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Trip Report Winter in North China

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After an amazing, but poorly planned vacation, I wanted to share some of what we found in the hopes of helping others get the most out of their time. We were in China from Dec 27 - Jan 9th, dividing our time between Beijing, Huangshan and Hangzhou. Instead of the normal day-to-day journal-type report, I would like to just break this down by subject, but would be happy to expand on any of the themes and will answer questions as best I can. As I said, this was a hastily-planned trip with only vague notions of what we wanted to do, and plans only for the first few days after our arrival. We were quite budget- conscious in planning, (much) less so in actual day-to-day considerations.

Beginning with the most important consideration, which was lodging:
Tangkou, Huangshan:
Pine Ridge Lodge, just out of town and with gorgeous views of the granite peaks. We chose this place based on excellent reviews and indeed enjoyed the location and the service. Unfortunately due to some problem with Ctrip, we couldn't book the lodge room we wanted and settled for a garden room, for 238rmb, with breakfast included. This meant a trip up the hill to the main building anytime we wanted to use the wifi, and the "lobby" there is really not so, I felt a little like a burden each time I took up valuable space sending an email. For breakfast, you had a choice of Chinese or American breakfast. Chinese breakfast consisted of congee, tea, hot soy milk, soft doughy rolls, hardboiled eggs prepared three ways and an assortment of pickled and spicy ... things. It was quite filling. American breakfast was toast and coffee. We didn't choose this option but thought it was pretty funny. A shuttle bus was always at the ready to take us to one of the bus stations in town and the owner, Wayne, was incredibly happy to give us his recommendations and help us with the details. This was especially helpful since my cell phone could not get a signal in this area. Our room was lovely, but unfortunately the heater was broken. We were moved promptly and although the heater worked in this second room, there were large gaps in the window letting in the cold as well as a huge gap in the doors which I stuffed a sock into whenever we were in the room. A knee-high ski sock. It was a huge gap. So, this was a very cold stay, and we definitely slept in several layers and hats. In fact, we went into town and bought a heated blanket after the first miserable night. Heated blankets are no help for showering, which was a miserable proposition each day. I think that this would be an incredibly wonderful option in the hotter months but unfortunately I can't recommend this room to anyone visiting during the winter.
This is a theme I'll come back to often, because it was COLD while we were there. And not just outside - we seemed unable to escape the cold for the majority of our trip. We saw so many people working day in and day out in thick jackets, or sitting around relaxing in those same thick jackets. Being from Montana, we are no strangers to cold, yet being Americans we had an expectation of returning to a room which was warm and cozy, and in our budget lodging that was simply not so.
Hangzhou:
Flower Inn, on the eastern side of the lake. We chose this place due to the fact that Lonely Planet recommends a hostel quite close. As we had done absolutely no preparation for this part of the trip, we had our cab driver drop us there and when they had no rooms with private WC, we began to inquire nearby and found this lovely place. Our room was 326rmb the first night, we were given a discount the second night of 50rmb. The room was lovely and mostly warm, with a computer in the room for internet or wifi down in the lobby. The bathroom was delightful here. And the neighborhood was great, a close walk to markets, food and right off the pathways circling West Lake. Staff did not speak English, but were patient with our faltering Mandarin and quite friendly.
Beijing:
Leo Hostel, south of Tiananmen Square and a very easy walk from the Qianmen subway stop (line 2) or to the sights of Tiananmen Square. 200rmb/night for a double room with private WC. The lobby and the bar/restaurant area were warm, but the courtyard leading to the rooms was quite cold. It was fairly quiet while we were there, but a dumpling party one night greatly increased the sounds coming from outside our room as drunken participants seemed to have a hard time walking. I really enjoyed the neighborhood; unlike hutong areas north of the Forbidden City this area was not yet trendy and was filled with an assortment of small, cheap shops and little diners with baozi steaming away by the doors, all in a neighborhood that felt very much lived-in and comfortable, yet busy. But tourists be warned because this hutong area was much less likely to contain English-speakers, although it made it a terrific place to practice my language skills. The folks at the hostel spoke English to varying degrees and seemed friendly. The room itself was pleasant, but I personally have no problem with China's hard mattresses so I am unable to speak to that particular comfort. The pillows were a bit strange - seemed stuffed with some sort of beanbag material. Hot water was to be found outside the room, in the cold courtyard. Our window had no latch, which made us question the security, but no problems while we were there. The heater was okay, warmed the room up just enough that I was okay taking a shower.
Dreams Travel Hostel, on a busy corner in Dongcheng. Somehow ranked highly on Trip Advisor, yet we couldn't bear to stay more than one night. The bar on the second floor was a nice spot to catch up on emails while enjoying some local musicians play, but the room itself was dingy and the walls were paper-thin. Staff, however, spoke excellent English which may be part of the draw. The bed was fine, but the room stayed cold even after cranking the heater up. We paid 178rmb for a double room with private WC. Laundry here was self-serve, for I think 15 or 20rmb for a wash. If it weren't for the cold and the noise we may have been tempted to stay longer due to the location - very close to the Beixingqiao subway station (line 5) and close enough to the touristy but fun area of Nanluoguang Hutongs.
Orchid Hotel. Located in the Baochao Hutong, super close to Nanluoguang but with a slightly different feel. Amazing location! Just outside the hotel was Mr. Shi's Dumplings, a heavenly place that made me feel right at home...but I'll get to food later. We stayed two nights in a 900rmb room, as that was what was available. A big jump from our budget accomodations. And it was heaven, pure heaven. Everything about this place was just lovely, but especially the in-floor radiant heat and the fact that we were warm and cozy despite the necessary walk through the courtyard for breakfast or to visit the bar. We loved it so much we decided to pay the 840rmb for another few nights in a different room, this one with views of the Bell Tower over the roofs and courtyards of the hutongs. It was beautiful, and I think it would be a lovely room in the summertime as well as you could get a terrific cross-breeze from all the windows and from the elevated location. Staff were from all over, and all seemed happy to chat and give suggestions. We fortuitously met the owner, Joel, on the streets as we were searching for the hotel. He asked us if we needed help finding something and when we told him we were looking for the Orchid, he said he'd show us the way before telling us that it was actually his hotel. I cannot recommend this place highly enough. Not simply because of the soft beds, heated floors and huge showers but really because we learned so much about Beijing from the people we met here. The conversations and the suggestions led us to experience an expat community different from the touristy areas we had previously been, and it was an excellent way to experience China in a different way. After a great stay I was pleasantly surprised to find an email waiting for me the next day with a recipe for baozi, a testament to the attentiveness of Joel after a (drunken) conversation about how much I love and want to learn to make this food at home!

