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Trip Report A redhead in China

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I had two weeks off and decided to go to China. Using to help from this forum, TripAdvisor and the GreatWallForum I loosely planned my solo adventure. I flew out on December 18, landed the 19th in Beijing, took the overnight train to Xi'an on Dec 25 and will take the overnight train to Shanghai on the 29th. I'll fly home on Jan 1.

For background info, I'm 26, female and traveling on my own. I only speak two words/phrases of Mandarin (hello and thank you). I made my hotel reservations online through and am quite happy to have my hotels already arranged and not have to even think about where I'll stay.

I'm just over halfway through my trip and am having a fantastic time! I find it hilarious that random people come up to me on a regular basis to have their photos taken with me. I've definitely never been stared at this much in my life but people react to a smile just like they do anywhere else. People have been extremely friendly (the staring isn't meant to be rude or uncomfortable, they're just curious) and places I have been are for the most part very well signed in English. Restaurants have all had picture menus so I just flip through and find something that looks good, then point and smile.

Here's a link to my first album of photos. There will likely be at least one more album to follow. Though the photos are on Facebook the album is open to the public so you don't have to be a member to view the photos. I am posting photos to Facebook from China, but I have to use a proxy server to access the site as it is blocked here.

I'm using my emails home as a basis for this trip report so please forgive me if the word tense/time frame seems to jump around a little bit. I'm hoping that if I'm good and start a trip report as I go that I'll actually finish the darn thing unlike for my previous attempts at a trip report. :)

Please feel free to ask any questions and I can try to answer them.

Saturday 12/18 and Sunday 12/19 -

My flight left the local airport first thing in the morning. It was the day when all of the international students were flying home after finals so the tiny airport was packed with people. I still had plenty of time to get through the check in line (online check in wasn’t available for my flights) and through security before it was time to board.

On the flight to O’Hare I chatted with the lady next to me the entire time and figured out at the end of the short jump that she actually works closely with my SIL so we had to laugh about that. At O’Hare I had Chinese for lunch (best possible choice when that’s what I’ll have for the next two weeks right?) and then vegged out at the gate to wait for my flight. For all United flights to China, you have to show the gate attendants your passport with valid visa and boarding pass to get a “Visa OK” stamp before they let you board. That way they can take time to check all of the visa’s as people arrive at the gate and the agent who takes your boarding pass can tell with a glance that you’re good to go. If there’s a problem with your visa they need to know about it on the right side of the ocean.

That was one insanely long flight but the extra inches in economy plus were definitely worth it. I find it entertaining that to fly to China from Chicago, you go straight north for awhile and then finally turn west over northern Canada. We flew within 300 miles of the north pole (I waved to Santa), north of Alaska, then over Siberia, Russia and Mongolia before finally arriving in Beijing. Throughout the flight I kept opening the window shade a few inches to peek out. We started out just afternoon and seemed to chase the sun from then on. Sometime over Russia/Mongolia we caught the sun and arrived into Beijing in the early morning.

A few hours into the flight they served us dinner (beef brisket or noodles of some kind). The beef brisket and mashed potatoes were pretty good, and the peppermint brownie was fantastic. Later in the flight they came around with a “snack” of Cup O Soup which was actually really good. Eating that with chopsticks was a fun challenge (my seatmate did look at me like I might need a helmet at all times when I kept snickering at myself for being less than skilled with the sticks). I’m very glad that I kept my coat down as I kept that between me and the freezing cold plane wall.

The Beijing airport is very well signed in English so getting through the airport was a breeze. At the taxi line I simply showed the driver my printout with the Chinese characters for the hotel name and address and we were off. We got stuck at the toll booth area heading out of the airport to let a diplomat entourage have the road. They held everybody up for about 5 minutes waiting for them to come through, and then held us a few minutes after they were past so they had entirely empty road. I wonder who it was who travels with a full police escort, limo, mini-bus and a couple other cars/SUV’s.

The taxi was absolutely worth the 130RMB price (meter plus toll) and not dinking around with trying the Metro. The Metro is fantastic but it’s so much easier when you know what your hotel and it’s street look like. I hit the hotel, got settled in and went to bed.

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    Monday 12/20 -

    Holy tootsies Batman, my feet hurt! I had breakfast in the hotel this morning and it was pretty good. I sat in a corner and laughed at myself quite a bit while I tried to use the chopsticks. Three different servers came over to ask me if I wanted a knife and fork but I wanted to get the dang things to work. After breakfast I stopped by the ticket desk in the lobby and arranged for my train ticket for the night of the 25th. The desk adds a 20RMB fee for that service. For less than $3, yeah, it was definitely worth it and easier than going to the train station to do it myself. The guy at that desk doesn't really speak English but we got through it with a few notes back and forth and charades.

    Once I had arranged for my train ticket, I headed out for the day. I left the hotel and started wandering to find the Forbidden City. I went left out of the lobby instead of going right but I wandered through a hutong (shabby residential area is the best way I can think to describe a hutong) and got to the FC around 8:15. I picked up an automatic guide (when you get to an area it tells you about it) and proceeded to wander back and forth for the next hours. I stopped at one of their little restaurants for lunch (beef and potatoes with rice, very good, and only 31RMB which is $4-5) but lunch only took 20 minutes or so and then it was back to wandering.

    I left the FC around 4:15 - 4:30 and wandered to Tiananmen Square. Then I wandered around the area a bit more, walked home to the hotel and had buffet dinner at the hotel (68RMB I think and fairly good but nothing special). I was seriously gimping by this point so dinner in the hotel seemed like a fantastic idea. Despite the early hour I was beyond ready for bed and practically passed out before 7.

    As a side note, I injured my foot a couple years ago and it shouldn’t be an issue but apparently it has decided to be an issue. The soft tissue was likely screwed up and that’s why it hurts up around my ankle. I’ll have to get it looked at once I get home as a day of walking shouldn’t leave me hobbling.

    Tuesday 12/21 -

    I decided on visiting the Summer Palace today and headed for the Tiananmen East Metro station. It’s about a 10-15 minute walk from the Jade Garden hotel but it’s an easy and kind of interesting walk past restaurants, tons of shops and a park. I purchased the IC card for the Metro (think Oyster card in London, or similar pre-loaded cards for every subway system out there) and was on my way.

    Yet again, everything is signed very well in English and if you’ve been on any subway system in the world this is the exact same and very easy. The one thing is that there’s a LOT of people on the Metro so you have to be okay with likely standing (and often with no railing/handhold in reach). I took Line 1 to Line 4 to the Beigongmen station and then it was just a 5 minute walk to the Summer Palace (head out of the station towards McDonalds and turn left up the first real street).

    I spent most of the day hobbling about the Summer Palace before heading back towards my hotel. I stopped in at a ChinaMobile shop (pretty much a closet) to get a SIM card but never have been able to get it to work. The girl in the shop pulled up google translator and we went back and forth that way to try to get it to work but it’s an issue with the settings on my cell phone. She put the SIM card in one of the phones laying around and called hers and it worked fine. I borrowed my brothers old cell phone (quad band and unlocked) as it would have been nice to have instant access to the internet, maps, a translator and GPS but that’s okay. The girl at the store and I decided that it‘s all my brother‘s fault; some things really are international. ;) I’ve been using my netbook and Skype to call home and that works out excellently. The time difference puts it so that if I call home when I get up it’s late afternoon/evening at home and that’s a nice start to the day. If I stay up to a decently late time then I can call home and it’s first thing in the morning there. From there I stopped in at a restaurant on the way home to find dinner (whatever I pointed at on the menu was good but a little bit spicy). Then I stopped into a little grocery store to grab a few Snickers bars and little snacks. :)

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    Wednesday 12/22 -

    I had such a FANTASTIC day today on the Wall that I'm still practically vibrating. Well, that might just be my legs shaking still. :) My ankle held up, though it was whiney about it. My driver (Joe Qiao) picked me up promptly at 7:30 as arranged.

    Joe stopped at two pharmacies for me once he understood that I wanted to stop somewhere to get an ankle brace/sleeve or something to wrap around my ankle for support. The first one said it was 24 hours but the people in the attached store said that there was no staff right then so nothing could be sold. Joe was pretty funny with that when we got back in the car. He stopped in front of a second one and ran in to get me a roll of gauze. I didn't think that he would be able to find an actual brace (just something that we would pick up at WalMart was all I wanted) so I said a roll of bandage would be fine (I was thinking to do a makeshift ace wrap sort of thing). He found a roll of gauze and we were off.

    I recommend Joe very highly. He charged 700 RMB total for the entire day (I asked to be picked up at 7:30 and didn’t plan on leaving the Wall until around 4:30-5pm). He answered question after question and was quite happy telling me about all many different areas of life in China (yep, even politics). He asked if I really wanted to go to the Jinshanling section if my ankle was hurting, that Mutianyu would be a much easier walk for me. He laughed when I said that I would be fine and that my ankle could hurt on the plane. I stopped at the bathroom at the parking lot to put on Cuddl Duds. Between those, my warm sweater and just working my butt off I carried my coat for most of the day as it was way too hot with it on. Dang thing is heavy to carry! :) I didn't need the capilene or my wool socks, nor the hat, scarf or warm gloves that I had packed assuming it would be colder. I've been extremely lucky with the weather and I think it's supposed to get about 10-15 degrees cooler tomorrow and stay cool for the rest of the week. Today's high was to be something like 40, and tomorrow it's 25.

