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dgunbug Nov 8th, 2012 06:39 PM

China - Sadly, a bit underwhelming
China – Sadly, A Bit Underwhelming

Ever since my college days when I considered majoring in Asian Studies, I have wanted to visit China. Despite it being highest on my list of travel destinations, we have always put it off as we were told how difficult independent travel is in China. My husband and I have visited much of Europe and have made three (3 ½ wk) independent trips to: Thailand & Cambodia, Vietnam and India. Finally, after reading countless Fodors trip reports, and despite our family’s misgivings about traveling to China without taking a tour, we decided that it was time to travel to China independently. After approximately 9 months of research, much reading on China and endless hours on Fodor and Trip Advisor forums, we were armed with enough material to comfortably make our travel plans. Along with trip notes, we were equipped with train schedules and options, hotel directions written in Chinese and a language translation application on my iphone.

We had enough frequent flyer miles for only one plane ticket. Delta Airlines allowed us to use the miles to pay for 2 one way tickets to China from Ft Lauderdale and we paid approximately $1,200.00 for two return tickets. We flew Delta Airlines from Ft Laud to Atlanta, GA, then Korean Air to Seoul, Korea and finally to Beijing. Our return flight was on Korean Air from Shanghai to Seoul; Seoul to Atlanta and then Delta Airlines from Atlanta to Ft Lauderdale. As in the past, I have nothing but praise to say about Korean Airlines. The leg space in Economy class was comfortable, the service was impeccable and the food was good.

Our Itinerary:
Oct 9 –Tues - arrive Beijing (Novotel Beijing Peace Hotel)
Oct 10 – Weds - Beijing
Oct 11 – Thurs - Beijing
Oct 12 – Fri - Beijing
Oct 13 – Sat - Beijing
Oct 14 – Sunday - Beijing
Oct 15 – Monday - Beijing
Oct 16 – Tues - Beijing
Oct 17 – Weds - train to Datong – ½ day Datong
Oct 18 – Thurs - Datong – night train to Pingyao
Oct 19 – Friday - Pingyao
Oct 20 - Saturday - Pingyao – night train to Xian
Oct 21 – Sunday - Xian
Oct 22 – Monday - Xian
Oct 23 – Tues - Xian
Oct 24 – Weds - AM train to Luoyuang –late train to Nanjing
Oct25 – Thurs - Nanjing
Oct 26 – Friday – Nanjing
Oct27 – Saturday – AM train to Hanghzou
Oct 28 – Sunday – Hanghzou
Oct 29 – Monday – Train to Shanghai – Fodor meetupat Lost Heaven
Oct 30 – Tues - Shanghai
Oct 31 – Weds - Shanghai
Nov 1 – Thurs - Shanghai
Nov 2 – Friday - train to Suzhou – day trip
Nov 3 – Shanghai
Nov 4 – Sunday - Return to Shanghai - Leave for home 2:00 pm flight from Shanghai to Korea – overnight at Seoul Airport Hotel
Nov 5 – Monday - Arrive home

General Impressions of China:

Prior to our trip, we had heard that traveling to China was considered a trip of a life-time by many travelers. We were also told how much China was developing and knew that it would be hard to see the China of the past. Perhaps we are jaded, but after having visiting Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and India, we were a bit underwhelmed by China. Both my husband and I felt that China lacked the challenges and foreign feel of those other Asian countries we had been to.

Had we visited China first, would we have felt that it was more of a challenge? That’s hard to say. There are certain similarities that we found in China as we did in our other Asian destinations. Crossing the roads in China is certainly a challenge, as the pedestrians do not seem to have the right of way, but often the crossings were more manageable in China as there were many underground cross walks. We had learned to manage the difficulty of crossing Asian streets from our prior trips.

Food stalls alongside the road are common throughout Asia and while we found them in China, restaurants were plentiful and frequented by Chinese and foreigners alike. As in our prior trips, we found a variety of vehicles on the streets including carts, bicycles, pedicabs, tuk tuks, motorcycles, etc., but in modern day China the predominant vehicle is the car. The traffic and craziness of drivers was something that we were already used to from our past travel experiences.

