A Month in China

Old Apr 30th, 2010, 10:33 AM
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Keep it coming!
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Old Apr 30th, 2010, 01:05 PM
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Well, we are now in Guilin, a large city about an hour’s ride from Yangshou where we just spent 4 glorious days in the countryside.

On Saturday, we employed a driver and tour guide to take us out to see the famous Dragon‘s Backbone Rice Terraces. Our 25-year old Chinese tour guide “Sara” was one of those delightfully pleasant Chinese girls with whom you can easily bond and have a great time no matter what the activity. She spoke English quite well, and was our teacher, mentor, and translator for the day, as well as tour guide to the famous rice paddies in the mountains northwest of Guilin. My husband loved her because she taught him some cool Mandarin slang that you will never find in the standard mandarin phrase books, and which he got to use thru out the day as we ran the gauntlet of nuisance peddlers that we encountered everywhere.

It was a full 2-hour car ride to the Dragon’s backbone, so we had a lot of time to get to know Sara. Sara belongs to the Dong tribe, one of 55 minority groups in China. These minority groups have their own dialects and still follow many of their old traditions. Sara said the Dong Tribe were easily identifiable by their long slim “horse faces.” We tried not to laugh, but she was so honest and sincere in her
analysis. She was so pretty and definitely did not look like a horse!

Before climbing up to the rice terraces, we watched a fairly schlocky performance by the Yao women, another minority group who Sara said had “pumpkin-faces.” These women revere long hair believing that long hair means long life. They cut their hair only once in their lives at the age of 18, and even then they save the cut hair to use in their elaborate hairdos. We watched as they unraveled and combed their lengthy locks. These are short people so their hair can grow longer than they are -- some of the women had to stand on a staircase in order to completely let down their Rapunzel-like hair!

The constant rain and thick fog (we were lucky if we could see 100 feet in front of us) were very discouraging, and we wondered if we would get even a glimpse of the beautiful Dragon’s Backbone rice paddies. We almost called off the hike, but perky little Sara beckoned us to go up
with her. So, we got out the ponchos and made the steep 1000 foot ascent (about a 1.5 mile hike) to the top of the mountain.

When we reached the top, the fog parted like a modern-day Moses Red Sea trick, and low and behold, there were the famed rice paddies!! We were dumbfounded, and even Sara was awestruck. Sara had told us that the rain would actually drive out the fog -- and she was right!. The scene before us was like a Chinese painting. The emerald green rice paddies swirled and undulated following the contours of the mountainside looking like it’s namesake: the backbone of a Dragon. Beyond the rice paddies, the mountains were covered with white mist, and we could see mountain peaks poking thru the mist like islands in a sea of clouds. What a rare natural beauty!!

Our next destination is the city of Hangzhou. We arrived on Shandong Airlines, our third domestic flight here in China, and it was another on-time, uneventful flight despite the extreme fog and rain at takeoff.

Upon arrival in Hangzhou, we had a bizarre experience with the airport bus which was supposed to drop us off at a stop near our hotel. Somehow we got on the wrong bus, and when we arrived at God-knows-where at the end of the bus line, the bus men grabbed our bags and hustled us (and the bags)onto another bus. We couldn’t understand a word they were saying and felt so lost and frustrated, but these bus guys seemed to know what the problem was. Then like a miracle, 10 minutes later, this new bus pulled up right in front of our hotel! We are still mystified, but grateful to the two Chinese men who took a few minutes of their time to help a couple of very befuddled westerners.

We traipsed out into the rain and hiked down to West Lake, a beautiful focal point in this city for hikers, bikers, strollers, and boaters. We took a fancy pleasure boat out to an island with lots of inlets and flowering plants like rhododendrons and azaleas. The air actually smelled sweet. Later, we took a ride around the island on an electric buggy. We had a great time gawking at the graceful willow trees, the lovely lake views, and the hordes of Chinese tourists. We seemed to be the only white faces on the lake! We finished our day on Qinghefang Lu known as the fun street with its many cafes, shops, and street vendors.

The following day, we went to see one of the popular nearby water towns called Wuzhen. The simplest and least expensive route to Wuzhen seemed to be booking a bus tour thru our hotel. Only one problem: no English tours, only tours in Mandarin. It was not a pretty option, but what the heck.

