Insight Guide, useful for inspiration and gaining some understanding of things like architecture and construction, but not very useful for detailed planning. For information about sites, hotels, restaurants, and transportation options, I found the Rough Guide, Lonely Planet, and Frommer’s, along with information on this forum, most useful for this trip. Frommer’s list of regional foods was invaluable to me.

    I always had a plan B for lodging. As a rule, I targeted hotels that were close to other options I had identified as possibilities. When bargaining, I usually countered the offer that was made to me (which was almost always substantially discounted) with an offer about 25% or 30% lower. If they were willing to bargain beyond the discount, we usually settled on a price in the middle.

    I did not notice second-hand smoke on either of my two overnight train rides, but I’m not particularly sensitive to second-hand smoke, so don’t take my word for it. With daytime trains, it was not uncommon to see people smoking in the areas between cars, and if the train was very full, it was sometimes noticeable near the doors.

    And now you're making me hungry for lotus roots! I, too, need to go find some.

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    The best policy is not to counter with a specific offer, at least at first, but to look very mournful and ask for something lower. Then when you get that, still look pained, and ask for something lower still. Only finally when no new offers are coming look ready to walk away (pick up your case), and tentatively, regretfully, apologetically, make an offer that's lower still. Always smile and be pleasant, and make the receptionist smile if you can (but miming your way through the bargaining process will usually do that anyway).

    Peter N-H

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    Fantastic report! Thank you for taking the time to write such a detailed trip report, it was fun to read and will really help me with part of my own planning (Xi'an and Beijing). There is one problem with your report though... now I'm so excited for my trip that I don't know how on earth I'm going to wait until December to go! :)

    This trip report also helps as I'm woman who will be traveling alone. It's always nice to see someone else do it and be able to read about how well it went for them.

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    PeterN_H - I guess that explains why I was rarely successful in negotiating a rate lower than the discount!

    Iowa_Redhead - I'm glad you enjoyed my report and found it helpful. I enjoy traveling alone and hope your experience is as wonderful as mine was. If you're anything like me, December will come faster than you think!

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    Have finally caught up with your report. It is so much fun to read another solo travelers experiences. Your writing is wonderful and now I cannot wait to revisit China, where I traveled by myself in 2008. Thank you for sharing your trip.

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    Nywoman – Thanks for the compliments! I remember being encouraged and inspired by the report you wrote after your solo trip to China. Your description of Fayuan Si was one of the things that made me decide that I had to see it – and it was wonderful. So my thanks to you for sharing your experiences!

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    With your particular interest in Fayuan Si you might now enjoy reading 'Martyrs' Shrine' by Taiwanese author Lee Ao, a novel which is set partly in the temple and in the neighbourhood at the time of the '100 days reforms' of the Guangxu emperor. After these were crushed by Cixi, the reformers (or, at least, those who hadn't fled to Japan), were executed at nearby Cao Shi Kou, having formerly held meetings in nearby guildhalls, some of which still stand. There's something on this in the 'Joining the Club' hutong walking notes.

    I should add I haven't read the novel myself, but am waiting to find the time to do so.

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    kja - what a great report - I am going to read it again! My trip (I have only booked a return flight from London to Shanghai on 9th May 2012 and return to London on 21st June 2012) is 6 weeks in duration. I have sketched a rough itinerary as follows:

    10 May - 3 nts in Shanghai
    13 May - bullet train to Beijing - 5 nights
    18th May - night train to Xi'An
    19th May -24th May - Xi'An and Huashan
    24th May - night train to Chengdu
    25th - 28th May - Leshan - E'Mei Shan and Chengdu city
    28th May - night train to Guilin
    29th May - 2nd June - Guilin - Yangshou (Longji Terrace field)
    2nd June - night train to Kunming
    3rd - 8th June - Kunming/Dali/Lijiang/Shangri La
    8th June - night train to Gansu-Xiahe
    9th June - night train to Zhangjiajie
    10th - 13th June - Zhangjiajie/Phoenix Old Town
    13th June - train to Huangshan
    14th - 16th June - Anhui Huangshan
    17th - 18th June - Hangzhou
    18th June - train to Suzhou
    18th - 19th June - Suzhou/Zhouzhuang
    20th June - return to Shanghai
    21st June depart for London

    I would appreciate it if comments could be made on this proposed itinerary - all advice gratefully received.