In general, we found the Chinese people to be louder and more pushy than other Asians…often cutting in front of lines and not waiting their turn. While we were told that the spitting is a great problem, we did not find it to be as predominant as we had anticipated. The smoking was also not as bothersome as expected, but the smog was horrendous and it was a rare day that we saw blue skies. Prior to our trip we were concerned about asthma, but thankfully, this never became a problem. We were impressed that there was very little littering in China and the cities were generally very clean other than the air quality.

We were disappointed that we did not encounter the same level of graciousness that we experienced in our hotels in our past trips to Asia; there were no welcoming drinks or fruit in the rooms as was the standard previously. We found the hotel staff to be less accommodating and less interested in our needs than in Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam or India.

In China, we found a “sameness” that made touring less interesting. The pagodas all seemed to look alike, the ancient architectural style of homes and buildings seemed to have little variety and most of the “old town” areas seemed to have a Disney-like feel, with the Chinese obviously trying to keep some semblance of the old town for tourism purposes. Most of the storefronts carried the same souvenirs for tourist. Along with an old town, each town that we visited had a central shopping area and pedestrian walking streets where the Chinese congregate to shop, eat and socialize. While most of these areas had street food sold in stalls and people walking around eating constantly, there was no shortage of KFCs, McDonalds or Starbucks and all were packed. Most stores and brands found in the USA could be found in China and often the merchandise was even nicer and more plentiful in China. There was no lack of high end stores such as Gucci, Burberry, Cartier, etc.

What we enjoyed most was wandering through the parks in various cities, seeing the people exercising, doing Tai Chi, playing cards, maj jongg, singing, playing instruments and interacting together. The Chinese people’s strength and level of physical fitness is remarkable and something to be truly admired.

While old china is for the most part gone, the level of industriousness of its people and their ability to build a modern society in such a short time-frame, is truly remarkable. Instead of the billboard advertisements so typical in our cities, there were movie sized picture screens everywhere with beautiful pictures and advertisements atop large modern buildings that are cropping up everywhere.

More on our daily itinerary and impressions later.

rhkkmk Nov 8th, 2012 06:49 PM

say its not true...

rhkkmk Nov 8th, 2012 07:15 PM

we agree in large part with what you have said. While our time was not spent in smaller towns and cities, save one watertown, we found your observations accurate.

we did visit some lower end shopping venues and found a bit more gritty feeling with lots of bargaining and a much lower level of articles, all very affordable. But as you have said there are huge numbers of upscale shops in every city... how many coach shops, or designer shops of the same name can one city have, even if there are 8 or 23 million people in that city??

China's aim seems to be to modernize using a western format while keeping key tenants of their traditional society, and socialism of course.

I don't think we would rush back, but i would love to visit Shanghai for a few more days---the visa is just too damn expensive.

June, i think that once one has visited India any comparison to anyplace is impossible and fruitless.

Thailand remains #1 for us, followed by bali and vietnam with india near the top as well, exhausting as it is to travel there.

filmwill Nov 8th, 2012 08:20 PM

Agree completely with your observations -- and my experience there last year was VERY similar.

That said, I would add that our time out West (particularly in Lijiang) was far more interesting, rewarding and beautiful than anywhere else we were in China.

But, after having spent time in SE Asia, it's hard to compare anywhere else in terms of hospitality, kindness and pace-of-life.

kja Nov 8th, 2012 08:35 PM

I'm sorry to hear that you were underwhelmed, dgunbug, though I completely understand what you are saying - I saw way too many places that were in the process of being, or had recently been, "Disney-fied." Such a shame! You remind me of how very glad I am that I visited a number of places that hadn't been tampered with yet. Good to hear that you enjoyed the parks - gotta love all the activity there! Looking forward to hearing more....

crosscheck Nov 8th, 2012 10:35 PM

Despite a lifelong obsession with dumplings, I've haven't been that drawn to China, mainly because all the photos show much of what you've described, a less exotic Asia. Looking forward to the report though!

rhkkmk Nov 9th, 2012 12:44 AM

dumplings---i was totally underwhelmed by them and the special shanghai ones even more so, BUT I am glad that i got a chance to try a wide range of them.