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    That was quite a bit more than I expected to write about lodging. Normally when we travel a room is just a place to rest but this time around the rooms really took on a new significance as it was necessary to spend much more time there in order to warm up and get ready for the next cold outing! I will tackle activities next, and then relate some food experiences.

    Beijing:
    Forbidden City. A vital visit, yet unfortunately we weren't that taken with it. 40rmb entrance fee, more if you want to visit some of the sites within the city itself, but after a cold morning watching the national flag-raising ceremony we were content to wander and explore. The garden is truly incredible, and of course the scale of the palaces is only matched by the intricacies of the woodwork and paintings. It was fun to wander down the narrow alleyways and find courtyards to duck into that had unsigned or signed exhibits within the buildings. My advice on this sight is to give yourself time and wander aimlessly, peeking into everything that seems open.

    Summer Palace. Possibly my favorite part of all Beijing, I can imagine losing myself here for days on end. We arrived late in the day and our entrance fee was 20rmb because all of the additional fee areas were already closed, but an all-access pass is 50rmb. I did not feel cheated by missing the extras because there is just so much to see and it is all so wonderful and so inviting! I can't even bring myself to give suggestions because the wonder of it all came from aimless wanderings, taking us anywhere that looked interesting (which is everywhere). We took the subway line 4 to Beigongmen Station which put us at the Suzhou Street entrance.

    National Museum of China, Tiananmen Square. Highly recommended, free with passport. We only saw two exhibits while we were there and it still took us more than three hours. The propaganda of the Road to Rejuvenation exhibit was absolutely fascinating for us. Although I am a student of Chinese history, seeing it presented in this light was an incredible experience. And the Ancient China exhibits in the basement would be fascinating for anybody to see. Absolutely beautiful and I would recommend an audio guide, only because I desperately wished for one myself shortly after entering, not because I have any knowledge of the quality!

