After a month-long trip in April to eastern China I write this (subjective!) report, hoping to help some future traveller.
Starting with Qingdao (my flights were such) it is a pleasant, quiet seaside town, nice people and food and has a great walk by the sea, not so easy to find in China. But not really a place which worth detouring a lot from your plans if you are pressed with time. Staying at Renquan hotel (110Y) and Mang Cheng hostel (30Y) was ok for their price.
Shanghai was a very pleasant place, relatively short distances between sights (for such a big city), great base for daytrips around (watertowns), best for food at best prices, great people, good transport. I stayed at Mingtown-nanjing (55Y), good rooms (some at the back were noisy from ventilation), superb location, but silly time table for the elevator (stops 11pm-8am for a 5 storey building!)
Zhujiajiao is a great water town, very beautiful, easily reached by public bus from Shanghai, no entrance fee. But very touristy, bad quality food for the price or vice versa, a lot of touts advertising their shops… but posetively still worth the time
Qibao ‘water town’ is not really interesting, a waste of time and a joke water town, don’t go there if you have time to visit a real water town. Seems like a tourist-shopping place for locals, to kill their time.
Tongli was very beautiful, classy and the small rock gardens were like a perfect secret revealed behind the restored old houses. Entrance fee was 80Y (including one way bus ticket from Suzhou). But very touristy. Touts were stopping in front of you all the time to ask you come to their restaurant- café- souvenir shop etc
Luzhi is another small water village at the suburbs of Suzhou. It is a kind of 2nd class of these ‘water-places’, but had the best village feel of all of them I saw, with narrow canals and alleys, small houses. Touristy again, but much more relaxed. It had a better restored part, too, which made a good contrast with the rest of the village. No entrance fee here.
Suzhou has a beautiful old part, worth the time, but it is far away from train and bus stations. Good base for trips around. Stayed at Mingtown’s again (50-60Y), top location and old town atmosphere around there. I had very good food experiences in this town, too!
Hangzhou was great for the walk around the lake. Very beautiful, a lot of action, great people, some nice old buildings, perfect to relax. And there was a very beautiful night show with ‘dancing waters’! But the view of the lake as a whole is really nothing exceptional to see. Far from the so called ‘definition of classical beauty of Chinese lakes’ as guidebooks and tourist brochures say. Sorry, but maybe blind people wrote that? From most part of the walk you keep seeing the city and its skyscrapers. The rest of the scenery around the lake is average, just like any lake. I mean, I enjoyed my visit, do go to Hangzhou and you will see good spots, but be informed about the exaggerations. I stayed again at Mingtown hostel (50Y, not advertising!), good rooms and great location by the lake, but transport from train station is inconvenient.
Yantoucun village was on the way south, stopping at Wenzhou for a few hours just to change transport means, which made it complicated to travel to the village ‘on the fly’, while bus info from guidebooks is limited or wrong. I made it only because of the exceptional help of local people I met in Wenzhou. The village is interesting but very small. The good part consists mainly of a historic street, and you can also walk a few more blocks near it, to an interesting and less modern part. Generally, it had a good relaxed village atmosphere. The rest of it is uninterestingly developed and grey. I stayed at a guesthouse in the old street for 70Y.
Xiamen at the south was not interesting at all, a little like the dirty hole of east China (sorryyy!). But I stayed there for easy transport around. Old town hostel (60Y) was well below average, except for convenience of its location, the only reason to end up there.
The small island of Gulang Yu is simply a beuty. One of the best places to relax on a sunny day.
I visited the Yongding / tulou area on a day trip ex Xiamen, booked through Old Town hostel. It costed 180Y and I was the only westerner. It should be called ‘driving and shopping’ tour with a little sightseeing. Too little time for this interesting area, I regretted I didn’t stay more. Though, the area seemed not to have so traditional atmosphere anymore, you just see some tulous here or there among the modern houses.
Tunxi was on the way back north and stayed at Old Street hostel (50Y), nice,spacious, if a little noisy. The town itself has an interesting but too touristy old street and that’s all about Tunxi. As a base, I visited the village of Hongcun which was touristy beyond expectation. The village itself was not so beautiful, (but maybe one of the few left in China?), the entrance fee was too steep for what it offered (104Y was a real tourist trap). Maybe people who decide the fees have not seen really beautiful places, so they just sell what they’ve got. And Chinese tourists come and pay in flocks here! Before seeing the village I had thought to look for accommodation, which proved not so easy for a foreigner. I was told that I was not accepted to the relatively cheaper places (like 100Y, which I saw and had very nice rooms) and could be allowed only to more expensive places (250-300Y), a discrimination which I found something between exploitation, inhospitality and insult. Finally I didn’t want to stay.
After all this tourist trap situation, I cancelled my plans for visiting villages around Wuyuan, fearing it will be another modern China capitalism fiasco.
Beijing’s sights need no presentation from me, just to say about the feel of the city that it was very interesting but: not really a pleasant place. Huge police presence in the center with an impolite attitude (very seriously guarding government rules, not really there for your help), metal detectors around Tiananmen sq and all metro stations, terrible air pollution (2-7 times higher than the safety limit, continually for all the week I was there), big distances, unfriendly for pedestrians -few traffic lights but mostly underground passages, not good especially when carrying your bags, big crowds, traffic jam, least friendly people of all China. Not a place to relax. Hostels: Forbidden city hostel (50Y) has just one dormitory room, not a good choise for that reason. King Joy hostel (50Y) was the best of all I stayed in China and in a great location.
End of trip… already time to come home…
I was travelling solo backpacker independently and I must say that language was a big barrier; it made it impossible to really make the best out of my time. Receptionists’ good English at the hostels were a great help. I want to emphasize that many local people genuinely helped me several times throughout my trip, despite their limited English, a very positive and impressive experience for me!
Hostels were a very convenient solution of staying + information and comparatively cheap (50-60Y) even in big cities.
Trains vary a lot, in terms of quality, velocity, price and cleanliness! With the exception of this last condition of some too dirty ones (because of the sick habits of the passengers mainly!), trains were my favourite mean of transport and a great way to move and also meet locals.
Meals were inexpensive and delicious in simple restaurants (like 15-30Y), where I could see many local people eating, though there was a matter of hygiene sometimes. I saw repeatedly cooks coughing and sneezing on the food they were preparing, (even in a good department store) without making any attempt to turn their head or avoid somehow sending their stuff into the food. I just walked away from those places. Selection of restaurant needs a little concern.
I say again, that all the above are a subjective opinion, trying to give the feel of the place as I perceived it. Of course others may have had very different impressions at the same area. Still, hope this info here, helps somebody…
I wish all the very best of travels to all!
Trip report from backpacking east China
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