dgunbug Nov 9th, 2012 03:49 AM

Just want to clarify a few things. While our trip to china was somewhat of a disappointment, we did enjoy our time there and were left with the highest respect for the Chinese people and their accomplishments. Again, I acknowledge the fact that some of our disappointment may have stemmed from our familiarity with the Asian culture and our past travels. As bob stated, there were also lower end shopping and we, who really don't care much for shopping, had a blast bargaining and making several purchases. Heeding the advice of Karen & Linda, we visited Mary's on the second floor of the pearl market in shanghai and I purchased a set of pearls for 1/4 of the asking price. Note that we then decided to buy three more sets for my DILs, but she wouldn't give us a better price so we moved on to Wendy pearl no 3 where we got an even better rate and she threw in lovely bags to store the pearls in. We bought a light weight tripod for peanuts and the complete Rosetta Stone Spanish series for about $15. The price in the USA is approx $300-350 for the same purchase. We have yet to see if this Chinese version is compatible with our computers. It is a gift for one of our sons.

One of the highlights of our trip was our meet up with other fodorites at lost horizons in shanghai. It was a pleasure seeing Karen and bob once again (they sure do get around) and meeting their friend pat, Linda & Peter (hawaiiantravelers), and the cokesmiths (cokie, Som and their adorable son cokie). Incidentally, besides the wonderful company, the food was the best we had while in china.

My accomplishments were two-fold - I learned to finally squat like a native and I walked my buns off, literally losing five pounds despite eating well. There were lots of stairs and I occasionally opted for them even when escalators were available. In this light, I should mention that china has a wonderful system of subways and long distance trains. And, unlike in many older cities, they often provide escalators.

What is rarely provided though is toilet paper. For a society making such strides in modernizing their country, one would think they could at least provide toilet paper in their bathrooms. The majority of toilets are still the squat kind, but I didn't mind that as much as the fact that I always had to carry toilet paper.

On our prior trips when using long distance overnite trains, which we like, we have always had a private berth. We were a bit leery about sharing a compartment with strangers, but this was no problem and we enjoyed our time with the people we met while traveling and were able to get a good nites sleep on all occasions.

More later...

jobin Nov 9th, 2012 05:08 AM

Yeah, i too love the squat toilets. But sadly the Chinese are installing the western type which certainly are less hygienic and contribute to various medical issues for users. Give away free TP? Seems unlikely as folks would steal every roll in a second. Massive poverty means that anything free is 'free for the taking'. Know what i mean? In Xinjiang however, many places have no toilets at all and the dry, barren hillsides are covered with piles of poop and blowing, brown and used toilet paper. China suffers from the need to escape from the past but has no vision of the future except the Western picture . Hence, they, the Chinese people and government, ape the West in so many ways. Were you in a small village when the town's loudspeaker broadcast forth the message of the day? So loud to wake the dead. Always propaganda telling the people the joys of the Community Party, what they call the Communist Party. Also, must totally agree the food in the remote towns and cities is fabulous, esp for the price.

shelleyk Nov 9th, 2012 06:11 AM

I do think your reaction might be influenced by the fact that you had visited other Asian countries before visiting China. We, on the other hand, visited China after Thailand and Cambodia, but before Vietnam and India and very much liked what we found in China. Our visit was 5 years ago, and we liked seeing the old hutongs in Beijing in contrast to the new building going on. We thought the architecture and pagodas were different enough to hold our interest. And we thoroughly enjoyed seeing the terracotta warriors, the Shanghai museum and the Li River.

hawaiiantraveler Nov 9th, 2012 07:44 AM

Aloha June,

It was a blast meeting you all at Lost In Heaven and wish we had all night to chat.

We agree with what you have written so far about your views of China. China is modernizing at such an incredible pace and the communist govt in its quest to control all has squashed all of its heritage that is not of use to it and only leaves behind what they can use for its own benefit......oh well. Rude, crude and always looking for their share of the squeeze, never caring for others and always take, take, take. Having to be first in line no matter who is in front always bothered me. I always look at the taxi drivers of a new city or country we visit and find they represent the true values and temperment of their fellow countrymen. We have been to China before a few years back and knew what to expect. Our only intention this time around was to visit Shanghai and its environs which we missed on our last trip and accomplishing that there will probably be no more China for us. Never say never. We have seen and enjoyed enough, no real need to return. So much to see, so little time. The only interest in a return would be to Tibet, Mongolia or other remote areas where the red tide is still resisted and the culture is still somewhat intact. Pollution has overcome the industrialized areas so much that I don't see an out for the common people unless they rise and put a stop to it all the madness. My only saving grace for this country is to look at its history and to know that history always repeats itself.....