Wuzhen is unfortunately a tourist haven with an attractive Venice look - lots of canals and steep-arched stone bridges that span the many waterways -- and tons of tour groups. Everybody loves the beauty of Wuzhen: the droopy willow trees that line the canal, the old wooden temple-like housing, canal boats with their single oar propulsion (like a gondolier in Venice), and all the shops.

Because everything about the day’s events were in Chinese, we didn’t understand that the bus was also going to make a few side stops to the shopping malls along the way -- an unfortunate habit with these tours. Unfortunately, it was a bit of a disappointing day for both of us. Maybe it was the several stops of forced shopping, the rainy day, the zoo-like atmosphere of Wuzhen itself; or all of the above. The whole experience was a tourist trap for sure – the kind of thing we usually try to avoid.

My husband does not eat breakfast, so I have been having some real breakfast adventures. In Guilin, I ended up slurping noodle soup with the locals at a popular noodle shop -- since chopsticks are the only utensils available, EVERYBODY slurps the broth and uses the chopsticks to shovel in the noodles! At just 50 cents a bowl, the noodles were great and it was the cheapest breakfast I have ever eaten. In Hangzhou, I checked out the hotel’s breakfast buffet and met a professor from Iraq. When he first introduced himself, I was a bit leery of getting into a political discussion, but he has a son in Virginia, and besides, what he really wanted to talk about was China. He had been here 15 years ago and is astounded by their progress. He kept saying, “It is a puzzle to me how they have changed so fast.” I said that it hardly feels like a Communist country, and he responded, “These people have left communism behind!!”

Tomorrow, our adventures take us by train to Shanghai, where we‘ll spend the final days of our stay here in China. Seems like the trip just began, and now it’s almost over.
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Old Apr 30th, 2010, 03:12 PM
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Magster - Your trip sounds wonderful. My question is though - if one has seen terraced rice fields elsewhere (we will be seeing them in Sapa in just a few weeks),is it worth going to the Guillin and Yangshou area or should we spend our time elsewhere in China? There's so much to do and see and so many time constraints!
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Old Apr 30th, 2010, 03:37 PM
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Dgunbug -- This is not an easy question to answer. I know how hard it is to pick and choose among the many sights you'd like to see. I can only tell you that the Yangshuo area along the Li and Yulong Rivers had the most beautiful landscapes of our trip. Also, we have seen the rice fields of Bali, but still really enjoyed Dragon's Backbone Terraces.
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Old Apr 30th, 2010, 03:52 PM
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Did you fly out of the airport in Yangshou or does Guillin have an airport?
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Old Apr 30th, 2010, 04:24 PM
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Really enjoying your report. It is exactly the same route we are planning, with the exception of 4 days in Li Jiang instead of Hangzhou. You have had some amazing experiences so far!


Here are a few more questions...
How did you find Sara your guide to the Dragons Backbone? Through the hotel?
Also, did you book all of our accommodations and flights before you left home?

Looking forward to reading more!!
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Old Apr 30th, 2010, 06:58 PM
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Dgunbug -- We flew in (and out) of Guilin airport which is about an hour's drive from Yangshuo. In both cases, our hotels arranged the transportation to and from the airport.

LvL -- Yes, we booked Sara thru our hotel, the Jing Guan Ming Lou Holiday Hotel (which I discovered in Lonely Planet and booked thru Ctrip). Very nice hotel with spacious rooms and helpful staff.

I did book all of the hotels and flights before we left. I know there has been a lot of discussion on this forum about the pros and cons of booking ahead. I usually prefer to have the basics of the trip taken care of ahead of time so that I can fully enjoy the trip without worrying about bookings. Plus I really enjoy researching hotels to find the perfect fit -- and I like having the email correspondence with the hotel which always makes me feel as if I already know the people.

We did make all of our train bookings after we arrived in China -- once with our hotel's help (and with an added commission) and once at a Train Booking office that was right across the street from our hotel. Both methods worked fine. For the Booking Office, I wrote out all the details for the train I wanted and that seemed to help the transaction to go smoothly.

I booked all of our domestic flights via Ctrip and was very pleased with their service. I had good luck waiting until a month ahead when the fares came down on two of the flights, but on the third flight I tried waiting a bit longer than a month before and the fare actually went UP. I really wanted that direct flight so I ended up paying the higher amount (and kicking myself for waiting LOL).
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Old Apr 30th, 2010, 07:51 PM
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We made it to Shanghai today riding the classy, fast-moving bullet train out of Hangzhou to Shanghai. The trip took 1.5 hours, and was as smooth as any luxury train we’ve ever ridden.