    The Wall was amazing. It's right in the middle of a mountain area and runs along the top of the mountains so it's basically hiking along the top of the mountains but with crumbly steps thrown in for fun. The farmers who live around the Wall hike it with tourists to sell them souvenirs and whatnot. Some guy hauls a large soft cooler of beer and water up to one of the towers to try to sell drinks to tourists. I told the lady walking with me up the start of the path to the wall that I didn't want anything and finally got her to go away. I was completely alone for the first two hours or so. I wanted to go a bit further in the one direction but as I was alone and am known to be a klutz I thought it was a bad idea and asking for trouble. After awhile I caught up to a group of 3 guys and their guide. Before too much longer we had caught up to the group of local women who hike with tourists. One picked me and stuck with me the entire time from then on. I didn't need her, but she was definitely useful. She understood simple English and body language/charades really well so we laughed and talked a lot. She pointed out the safe way when there were two options (go down the stairs and back up or go across the flat bit). She also took a handful of pictures for me with me in them. I bought a Great Wall book from her for 100 RMB. She asked for 140 and I hardly bargained at all. She was friendly, helped me with pictures and showed me the donkey (literally) trail coming down from one of the last towers we climbed to so that was worth the 100 RMB anyway. I did not get a "I climbed the Great Wall" t shirt nor the pack of "hand painted" chopsticks she wanted to sell me. Unfortunately the first lady saw me when we got back to the parking lot and was very pissed off. I had told her that I wasn't going to buy anything, not from her and not from anybody else. I hadn't planned on having the lady follow me the whole time and end up buying a book from her. I told Joe when I got in the car why she was so unhappy with me and he said "that's okay, they're all mad at me for telling you how to say you don't want to buy something". I'm glad that I didn't let the first lady walk with me, she was a grumpy thing and kept making pouty faces at me. The lady who did walk with me was much nicer and actually good company. I had a good mix of time with the Wall completely to myself and with company.

    I couldn't have asked for a better day. It was warm enough without being hot and there were only a handful of other people on the Wall. I did try to be careful with my ankle but my cobbled gauze and duct tape wrap actually did pretty good. I started out with the gauze wrapped around in a figure 8 between my foot and ankle and just a bit of tape to hold the gauze. That helped but after climbing for awhile I yanked off a long strip of tape and wrapped that in a figure 8 once around my foot and ankle and that really helped. I don't know how much was the support from the tape and how much was the extra padding from the gauze (and how much from adrenaline/stubborness) but either way it was a LOT better than yesterday. I was really worried about it yesterday because every step hurt and felt like it would collapse or start into screaming pain at any given second. Today, it was okay. I was very careful not to wrap anything too tight (putting a finger in between the gauze and my skin was a little tight but my finger still fit so it was definitely not cutting off circulation). I also made a point to wiggle my toes every once in a while and make sure that they still felt the way they should. I didn't think my foot was swelling with all of the walking but thought I should check to be sure.

    I climbed a few watch towers past where I would have stopped without my "guide" to tell me it was safe. She said it was safe and then once I said that yeah, I could do one or two more, she headed on up showing me some of the safe spots to step. A couple of the sections just go straight up. The one really, really steep section is 103 steps tall but it really should be closer to 200 normal steps I think. Parts were closer to ladder than to steps. Yikes! My guide (I really didn't understand her name, it sounded like Fung something) had me go up part way and she took a couple pictures for me. I trusted her with my camera a lot more than I would have in many other places I've visited. It's amazing that those women make that climb every day. They have to have leg muscles of steel!

    As a side note, I asked Joe about the chicken feet I had seen in a tiny grocery store (not right away, I waited until I knew that he would take the question as it was intended and not be offended). He said that they're actually very good and are good for your skin and hair. The skin is so thin and there's no meat so they just pick up whatever flavor you cook them with. He laughed and said that foreigners always gave him that same look that I was giving him. :) About the same time a dog was on the side of the road and he said "hey, that's my lunch! Joking, joking!" Apparently he doesn't eat dog (doesn't like the taste) but many people do.

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    Thursday 12/23 -

    Today I went to the Lama Temple which was interesting, but pictures aren't allowed in most of the buildings. There is Buddha stuff everywhere (it's a Buddhist temple so that's not exactly a surprise) and tons of incense. Thank god it was a windy day and there were signs all over saying not to burn the incense. There's a giant, four story golden painted Buddha in the one of the buildings. The automatic guide here was pretty worthless and I think I would have gotten a lot more out of it with a decent automatic guide or a real guide.

    From there, I went to the Silk Market. The Silk Market is an utterly crazy place. It has an entrance right from the metro stop. The basement levels are bags (purses, wallets, suitcases, duffle bags, etc). If you want a knockoff bag of any kind, this is the place to go. Then is two levels of clothes. Then jewelry, watches, iPhones and misc small electronics. Go up yet another floor and there's a couple restaurants and a pharmacy. I got a wrap at the pharmacy for my ankle. That will work better than the gauze and duct tape combo. I went to breakfast without it wrapped and wrapping it does help a bit. The fabrics on the one floor are amazing and if you wanted to have an entire business wardrobe made for you this would be the place to go. Some of the "Asian" print fabrics (mainly silks) were gorgeous but I didn't buy any fabric or clothes out of it because that style would look silly on me.

    Lunch was black pepper beef at a little fast food type place across the street from the market. They had a picture menu board with English-eese translations so pointing and smiling the cashier got my order easily. She circled the little picture to ask me if I wanted it as the full combo shown or just the main dish. Once I nodded to that she pointed to the drink shown (lemon tea) to ask if I really did want lemon tea or if I wanted one of the other varieties offered (there was a picture menu for that too). Another nod and smile and my order was placed. I paid and she gave me a little stand with a number on it to go and wait for my food to be brought out to me. The meat was actually very good and it had rice under it so was hot and filling. The lemon tea was warm and had a good splash of honey in it and it was very good. It was perfect warm… it warmed me up from the inside out but wasn’t burning hot so that I had to let it sit for 15 minutes. There was a hard boiled brown egg on top of my bowl of food and I didn't touch that (I don‘t like hardboiled white eggs so I‘m not going to see if a brown one is any better as it looked much worse).

    A few people were watching me when they brought out my bowl of food and they looked surprised and almost like they weren't sure if they should be proud of me or disappointed when I could work the chopsticks without issues. I still have some issues, and I'm definitely not as good as someone who uses them all the time but I'm doing pretty good for someone who could barely hold the dang things less than a week ago. After lunch it was back into the market.

    The market is 10,000 tiny booths with 2-3 staff in each, mainly young girls. As I walked by, they reached out to grab my arm and called out "lady!" "hi, lady!" "look here!" "you want buy scarf? Jacket?..." (or whatever they happened to be selling). All I could think of was sharks in blood filled water. They knew just enough English to try to coerce me in with claims of "Louis Vuitton" "real cashmere" "100% silk" and "good price for you". Thanks to the forums, I know how crazy they start their prices and about where I should aim with bargaining. All prices are bargained back and forth on little desk calculators. They put in their price, I put in mine at around 10% and then when they say "no, too low!" so I start to walk away. Only a couple times did they actually let me walk away. I usually got it for that price eventually or for only slightly more. Often I'd only raise my amount by 10-20 yuan (7 yuan/$1). Unfortunately there's really nowhere to try on the clothes so you have to just guess like crazy sometimes. I have a sweater that doesn't even come close to fitting me and it's a large. Oh well, it was really cheap and if a friend doesn’t want it then it can go to the Domestic Violence program.

    On the way home from the market I stopped in at some restaurant for dinner. My method of picking a place seems to be "does it have tables and look like a restaurant? Okay!" It's highly scientific. ;) Dinner from the picture menu was "Cherries meat" and a sprite. I have no idea what kind of meat it was (probably pork, but I'm really not sure). It was really good! The sauce was sweet and it had chunks of cooked pineapple with the meat. Again, people looked at me like you would look at a kid who had asked to go to the bathroom instead of just crapping their diaper. It's condescending as hell and absolutely hilarious. I keep expecting someone to pat me on the head like you might a kid or dog.

    Speaking of kids crapping their diapers, apparently little kids wear split pants here when they're little. Anytime a kid bends over (like going up stairs) their pants gap way open. I looked up the other day and here was a little kid butt crack looking back at me. I've seen it a dozen more times and it's just weird. They just have the kids squat where they are and go. I’m not sure where the difference is between being old enough to control it (you don’t want your kid going in the middle of the store or while you’re carrying them) but not old enough to wear real pants yet.

    After I got back to my hotel after dinner, I went back out to the Wanfujing night market (it's only a couple blocks from my hotel). This is the place where you see everything on a stick, including bugs, centipedes, star fish and sheep penis. I wandered around the area a bit as Wanfujing is the very ritzy shopping area. There's Gucci, Hermes, Cartier, Omega, Burberry, etc. I did have to laugh at the McDonalds in the middle of the line up of ritzy stores. On the way back I passed by the food stalls again and had to take a ton of pictures. I got a piece of cantaloupe on a stick and used that to wave off the vendors ("ah, yes, that random unknown meat on a stick looks tasty but I already have a melon on a stick and couldn't possibly juggle both"). Then it was back to my hotel for the night.

    Friday 12/24 -

    Today was off to the Pearl Market (very similar to the Silk Market from yesterday, though it has a lot more jewelry and less clothes) and then on to the Bell and Drum Towers.

