Beijing and Xi’an Trip Report

Old Jan 6th, 2011, 06:09 AM
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Beijing and Xi’an Trip Report

First, thanks to everyone whose tips on this forum helped make our trip to China a success.

Some background: We’re a family of 4 with 2 daughters, one in hs and one in college who spent the fall studying Chinese in Beijing. We joined her after her program ended for 9 days of sightseeing in late December. Luckily, her Chinese is good enough that she could do the talking with cab drivers, restaurant servers, etc. It would have been much more difficult without that. Our goal was to soak up the culture that she’d lived in for 4 months and to experience something very different from U.S. suburbia.

Since our last trip was one of those pick-up-and-move-every-couple-of-days vacations that got tiring, we decided to do a minimum of relocating. Our daughter convinced us to spend 7 days in Beijing with a 2-day side trip to Xi’an. (In hindsight, I think 7 days in Beijing was too long.) Since we had plenty of time in Beijing, we took it easy, mostly seeing just one major sight each day. Instead of a day-by-day account, I’ll give more general reactions/suggestions.

1. When to go: We knew December wasn’t the prime time weather-wise to go to China, but that’s when daughter 1’s program ended and daughter 2 was out of school. Pluses: sights were relatively uncrowded and hotel was less expensive (I think). Minuses: We knew it would be cold, but mostly we were perfectly comfortable dressing in layers (including long underwear). Only one day was bitterly cold with biting wind. What we hadn’t realized was that the smog would be worse. Daughter 1 said that once it got cold, they burn more coal. When we got off the plane, we got our first whiff of the acrid smell that stayed with us most of the time. The first day was the worst, with visibility of less than two blocks. It made the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square look drab and hostile. Daughter 2 had trouble breathing. This was probably made worse by the omnipresent cigarette smoke. People smoke everywhere, and none of the restaurants we ate in had no-smoking sections (even though some had no-smoking signs posted—a vestige of the Olympics?). Luckily, the smog cleared on other days, and it wasn’t uniformly bad.

The inside temperature was a different story. We were expecting some places not to be heated, and we did eat in a restaurant without heat (we just kept our coats on and were fine—the meal was delicious), but we found most places that were heated to be significantly overheated. With one unbearable exception (see Getting Around), we stripped down as best we could and it was ok.

Aside from the smog, other winter-related aspects also probably made for a drabber experience. We’d heard from friends who’d gone in summer or fall that they enjoyed parks filled with peonies and people—flying kites, doing tai chi. We saw less of that—fewer regular people enjoying the outdoors, but lots of tour groups and souvenir hawkers. We weren’t expecting flowers in bloom, but we were surprised by the lack of trees (a vestige of Mao having them cut down according to a friend). Lots of pavement. No tree-lined streets. Many/most of the trees we saw were planted in very ordered columns and rows, feeling more like a tree farm than a natural setting. But then much that we saw felt more ordered than natural. Bottom line: If you have a choice, go in Sept.-Oct.

2. Getting around: We got around Beijing mainly by subway, which was terrific. It cost 2RMB ($.30) per ride and was clean and efficient (especially compared to the traffic you could hit in cabs). The routes are listed on the platforms, and onboard displays and announcements (in English, too) let you know what station you’re coming to.

The subway has security screening (you put bags through a scanner)—as do train stations and Tiananmen Square. I never saw any of the guards looking at the monitor or doing anything if the alarm sounded, though. Perhaps it is simply a deterrent.

Cabs were the next best option. When a subway didn’t go where we wanted to go or we had too many suitcases, we took cabs, and they were pretty cheap, too, and usually easy to flag. (In Xi’an we had trouble until we figured out there’s a designated spot off the Bell Tower circle for hailing a cab.) Many cabbies don’t know Beijing well, so if you’re going to a lesser-known spot, you may need more than the address in Chinese. (Thank you, daughter 1, who could describe how to get where we were going and interceded when a cab driver tried to not give DH the change owed.) Incidentally, she says that getting around Shanghai is easier; cabbies can call an app that translates to Mandarin.