We are staying at the north end of the Bund in the grand Astor House Hotel, overlooking the Suzhou Creek and Huangpu River. Many famous celebrities have stayed here, among them Albert Einstein, Charlie Chaplin, and President Ulysses S. Grant. We usually find accommodations in the backpacker-style hotels, so the Astor House is a bit of a rare upscale treat for us.

We are thoroughly enjoying The Bund where every day, thousands of pedestrians stroll, or just sit, checking out the sights, the architectural wonders, and maybe even just watching the people.

On the other side of the river, the sights visible from the Bund include modern unusual architecture, which make up the famous “Pudong Skyline;” these marvelous structures are a sight to behold and ponder, representing the power and money here in Shanghai,. Prominent displays include the Jinmao Tower with its crystalline rooftop, the Oriental Pearl Tower that looks like it was made using giant Christmas balls, the sleek Shanghai World Financial Center (tallest of them all), and the flashy Aurora building.

On our side, which is on the west side of the river, the older European-style colonial buildings line the riverside in an area that was once considered the Wall Street of Asia. Many of these buildings are famous landmarks offering a mix of architectural styles built in the early 1900’s when Shanghai and the Bund became the chief shipping, trading, and financial district for the colonial powers (Great Britain, France and the U.S.).

We walked only about a mile and a half of the promenade on our first day in Shanghai, and ate a delightful Chinese meal in the south part of town that evening. We discovered lots of shops and hucksters along the streets, and no shortage of entertainment and restaurants down in the old town. Afterwards, we hiked back to the hotel in the pouring rain. Yea, it’s raining here in Shanghai too, with thunder and lightening chasing us along the Bund!!

The Shanghai Museum and the Shanghai Urban Planning Center (both near the Bund) are worthwhile sights when visiting this big city for the first time. The Urban Planning Center has a large, scaled diorama of modern day Shanghai on its first floor, and it offers the Shanghai novice a top-down familiarization of this unbelievably large city of 27 million people. And the Shanghai Museum has an impressive collection of Chinese art including fascinating ceramics -- which doesn’t sound nearly as interesting as it is!

The following day, it was finally the first completely sunny day that we’ve experienced in China since we arrived. We decided to hiked to the Yu Yuan Gardens, where temples, cleverly arranged streams and shrubbery, and lots of big colorful carp hungering for a tourist handout make for a delightfully scenic respite from the bustle of Shanghai. We got derailed on the way to Yu Yuan, and ended up in some of the old neighborhoods of Shanghai.

As we regained our sense of direction by wandering thru a few alleyways, we couldn’t believe the poverty and squalor we found in some of those warrens. The food being cooked out on the streets by the vendors was unpalatable to the nose, let alone to eat. The smells of raw sewage were everywhere in the air. The overhead electrical lines were a rats-nest of twisted nonstandard lines and cables that couldn’t have passed any electrical code specs anywhere, and to boot, the lower electrical lines had people’s clothing hanging all over it, drying in the wind. Wow, what a difference an alley makes!!

Just a couple of streets over, and it’s a different world of money and power where nicely dressed business men in expensive suit coats carry spiffy leather-bound attaché cases. While here in the alleys, it reminded us of what it must have been like in the early days of Shanghai. It was a dichotomy too broad for us to comprehend.

This evening, we crossed under the Huangpu River using the “The Bund Sightseeing Tunnel’, which was a fun adventure in itself, with many space-age lighting techniques pummeling the senses as we zipped along thru the tunnel.

The fancy side of the river is a far cry from where we had just come. Tall colorful and shiny pillars of concrete rocket into the night sky all around us, making us dizzy with delight. This is one of the most beautiful and eclectic collections of skyscrapers that we have ever seen.

While here in the rarified air of Pudong, I was thrilled to take the elevator to the 87th floor of the Jinmao Tower, where we had a few drinks and a chocolate mousse, as we took in the clear night views of the Bund from the opposite side of the Huangpu River. The whole city was alive with colorful neon sparkling in all directions, and the river was aglow with dazzling boat traffic. Everything was outlined with color, and light displays filled the night sky of the Bund.