    Many of the jewelry booths seemed to start bids closer to what they’d actually accept than at the Silk Market as they let me walk away instead of saying “no, no, come back”. I saw the same jewelry set at three booths and kept upping my price a little. I started at 20 for the necklace and bracelet, and ended up paying 40RMB for the necklace, bracelet and earrings. The girl at the second booth told me that it was real jade and real pearls and then grinned like a loon when I said “real jade and real pearls when you only asked 220RMB to begin with? Yeah right.” The prices for real jade at the actual jewelry stores is MUCH higher.

    Unfortunately the Bell Tower was closed for renovations in October so I only got to see the Drum Tower. It's pretty cool but the staircase going up is crazy steep. It's about 80 steps that are knee height on me. Going up wasn't bad. Coming down SUCKED. Nothing quite like looking down a straight, very steep set of stairs that seem to go on forever. Right after I got to the top of the Drum Tower they did their scheduled performance. That was fun! It lasted just under 5 minutes and was worth the entrance fee.

    From the Drum Tower I went back to Tiananmen Square to see the flag lowering ceremony at sundown. I thought it was scheduled for 4:00, but it was actually for 5:00 so I ended up standing outside for almost two hours and couldn't really move around much for the last 30 minutes or so. People crammed in tight for the actual ceremony and really blocked the wind so that was actually better though I was already frozen by that time.

    More random people wanted pictures with me. That's okay, it's entertaining as hell. People stare quite a bit and very blatantly. A couple walked by the window while I was eating lunch and he saw me, then proceeded to point me out to the girl with him. I wanted to wave at them or stick my tongue out or something. People have been extremely friendly and are amazed when I say thank you in Chinese. I'm pretty sure I'm butchering the pronunciation but they know I'm trying at least and that goes a long way.

    Saturday 12/25 -

    I checked out of my hotel in Beijing and left my bag with the concierge for the day and set off for Tiananmen Square with the loose intention of going through the Mao Zedong Mausoleum. It’s not every day I get the chance to see a guy whose been dead for a few decades among people who think he was the savior of their country, a hero and an all around nice guy rolled into one badly dressed bundle. I wasn’t in a hurry and by the time I got to the check in point on the far side of the enormous square it was 11:55 and apparently nobody is allowed to enter after noon. The mausoleum is only open from 8-12 Sunday - Thursday. Apparently they like to keep him in the freezer or whatever most of the time. No bags are allowed in (nor cameras, cell phones, or anything that might take a picture or video) and I didn’t have time to get through the little bag check shed that’s there.

    I wandered around for a few minutes and tried to decide how I wanted to spend the next hours in Beijing (there’s something about not being able to go back to the hotel if I wanted to that makes me unable to think of something to do out and about). Yet more photos with strangers (they really stare when I leave my hair partially down). Two older guys stopped to talk during one of the photos-with-strangers sessions. Jack is from Beijing and was showing one of his clients (Tom from Hong Kong) around Beijing. We talked for a little bit and I tagged along for a bit of wandering through an older section of Beijing that’s close to Tiananmen. I ended up going to “Tea Street” with them and having tea. No, it wasn’t a scam like the girls tried earlier in the week. They were really funny and quite nice. I was very careful and would have had no problem walking away, flagging a passing taxi or just screaming bloody murder (or committing murder) if I had felt any kind of threat or danger.

    After I left those two, I went to the Temple of Heaven. It’s a very large park area surrounding a few temples/misc buildings. The park was really nice and full of gorgeous walkways with ancient trees. I spent a couple hours wandering around the buildings and park area before heading back to my hotel. I’ve had insanely good luck with food thus far and didn’t want to press my luck by trying to find a restaurant and order something, and hope that it wouldn’t upset my guts when I had the train station and night train coming up. The bathrooms on the trains are well known to generally be something similar to a horse stall in August that hasn’t been cleaned in a couple days. The train station bathrooms are said to be in a similar state. I grabbed a Subway sandwich from right across the street from the hotel and used the hotel potty before taking a taxi to the train station.

    The train station was enormous, but very well signed. Everything is in both Chinese and English (and numbers are shown the same) so it’s easy to get around. I do find it ironic that China is more accommodating to foreigners in that sense than the US is. Even in big cities like Chicago very few signs and items seem to be posted in anything more than just English. I got to the waiting room and just about swallowed my tongue. The waiting room was for four platforms and was absolutely jam packed with people. All the seats were full and there were tons of people sitting everywhere on the floor on their bags and bundles. There was everything from women dressed in the latest brand names toting tiny bags that would barely fit a change of clothes to dirty farmers hauling huge bundles, buckets and what looked like feed sacks, all bulging at the seams with stuff. Many looked like they had plopped everything on their bed and then rolled the sheet and/or duvet up around it, tied it up and headed out.

    I snagged a spot against a wall and settled in to wait. I didn’t want to pull out my netbook or eReader so I wrote in my journal. The half of the room (likely 500-750 people total in the room) stared at me on and off until it was time to board the train. I think there’s actually a separate waiting room for soft/deluxe sleeper passengers but I didn’t know where that was and wasn’t willing to give up my wall spot to go look for something that might be a figment of my imagination. Most of the announcements were repeated in English as well but I just kept an eye on the gate for my train and when people started moving through I got into the huge line and followed. Figuring out the train ticket was kind of fun as it doesn’t say “Car #__” “Cabin #____” etc, it simply has a long number and that’s apparently broken into sections for all of your seating/sleeping information. I basically went from attendant to attendant at the car doors and showed them my ticket until one finally said “Car 7”. Ahh! I got into my cabin and bunk and the three people who were in my cabin left. The older lady (60’s?) was already settled into the other lower bunk and the younger couple (her kid and their spouse maybe) were sitting on my bunk. When I was showed to my bunk the two younger ones stood in the hall chatting for awhile and then they all grabbed their stuff and left. I don’t have a clue what that was all about, but I had the cabin to myself for awhile.

    About half an hour later a guy came into the cabin and took the other lower bunk. He was definitely drunk (constantly hiccupping) and didn’t speak English. He yakked on a phone for a bit and I went to sleep. I woke up an hour or so later when the train attendants were in asking him for his ticket (I had already given the lady mine earlier). The two attendants were hilarious and very patient with the fool. He was so completely wasted that he didn’t wake up when they talked to him, patted at his knee, shook his shoulder and then shook his shoulder a bit harder. At this point I was wondering if the fool was dead because he wasn’t responding at all and looked kinda dead. The guy attendant finally got him yanked into a sitting position (the other attendant held his hat for him and giggled with me at the whole situation). He never did seem to fully wake up, but they finally got it determined for sure that he definitely didn’t have a ticket (the poor attendant finally just went through his pockets and wallet). So the poor attendant (the guy really does deserve a medal for not smacking the still 90% unconscious drunk with anything) kept him sitting up and got his coat and shoes put on him and very patiently waited in the hallway with the door open until we got to the next station (only 10 minutes or so). He then half carried the drunk out to the platform to the mercy of the local police.

    There was no way I could help so I just stayed in my bunk and laughed. Both attendants apologized a couple times at the beginning but it wasn’t their fault and they were extremely professional and a lot more patient than I would have been in their situation. They did get a kick out of it when I took out my camera, snickered, and took a picture of the drunk guy when he had passed out again right before they yanked him out.

    After that I had the cabin with 4 bunks to myself for the rest of the night. At another station, the attendants showed a couple of people to my cabin but they apparently didn’t like it or something and were taken to another cabin instead. Part of the problem was that at the beginning the cabin was FREEZING so the drunk guy (before he passed out) grabbed the duvets off of the top bunks and tossed one over me and took the other for himself so that we both had two duvets. That also meant that the top bunks had no duvets (and I think he might have taken the pillow off of one as well). It warmed up considerably after a couple hours and I ended up sleeping on top of the two duvets and just tossing my coat over me so that I still felt covered. The attendants might have cranked up the heat when they were in there as that was the only control that wasn’t marked with a picture.

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    Sunday 12/26 -

    When I got to the Xi’an (She-ahn) train station it was a madhouse. Definitely not as well organized as Beijing. I asked one of the guards to point me in the direction to buy a ticket for Shanghai and he escorted me to within sight of the desk (sometimes it‘s good to look pathetically overwhelmed). There was no English desk open at that time so I wrote down the train number, date and price in big numbers on a page in my journal and just held it up to the plexi-glass window with a smile when it was my turn. The girl inside the ticket booth lost the “oh this is going to be a headache” look and smiled at me for that one. She understood the few words of English needed to confirm that yes, I wanted the soft sleeper to Shanghai on the 29th. It helps that I already knew the price and train number from a website and could confirm that my ticket was in the right class because the price she pulled up on the computer matched what the website told me it should be. From there I checked my bag at the left luggage desk and hopped a bus out to the Terra Cotta Warriors (TCW).

    That was about an hour long bus ride for 7RMB ($1) each way. The taxi drivers who were calling out their services as people walked by had offered a ride to and from the warriors for 200RMB (almost $30) and it would have taken only 10-15 minutes less. Bus 306 is off on the far side (face the train station and the lot is to your right) and there’s usually half a dozen buses of the same color with a sign that says 5(306). The bus makes stops along the way to let people on and off but there are no “jade factory” shopping stops that so many buses seem to have.