It takes a while to get used to the driving. I had been told that most people have been driving only a couple of years in China—like a country of teenage drivers. In truth, they are much better than that. It’s just that they have different rules. Cars merge in a way that we’d consider cutting someone off, but they mostly accept it. They turn right on red without stopping, turn in front of oncoming traffic, and generally change lanes early and often. But since there’s so much traffic, cars go pretty slow and it all works. We didn’t see a single accident, except for a pedestrian who ran into our cab. Crossing the street on foot is likewise an art form. Just know that cars assert right of way over pedestrians, pick a gap, cross with a group, and you’ll be fine. D1’s mantra was “Don’t let them smell your fear.” DH’s mantra was “no sudden moves,” and it seemed to work.

We took the overnight train to Xi’an and back for many reasons: to experience how most Chinese travel, to save time (though the train takes longer than a plane, it took less waking time), to save money (saving both on the fare and two hotel nights), and to reduce our carbon footprint. With 4 of us, we sprang for a soft sleeper and a compartment to ourselves. In another season, it would have been fine. In winter, it was stifling. We could not control the heat, which came out below our berths and felt like sleeping in a wok. To paraphrase an oft- but erroneously quoted Mark Twain, “The hottest summer I ever spent was a winter train ride in China.” While awake, we’d open the door to get some cooler (but smokier) air from the corridor. I was looking forward to our train adventures, but they were our biggest disappointments.

3. Where to stay: We decided to reserve our first two nights at the Park Plaza Beijing Wangfujing, since it was a well-located (including next to a subway stop), affordable, highly rated 4-star on Tripadvisor, and then decide if we wanted to return after Xi’an or go somewhere else. (I’d read on this forum that though you could get better prices bargaining in person for local hotels, online prices were often best for Western chains.) Friends had told me that despite my desire to stay in a more authentic Chinese lodging (we normally prefer interesting local places to big chains), I would be happier in a more Western place with concierge, etc. I knew we’d need two rooms, since rooms/suites that can accommodate 4 are rare in China. Expedia had a good rate (around $83/room).

We liked the Park Plaza so much, we decided to return. The staff was very helpful. They held our bags after checkout and before our night train to Xi’an so we didn’t have to schlep them around all day. They stored the luggage we didn’t need while we were in Xi’an, and they let us check back in early when we returned. The rooms were clean, smoke-free, and plenty big. I’d read that in some of the hutong courtyard hotels I had been considering, the rooms were so small it was hard to find space for your bags, and my daughter had a semester’s worth of luggage. When we asked the front desk if we could book more days, they helpfully suggested that we’d get a better rate online so we booked the second stay on ctrip and got an even better rate (in the $70s).

In Xi’an, we stayed at the Warriors Apartment, owned by Clarence Guo (more about him later), our guide to the terra cotta warriors. It was a 2-bedroom apartment with living room and kitchen (for an extra fee, Clarence stocks the fridge with eggs, breads, fruit, and beer) and warrior replicas everywhere—emerging from the walls, holding up the sink, in the shower tiles. Truly memorable. Clarence was terrific, letting us keep the apartment until our evening train and then having his wife help us get to the station when the city gates closed in anticipation of Christmas Eve revelry. (Who knew that an old Chinese city with a long Buddhist/Taoist/Muslim tradition would have revelry issues on Christmas Eve!)

4. Where to eat: The food was mostly great and very inexpensive (we stuck to more casual places). Yes, the meat has more fat on it than we’re used to, but it’s no big deal. For Christmas dinner, we had yummy roast duck at DaDong (in Jinbao Place, a block from our hotel) beside a koi pond with a view of the chefs roasting the ducks. Sublime! In China servers show up immediately to take your order, which may make you feel rushed at first, but that’s where the rushing stops. We never felt hustled out of any dining experience, even when we knew there were people waiting. In fact, you have to flag the server down to get your check.

