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China 2013 - 17 Days, 7 Airlines, 12 Flights, 21,206 Miles

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Jun 14th, 2013, 09:46 AM
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China 2013 - 17 Days, 7 Airlines, 12 Flights, 21,206 Miles

Dunhuang, Xi'An, Chengdu, Jiuzhaigou & Hong Kong

Here is a trip report from our April visit to China. Thanks again for the advice we got here on the boards planning everything. All in all this was a very interesting, good trip for us. We went in with somewhat lowered expectations and were really happy with almost everything we experienced.

DC to Hong Kong – The most trouble we had traveling this entire trip was getting out of DC due to storms. After spending all day in the airport and having American really go to heroic lengths to try to get us on many different flights we ended up being delayed by 24 hours. We flew business class on Cathay Pacific through Chicago, and it was a very nice flight when we finally got out. We arrived in Hong Kong on Friday night, staying at the JW Marriott on points. This is a really lovely hotel, we had a great view of the Harbour from our room. We went up to the Club lounge for some wine and to work on rerouting our flights to deal with the delay. We got some nice assistance from Anna in the Club, who helped us try to get from Hong Kong into Xi’An, as our original ticket with ctrip was non-refundable for the flight we had missed earlier that day. We ended up booking a new ticket on Dragon Air for the next afternoon. Luckily, we were able to rebook our roundtrip flights from Xi’An to Dunhuang for one day later each way with no penalty. We decided to miss the day from Xi’An on the way back, as my real goal there was the Terra Cotta Warriors and there would still be plenty of time for that.

Hong Kong to Xi’An - We had a great breakfast with a spectacular view in the Club that morning (free for us due to my husband’s status with Marriott) before we headed back to the airport. Dragon Air is an American partner, so my husband’s status also got us into the business class lounge, which is very nice. We got into Xi’An in the late afternoon and checked in at the Sheraton North. We just relaxed and ate at the Chinese restaurant at the hotel for dinner. We ordered way too much food, most of which was good, spending about $100 US dollars in all. The highlight was some excellent fried chicken, which came head and all. The next morning we wandered around and found a great market nearby with all sorts of food stuff. We munched our way around by pointing at what we wanted, good savory pancakes with scallions, some pastry and stuff that probably cost $3 in the end. Walked most of the morning till we had to go to the airport. As we were returning to the Sheraton, we left our big luggage and some laundry as well for our return.

Xi’An to Dunhuang - Uneventful flight to Dunhuang, you definitely feel as if you’re traveling to the middle of nowhere as you fly through the mountains and desert. We were picked up at the airport by a driver from the hotel, the Silk Road Dunhuang Hotel. We really liked it here, they were helpful and the room was quiet and had a great view of the sand dunes. As we got in later in the afternoon we just rested and then went up to the rooftop bar (Starry Lounge) to relax and watch the sunset over the Mingsha sand dunes. It was nice but not spectacular light. We had dinner in the hotel that evening, some good lamb with cumin and a decent but forgettable chicken dish. All in all fairly good if not great food, but easy for our first night. The hotel did not seem too crowded at this time of the year.

We got up fairly early and had a very nice breakfast (included with our room) on the rooftop again, although the sunrise wasn’t great. We had booked a driver (through the hotel) to take us out to the desert this day to see the ancient Han dynasty ruins including an interesting piece of the Great Wall. We left about 8:30 in a nice van with him. The mornings and evenings were cool, but even at this time of year the sun is relentless out there as it heats up.

We started out at the Yumen Pass, about 50 kms or maybe an hour’s drive out. There was a bus load of other tourists here with us, but it was a very interesting spot. After that, we traveled 15-20 minutes out to the Hechang Ancient City ruins nearby. We were totally on our own here, it was very cool. Next we went to see the Han Dynasty wall ruins, which were very interesting (and again we were on our own). Those three stops took us all morning, but not, as the guide books had said, all day. The hotel had advised that we’d have time to also see the Western Thousand Buddha caves, so we stopped there on the way back. There were a few other people around, but we were the only ones touring the caves at that point. There were only 5 open to the public out of 16, but we enjoyed the stop. There is a nice area there with trees down by a (dry) riverbed where you can sit or wander around.

We went back into town and had the driver drop us there for a late lunch. He would have come back for us, but we told him we’d take a taxi. We ate at Shirley’s Café, based on his recommendation and because it was in one of my guide books. We a decent if not great lunch there. Back for a rest and then enjoyed the rooftop lounge again. For dinner we took a cab back to town ($10 Yuan to get anywhere) to go get some of the Dunhuang specialty Donkey Meat Yellow Noodles. I had the restaurant from our guidebook that had the name in Chinese characters, but the first driver couldn’t find it and we ended up at the night market. We hopped in another cab and finally made it to a place the driver was sure we should be. The name in Chinese didn’t look the same to me, but after much pointing and consultation we ended up with two plates of what looked like the house specialty as described. It was actually quite good. We enjoyed wandering around town afterwards back to the night market, there were lots of fun lights up everywhere.