    The TCW are organized into 3 pits (in order of discovery) with pit 1 being the main pit. It’s well lit and easy to see. Pits 2 and 3 were insanely dark so I’ll have to try to brighten my photos from those once I get home to my real computer instead of the netbook. The museum section was kind of fun and interesting. The detail on the soldiers is amazing and the amount of detail work that it took to put so many of them back together is really amazing. They’re still excavating and slowly putting warriors back together from broken bits and pieces in each little section. I stayed there and wandered around for a few hours and then grabbed my bus back to the train station. If you take this bus, pay close attention to where it drops you off. This is where they will be parked to pick passengers up again but it’s not the main parking lot. When I was dropped off the main parking area was empty. When I came out, there were green and teal buses everywhere and I couldn’t find MY green bus. I saw a lady out sweeping up trash and asked her and she pointed me the right way.

    Taxi’s are nowhere near as well organized as they are in Beijing unfortunately. Here, they want me to agree to a price and don’t want to just use their dang meters. One said “meter plus 20” when I said that the only price I’d agree to was the meter (I know there‘s usually an additional, but I think it‘s only 1.50 - 2.00 and marked on the window). In Beijing, they didn’t hassle me and just used their meters without a problem.

    At the train station after I had picked up my bag from the left luggage desk I just wanted to say “Look, I spent last night on the train which was fun but not the best sleep in the world, I haven’t eaten more than a granola bar since dinner yesterday, and I haven’t used a bathroom since yesterday evening at my hotel and it’s now around 2pm. Will you please remember that as a taxi driver your job is to drive me to where I want to go and let’s quit trying to play Scam the Tourist.” It wouldn’t have irritated me nearly so much except anytime I tried to do anything, I had 15 people instantly gathered around offering advice in Chinese, picking their nose in agreement/disagreement/boredom/excitement, offering taxis with set prices or rickshaws, or some lady yelling at the taxi driver. After a few minutes of this I probably looked like I was either going to start crying or just start ripping throats out. I finally got to the hotel (the yelling lady put me in a van for 30RMB which was less than what the taxi guy had been asking for a set price) and got checked in. My view is absolutely fantastic as I have a balcony that looks right out on the gorgeous Bell Tower. I dinked around in my room for a bit and got back to feeling human and potentially charitable with humanity again.

    I walked over to the mall across the street (there’s a lovely underground walkway under the massive traffic circle around the Bell Tower) and browsed through an enormous department store. The funniest thing in the world is when someone with somewhat larger boobs tries to bra shop in the land of skinny women with flat chests. A very nice saleslady helped me pick out a couple bras (no matching panties, my butt is too massive apparently). She had to just measure me quick to get a size as they don’t use our same sizes (inches vs. centimeters of course).

    I didn’t see any other restaurants right here close and I didn’t feel like going very far at all so I stopped into McDonalds to get a fish sandwich. I was again happily surprised when the cashier asked me if I wanted it as medium or large in broken English. Other than at the hotel desk, I’ve generally been assuming that people don’t speak English and being very happy when they speak any. I’m definitely not complaining… I’m in their country and their English is 10,000 times better than my Mandarin.

    When I got back to the hotel again I was good and did a bit of sink laundry again and hung that up to dry overnight. I do have to really wonder why EVERY hotel seems to put the clothesline even with the edge of the tub. Half of the drips go on the floor instead of in the tub. Why not put the dang things in the center, or even diagonal across the tub?

    Monday 12/27 -

    Owwie butt bones! I think various body parts are going to start a fund to have me killed before too much longer. J

    The day started nice and lazy and I tried to decide exactly what I wanted to do here in Xi’an. I was trying to decide if I wanted to go to Hua Shan (the mountain with 5 peaks and only crazy people climb the whole way) or if I wanted to go to the Longmen Caves. I don’t really have time to do either one the day after tomorrow as my train leaves Xi’an station at 5:00pm. I decided on Longmen Caves and set off to buy a train ticket. I asked at the front desk if they had a travel desk (the hotel in Beijing did) or if there was somewhere I could buy a train ticket easily. She sent me to the big bank down the street as they have a train ticket window on the side of their building. The lady in the window spoke English well enough to easily communicate (though I had my trusty journal ready with the train number, times and prices) and it was 10,000 times easier than dealing with the train station. They charge 18 RMB for the convenience. Less than $3 to avoid the raging insanity that is the Xi’an train station? Absolutely worth every single bit of that and more!

    From there I headed towards the city wall. The Xi’an city wall is one of the oldest and most complete ancient city walls in China and you can bike around it (it’s 13-14 km total around the whole wall). Once I got to the top of the wall and found the bike rental place (there are a handful of booths around the wall) I paid my whopping 20 RMB (just under $3) for 100 minutes of bike time. The bikes are absolutely ancient. They have a single speed, are rickety as heck and you just take whichever is closest in the line generally. My bike was a bit too tall for me and I was barely able to stand over the crossbar. There’s a silly basket hooked on back that I kept clipping my knee on getting on and off, and the dang kickstand simply refused to stay up. That’s okay, it wasn’t long enough to cause a problem when it was down and it was on the back tire and not in the middle like most are now. It was pretty windy but warm enough that I often had my fleece off and in the basket. I’m pretty sure it was one of the times my fleece was in the basket that I lost one of my little knit gloves unfortunately. Oh well, it’s a lot warmer here than it was in Beijing. I didn’t wear Cuddl Duds today and was perfectly comfy in jeans, light sweater and my fleece.

    Part way around the wall I saw the train station (it’s just right outside the wall) and took pictures of some of the insanity. There were actually fewer people there than there were when I came through yesterday. Just looking down on it made me happy again to have bought my ticket at the bank window.

    Between the rickety bike with ancient seat, the tons of missing paving bricks on top of the wall (it helps if you pay more attention to the bricks in front of your tire than looking around and glancing further ahead to make sure you don’t run into anyone) and the fact that my butt padding is in the wrong places for riding a bike, my butt hurts! I quickly remembered that riding a bike and walking take different leg muscles and my thighs were complaining right along with my butt bones. I kept stopping to look around and/or take pictures so I took 130 minutes to go around the wall. That was an extra 5 RMB. So for around $3.50 I was entertained for just over 2 hours and got to ride an ancient bike in China. The scary part is that the bike I rode would fit right in on the streets. How much easier would their lives be if the people just had a decent bike? The bike also means that I was able to be out and about for that long without my ankle/foot hurting. As soon as I started walking again and it was back to the normal hurting.

    Once I was back to my starting point and had turned in the butt-bones-torturing-bike I headed off for the Bell Tower. They were due to start a performance right after I got there. The girls walked in through the crowd, one on a cell phone, and proceeded to put robes on over their street clothes off to the side of the stage. They were only half hidden from the “audience” area. There’s something about the purple hood on one and the scarf on the other that just didn’t work with their costumes. :p They started playing and I left after just a few minutes to look around the rest of the tower. When I left a girl was out toddering around the little stage with a couple red handkerchiefs. The tower really wasn’t that interesting. The drum tower in Beijing (both the tower itself and the performance) was a lot better. I came back down the tower stairs to hear them playing “auld lang syne”. At that point I left for the drum tower a short distance away. That was kind of a let down as well. There was an ancient furniture exhibit inside, but boring pieces and not interesting pieces. I like antique furniture so should have been easily impressed/amused but this stuff just made me want to ask if they found it at an IKEA or WalMart.

    I didn’t have breakfast this morning (it’s not included and I was happy lazing about in my room) so I had a Snickers bar when I got to the city wall (I bought a couple the other day before the train ride). That lasted me for quite a while and I kept getting distracted with various things (like wandering through street vendors booths on the way away from the city wall) so I never really ate until after the drum tower. By the time I was done with the drum tower I was getting pretty hungry and I wandered to an area behind the mall to find dinner. I used my high tech method (find a place with tables, chairs and people eating) to pick dinner. Some helpful person had gone through the picture menu and added English titles to various dishes. I chose sweet and sour pork again as it’s a safe bet and nothing else looked edible. It was pretty good. The servers all looked at me like I might grow horns or run around screaming at any given moment (it was a little bit off the beaten tourist path) but were very polite. 29RMB and I was full after eating only half of the serving.

    From dinner I headed back to my hotel for the night. My train leaves for the Longmen Caves at 8:30 in the morning I’m definitely going to try the breakfast buffet tomorrow.

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    Many congratulations - on a successful solo trip, on a nice, detailed report, and on carrying on with bad feet! I've been limping around Asia myself the last few weeks (and have limped round Europe in the past), so you have all my sympathy. A good brace or figure-eight bandage will REALLY help. Elevating the foot when possible, and perhaps getting hold of some anti-inflammatory pills, will also help.

    Sorry to hear that the taxis in Xi'an are misbehaving - they were fine last time I was there, but that was 2004... Also sorry that you can't take photos in the Lama Temple any more.

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    Sounds like you're having quite an adventure, Iowa_Redhead!

    I hope your ankle and other body parts are healing and that you are getting the hang of the "dang" chopsticks.

    > Parts were closer to ladder than to steps.

    LOL - great description!

    Looking forward to your next installment.