We had a great impromptu meal at Aunt Characteristic Home Dish, near the Workers’ Stadium in the Sanlitun area. We chose it because of the name, but the food was very flavorful. The hotpot experience at Hai Di Lao, on Wangfujing, was great fun. We did half and half--spicy and not. Everything—meat, vegetables, noodles, tofu, went in and came out with great flavor, enhanced by the mix-your-own dipping sauce. Near the end a guy does a “kung fu noodle” pull (if you order it) with lots of twirling—somewhat touristy but very entertaining, like the first time you watch someone throw a pizza crust.

Our daughter took us to her program’s neighborhood, just south of the Beijing Zoo, for the hole-in-the-wall eats that she lived on—terrific dumplings, steamed stuffed buns, folded egg and vegetable pancake concoctions, all served out of little storefronts for next to nothing. The little dumpling place served 10 dumplings for 4RMB ($.60).

The other memorable restaurant was the one Clarence took us to for lunch near the terra cotta warriors. Don’t know the name, but the locals do. The green beans (cooked with a little seed or pod) were delicious.

A few more topics to come…
PortiaLucy is offline  
Old Jan 6th, 2011, 08:15 AM
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I'm enjoying your report. Thanks!
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Old Jan 6th, 2011, 08:37 AM
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> We didn’t see a single accident, except for a pedestrian who ran into our cab.

Oh dear!

Sounds like you had a nice trip - thanks for posting!
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Old Jan 6th, 2011, 09:33 AM
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Accidents are pretty rare on Chinese roads, though many that happen are very serious.

The rule in Chinese driving is that "anything goes as long as you don't hit anything". That includes animals. Don't hit anything, and you can drive at whatever speed, use whatever lane (to turn or not to turn), ignore all the signs and traffic lights, etc.
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Old Jan 6th, 2011, 09:41 AM
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Looking forward to the rest of your report! We're going to China in September and I'm soaking up all the reports I can.
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Old Jan 8th, 2011, 10:30 PM
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thanks for your informative report. we are going to beijing in may and im making a note of the restaurants you visited. waiting eagerly for the next installment of your report...

btw, how did you obtain your tourist visa? did you apply directly to the china embassy in your home city or did you use a visa service?
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Old Jan 9th, 2011, 10:53 AM
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Looking forward to the rest of your report!

I'm sorry you didn't like the overnight trains, I found them quite fun actually. There is a control for the heater fan, though it's hard to find and I don't remember seeing it on the train from Xi'an to Shanghai so maybe some trains have it and some don't.

<<<D1’s mantra was “Don’t let them smell your fear.” DH’s mantra was “no sudden moves,” and it seemed to work.>>>

LMAO! Those both seem pretty accurate!
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Old Jan 9th, 2011, 12:09 PM
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Thanks, everyone, for the encouragement.

First, an answer to flyme2themoon’s visa question: I was on the fence. We don’t live far from NYC, so one or more of us could have spent half a day taking the apps in. But after reading some negative reviews of the NY consulate visa experience on googlemaps and knowing it would cost us $30 pp for the train into NY, we opted for travisa (travisa.com), which charges $50 pp above the cost of the visa. There may be cheaper ones out there. I’m glad we used a service, as they went back and forth with the consulate several times before we got the visas. First, the Chinese rejected our photos (the same ones the U.S. accepted for our passports). They didn’t explain, but travisa thought maybe they didn’t like the stock (it was matte). I’m glad I hadn’t gone into the city alone with those pics, or it would have been a wasted trip. We had the photos retaken at a CVS, and those were fine.

Next they had a problem with my occupation. I’m a writer (I know you can’t tell from my posts), so that’s what I put down. Travisa told me the consulate wanted a letter from me saying that I wouldn’t be working while in China, so I wrote one. (At this point, I figured elaborating would be a bad idea.) Round 3: They wanted still more. What exactly would we be doing? I told them where we were going. Almost there but not quite. Next they wanted to know what kind of writing I do, so I added that. The 4th time was the charm. I got the visa with a little more than a week to spare.

So I was glad we had left plenty of time and had used a service, but my neighbor got her visa herself and said it was quick and easy. Of course she wrote down “teacher” for her occupation. She says the Chinese love teachers.