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    Well, looks like lots of interesting places, and great that you're taking the train, but have you looked at a map? You're zig-zagging all over the place. I'd put Gansu-Xiahe between Xi'an and Chengdu, and Guilin after Kunming.

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    Thanks for your kind words, Wonkyknee!

    I'm not sure I can offer any particularly helpful comments on this itinerary, since I've only been to Beijing and Xi'an. I didn't visit Huashan (though it sounds wonderful), but think you might want to consider cutting one day from your Xi'an/Huashan time and adding it to Beijing, But that really depends on what you want to see and experience.

    I think you might get more comments - and more helpful comments (like those that thursdaysd has already offered) if you start your own thread.

    Enjoy!

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    Dear Kja,

    I totally loved your trip report and now fully trust your judgment :)
    Though your trip was some time ago I still hope to get a piece of advise from you.

    We are now in the middle of planning our second trip to China and decided on most things we want to do.
    After spending some time in Pingyao, Xia an, Shanghai, Suzou and Hangzou we still have 3 days that are not planned

    For this 3 days we have a real trouble to pick one place to go as they all sound quite amazing - Chengde, Tai An or Datong (caves)

    Which did you personally liked the best?
    Chengde sounds really interesting, but is seams very complicated to get there. Does it worth the effort?

    Thank you very very much in advance
    Yulia

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    Hi, vizho! I'm pleased that you enjoyed my report, but please don't trust my judgment "fully" - my experience of China was wonderful, but limited!

    I can't say which of Chengde, Tai An, or Datong I liked best - they were so different that it would be like choosing between apples and movies!

    It sounds like Datong might fit your itinerary better than Tai An or Chengde. Although heavily polluted, Datong has some truly remarkable and - I believe - quite unusual sites: the Yungang Grottoes are amazing, the Muta is unique and fascinating, and the Hanging Temple is stunning and stunningly beautiful. And in Datong itself, the Shanhua temple has some very lovely features that are much older than can be seen in most other parts of China. And my hotpot - what a meal!

    If you are stopping in Beijing, getting to Chengde shouldn't be difficult at all. There are regular trains and buses, including express buses. Unfortunately, I made an avoidable error in failing to confirm which bus I was on. Strictly my mistake! The train ride (which is how I returned to Beijing) was an easy ride through memorable scenery. I enjoyed the Mountain Resort and outlying temples, and am glad I saw them, but there is an opportunity cost in the time it takes to get there and back to Beijing, and if you aren't going to Beijing, well then the time to get there would definitely be something to consider. It was near the end of a long journey for me, so I was glad to have a bit of down time. Too, I had seen enough different types of temples to appreciate some of the distinctions of Chengde's temples.

    Tai Shan also sounds off your route a bit. Again, I'm very glad I saw it, at least as much for the cultural experience as the scenery and the temples. I had known that visiting Tai Shan is something that Chinese people try to do at least once in their life. Seeing what it takes for them to do so, seeing how many people climb every one of those many stairs, seeing the offerings they make at the various temples at the top - those were memorable experiences for me.

    I hope this information helps! Please let me know if I can answer any other questions. And do let us know how your trip goes!

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    Dear Kja,
    thank you so much for your replay.
    We will fly to Beijing, but still spending 4+4 hours on the train during 2 days seams quite wasteful, especially as it will be in the very beginning of the trip.
    Then I will follow your advise and include Datong :)
    Thank you again!
    And I wish you lots of amazing traveling experiences in the coming time :)
    (& hope to see more of your reports)

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    Hi kja,

    My wife and I are in China now. Your posts have been incredibly helpful and inspiring as we explored Xi'an and took the sleeper train to Beijing. We plan to visit the Forbidden City tomorrow and have one question. You wrote that you started at the north end and worked your way south. Is there a northern entrance, or did you just enter from the south like everyone else and immediately head to the north end? Thanks for your help.

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    I can answer that. yes, there is a northern entrance and it tends to be much less busy that the main Southern entrance, although it's used by many, many tour groups. Still, they don't seem to hold up the lines as much as all the individuals at the main South entrance.