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    Thursdaysd, you can take photos in the temple area but not inside the buildings (you know, where some of the coolest things are) :)

    1traveler, you will love it here! :) People are extremely friendly and generally seem to try to help. I was so irritated with the taxi's at the train station because it was such an odd thing. In Beijing, there was no screwing around they simply looked at the address (in Chinese characters), nodded and waved me in, and off we went. Print off the Chinese character addresses for all of your hotels/hostels. Many people do speak a bit of English but not so much the taxi drivers. Learn a handful of words if you can. At least learn thank you (she-uh, she-uh). I've used that one quite a bit. :)

    I'll write more about the day later but for now, it was a good one. I must say though, that you've simply never lived until you've tried asking where you can buy tampons when you don't speak the language. :D Probably TMI but it's had me laughing and giggling for a while now, and I KNOW it's going to amuse the heck out of a few shop women for a while.

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    Tuesday 12/28 -

    Well, today was definitely one of the more hilarious and somewhat ridiculous days of this adventure. It’s been a good day but definitely required an appreciation of the screwball.

    The day started off with the breakfast buffet. I was definitely spoiled by the breakfast at the hotel in Beijing because this one just didn’t measure up. There were little pancakes (leaden), French toast (had definitely been sitting for a while), bacon, sausages, congee (still don’t know what that is exactly but it looks like of like soup or cream style corn) and a bit of cereal and fruit. I was in a hurry so I didn’t spend much time on the buffet but I really wasn’t impressed. Definitely spoiled by Jade Garden.

    I headed out the front door to catch a taxi and there was one waiting. We agreed on a price (30RMB) as he didn’t want to use the meter. I laughed at his first offer and started to walk back into the hotel to ask where the best place to go to catch a taxi was and he agreed to my offer of half of his original offer (60RMB). I still paid more than I should have as the meter said 17.50 when we got to the train station but less than $2 sometimes just isn’t worth a hassle. I think he was a bit grumpy about it because his driving was quite interesting. At one point he cleared a bus by about 4 inches and I could just laugh in the back seat. After that his driving improved and I think he realized that he wasn’t going to terrify the silly tourist so he drove like a normal Chinese taxi driver (still rather insane, but safely insane).

    For all of the insanity on the outside of the Xi’an train station the inside is actually quite nice. I got through security and once inside I was lost. I could see my train number on the board, and I was pretty sure that I was to go to either waiting room 6 or whichever waiting room was for platform 6. I couldn’t see anything that directed me to where that waiting room might be. I approached a guard with a completely sheepish look on my face and he was laughing before I even got to him. He pointed me up the escalator and my waiting room was right at the top. The waiting room was… interesting? It was clean and comfortable, but the mural on the far wall might be titled “Mother Goose on Acid”. There was Big Bird, Disney’s version of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Cinderella’s castle, a little guy that I’m fairly sure is Pinocchio. There was also a Santa Claus in a sleigh being pulled by a couple dogs and many other characters from various children’s stories from different cultures. The guy sitting across the aisle from me gave me quite the look when I took a picture of the mural. It was definitely the look of “tourists will take pictures of anything. Idiot.”

    The second class seat on the train was very comfortable. I lucked out as my ticket was for a window seat and I settled in for the ride. The train ride was about 1.5 - 2 hours long and went through mostly boring countryside. Each stop along the way was only for 1-3 minutes and people were lined up behind pavement markers for which car their tickets were for. Our fastest speed that I saw on the screen was 334km/h. The ride was extremely smooth and the upcoming stations were shown on the screen in both Chinese and English, plus announced over the PA as we got close to each station.

    From the Luoyang Longmen station I got into a taxi with a bit of charades for where I wanted to go. I forgot to print off the Chinese characters and after being assured that they would know the English for Longmen Caves, I didn’t bother to try to write the characters from Google in my journal. After a few moments of hilarious charades, we headed out. This driver gave me no crap about a set price and just started the meter. It’s about a 10 minute ride to the drop off point for the site (some signs/books call it Longmen Caves and others Longmen Grottoes).

    The ticket for the Caves is 100RMB during low season. The west side of the river is pretty neat. Everywhere I looked was another niche or cave with Buddha statues and carvings. The one statue has to be something like 30 feet tall. Others were everywhere from an inch or two tall to 15 feet tall. There has to be thousands of carvings throughout that side of the river.

    I headed over to the east side of the river and simply was not impressed. Some girl was going the same direction as I was and even after we established that I don’t speak Chinese and had no earthly idea what she was saying, she kept chattering at me. I didn’t want to be rude so I kept showing again and again that I didn’t understand her. She wouldn’t take the hint. I think she was bored and was simply swearing at me with a smile for the heck of it. I’m about 99% sure that the beggar lady at the exit tried to curse me with the water bottle she kept slamming into the ground and pointing at me and ranting away. The guard gave her one of those utterly patient “I’m not going to beat you about the head because you’re obviously nuts, but my god I wish I could beat you with something” looks. I just laughed at the guard and kept walking to the taxi stand.

    Today was my day for screwball taxi rides. First the crazy guy, then charades with the driver from the train station, then I got in with a lady who might have an adrenaline issue worse than I do. I showed her my train ticket and pointed at the name of the station so she would know where to take me and we were off on our merry way. Driver in front of you isn’t going fast enough? No problem! Pass them on the left of the yellow line down the center of the road with a bus coming. We did that a few times and were honked at constantly. I shouldn’t admit to it but I laughed the entire time as it was kind of fun in a “aw hell, I really am going to die in a Chinese taxi” sort of way.

    Once at the train station I used the ticket machine to buy my ticket for the ride home. I had around 45 minutes for the next train back to Xi’an. About that time I realized that my slight tummy ache, wasn’t a tummy ache and was actually cramps. I visited the squatty potties (very clean squatty potties) and discovered that yep, it was cramps and oh hell I don’t have any real supplies in my messenger bag. As the toilets don’t even stock toilet paper I didn’t expect to find a coin machine for pads/tampons like we usually have in women’s bathrooms here. I lucked into another window seat for the ride home and it was just as nice of a ride.

    Once out of the train station back in Xi’an I set off walking towards the hotel so see what kind of shops I could find on the way. I found a pharmacy after just a few minutes and headed in. How do you ask someone if they stock, or know of a shop in the area that does stock, pads and/or tampons, when you don’t speak their language? It got pretty hilarious with the one girl trying to guess what I wanted, me trying to think of what the heck I could possibly draw that might help and an older woman looking at us both like we‘re stupid. After a few minutes of this, the older lady reached into a corner and pulled out a book of translations. I found “sanitary napkin” and we all started laughing again. The old lady pointed me down the street a couple doors to the little grocery stall and sure enough in the back corner under the boxes of mixed fruit were little packages of pads. This was definitely one of those situations where a working smartphone with access to internet would have been very helpful.

    From there I walked for awhile and decided that I had absolutely no idea which way the Bell Tower, and thus my hotel, was so it was silly to keep walking too long. I took a ride in a rickshaw (basically a three wheel scooter with a bench in the back) because the lady with the rickshaw was easier than trying to flag down a taxi and I don’t think I’ve ever been in a rickshaw before.

    After a detour to the hotel I was ready to go out in public again and wandered to a nearby restaurant for dinner. I ordered the black pepper pork chop but the poor waitress kept asking me “6, 7 or 8?” and I had no idea what she meant and could only ask “6, 7 or 8 of what?” in return. The girl was so flustered that she could hardly see straight. Another customer tried to explain but just said the exact same thing “6, 7 or 8?” She knew that I had no idea what she was asking and called a friend who speaks both languages. The friend explained that they were asking how well done I wanted the pork chop. Ahhh! She translated my answer to the waitress and I thanked everyone involved. So far the picture menu thing has worked out fine, but that one was pretty funny. It’s my fault for not speaking the language and I tried to get the waitress to just pick one but she was so flustered by then that she really didn‘t understand that idea. The dinner was absolutely fantastic and worth every minute of the comedy show at the beginning.

    After dinner I decided that I just hadn’t flustered enough people yet for the day and set off down the street with the loose intention of seeing if I could find a supermarket or similar that might have more supplies than what I found earlier. I didn’t find a supermarket but did find another pharmacy so I stopped in there to see if they could point me to a supermarket or similar. The lady clerk was busy so she waved the male clerk over to help me. I had looked up the Chinese characters earlier and copied them into my journal very carefully. Apparently I got it right as he blushed, looked at her and said “me-ann, sigh?” (tampon). The man she was helping looked at me like I might start gushing blood all over the place at any moment, and she chuckled. The two clerks went back and forth a bit to figure out how to tell me where I should go. They understood supermarket and pointed me down the street. Well, I didn’t find a supermarket but I did find Haagen-Dazs. A scoop of fantastic cookies and cream ice cream and the decision to ask the hotel clerk tomorrow where I can find a supermarket easily and then it was off to my little hotel nest for the night.

    I have no idea what I’ll do tomorrow for the time between packing, checking out and going to the train station for my night train to Shanghai. There are two pagoda’s here that sound interesting that I might go see.

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    Here's the link to the photos from Xi'an and Shanghai. I'm still finishing posting photos. None of the photos have been edited at all, the most is that they've been rotated to the right direction.

    I'm sure this report is way, way too detailed but it was entertaining me to write it. :)

    Wednesday 12/29 -

    I vegged out a bit this morning, repacked and checked out of the hotel room. I left my bags with the bellboy and wandered about the area for a little while. It always amazes me how you go just a couple streets off from the major tourist areas and the entire atmosphere changes. Instead of glitzy stores and name brands you get into an area with dirt, grime, laundry hanging from balconies and lines strung across narrow streets and alleys. It looks like what stereotypical China looks like. There is meat sitting out on counters in tiny shops, there are vegetables being sold out of little carts and fish being gutted on the concrete floors.