    Old Summer Palace, or Yuanmingyuan Park. 10rmb entry, or 25 for all sights. Go ahead and pay the 25 if you come here because honestly, the park itself holds not even ruins but only scenery. We bought a map of the area which showed the former glory of the sprawling park and it made the trip much more interesting. I think this would be a fine place to go on a warm day, but only if you are looking for a pleasant park, and not for the history, which is better from pictures and stories than from the place itself.

    Nanluoguang Hutong. This is a super fun area for shopping, with a mix of anything from the touristy junk you can find everywhere to super high-end shops, and plenty of cafes and restaurants throughout. Definitely expect to pay more here than in other areas. But as it is an incredible example of the ability for Beijing to reclaim rather than destroy its hutong neighborhooods it is worth a visit. Also try the nearby BaoChao hutong and try to get to the Drum Tower by a different path. You can't really get lost with those two iconic buildings to guide your way and it's a great way to discover something new for yourself.

    Jinshanling section of the Great Wall. We knew we wanted to go to this section, which has some interesting security features found nowhere else and is divided between restored and unrestored sections. We were happy to find the Downtown Backpacker's Hostel in Nanluoguang offering a trip for 280rmb/person (included transportation, entrance fees and a guide). While we didn't want the guide, and were somewhat confused as to her purpose as she didn't seem to know any of the answers to our questions and was exhausted by the stair-climbing, she also didn't diminish our enjoyment of a truly amazing experience. It was beyond words to describe my emotions on this 3.5 hour hike. In fact, I have plenty of complaints about the tour itself but I almost don't want to voice them because I don't want to diminish the experience. I can't compare this section of the wall to any other but I can say that for me it perfectly satisfied my every hope of hiking the Great Wall. Although I will say that when Simatai finally opens I will have to find another excuse to visit China!

    Huangshan:
    A day at Huangshan scenic area can be a very expensive proposition. To begin, you must catch a bus from Tangkou for 19rmb to the gates at either the east or west end. It's a beautiful bus ride, however, weaving up past thick bamboo forests to end high on the hillside beneath the awesome granite peaks. From either side you can choose to take a cable car up for 65rmb, but not until you've paid your entrance fee. When we were there it was 150rmb but that was a 1/2 price discount due to the low season. Unless you plan to hike down the stairway, budget for another 65rmb to return to the bottom. We went two separate days which increased the cost drastically. Lodging on the mountain doesn't seem so expensive when you realize that you at least avoid the steep entrance fees by staying on top! Since we were there at New Year's, however, there were none but the most expensive vacancies, and at 4,000rmb we got off cheaply by just paying the entrance fee. Our first day we were both catering to colds, and so rode the cable car from the east gate to the top, where we spent a few hours hiking the wonderfully-maintained trails. It had snowed overnight and was a beautiful blue-bird day, with none of the famous fog to be seen. I was amazed at the army of employees shoveling the stairways. I can forgive the entrance fees after I saw the effort that went into keeping it safe. When we returned two days later to the west gate, nearly the entire 7.5km stairway was clear of snow, and that's not including the miles of trails in the rest of the area! We were quite taken with the beauty of Huangshan and enjoyed seeing our first wild monkeys, but I was a little disappointed to visit on two days that brought absolutely none of the fog the area is so well-known for.

    Hot Springs Area. I took this as a once-in-a-lifetime visit, mostly because I don't know if I could ever bring myself to pay that much again for hot springs! Entry was 248rmb/person, plus a deposit that it turns out is negotiable. Although we live in an area full of hot springs and I normally dislike paying even the $5-10 entry for the developed ones, this place certainly offered much more than your typical pool of hot water. We variously tried pools infused with coffee, green tea, jasmine, rose oil, wormwood, coconut milk, and so on. My favorite, however, was the red sand pool - best massage I've ever given myself simply by stepping up and down! I was greatly disappointed to find that the pool with the fish that eat the dead skin off your feet cost an extra 30rmb. I believe I would have paid but for the fact that my wallet was safely stashed in my locker two stories up and it was COLD once I was wet!