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    I'm glad you've found my posts helpful, mrtaz, and hope that you and your wife are enjoying your time in China.

    There is an entrance to the north side of the Forbidden City, just south of Jingshan (Coal Hill) Park, and that is the entrance I used, in part for the reasons NeoPatrick mentions.

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    Just to update everyone....We went to the north gate only to find that it is now exclusively an exit! Our taxi had already driven away, and we were approached by numerous pedi-cabs, which we initially rejected, but then, when they said it would cost just 3 Yuan to get to the south gate we figured we'd give it a try. We were taken for quite a ride... in more ways than one. He stopped considerable short of the south gate (turned out to be a 15 minute walk) and demanded 300 Yuan, showing us an "official" laminated price list. I argued that he had told us 3. He argued back vehemently, and I just gave him the smallest bill I had, which was a 10, and we turned and walked away.

    This was the first time anyone has tried to rip us off our entire trip, unless you count starting prices in the markets.

    Once we got inside the Forbidden City, we followed kja's advice and made our way to the northern "private quarters" via side routes, avoiding the hordes of tourists flowing through the center of the site. There were surprising sections of tranquility and interesting artifacts and architecture.

    Leaving through the north gate, we climbed coal hill for the barely-visible-through-the-smog view of the Forbidden City.

    A great visit despite the closed north gate and pedi-cab attempted rip-off.

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    I'm sorry to hear that the north side no longer has an entrance. But I'm glad you enjoyed some of the quieter parts of the Forbidden City. I found the contrasts between those more private sections and the utterly imposing buildings of state to be fascinating.

    And to give credit where credit is due, I was just following the advice of others when I plotted my route through the Forbidden City.

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    Kja - I seemed to remember that you purchased "Beijing Eats" when you visited Beijing. Was it helpful and if so, where did you purchase it? I read a Fodors review that recommended it and when I checked Amazon the price was over $5,000.00 - I'm sure that's a misprint - but not sure if I should pursue this. Thanks!

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    Good memory, dgunbug! I did, indeed, purchase "Beijing Eats." I have to admit that I did not find it that helpful, perhaps because (a) I had done enough research in advance to have targeted some restaurants and (b) I had several nights in Beijing when I had just barely enough time to grab something convenient. As I recall, I only really used it for 1 of my 6 dinners I had in Beijing - and I might not have used it that night if I hadn't planned my evening around the effort to find the book. (I did consult it for another dinner, but the restaurant I selected in Beijing for hotpot was already on my radar for other reasons). I didn't use this book anywhere outside of Beijing.

    If it helps, I bought my copy while in Beijing at the Wangfujing Foreign Language Bookstore. The site I used to find a store was:

    http://www.immersionguides.com/order/21/Beijing-Eats

    There's an Amazon listing for $5K? I'd be willing to sell it to you for $4,999 ... or even $4,000 .... or, since you've been such a helpful fellow Fodorite, maybe even $1,000! So let me take what I just said back. It was, without doubt, the single most valuable source I've used ever, for any trip, any where in the world! :-) :-) :-)

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    I'm afraid the memory is not what it used to be, so I've been re-reading reports in preparation of my trip - kja - you are indeed a grand pal. Send me the book and I'll send you my check! I knew I could count on your offer.

    Neopatrick - the book comes with the flight and all the food you can eat.

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    The problem about books that suggest places to eat is that they are outdated as soon as printed. In Beijing and most places in China, eating places come and go. I find that even rankings on tourists websites totally useless. Generally tourists lack perspective on a city as they are only there for a few days. THey rarely stray far from their hotel or tourist attractions. Just think of the most touristy place where you live and is that where the best dining experiences are? Probably not. While I am a destination expert for Beijing on TripAdvisor, I find their restaurant rankings mostly laughable. Better rely on some expat websites or specialized food websites if you are to depend on the internet.

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    Vizho - Hope you are planning to write a report. We are leaving for China on October 8 and plan to do Datong too. Would love to hear about your experience in China before we leave. I know that doesn't give you a lot of time, but would appreciate any info that may be helpful.