    I used my super technical method to pick a place to eat (tables and chairs, it looks at least relatively clean) and ended up ordering sweet and sour pork and rice again. The meal was only 20 RMB (less than $3) and again I left half the plate of food behind as I was full. You’d think I would be getting sick of sweet and sour pork but it’s been so different at each place that it’s like ordering something entirely different each time. Also, it’s generally the only thing on the menu that looks like something I know I’ll like. I’m willing to take some risks but I don’t want to push it too far.

    After lunch, I flagged down a taxi and rode to the Big Wild Goose Pagoda. The entry was 30RMB and it was another 20RMB to climb the stairs in the Pagoda. It’s a ton of stairs, of course I had to go! I arrived at the large complex right as the water fountain show was ending (12:30). Wish I had gotten there in time for the 12:00 show as it looked kind of fun, even though it’s just a bunch of sprinklers set to music. There were workmen all over the area setting up for a New Year’s Eve party/show of some kind and the various sets of scaffolding, lights and speakers really interfered with a lot of pictures unfortunately.

    From there I went across the street (using another one of the brilliant underground walkways) to the supermarket to find snacks for the train and for yet another tampon search. I bought fruit (get a bag from the girl in the fruit area, load it up and then give her the bag to be put on the scale and have a tag printed out. Why not just use the numbers that are on the items and let customers weigh their own bags? It was done that way in Italy and it makes sense. It wouldn’t take any more time and the cashier still wouldn’t have to weigh the items like they do in the US. There was an entire aisle of pads (big ones, small ones, overnight ones, combo packs of big and small, packages that were very clear and packages that looked like there might be flowers inside from the pictures on the outside). No tampons though. What is it with so much of the rest of the world and the ban on tampons?? Why don’t supermarkets stock them? The trials of traveling… :p

    From the supermarket I headed back to my hotel to pickup my bags. I should have just had the taxi wait but there’s no good place close to the hotel and I wasn’t sure how long it would take to pickup my bags and get back out. By the time I got back out of the hotel and over to the taxi pickup point near the bus stops, no taxi’s wanted to stop. The couple that did stop didn’t want to go to the rail station (one held a sign out that was propped up on his dashboard that must say “I don’t go to the rail station”). I had plenty of time but it was getting to be a bit after 3pm and my train left at 5. I knew that it would only get harder to get a taxi as time passed and my OCD would kick in and I’d start freaking out. A guy who gives rides on his scooter stopped and spent about 5 minutes trying to talk me into getting on the scooter with him. I motioned to my bags and shook my head to say “no, my bags won’t fit on your little scooter”. He motioned back that they would and continued to try to talk me into hopping on. Okay, seriously. Even if he did put my duffle bag in between his legs on front that still would leave me on back with my messenger bag (not an issue) and my big backpack (an issue) plus the fact that I’ve never ridden on a scooter or motorcycle (possibly a learning balance on the turns type issue) and it was in Xi’an afternoon traffic (absolutely an issue). Bad idea. He finally left me alone when it became painfully obvious that I wasn’t likely to change my “no” to a “yes”. A rickshaw driver came up then and we agreed to 30RMB for the ride. Higher than it should be, but for $1-2 I’m not going to argue. We got to the train station with a minimum of hassle (though I do sometimes wonder if rickshaw drivers might be former taxi drivers who got into too many wrecks and were demoted).

    The soft sleeper lounge in Xi’an train station is at the top of the escalator and to the right. It’s really nice! A mid-sized room that is stocked with couches and wide comfy chairs that you might find in someone’s living room. The attendant called when it was time for each train to leave and pointed us down the way to the platforms. We were loaded slightly before the other cars so that gave us a chance to get through the platform without fighting with 1,000 other people to find the right cars and get to our cabins.

    I had the cabin to myself right up until the train pulled away from the station when three guys showed up at the door. They finally got it settled between them that only one of them was to be in my cabin and the other two were in the cabin next door. The guy with the ticket for my cabin looked like a stereotypical accountant (skinny as a reed, glasses, and a rose colored sweater vest). He didn’t speak English but was very friendly and spent most of the evening over in the cabin next door. For dinner I had a bucket of ramen from the cart (5RMB and it’s actually pretty good). Scalding hot water is available at a dispenser near the bathrooms so it’s really easy to make a hot and filling meal. As I had the time on my hands I decided it was time to fix my headphones. Apparently I’ve abused them enough that the wire into the speaker has pulled out a bit. I shoved it back in a bit and used a couple tiny bits of duct tape to hold it there. It may look silly as my black headphones now have a bit of teal duct tape on the one side, but my headphones work again. :)

    Once my roommate had come back over for the evening his friends came over to chat for awhile and kept trying to offer me an orange. They persisted until I showed them by bag full of fruit that I had been munching my way through during the evening. It always amazes me how friendly people can be even with a language barrier. We may not be able to speak the same language, but we communicated fairly well.

    There were no drunks or train attendant issues on this train and I slept fairly well until we got just outside Shanghai. My roomie and his friends started packing up and headed out at Suzhou and I was groggy enough that I started packing up and getting ready to function. The one noticed my bleary expression and showed me his ticket with the destination to tell me that this likely wasn’t my station and to go back to bed. Not too long after that we got into Shanghai and I had to stick my head out in the hallway and ask the people next door (Aussies I think) if this was Shanghai because it seemed early. Yep it was Shanghai, but the train was about 20 minutes early (thus my confusion now that I was actually awake enough to read my watch).

    Thursday 12/30 -

    The Shanghai train station is very easy to get around in and there are clear signs directing you to a taxi queue. It was a quick and easy taxi ride to the hotel, though on the way I did see a bunch of live chickens tied onto the back of a scooter. It was just kinda funny when they lifted their heads at the stop light and looked around like “look at all you people in comfy cars while we’re tied on this scooter and hanging by our feet! My agent is going to hear about this!”

    My hotel, the Astor House Hotel, was very nice. Walking into the lobby behind the doorman (who had grabbed my duffle bag and would have grabbed my backpack too if I hadn’t grabbed it first) was like walking onto a movie set. There’s a glimmering crystal chandelier overhead and gorgeous woodwork and poinsettias everywhere. The receptionist told me that they’re in the middle of some renovations so as there might be a bit of dust and noise in the room I had reserved, they had upgraded me to a Richards Executive room instead. Nice! The receptionist apologized as my room wasn’t ready quite yet. I don’t think it was even 9:00am yet! I expected to just leave my bags with the bellman, use the lobby bathroom and head out for a few hours. They said that I could go to my room to put my stuff down, use the bathroom and change clothes if I didn’t mind the mess as it was only in the middle of being cleaned.

    The bellman showed me to the “executive floor” where apparently we had our own bar with afternoon tea and happy hour, and a desk that was staffed round the clock so that guests on the executive floor didn’t have to possibly wait in line at the reception desk for any help. A bit fancy for me, but okay. Once he opened my door and took my bag in I pretty well stood there with my mouth hanging open. This was my room? Holy buckets.

    The bathroom was enormous and had one of those lovely rainforest type shower heads in it. The king size bed didn’t even take up half the room, even with the couch, the seat at the foot of the bed, the desk and the enormous TV stand. I think the bellman got a chuckle out of my “this is my room? Are you sure?” He spoke very clear English and directed me to please just ask for anything I might need.

    I decided to simply go for a walk around the area and ended up walking down to the next bridge, and then back over to the Bund. Some of the things you see when out and about as the business area of a city comes to life are quite entertaining. There were a ton of college age kids running around in bright blue jackets and playing with various equipment. I think they might have been filming part of a movie of some level, but I couldn’t read the jackets to tell. Another entertaining group was the “Seniors with Swords”. Apparently there’s a group of senior citizens who meet in the mornings to do something that I think is similar to (or is) tai chi. Only they do it with swords. Nice! Don’t take an extra cookie without asking or Granny will kick your butt.

    There was also a small group dancing just below the walkway area. I watched for a few minutes from the walkway and then decided to head on. Before I went more than a few steps an older couple who was stretching out nearby called me over to ask where I was from. This was pretty normal so I thought nothing of it. Then the husband gestured for me to started doing the stretches and warm ups with his wife. The first one was where you put your right forearms together and kind of mimic an attack and retreat. Then we did that with the left (and of course I’m laughing like a loon the entire time). Then we were to stand back to back and as I leaned forward she leaned backwards. I had no idea what I was supposed to be doing so kept goofing it up and all three of us were laughing for awhile. The husband finally stepped in and showed me what they were trying to get me to do. I simply laughed, said thank you a bunch of times and walked on. There’s something about being female and alone that really seems to get people to pull you into their groups in a way that they don’t when you’re with anyone else.

    Sometime around 11 I went back to the hotel to get settled in and veg out for a bit. The shower was even nicer than I had thought and I ended up cuddling with the hot water for awhile. That rain shower style faucet is really nice though I would hate to see that water bill! After trying to boil/steam myself like a lobster, I decided to ignore the advice of the guy at reception and walked over to the nearest Metro station and guessed at which stop might be closest to the Oriental Pearl Tower and hopped on. I guessed wrong.