    ChengKan. The Lonely Planet guide mentions two villages in this area worth a look, but when we inquired about them we were told that this was the favorite as the other two had become quite touristy. It was 210rmb for a driver to take us there, wait two hours and take us back. The entry fee for this village area was 70rmb, which I thought odd but apparently those other two villages are 110rmb. I felt a little weird about paying an entry fee to get into an area that could be entered anywhere else in town for free, but it was necessary to enter the temple. For the rest of the village, there were wonderful historic buildings that could be entered and investigated, one of which housed an incredible exhibit on Chinese medicine. We saw signs that there is a tourist trade here as there were gift shops in some of the buildings, however, at this time of year there were no people manning them and the town was rather deserted minus the people who lived and worked there. While the pictures I took did no justice to the beauty and fascination of this place, simply wandering around and marveling at the sights was well worth our time. Although I've always been a little disturbed by cultural tourism, I have to say that I truly loved visiting ChengKan.

    Hangzhou, West Lake. We spent our day here walking around the lake and enjoying all of the signs pointing out historic buildings, which included a villa that Chiang Kai-Shek had owned. Unfortunately after the stairs of Huangshan, our legs weren’t up for any sort of slope, which meant that we skipped the most iconic and popular sites here, and weren’t able even to go to the Lingyin Temple. We did, however, visit the Yue Fei Mausoleum and although most of the buildings were closed for renovation it seemed like it would have been a great place to visit when exhibits are open. Walking around the lake afforded us plenty of opportunities to enjoy the scenery which has made this such a popular vacation destination and we definitely enjoyed the experience.

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    Whew! It's no wonder I haven't undertaken to write a trip report before - I seem to be unable to summarize! I still plan to mention food and transportation when I have some time. In the meantime, my apologies for being so long-winded. I will try for a quick summary when it comes to the next topics.

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    Thanks for the very detailed trip report. You title is a bit misleading as most of it is not really in north of China..
    I am not surprised to read that the hotel that was the most expensive was the best!!! Nanluoguxiang used to be a great place then it got too popular, rents went up and several businesses moved out. Now most shops sell cheap souvenirs and snack food.
    I don't quite get why you were disappointed that there was no fog at Huangshan. It is not fun to go all the way there just to see practically nothing due to fog. And are you sure that one does not pay entrance fee by staying on top?

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    Oh sorry, that was worded poorly. You would still have to pay an entrance fee, but as long as you didn't leave the gates and return you wouldn't have to pay on your second, or third days. I was disappointed because I love the old Chinese artwork depicting fog swirling around the granite spires. I do realize however that we were quite lucky in the outstanding views we got, and especially lucky to see the mountain blanketed in snow. It was incredibly beautiful. I could not help but think of how much more mysterious the stairways would have been, however, had we been descending into a swirling fog. I'm not ungrateful for our luck, especially as it made it possible to watch monkeys high on the granite slopes, but it gave me a reason to want to return, for sure.
    Thanks also for the correct spelling of Nanluoguxiang, I was too lazy to look it up! I found there to be quite an assortment of shops including some quite high-end places. I can't imagine what it used to be if several businesses have moved out.

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    Oh, I had not noticed your typo, still figure out what you meant!
    Next time go to the Wodaoying hutong, not yet as spoiled as Nanluoguxiang and smaller but they have a Mexican restaurant which is a bit odd!

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    I spoke to fast on the other thread, you started your TR already! I am enjoying the details, especially Tangkou and ChengKan which we are planning to go later this year. Will patiently wait for your food and transportation sections, no need to summarize it quickly ...

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    More specifically, the North of China starts after you cross from the Yangtze watershed into the Yellow River watershed. Not the river itself.

    Big difference in the way houses are constructed. In the north, some sort of central-heating is built-in; often in the forms of air vents in the walls and floors connected to the stove to recycle heat. In the south, there's generally no heat.

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    Shanghainese, thanks, one mystery solved! They were comfortable pillows, just strange to the touch. JPDeM, thanks for the tip. We got such a small taste of China that we are eagerly planning our next trip. Thursdaysd, I can SPEAK some Mandarin, but that has no bearing on how well I can LISTEN to others speak! My trick this trip was to repeat a person's question out loud in my own voice which helped me catch on to the inquiry. Didn't work so well in Anhui, where "hong-joe" is pronounced "han-zoe". We thought we might be on the wrong bus for a good hour after that one! This trip has definitely intensified my resolve to more seriously study the language.