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    Thanks so much, vizho, for letting me know that you enjoyed the Yungang Caves - amazing, aren't they? Did you make it to any of Datong's other treasures?

    dgunbug - So your long-awaited and planned trip is nearly upon you - enjoy! Do let us all know how it goes.

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    I loved reading your report. What a great travel person you are! and a great walker. You seem to have skipped lunch most days and only ate rice once. Did you lose weight, or is that your regular pattern? Are your photos available online?
    You make me wish to go back to China. We went on the only tour we have ever taken and did not see enough of "traditional" China.

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    Thanks so much, Elainee! I feel very fortunate to be able to travel. And I do love to walk, especially as a way to get to know a place a bit.

    You are correct - I skipped lunch every day but one and ate rice (which is apparently not part of most northern Chinese cuisines) only once. In my day-to-day life, I eat very little for breakfast or lunch, so this was not a bit change for me. As I recall, I lost a few pounds - not much - while in China, even though I ate VERY well and had beer with dinner most nights. All that walking made up for it! I've lost a little bit of weight on every trip I've taken except a trip last year to France, where I let my love of cheese get away with me. My work is sedentary, so the extra activity I engage in while traveling generally more than makes up for sampling local cuisines.

    Sorry, but my photos are not on-line.

    If you hope to return to China one day, then I hope you can - happy travels wherever you go!

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    Hello kja,

    I just read your amazing China itinerary beginning to end, and was incredibly inspired! My husband and I have traveled extensively throughout Europe, many times, and never as part of a group, since I was born there and had family in Prague and friends in many countries to visit with. Now we are planning our first trip to China. We thought we would have to take a tour, since it is a part of the world completely foreign to us, but you actually made me believe that making the trip independently is possible. Couple of questions: Do those small hotels around the country accept credit cards, or did you carry cash with you? Did you pay in dollars or in Chinese Yuan? Are there ATMs in the smaller towns? We plan on traveling in October 2013, and are only starting our research now. Any input or advice would be appreciated.

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    Thanks so much, Janah! There are quite a few of us here at Fodor's who have traveled to China independently (many of whom helped inspire me), so I'm sure you'll find a lot of support here if you want.

    > Do those small hotels around the country accept credit cards, or did you carry cash with you? Did you pay in dollars or in Chinese Yuan? Are there ATMs in the smaller towns?

    As I recall, some hotels took credit cards and some did not. I always made sure I had enough yuan to cover all of my expenses for a day or two just in case. (I kept the extra in a hidden passport pouch - probably unnecessary, but it made me feel more confident!) Whenever I paid in cash, I paid in yuan only, which I got from ATMs. As I understand it, not every ATM will take every card, but you should be able to check with your bank to get a sense of where suitable ATMs are. My card-issuer is part of the Cirrus network, and that was widely available almost everywhere. I think I remember reading about some places where it might be a bit difficult to find suitable ATMs - perhaps Wutai Shan? So I made sure I stocked up on yuan when I could. Since I was planning on ending my trip in Beijing, I knew I'd end in a place where (a) I could use yuan if I had over-estimated how much I would need and (b) easily find suitable ATMs.

    Sorry my memory about these details is so sketchy, but hope they prove of use nonetheless!

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    Oh, and I had completely forgotten until now, but a number of hotels required a substantial cash deposit before checking in, sometimes substantially higher than the room rate. Yuan only.

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    jan---does the holiday inn in your town accept yuan? of course not, why would you expect a chinese hotel to accept your home currency?? think about it..

    i would never assume to find an ATM in a small town in china... city yes, but not a town..

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    > rhkkmk

    I don’t remember any where in China where payment in US dollars was a stated option. But when I was in the Yucatan in 2008, I was surprised to find that many hotels, restaurants, and shops accepted either US dollars or Mexican pesos. In 2009, I found that several places in Bosnia & Herzegovina accepted payment in euro rather than convertible marks and some places in Croatia accepted either euro or kuna. And I was in Russia many, many years ago, during the days of a black currency market; some merchants, taxi drivers, etc., asked me to pay in dollars rather than rubles. (I declined.) So I guess one can’t necessarily assume that payment in the currency of the land is always the only option.