On Saturday, we spent our last full day enjoying one of the favorite activities in Shanghai: shopping till you‘re dropping! Seemed like the whole city had the same idea. These people have sure embraced consumerism!

My favorite shopping spot was the Copy Market which is located below the Science and Technolgy Museum. This place had an amazing selection of very good fakes especially shoes and handbags. I was thrilled to get a Longchamps bag that sure looks authentic to me.

We have one last interesting adventure to share. On Sunday, we traveled to the modern Shanghai Pudong International Airport in flashy high-speed style on the "Maglev" (Magnetic Levitation) train. The Pudong Airport, btw, is such modern architecturally delightful eye candy, reflecting the modernity of other parts of Shanghai.

But back to the Maglev. The Maglev is the fastest train in the world, capable of reaching ground speeds of 300+ mph, as demonstrated back in 2003 during the testing period. We hopped aboard the Maglev out to the airport, and traveled at a cool 200 mph. You can really appreciate these enormous speeds when you can see the trees, telephone poles, and other ground structures whiz by this sleek train at 200 mph, and feel the graceful banking of the train with each broad turn. It's almost like flying without leaving the ground! The distance to the airport is about 25 miles, and the train covers the distance in just under 8 minutes.

So, that's the end of the report. When I first started planning this trip, I seriously considered doing an escorted tour (which we have never done). But thanks to the comments on this forum, I decided that we could do the trip on our own. And, we are so glad that we did. China can be challenging at times, but we never had a real problem and traveling independently gave us a much deeper appreciation of this intriguing country.
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Old Apr 30th, 2010, 09:04 PM
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bravo for doing all this on your own....a fantastic report...thanks
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Old Apr 30th, 2010, 11:05 PM
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Thanks so much for taking the time to write this entertaining and informative report and for answering questions. It has reaffirmed our choice of doing it alone. We know we're going to have a wonderful time in China!
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Old May 1st, 2010, 05:34 AM
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Thanks for a great trip report!
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Old May 1st, 2010, 06:05 AM
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What a great report and great writing style. I feel like I was there with you. Thanks for your efforts. Now I can't wait to go myself.
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Old May 1st, 2010, 06:13 AM
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Just curious...how did you rate China with other Asia countries you visited? We've been to Thailand and Cambodia and leave for Vietnam next week. Looking for our next destination.
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Old May 1st, 2010, 08:29 AM
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Just want to give a huge thanks for your trip report, it has been highly entertaining and provided alot of useful information for our China trip coming up in September. Thanks again!
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Old May 1st, 2010, 12:18 PM
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Thanks so much for all the positive feedback. There is not a great deal of info on China, especially for independent travelers, so I wanted to offer some.

dgunbug -- China is not easy to rate. It is not my favorite Asian country. I would give that honor to Thailand or Japan. However, China surprised us with its charm and with the friendliness of the people. Plus, the top sights like the Great Wall and the Terracotta Warriors are among the most amazing things we have seen anywhere. The country is endlessly fascinating for their history, but also in terms of where they are headed in the future. I would definitely encourage you to go.

For those of you who are heading to China, have a great trip. You are in for a real treat!
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Old May 1st, 2010, 02:32 PM
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I also just returned from a month in China (3/24-4/21). I am about to start writing my trip report and I happened on yours. I started reading and had to do a double take. We are so similar...couple, late 50's early 60's, originally from NJ and we had some similar experiences. I was reading some to my husband and it is really similar. Can I just copy some of your paragraphs? It would save me time! Amazing. I wonder if we crossed paths while we were there.
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Old May 1st, 2010, 04:10 PM
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sdtravels -- That is so funny. We were in China at almost exactly the same time (3/27-4/25). And we are from PA. Can't wait to read your trip report!
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Old May 1st, 2010, 06:25 PM
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sdtravels - can't wait to hear your report too. We are also in the same age group, originally NY & CT - now in Florida.
All our travel has been independent and we are happy to hear that China is so doable.

Thanks again for the great report Magster.
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Old May 2nd, 2010, 07:21 AM
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Magster- What a wonderful, well-written, and descriptive report! Thanks for taking the time to write it all out.
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Old May 4th, 2010, 03:59 AM
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thanks for sharing with us the really nice and useful detailed trips!
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