    Thanks for the discussion on what constitutes North - technically I was aware that we weren't terribly north for a chunk of our trip, especially as there was still so much greenery amongst the snow, with gardens, fields and tea plantations still growing even in the negative C temps. However I didn't want to call it "Winter in North China - with a Side Trip to Central China"! My apologies for taking a silly little artistic license - and thanks for clearing it up!

    I haven't forgotten about my other topics and will definitely continue the TR shortly.

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    Okay, I know I said food next but that one may take a while as I have to recall names of specific places that are escaping my memory.

    Transportation. Wanted to include this to give a sense of cost and of ease of travel.

    The metro from PEK into Beijing is 25rmb, any other line is 2rmb, including any in-station transfers. We found the subway in Beijing to be a great way to travel, and it got within a few blocks of nearly every place we wished to go. However, they are often incredibly crowded so we really had to get into the Chinese way of shuffling in even against traffic trying to disembark. Cab meters in Beijing start at 3.5rmb and a trip to the airport from Dongcheng cost us 70rmb, from the same area to the southern part of the Forbidden City it was 15rmb.

    We took a strange path to Huangshan and while I’m sure it won’t be of much use to many people, it was cost-effective and an interesting travel day for us. We flew to Hefei for 480rmb/person, took a cab to the South Bus Station for 13rmb and got bus tickets to Tangkou for 93rmb/person. The “bus” trip (really an oversized minivan) took longer than its intended 5 hours as we were driving through heavy snow and were turned back from tollbooths a few times, yet even with the detours it only took 6 hours total. And that was with a random stop in Taiping where the bus driver disembarked to chat with some other guy, smoking cigarettes and flagging down cars for about 20 minutes before telling us all to get off the bus and go get on another bus that had just pulled up. I’ve already mentioned the cost of getting around Huangshan Mountain from Tangkou above, but I forgot to mention that a bus trip to or from the Hot Springs area was 11rmb.

    Our bus trip to Hangzhou from Tangkou cost 100rmb/person, with front-door service. This was fascinating to me, a woman assisting the driver had a list of people who had reserved seats and we drove around town for almost an hour, honking at front doors while people would run out to the bus. The trip took about 4 hours, woulda been a bit shorter had we not been one of the first to be picked up. Cab meters in Hangzhou start at 10rmb, our trip from the West Bus Station to the eastern side of West Lake was 40rmb. From the same point a cab to the airport cost 101rmb, another option would be to take the shuttle bus from the aviation office for 20/person.
    The flight back to Beijing cost 530/person, we actually stayed an extra day because for some reason Thursday flights were almost twice the price. When we got to the airport (early, thank goodness), we found that our flight had been cancelled for no particular reason, so after some crazy shuffling we were given tickets to a flight that was about to leave and had to race with all of our luggage through security (jettisoning some liquids I’d have loved to keep). Wouldn’t you know that my husband was chosen to have his bag searched, but somehow we made it onto the shuttle bus and boarded our flight, with a lovely upgrade to first class to make up for our lost liquids. And the best part was that we were able to get into Beijing earlier than we had planned. But it easily could have gone the other way, we were the last people allowed to board and the next flight was 5 hours later!

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    Good info. Not that it matters much but cabs in Beijing start at 10RMB. One should also know that you have to pay an extra 2RMB above what the maters says for the fuel surcharge (for rides over 3km).

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    Haha, true, we thought at first that we were being charged extra because we were foreigners, until we finally saw the sign. It's interesting that every cab we took in Beijing showed the meter beginning at 3.50 - are there different cab companies, or what else might explain the discrepancy?

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    Okay, food. Sorry for the long delay.

    Beijing (off Gulou E in Dongcheng):
    Mr. Shi's Dumplings. Located in Baochao Hutong, the owner is effusively friendly and this place has the flavor of my favorite local diners at home. He has recently rolled out a new, nontraditional menu of dumplings with CHEESE - my favorite, and a plate of these, fried, will satisfy any cravings for home. We ate here a few times and tried many things, and loved them all, even the cold dishes. **Highly recommended.