Now back to other topics:

5. To guide or not to guide: We normally are independent travelers and like to follow our own timetable, so I devoured the trip reports of those intrepid souls who navigated China on their own. On the other hand, notwithstanding D1’s newfound Chinese abilities, we knew that getting around in a truly unfamiliar place (without signs we could easily decipher) would be a challenge. So we opted to handle Beijing proper on our own, since it’s perfectly manageable and D1 was familiar with it, but to use guides outside the city. We decided against group tours and the associated souvenir stops in favor of a dedicated guide. Besides, group tour costs x 4 aren’t necessarily cheaper.

In hindsight, I wonder if we should have used more guides, not because of the logistics of getting around. That we handled just fine. But we may have learned more about the sights. I compared notes with a friend when I got home, and she clearly learned more about the Forbidden City (e.g., the meaning of different dragon figures on the roofs) with a guide than we did without. Most sights have signage translated into English (the translations themselves are often very funny), and I was armed with 4—yes, 4—guidebooks. I had not read up on Chinese history/religion/art ahead of time, so though we got the basics, the depth was missing. Perhaps audioguides would have helped. I wish they had the equivalent of park ranger programs, albeit in Mandarin. I’d have loved to listen for 30 minutes and then see a sight on my own. We didn’t hire any of the guides who accosted us at every site, though I’m sure some are good.

So, based on a rec on this forum, we arranged with Clarence Guo to guide us to the terra cotta warriors. He was great. He has a lower price if you are willing to have other people on the tour with you, but there weren’t any, so we had him all to ourselves. He met us at the train station and then took us to a Taoist temple in Xi’an, a community of cave dwellers, and then the warrior museum itself, all while explaining what we were seeing. So, when we passed a brick wall being erected on a sidewalk in Xi’an, he explained that that’s what happens when “they” want to tear down a building and build a new one; they build a wall in front of existing shops so business will decline and shop owners will have little choice but to move out. At the temple, he told us about the 8 immortals to put what we were seeing in context. The cave dwellings were interesting for themselves, but it was also fascinating to see brick buildings being built in front of them. In anticipation of being bought out by a company that’s developing the area into a resort--with compensation based on the living space people own—the inhabitants are throwing up structures they know will soon be torn down. While we were there, representatives from the company came to harass the farmers to stop building.

Our favorite sight in China was unquestionably the terra cotta warriors, both because Clarence made it interesting and because it was so different from the other sights. (I confess to getting a certain amount of blue/red/green/gold pagoda fatigue.) Though the 360-degree movie could use an update, the warriors themselves are wonderful. Yes, we’d seen pictures, but to feel the scope, you have to be there. Clarence has his own theory that differs somewhat from the official one. It makes sense, but regardless of what’s right, I enjoyed the details he pointed out—about the soldiers’ arrangement (e.g., kneeling archers in front), their jobs and ranks, even creases on one figure’s palm. Good stuff, all!

We thought we had hired Kong Lin, a frequent rec on this forum, to guide us to the Great Wall (Mutianyu), but there was a misunderstanding and he drove but didn’t guide us. I don’t know that you need a guide up on the wall. We had a great time, taking the chairlift up and the toboggan down and generally grooving on this impressive feat of architecture, engineering, and considerable labor. Surprisingly, the wall was the only place where most visitors were foreigners. Everywhere else, we were one of few Caucasians, but here it was the reverse. I don’t know if Badaling would have been more crowded in December, but Mutianyu on a crisp winter weekday (Kong Lin had recommended avoiding weekends) was not deserted but hardly packed. There were nearly as many souvenir/refreshment sellers as visitors.

On the way back to town, he took us to the Summer Palace (I assume because we had his services for the whole day), but that, too, we explored on our own. He said if he had been guiding us, he would have had another person with the car. We enjoyed the SP, but we were a bit tired by then, and the tour groups were arriving in force, so we only stayed about 90 minutes. D1 said it was much lovelier in summer when she went. I don’t doubt it.

Kong Lin finished by driving us past the Olympic venues, which we were curious about, and navigating a few hutong back alleys with inches to spare.