The next morning we had another great breakfast (my husband loved the long noodles they made there for his soup) before we headed out to the Mingsha Sand Dunes to ride camels and climb around. We took a taxi from the hotel before we realized it was really close enough to walk (which we did on the way back.) We got there early because I wanted to be off the dunes before the sun got too hot. We got on our camels and off we went. I had a really good time, although I know it’s touristy. After a stop where you could climb the dunes to ride down on a sled or tube or go out on an ATV (we didn't care to do either) we rode back and wandered around before heading off.

We had lunch at another small Sichuan restaurant in town, again sort of forgettable food. We were coming to realize that most of the time we ordered chicken it came with bones, which would have been fine except they were sort of scary splinters almost. Although it took us several more meals to stop ordering chicken.

After lunch we took a taxi to the Mogao Grottoes. These caves were very spectacular and impressive. We didn’t wait for an English tour, but were helped out by a nice girl from Hong Kong who translated some for us. I usually prefer to just look around anyway. We saw about 15 caves I think, it was well worth it.

That night we went to the night market for dinner. After agonizing over which stall to stop at for Kebabs, we found one promising cold beer and settled in. The kebabs were delicious, but this particular place featured some of our favorite food from the trip, which we dubbed “crack bread”. They took soft sort of pita like bread and brushed it with oil or butter and then sprinkled spices all over, predominantly a cumin blend, and grilled it. So deliciously good and cheap. Our time in the desert was over, back to Xi’An in the morning. We woke up to a hard wind blowing sand everywhere, luckily we had been on the dunes the day before because it would have been less fun in those conditions. Another uneventful flight back to Xi'An.

More details to come. Let me know if I am rambling too much, this seems long and it’s only the first leg!
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Jun 14th, 2013, 12:11 PM
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Looking forward to more! Love all the details. How annoying about the outbound flight, but you seem to have recovered well.

It's been over ten years since I was in Dunhuang, so it's so interesting to read about it now. Back then I don't think there WAS an airport, we certainly arrived overland! Some of the best food I had in China was in markets or hole-in-the-wall places.
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Jun 14th, 2013, 12:52 PM
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i'm loving this..

glad jw and Sheraton N worked out for you.. we loved both... and that club can't be beat
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Jun 14th, 2013, 01:44 PM
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The Dunhuang airport definitely seemed new. When we first drove to the hotel Dunhuang looked very small and dusty, but after going back at night it seemed fairly bustling. I am glad we made an effort to get out there.

We had good success with street/market food on this trip. We have now tried to make our own version of crack bread, somewhat successfully. We didn't find the language barrier in China to be a problem for the most part, but I would have loved to have been able to get details on that spice mix.

rhkkmk, I read your trip report and got some good info Loved the Marriott, and the Sheraton was nice too. Now if I could only get my husband to the same status level at Starwood, because those Club benefits are seriously nice to have.
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Jun 14th, 2013, 04:32 PM
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for sure...send him away for weekends
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Jun 19th, 2013, 01:31 PM
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Xi’An

We arrived in the afternoon back at the very nice Sheraton North hotel. One downside to our time in Xi’An was that it was hot while we were there – in the low 90s this day. We like to walk, but the heat made that less enjoyable. We headed out to take a taxi to see the Drum and Bell Towers, but the Bellman pointed out the metro stop right next door and advised that with traffic being heavy it was the best way to go. We bumbled our way through getting fare cards and rode on down. The metro system there is very nice - new, easy to use, everything you could want. It was only a couple of stops to get to the center of everything too.

We visited the Towers and then wandered around the Muslim Quarter. For dinner we ate at the famous Dumpling restaurant De Fa Chang there in the square. We enjoyed the food, although weren’t overwhelmed. We had the multi course dumpling tasting menu.

The next morning we ate at the market again and then had the hotel get us a car to take us out to see the Terra Cotta Warriors. We probably paid more than we needed to for this service, but it was certainly easy. Our driver waited for us and it made for a quicker trip there and back which was nice as we were short on time in Xi’An.

We did not want a guide, so we refused all the offers at the gates (and there were many). This really is a spectacular exhibit, the scale is just amazing. We spent a couple of hours wandering around before heading back to the city.

We ate lunch in the Muslim Quarter in a little hole in the wall place where we got some noodles, then headed out for a fried banana for dessert on the street. We walked down to the entrance to the City Walls (the South Gate I think) next.

Aside from the heat, the other downside of our time in Xi’An was that the pollution was terrible, especially on this day. We had been interested in possibly biking the walls, which is highly recommended, but just weren’t into being out that long with that air quality. We ended up walking up on the wall for a bit and then popping into a nearby German beer pub to escape the bad air. So I feel that Xi’An was not the highlight of our trip, although I am happy I got to see the Terracotta Warriors. We headed to the airport for our 9 pm flight to Chengdu, again uneventful and smooth.
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Jun 19th, 2013, 02:19 PM
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The metro is new since I was there - I used the buses. Pity about the pollution! There are several other things to see in Xi'an besides the Warriors - I especially like the Mosque and the Taoist temple.
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Jun 19th, 2013, 07:30 PM
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Love the report. We were in Xi'An 10 years ago and air pollution was not an issue. Not all progress is good.
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Jun 28th, 2013, 06:56 AM
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I promise I am getting back to this, I just wanted to look up some of my details on Chengdu and I keep forgetting. I think the metro was opened around 2010, so very new. Which is probably why it seems so nice! I do feel that Xi'An sort of got the short end of the stick with us for various reasons. I'm sure it's lovely especially without the pollution. A colleague was there several weeks later and said it was clear as a bell, so go figure.