    Dali Courtyard. Nearby, on Xiaojingchang Hutong, is this much-reviewed and recommended restaurant. I fully concur. Prix fixe menu is 128rmb/person. Beautiful setting, absolutely beautiful and delicious food. Wine was 40rmb/glass with much more expensive bottle options available. Friendly staff add to an already amazing dining experience. I read in Lonely Planet, or maybe Fodors, that reservations were needed but we walked in and had no problem getting a table. Part of the beauty of visiting Beijing during the winter perhaps.

    For the most part, we just popped into random places as we were touring the city. Any place with picture menus was bound to be at least 50% more expensive than those without. There is some mighty fine baozi to be found all over the hutongs off Meishi, south of Tiananmen Square, and with a little knowledge of the language it's easy to find great meals at great prices. No Mandarin? No problem, just point, smile and look hungry and you'll be taken care of, even if you have no idea what you're having!

    Hangzhou:

    Another Lonely Planet recommendation was the Laomajia Mianguan, a small Halal diner (7 tables) located on the NE corner of Xihu and Nanshan. No English menu or speakers, but seriously yummy food at very low prices. 10rmb for beef noodles, around 25rmb for more complex dishes.

    I wish I could tell you how to get to this nice hotpot place, but we were led there by someone and got lost returning. If you happen to see a Days Inn 7 off the east coast of West Lake, you're really close, look for an elevator to take you to the second floor. Sorry I can't be of more help...

    We really enjoyed a French bakery near our hotel for quick breakfast or to pack a light lunch for the day. They also had the best wifi connection around.

    Huangshan:
    Pack a lunch or buy a bucket of Ramen for 10rmb if you're on top of the mountain and on a budget. In Tangkou, there are plenty of small diners to choose from. Most will have an English translation of their dishes, but we found it better to see what other people were eating and ask for what looked good. Dishes were around 40-50rmb, one dish being plenty for two fairly hungry people.

    Another note - coffee is really sad in China. It's hard to find coffee that isn't liberally doused with creamer and sugar, even in the instant variety. When we go back I will definitely remember to bring my own.

    I know I'm forgetting a few memorable places but I took more pictures than notes on the food and just can't remember all the details. We did, however, find that the otherwise excellent TripAdvisor app for Beijing was terrible about many restaurant locations - they would simply group some by area, leading us to a random desolate spot. So it was easier for us to choose places based on smells or long lines than to try to find specific places. Those I've named are easy to find and worth the effort.

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    Oh, I can't believe I forgot to mention this place. Not food, but an absolutely terrific microbrewery - Great Leap Brewing. Owned by a guy from Ohio, this is a terrific place to escape China's 3.2% beers and meet some locals and ex-pats, all in a terrific space. It's a little strange getting there but just put the name in Google Maps and it'll come right up. This is also off Gulou E - very close to the Drum Tower. Highly recommended! Great beer, great conversation, great space.

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    One final note on food. While I can't speak to this place (as we ran out of time before our flight), it did come highly recommended by a trusted Beijinger, so I thought I'd share the info. For yummy Cantonese-style dim sum, he recommended Heng Shan Hui on the upper East side of Chaoyang, No. 21 Xiaoyun Rd. If anyone has eaten there I'd love to hear if it's a worthwhile experience to put on our "next time" list.

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    And finally, impressions. For those who haven’t yet been to China, or those who are considering a trip without an organized tour but are unsure of what to expect, I wanted to give our impressions as first-time visitors. Until two years ago, I was afraid that I would never get to China myself because I had heard so much about it being a difficult country to travel and I was basically afraid of trying. Taking Mandarin really helped me get over some of my concerns, although to be honest, I have such a low level of proficiency that it didn’t seem to make a difference in the amount of time I spent completely bewildered by what was happening around me! I am so grateful that I put my fears aside because I really found something to love in China and cannot wait for the chance to return.

    Weather:
    Even if you are used to winter, you may not be so used to spending several hours at a time out in the weather, especially at an activity so sedate as sightseeing. We packed without considering how cold can leech under your layers after hours of exposure and found ourselves layering practically every item in our suitcases on some cold days! I am grateful that we went to China during the winter, however, and consider it a terrific option for people like us who really love to escape the crowds. I am sure that my enjoyment of the Great Wall, for instance, would have been diminished were I being jostled by crowds and unable to envision it as a lonely and desolate place. Only, be prepared for the cold, this is one instance where I would even say pack more than you think you need as long as those items are thick long underwear and socks, and make sure you’ve got insulated shoes. It will make a huge difference in making the most of your trip.