    I was apparently rather distracted and wasn’t paying attention when I came out of the Metro and started walking. After around 15 minutes of walking, I started paying attention and realized that yep, I had walked off in the exactly opposite direction of where I was trying to go. I’m going to blame it on disorientation due to the many, many skyscrapers, but really I just wasn’t paying attention. :) I looked around and saw the Oriental Pearl. Directly past where I had come from. So I walked the 15 minutes back to my metro station exits, then on to the next station exits, then further still. The bad thing about skyscrapers is that they’re so darn big they look closer than they really are. What I thought would take just a few minutes walk actually took closer to 45 minutes from when I turned around. Oops? I ended up going into the World Financial building (looks like a bottle opener) instead of the Pearl so that I could take pictures with the Pearl in them. I am a little bummed because if I had done as the guy at reception told me to do and just taken a cab I would have been there much sooner and would have been able to take pictures before and after sunset. On the upside, the sunset was pretty bland and not one of those gorgeous ones, but it would have been nice to be able to take photos from 100 floors up when there was light out and I could try to show how ginormous Shanghai is. When you can’t see the end of the city from 100 stories up, that really emphasizes the city size like population numbers just can’t do.

    Despite the fact that I’m a pilot and will skydive whenever given the chance, I REALLY hate heights. Walking across the glass portions of the floor was making my eyes cross a bit and one of the many attendants thought that was kind of funny. I got pretty good at staring straight ahead when walking up to the windows as all of the tiles in front of the windows are glass. As long as I didn’t look at my feet, and see the cars 100 stories below them, it was okay. It would have been better if they didn’t keep the glass so darn clean!

    Once I had enough scaring the bejeebers out of myself (though a huge city at night is fascinating), I headed downstairs to find dinner. The first restaurant I saw as I came down the escalator was South Beauty so I headed there. It’s a fancy place and I wasn’t quite sure that I’d be welcome in my jeans. The hostess didn’t seem to think there was a problem with it and escorted me in to a seat. Thankfully they left me alone for a few minutes instead of hovering over me while I looked through the menu like most servers have (I’ve repeatedly wished to be able to say “give me a few minutes please”). The menu was a bit scary to someone with my tastes. There were a few too many pictures that still included eyes or various body parts, many items were extremely expensive, and two items I distinctly remember seeing were “braised bird’s nest” (I realize that it’s not a real birds nest but WTF?) and something that had seahorses in the name and picture. Okay, color me naïve but I really thought the seahorses thing was just a Wanfujing night market gimmick for tourists. I didn’t think anyone actually ate them at a normal restaurant! I settled on a simple steak and I was a bit afraid that it might come back rare like the photo as the server kept asking me “One? Just one?” I was really afraid that he might mean how done I wanted it like the “six, seven or eight” fiasco a few nights before with the pork chop. I also ordered a strawberry smoothie (they were out of banana unfortunately).

    The smoothie was fantastic! When the steak showed up it was presented very prettily with a garnish of little mushrooms and (I think) asparagus. It was absolutely fantastic and was well done, just as I would want it. I had to restrain myself from licking the plate and silverware. The sauce was similar to a steak sauce, barbeque sauce mix with black pepper added. It was delicious and I would adore finding a copycat recipe for that one! I signed the bill, made a point to tell the person who I’m pretty sure was the manager how good everything was and how friendly the staff was, and caught a taxi back to my hotel.

    Upon walking into my hotel room I noticed a few changes since I had left. The curtains were closed, the extra pillows and silky runner were gone off the bed, a robe was hanging on the back of the bathroom door, a pair of slippers were out next to the bed, and a weather report for the next day had been left on the bedside stand. Seriously?? There really is such a thing as turn down service apparently. I always thought it was a joke! Of course I ended up bundled up in the robe on the couch with my book and contemplating the chances of finding bubble bath at the supermarket two blocks away.

    I was definitely feeling like Julia Roberts’ shorter, chunkier, non-prostitute sister. Every time I walked into the hotel I half expected someone to ask me what I was doing there or who I was visiting. Instead they just smiled at me in a very friendly way and asked if they could help me with anything.

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    Friday 12/31 -

    I tried out the buffet breakfast and vegged out a bit more. The buffet breakfast was good with lots of warm options, cereals, breads/pastries and fruit. Breakfast is served in the old peacock ballroom which I’m sure has held some very elegant parties in it’s time.

    A taxi dropped me on the edge of the Yu Garden shopping area and I proceeded to wander around for the afternoon. I’m definitely glad that I decided to pull on Cuddl Dud pants and grabbed my scarf and ear muffs. Xi’an had been so warm that they hadn’t been needed and I got out of the habit of grabbing the extra layers. Much of the stuff for sale is similar to the stuff on sale in Beijing’s silk or pearl markets, but there are some nicer stores mixed in as well. I was lazy and grabbed KFC as it was right there when I realized that I was starving and might have a blood sugar issue before too long. I was a bit amazed and horrified when I came out through the candy shop to realize that the candy store also sells cigars and cigarettes. There’s just so much wrong with that combination.

    Part way through the afternoon I learned that if the first Starbucks is sold out of hot chocolate, wander around a bit looking for one of the other coffee shops. The second Starbucks still had hot chocolate and I managed to order wrong and got a mug instead of a to-go cup. Darn, I had to sit inside at a little table for awhile instead of going back outside. Shucks. It was nice to thaw out and get completely warm again.

    I wandered a few blocks away and again was amazed by the complete change just off of the tourist area. It’s always fun to see the double takes when people see me wandering around those areas. The sights and smells from the fish stalls made me queasy and I hustled by those and back to the vegetable stalls. I very rarely take my camera out in those areas as I think it would come across as rude. “Look at the conditions these people live in!” or something similar to how I might treat zoo animals or the buildings of a tourist attraction. I wish I had photos though as it is worlds different from the ritzy designer stores that are really only a few hundred feet away.

    I wandered through the actual garden area which was very peaceful and nice though there were a lot of people inside. A couple people were quite blatant with taking pictures of me instead of just asking if they could have a picture with me as so many had before. The one girl walked up to about four feet in front of me, held her camera up and took a picture of me. I really had to work to resist the urge to stick my tongue out or start making gorilla noises. I have no problems with it if someone wants pictures with, or of, me because I’m different from what they’re used to, but there’s a polite way to do it. Throughout my trip many people have asked to take pictures with me without ever speaking any English so that’s really not an excuse. I’ve also caught many taking pictures of me without asking and that’s fine as they were fairly subtle about it and were trying to be polite. That’s fine, I’m different from their normal, but that’s no reason to be rude. The one who walked right up to me and took a picture like I was some kind of freak on display was one of very few sour notes to my entire trip.

    Back in the shops area, I found a couple more souvenirs and whatnot to buy when I found a vase that I really liked up high on a shelf. I think I have a bit too much fun haggling and ended up buying it for much less than I thought the shop clerk would actually go for. I simply kept saying that I really couldn’t afford it, and kept looking it over up close and the price kept lowering. She got past the price I had mentally decided I would be willing to pay for it and I kept saying “I can’t, it’s too much, it’ll get broken on the way home, my cat will break it once I get it home…” and magically the price kept lowering. When she started lowering the price by 30 and 40 RMB instead of a couple hundred at a time I knew she was getting closer to her actual lowest price. I bought the vase for a price I was more than happy with and watched as three girls wrapped it up in tons of bubble wrap and then into a cardboard box. She even wrapped it up with a nice ribbon strap wound around the box and added a wadded up plastic bag so that the ribbon wouldn’t cut into my hand.

    There weren’t any taxi’s back in the shopping areas right then and I didn’t want to take a rickshaw as I was cold and wanted the heat and enclosure of a real taxi. I walked a couple blocks toward a busier street and then realized that I was right near the Bund. I decided that my box wasn’t too heavy and it wasn’t that cold (though just a couple moments out of my pockets and my hands froze) so I walked back to my hotel along the Bund walkway. There was a definitely celebratory feeling as it was New Years Eve and people were either out in groups or headed to parties. I hope that some of those photos turn out well despite the lack of light.

    Back at the hotel, the doorman was the same who had put me in a taxi bound for Yu Garden hours earlier. He gave me a somewhat bemused look when I came walking back to the hotel carrying purchases instead of hopping out of a taxi. The walk back was definitely much more fun than just taking a taxi would have been. Again the staff had been into my room to leave me a weather report and make sure the room was ready for a tired guest to go straight to bed.

    Unfortunately, my nicely wrapped box wouldn’t fit into my duffle bag. That changed my entire repacking plan and I crammed everything non-breakable into my big backpack. The few small breakable purchases went into a fold out market bag (I highly recommend taking one or two of these, I used it constantly). The box and the market bag together are still smaller than the carryon size allowance so I don’t feel bad taking two items instead of just one to put in the overhead bin.

    I cuddled into my nice enormous bed before midnight and let the world celebrate the new year without me.

    Saturday 1/1/11 -

    After breakfast I called home one last time from China and dinked around online a bit. There really wasn’t anything in Shanghai I wanted to see and I knew that even if I had hours before I needed to head for the airport I would think about the time constantly so I just checked out and headed for the airport a bit earlier than necessary. I wanted to ride the Maglev (yes, I know I’m a dork) but I really didn’t fancy the idea of dealing with possible crowds and my bags so I decided to save that for a future trip.

    The taxi ride was around 45 minutes and almost 200 RMB. I hadn’t realized quite how far away the airport was! We came up on the leavings of a three car accident on the way and were delayed for a few minutes. I’m actually really surprised that in all of the time I’ve spent in various modes of transport around China, that was only the second accident I’ve seen and with the driving style that’s kind of amazing. Especially considering the first was a simple fender bender in the middle of an enormous and confusing traffic circle. I don’t think anyone was seriously hurt and that’s even more amazing to me. With the driving style, and the sheer number of people and various vehicles on the roads constantly I really expected a lot more accidents and serious ones at that.