In contrast, for reasons I'm not quite sure I can put a finger on, We really liked Chengdu. Just got good vibes there. Even though we were there for an earthquake. Here is the start of Chengdu:

We stayed at the Sheraton Lido Hotel. This was another nice hotel, near the metro and a Carrefour and other shopping. It gets a lot of knocks on Trip Advisor for being outdated, but I thought it was fine, and definitely a good location.

Our first day in Chengdu we had scheduled a tour out to the Bifengxia Panda Reserve and then to lunch and tour around Shangli Ancient Town. We were picked up by our driver and guide from Viator around 8 am and we got on the road. By about 9:30 or so we were at Bifengxia. We had to take a tour bus in with some other groups from the little town at the entrance. We had signed up for the special expensive cuddle a panda experience, which would be happening around 10:30 am. We walked around and checked in and took some pictures. It was a lovely day and the scenery is just beautiful out there. And the air was blissfully fresh. If you have trouble walking there are buses that can take you around too, it’s hilly and a lot of space to cover. Soon enough we were at the spot where we were going to hold our panda. We had to put on hospital gowns, gloves and booties. There were two other people signed up, so the 4 of us went in together. They bring the juvenile panda out and she sat and ate her treat while we all took turns petting her and getting our picture taken. We sat close to her and tried not to invade her space too much, it was so great. They are pretty good about not letting you upset her, and when she was done with her treat we were all quickly escorted out. Definitely a highlight for me, but whether the expense is worth it probably depends on how much you like Pandas. I consider it a donation to research.

After that we toured around taking pictures of the little ones in the kindergarten. They were so adorable. We didn’t have small babies because of the time of year, but we did see lots of pandas. And it was worth it just to get out to the countryside and see all the tea plants and scenery too.

We stayed for a couple of hours and then headed off to Shangli. This is a nice small scenic old town about a half hour away from the reserve. Our guide (nick named Green) took us to lunch and ordered for us. We had really delicious food at one of the places in the town right along the river. Kung Pao chicken and two other dishes that were really great. After lunch we wandered and shopped before heading back to Chengdu. There were tons of students painting there, I wish I could have bought some of their stuff as some of them were pretty good. It was probably 5 pm by the time we got back to town.

The tour was great, and our guide and driver were too. Although we are pretty sure we were lost for a while and ended up on top of a mountain trying to take a shortcut back to the highway at the end, but it just made it seem like more of an adventure. Green also recommended her favorite place for Hot Pot, and made a reservation for us for the next evening.

We were tired that night and I think just got room service. We woke up the next morning to an earthquake, which was a little nerve wracking but didn’t seem too bad. We later learned that it was a 7.0 magnitude quake centered just 35 kilometers from the Bifengxia Gorge and Ya’an City where we had been the day before. A couple of hundred people were killed and many thousands injured, but we saw on CNN that the pandas were okay. A terrible thing, but the Chinese seemed to be making a large relief effort.

More to come....
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Jun 28th, 2013, 02:39 PM
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we had terrible pollution to in late October... but the temp was perfect.
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Jun 28th, 2013, 04:56 PM
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> We woke up the next morning to an earthquake

OMG! I love having adventures when I travel, but one's not on my wish list.

I'm enjoying your report - thanks for posting!
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Jun 30th, 2013, 12:44 PM
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We were definitely lucky we missed the worst of the earthquake. I would not have wanted to be on those mountain roads for one. I tried to find out if Shangli had much damage, but only found an article with some pictures about a month later that said most shops had reopened for business. So hopefully it wasn't too bad there, it really was a lovely place.

That day we had big plans to go out to either Le Shan, or maybe Qingcheng Shan. However, we just weren't up for another day of travel for a couple of hours out and back. I wish we had had more time!

Instead, we wandered around Chengdu. We just walked and took a cab out to the Wuhou Temple, then walked around the touristy Jinli Street. We had some sanitized street food there (good) and then sat at a nice bar that had a table with a great view out for people watching and a guy who came to sing and play the guitar. You haven't lived until you've heard the chinese version of "Almost Heaven".

We were looking forward to our Hot Pot dinner that our guide Green had set up, and we were not disappointed. We went to Longsen Garden, an upscale restaurant that was packed with chinese although very friendly to westerners. The hop pot there was absolutely delicious. We had the combo of the broth and hot oil. The broth had a whole fish in it, and was very tasty. The hot oil was good, although didn't seem too spicy to us. We had dishes with lots of hot peppers for dipping as well. We tried thinly sliced beef, shrimp dumplings, broccoli, and mushrooms. This was one of our best meals in China, if not the best. Afterwards we wandered around, there's a nice park nearby.

The next day we were off to Jiuzhaigou.
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