    Planning:
    Normally I am an almost obsessive planner. This time around we basically knew that we were flying into Beijing and that we wanted to visit Huangshan. I was relieved to have our first few nights of lodging reserved so that we could head straight from our 12-hour flight to our hotel, but the rest of the trip was basically a huge blank. It was a strange sensation to be so unprepared but because it was winter we moved at a much slower pace than normal and had downtime each evening to plan our next moves. Many of our favorite experiences came about through talking to people around us, and although I wouldn’t make a habit of it, for this trip our lack of planning worked out nicely. However, I would most definitely suggest that anyone who can’t read or speak Mandarin plan out at least to the extent of having possible destinations written down, along with a good map showing both pinyin and characters. In Beijing it was easy to bypass the language barrier but in the countryside travel can definitely be stressful. With a good sense of humor and extra time budgeted into the day for misunderstandings, however, I think that China can be a very forgiving place to travel aimlessly!

    People:
    I cannot say enough about the kind-heartedness of the people we met along our journey. So many people seemed to show a genuine concern for us and sent us away with a feeling so much better than the joy of seeing famous sites. I think many people took pity on us for wandering around with confused looks on our faces; even a soldier at Tiananmen Square left formation to tell us where to line up for the flag-raising ceremony! I highly recommend learning at least a few key phrases as it seems that many people are genuinely happy to see even the smallest effort, and their happiness translates into your own. As far as pictures go – yes, we were stopped often to take pictures with strangers, especially my tall, bearded husband. We had a great sense of humor about this and would often make them take a picture with our camera as well. What I liked less were the surreptitious photos that people would take thinking that we didn’t notice. It was fun to either ham it up or simply say “Nihao” to those people to let them know, in a friendly manner, that they weren’t being sneaky. Queues, also, were sometimes a trying experience, but I cannot stress enough the importance of maintaining a good sense of humor. As long as we kept in mind that we were invading their culture for the purpose of sight-seeing, we were able to stay calm and, we hope, leave a good impression on the people we met.

    Shopping:
    It is a blast to barter, so much so that I think I wound up getting almost everyone I know some souvenir just because I was so addicted to trying to obtain the best price! Of course this means that everything takes a lot longer, so although shopping trips can be a super experience, they can also eat up a lot more of your time than you might expect. My only regret was that I started out feeling a little hesitant about bartering and so passed up some items that I would have loved to at least TRY to buy. Different people state different rules of thumb, so you can hear that the right price is anything from 1/10th to ½ the stated cost. I lean more towards about 1/3rd, but the real rule is that you should consider how much you’d like to buy it for and walk away from it if they won’t come down to your best price. If you aren’t being unreasonable they won’t let you walk away, and you’ll get a sense of worth in no time if you just keep trying.

    Language:
    Enjoy the English where you find it because so many translations are riotously funny. I love the phrase “English with Chinese characteristics” and I understand it so well now. On a serious note, language here was no more of a barrier than in any other country we’ve traveled (less so for me, but my husband had little problem expressing himself with a combination of his four known Mandarin words, sign language, and a big smile). However I most definitely recommend learning a few basic phrases, and for those who don’t have the time to travel in a cloud of confusion, find a translation device to bring along. My Verizon phone for some reason never was able to connect to the 3G network, and the one program I had that didn’t need a connection could only do one word at a time. A few times confusion was happily cleared up by some helpful Chinese person with a translator, even in one memorable case, when I thought I was in perfect understanding with a hotel clerk, who then led me to another hotel simply because he knew that she had a translation device.

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    I know that this trip report has been a little bit different in format but my hope was that this would help those looking for specific information. I wrote this because our China experience was truly a dream come true, and because only a few years ago when traveling around Europe I declared that I believed I would never make it to China as it would be too "hard". I don't want anyone who is truly passionate about seeing this wonderful country to be held back by lack of information, or fear. I hope that my information is useful and that my long-windedness doesn't make this too boring to be a good resource!

    Our China experience was full of surprises at every turn, random kindness from strangers, and beauty that I am still trying to process. I often felt that I was wandering around inside a dream. I hope that I've conveyed a bit of the wonder and excitement of seeing China during the off season.

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