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    Yes but you are comparing weak economies to one with a strong currency. They could not care less for US$ in China. Some markets will reluctantly accept them at a bad exchange rate. They can't pay their rent with US$ so need to waste precious time lining up at the bank to exchange them.

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    i had 2 chinese taxi drivers give me dollar bills. they did not want any $$ for them... i of course gave them R...

    sure in cambodia, laos and other weak currency countries the "stable" US dollar is welcome, but as JPD points out their currency is almost worthless outside their country.

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    "one can’t necessarily assume that payment in the currency of the land is always the only option"

    True. But it's the minority case. In default of some good reason to the contrary (currency controls, fragile economy), you can expect to use the currency of the country. Unless you're in a cruise port, and are willing to accept a lousy exchange rate.

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    I certainly didn't expect to use anything other than yuan when in China. And as a rule, I would think one should expect to pay in the currency of the land - that's why I was surprised by my experiences in the Yucatan, BiH, and Croatia. It's just that I prefer to acknowledge that there are exceptions when someone who is just beginning to think of the possibility of traveling independently in China asks what I assume was an honest (if ill-informed) question.

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    WOW...WOW!,,, what a beautiful and extensive report!!! I have just spent hours reading every word in this whole report and all the wonderful replies! Very inspirational and unique style of travel and experiences. I am planning our trip for two couples and am so inspired by your travels. Thank you for sharing your experiences and for embracing the wierd and wonderful aspects of this culturally different country.

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    > myleia

    And wow to you for making it through my ridiculously long missive! I appreciate your kind words and am pleased to think that my report seemed helpful to you. I certainly found much to treasure and enjoy in my journey to China. I wish you well with your planning and hope your travels bring you many rewards.

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    Read some more, kja. You're a wonderful writer. I can't read it all in a few sittings, but I will finish it, because there's so much valuable information. From other Fodorites, too. Thanks again for taking the time to do such a wonderful trip report. It must be nice for you to have such a great diary, too.

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    Thanks for the kind words, TorontoSue! It is definitely a long report, so I'm glad you are finding it useful. I was very fortunate to have a lot of help from some generous and knowledgeable Fodorites - my trip was much richer than it would have been without them.

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    Thank you for such an extensive report!!!!
    I do have a question about "negotiating" the prices when you purchase something. Do they bicker in Chinese or English? I am learning Mandarin for our trip BUT can only say up to $10 in Chinese!!!!!!!! Thanks, Carol

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    Thanks, clove, and congratulations for making it through my LONG missive!

    I wouldn't worry about bargaining -- if you find yourself trying to bargain with someone who doesn't know the English words for numbers, pull out a piece of paper and proceed in writing -- everyone with whom I worked knew Arabic numerals. As I recall, most hotel staff and sellers in major tourist destinations (e.g., Beijing, Xi'an, Pingyao) knew enough English to give me confidence in their numbers, and sellers in most other places seemed to know enough that I rarely resorted to my very few words of Mandarin (although I thought that being able to count to 10 did help). Any time it mattered, I confirmed a price in writing using Arabic numerals.

    Hope that helps!

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    No need for pencil/paper, vendors all have calculators (and cell phones) now. It might be helpful to remember some conversion numbers, i.e. 10rmb is roughly $1.64, 50rmb is $8.12, 61rmb is $10 ......

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    Oh my, thursdaysd! I think the constant for converting RMB to USD was 7 when I was there, but it could have been 6.... In any case, Shanghainese raises a good point that it helps to be able to rapidly estimate costs in one's own currency.

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    kja - I was talking about 1997, lol. Probably it should be even lower than 6. (xe.com says it's 6.14 right now.) It is helpful if there's a quick conversion factor. It really gets difficult (for me) in places where you become an instant millionaire just because you changed $100!

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    I must admit that I've never had a millionaire moment, but I've definitely had some "OMG, did I spend that much!?!" moments before I remember the appropriate conversion. And I was in Poland just after it revalued its currency, while both old and new bills were still in use. Some “1 zloty” notes were worth 1 new zloty, which, as I recall, was equal to 10,000 old zloties, but some notes that I was given were actually old zloties…. I was sleep-deprived and jet-lagged and for the life of me, I couldn’t have told you which was which. That was disorienting, particularly because the difference was not exactly trivial!

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