6. Sights: I’ve covered much of these already. The terra cotta warriors were our favorite, followed by the Great Wall. Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven, Summer Palace, Lama Temple, etc., were all interesting but did begin to have a sameness about them, mostly due to architectural and ornamentation similarities. But I freely admit that this may be the result of my own ignorance. It may also be because we were wearied by the relentless barrage of guides, “art students,” and souvenir sellers (“Hello, hello, Temple Heaven, very cheaper”). Saying “bu yao,” shaking our heads, and avoiding eye contact would eventually get rid of one, but there was usually someone else upon us soon enough. Strangely, the reduced personal space I’d been warned about didn’t bother me nearly as much when it came to the mass of bodies on the subway or the absence of orderly lines (people often press in front of you if you leave even a small gap or if the line is more like a funnel with people coming in from the sides) as did the vendors interrupting our quiet appreciation of sights.

My favorite “sights” were invariably on a micro rather than a macro scale—the texture of a tile, the rhythm of dragon water spouts. My favorite moments were little glimpses: The Lama Temple monk who ducked out of one of the buildings to check his cell phone for a message. The giggly woman who cooks dumplings near D1’s dorm who was embarrassed to have her picture taken. The beautiful landscape on the face of the cave-dwelling farmer we visited. Though his cave was heated by the exhaust from his cooking fire and his pillow was a brick, he had satellite TV.

There may be a few more topics to come, but feel free to ask any specific questions.
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Old Jan 9th, 2011, 08:00 PM
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i am seriously considering a guide to walk us around FC, some interesting hutong for the same reason you mentioned. my husband and i are independent travellers like most posters here. however, a (good) local guide can add depth and perspective to some of the sights on a tour, not to mention a lot of interesting side stories.

we will be staying at the hilton in wangfujing. im sure the hotel can book english speaking guides for us, albeit at a very steep price. can you recommend an alternative place to hire an english speaking guides? how much should i expect to pay a guide to walk us through FC, hutong, (not sure if we need a guide for TS. btw, did you go to Mao's Mausoleum? how was it, was it creepy?
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Old Jan 10th, 2011, 06:04 PM
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Thank you PortiaLucy for that wonderful trip report, it sounds like you had a great time! My Husband and I returned from Beijing/Xian/Shanghai in mid-December. I think the weather was a bit warmer when we were there….long underwear every day….but still cold. We usually travel off season, the day we went to the Great wall we were the only people there; it was an amazing experience that we would never had “in season”. We traveled with a large tour group for the airfare and hotel but not the guides. We hired a private guide in both Beijing and Xian and were very happy we did. The amount of information we learned was amazing and in 4 days we were able to see the major sites in the city. There is a trade off for everything and what we gained in hiring a guide and getting a site by site history lesson we lost by not experiencing “real” Beijing. We did not take public transportation, interact with locals or eat in many great out of the way places. History can be learned from a book at home….the experience can only be had by doing it. I enjoy the way we travel, and it works for us, there are pros and cons to everything…it sounds like your trip worked really well for your family
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Old Jan 12th, 2011, 11:12 AM
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riverhawk, Your trip sounds like a great way to go. Glad you enjoyed it.

flyme2the moon, Sorry it's taken me a while to respond. The only guide rate for Beijing I have is the 400RMB that Kong Lin had originally quoted us for the day (for 4 people--I don't know if it varies by number in party). This was just for his guide services and didn't include a car and driver, but then he didn't end up guiding us. Friends of mine have gotten guides through their hotel and been perfectly satisfied. I have no idea how much they spent. I believe there have been other threads on this forum with guide recommendations, so you might want to check them if you haven't yet. Also, I hear that some people have found guides on tripadvisor (forums), but you'll want to beware of guides touting their own services. And no, we didn't go see Mao, as I'm just not into the whole iconic preserved dictator thing.
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Old Jan 23rd, 2011, 03:26 PM
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PortiaLucy
Great report, we are having 2 day stopover in July, would love to use guide, have you got contact details for Kong Lin as we would prefer to use some one that is recomended
Kiwipete
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