    I eventually got checked in at the airport (you can’t check in too early apparently) and got onto my flight back to the US. It’s going to be a very long day considering I left Shanghai at 5pm 1/1 and will arrive in Chicago at 4pm still on 1/1. It’s like my time on the flight around the globe doesn’t exist which is just kind of fun for my nerd mind.

    I’m loving my seat in the front row of United’s Economy Plus. It’s right on the bulkhead so there’s nobody in front of me. My short legs can’t even reach the wall in front of me! I love that I can get in and out of my seat without waking up the lady next to me in the aisle seat. The extra 5 inches of legroom doesn’t sound like much but that purchase was absolutely worth the cost both directions.

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    Overall impressions, reviews and misc comments:

    - Skype subscriptions are absolutely fantastic. I paid either $3 or $4 for a month of unlimited Skype calls to any number (landline or cell phone) in the US and Canada. I could call home and chat for as long as I wanted with no thought to the possible cost. Only once did I have any issues and that was apparently during a worldwide Skype issue. They have apologized profusely to customers for that issue and have added a week to my one month subscription. If you’re traveling, or if you have friends/relatives in another country, seriously look into Skype subscriptions. According to Mom the quality was clear and there was no indication that I was calling from a netbook in China. I wasn’t using a special microphone or headset, just the netbook speaker and built in microphone. Internet was free for all of my hotels so the only cost to call home as often as I wanted was a couple dollars and it didn’t matter if they were near a computer or not.

    - Taking the netbook was very helpful for figuring out what I wanted to do and changing any plans on the fly, contacting home, looking up words/phrases and backing up photos. I also packed a tiny external hard drive so that I could also backup photos to that. That way even if I had to clean off my SD cards (almost, but not quite necessary) I would still have two copies of all of my photos/videos.

    - If you wish to use Facebook (or some other sites as well I think) while in China, you must use a proxy or VPN server. I used FreeGate as someone posted a link to the program for free on one of the forums (no I can’t tell you how to get back to that, sorry) and it worked pretty well. I had issues posting photos in Xi’an and Shanghai either due to the proxy or due to internet speeds but that’s pretty minimal. It was nice to be able to keep friends and family updated as I went.

    - People in China are very welcoming and are willing to work to help someone who doesn’t speak Chinese, especially if you learn a couple words (learn thank you!).

    - You absolutely can do an independent trip around various cities in China without a guide. It helps if you put in the time to plan ahead of time and are willing to get a bit turned around at times. There is no such thing as lost, there is just waiting for a taxi. Print out (or ask your hotel receptionist, or copy very carefully from a website) any locations you wish to visit in the Chinese characters as most taxi drivers don’t speak or read English.

    - Don’t go looking for tampons, or if you must, expect to embarrass some people, laugh a lot and still not find them anyway.

    - Be willing to try some foods that are on the edge of your comfort zone, but that doesn’t mean you have to eat seahorse or sheep penis.

    My hotels were all fantastic. I think I liked something different in each one, though they were all in a similar price range. All of my reservations were made well ahead of time using Ctrip.

    Beijing - Jade Garden Hotel - 498RMB/night with breakfast included.

    The breakfast was fantastic, the room was nice but nothing special. The location was good, but it was a 15 minute walk or so to the Metro stop (I‘m pretty sure that was the closest). I liked being walking distance to Tiananmen Square but it would have been nice to be closer. On the other hand, Wanfujing was literally just a couple blocks away and if you wish to shop at those ritzy stores the hotel is in a fantastic location for you.

    Xi’an - The Bell Tower Hotel - 428RMB/night - No breakfast included.

    Fantastic location as one of the major bus hubs is literally just right out the front door. I loved being able to look out my window (or stand on my balcony) and see the Bell Tower so close. The shower was a daily headache as it took a few minutes for the water temperature to adjust. I’d turn the knob to get slightly cooler water and it would stay scalding for a few minutes. About the time I’m getting used to my skin stinging, it all of a sudden gets colder. Gah!

    Shanghai - Astor House Hotel - 698RMB/night - Breakfast included.

    I splurged a bit on this one as it was only for two nights and I loved the photos of the historic old hotel. I think I would have been thrilled with the type of room I reserved, but the ultra fancy room I actually got was even better. The location was fantastic, the shower was to die for, the history of the hotel was perfect for my love of antiques and old architecture, and the staff was very friendly and made me feel like Someone Special. The windows were drafty in my room so it was cold by that wall and I could clearly hear any traffic from that street.

    Overall, I’m absolutely thrilled with all three of my hotels and would happily return to each of them.

    Sorry for the insane length of this trip report! I’m having so much fun and have to share it even if people aren’t interested in the miniscule details. :) Also, I’m finishing it up on the plane and if there’s anything that lends itself to a longer trip report it’s a long plane ride when you don’t want to let yourself sleep.

    Please ask any questions and I’ll do my best to answer from my very limited experience.

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    I really enjoyed reading your TR-so informative and very entertaining. I visited the three cities you visited and your report brought back many happy memories. Thanks so much for posting.

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    Thank you all for the kind comments! :)

    I had such a wonderful time and want to share that and encourage others to go if they're interested. Traveling independently in China really is a lot easier than it sounds and the people are so nice.

    Before I left I heard from a lot of people that it was probably not very safe for a young female to travel to, and within, China on her own. Now that I've been there, I couldn't disagree with that idea more. Not once did I ever feel even slightly unsafe or threatened. The crowds could be overwhelming as I'm simply not used to huge crowds, but they never worried me.

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    This was seriously funny! So well written and very enjoyable. I came across this while researching Shanghai since I am going there solo in March.

    I think I might dye my hair red as I may enjoy a bit of attention! Thanks for helping me look forward to the trip even more.

    You are also a pilot. How wonderful. I would have loved to have been one. I am so a nice way though!

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    Dear Iowa_Redhead,

    Thanks for sharing your adventure with all of us. I have been to Beijing and loved it (esp. the Great Wall) and look forward to returning to China and maybe seeing some of the sights you got to.

    You made me laugh about the glass floors. My younger daughter and I both hate glass floors (and heights).

    Where are you headed next?


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    Glad I could make you laugh! :)

    As for where next, I'm not entirely sure yet. I'm looking at Africa but keep thinking about Antarctica instead. Both sound so amazing but I'm not sure if I can work Antarctica into my budget this year as it's probably about twice as expensive as Africa would be. I can't take more vacation time until next December so I have time to figure it out. :)

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    A friend went to Antartica last year and the photos were amazing. He loved it.

    I of course vote for Africa!

    Yeah, I hate that whole issue of vacation days - a real bummer.


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    I loved the minuscule details, and the pictures that went along with the narration. Great job.

    I went to Beijing in the 1990s. I didn't think it was all that long ago till I saw your pictures, and realize now that China has leapt light years ahead!

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    I stayed at the Jade Garden Hotel (aka Hotel Kapok).

    Beijing - Jade Garden Hotel - 498RMB/night with breakfast included.

    The breakfast was fantastic, the room was nice but nothing special. The location was good, but it was a 15 minute walk or so to the Metro stop (I‘m pretty sure that was the closest). I liked being walking distance to Tiananmen Square but it would have been nice to be closer. On the other hand, Wanfujing was literally just a couple blocks away and if you wish to shop at those ritzy stores the hotel is in a fantastic location for you.

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    I really enjoyed reading your trip report. It helped me relive our trip to China. It truly is a fantastic country and I really want to go back. Our first trip was an escorted tour, but your report has inspired me to see if we can do a more independent trip next time.

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    Glad you enjoyed it! :)

    If I can get myself around as easily as I did, alone and knowing only hello and thank you, there is no reason why other people can't do the same thing! It sounds much more daunting than it really was.

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    Hi, Redhead:

    How did you find your private driver (Joe Qiao) to the Great Wall? What did it cost in RMB? We are going to China in August and I'd like to go to a section of the wall on our own.

    Thank you!

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    Frog, I found Joe using TripAdvisor. He was fantastic and I would recommend him to anyone. I paid 700RMB for the day. He had just gotten his new car when I was there and there was a bit of confusion as to dates he could drive in Beijing due to the new license on his car. He borrowed a car from someone (his friend or brother) so that I could still go on the day I had chosen. I'm soooo happy that he did that because I had gorgeous, warm weather the day that I went and the next day was about 20 degrees colder, cloudy and rainy. I had a great time talking to him the entire drive in both directions.

    Have fun when you go. :) I adored China and would quite happily go back. Do be ready for people to ask to take photos with you. That happened quite often and if I hadn't been warned to expect it I would have been a bit confused. :)

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    Thanks, Redhead, for your reply. I was afraid you might not come back to your report any more and I couldn't find a way to private message you. I'll try Trip Advisor, but I'm not sure which area to search in. Or, did you just go to a China forum or Beijing, maybe? I thoroughly enjoyed your trip report. Thanks!

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    I simply did a search for recent topics on drivers on the Beijing forum on TA. There were also current topics at the time discussing drivers that I saw. If you don't find anything recent in a search, check the FAQ section (top right I think) and then just post requesting help. I know there are topics about Beijing drivers, but I don't know how current they are.

    Glad you liked the trip report, thanks! :)

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