You should also play that Rosetta Stone gift if is on a cd because cd's bought in China are one of their biggest scams usually having nothing on the cd at best. Hope it didn't happen to you.

I am one who hates and abhors squat toilets.....just not my style. I think the OP wrote that they learned to use the squat toilet and not loved to use them as you inserted your thoughts into their writing. As you can tell by my writing I am not into political correctness. When we first visited Japan several years ago we loved their washlet toilets so much that we installed one in our home after we got back. i consider the washlet toilet to be very hygenic. Imho if one loves the squats so much I wholly recommend stop just talking the talk and "walk lightly" and start installing squats in your humble abode so you can be more hygenic than the rest.

Looking forward to the rest of your report.


rhkkmk Nov 9th, 2012 08:11 AM

OK, i've got it now... toilet paper is the new gradient upon which we will grade a country..

rhkkmk Nov 9th, 2012 08:13 AM

i am rarely affected by pollution, but i found Xian and to a lesser degree Shanghai so badly polluted as to make visiting them unpleasant.

sf7307 Nov 9th, 2012 08:42 AM

<<<Such a shame! You remind me of how very glad I am that I visited a number of places that hadn't been tampered with yet.>>>

We went to Europe for the first time in 1972, and in my diary, I wrote "Better get back before Burger King takes over". Progress? Hmmmm.

Re squat toilets. June and I have discussed this before. In Vietnam, we both just "held it in" rather than use them. I think June was simply noting her own personal progress in this regard.

As for the Japanese washlet toilets, they are fabulous! I went into a high-end Japanese-owned hotel in Saigon and used one. I want one at home too!

June, great report as usual. I'm disappointed by your disappointment. You know I follow you around. I'm going to have to get to Thailand and India <i>soon</i>.

Marija Nov 9th, 2012 09:25 AM

I'm enjoying your report. We went when it was still quite unusual to travel independently. Hotels kept asking who we belonged to.

dgunbug Nov 9th, 2012 11:46 AM

I must weigh in on the toilet situation. Squat toilets are NOT my idea of an ideal toilet situation and some of you may remember that I locked the door of a bathroom in India that had rows of squat toilets without privacy stalls. I was merely stating that I was proud of my accomplishment to squat like a native. Nevertheless, I feared each time that I would put my foot into the hole or drop my phone or camera into it when I pulled down my pants. As for the Japanese toilets, you may be describing the very toilet that I found in the bathroom of the shanghai grand mercure lobby. That toilet alone is a good enough reason to return to the grand mercure hotel. The toilet had both rear and front cleaning jets, a dryer and a warm seat to sit upon. Probably more info than anyone wanted to hear!

dgunbug Nov 9th, 2012 12:09 PM

Hawaiiantraveler - your comment about the taxi driver reminded me that I wanted to comment on the bizarre behavior of the cabbies. Never before have we experienced the difficulty in finding a taxi to hire as we did in china. There were many incidences where we physically got into an empty taxi, only to be shooed out by the cab driver who refused our business. There were other instances in which drivers with empty cabs refused to even stop. We saw this time and again, not only with us, but with other customers trying to get a ride, at first we thought perhaps the cabbies did not wish to pick up westerners, but realized they treated the Chinese people in the same manner.

thursdaysd Nov 9th, 2012 12:39 PM

I think your impression that the "old" sections look Disneyfied is because the Chinese have been busy tearing down the genuine old stuff and rebuilding it. You would perhaps have been happier further west and further off the very well-trodden tourist track (although that doesn't mean Dali and Lijiang). For a more genuine feel I would suggest Taiwan.

dgunbug Nov 9th, 2012 01:05 PM

Thursdaysd - perhaps you are right, but we don't have regrets about going to china at this time. I would have regretted more, having not gone. And of course progress is great for china and many of the changes are positively affecting the lives of the people whose standard of living has greatly improved with the modernization of china.

colduphere Nov 9th, 2012 01:35 PM

This is an interesting thread. I admit to finding China fascinating largely because I never thought I would have the chance to visit. I found the rude taxi drivers fascinating. The smog fascinating. The food I couldn't eat fascinating. The only thing I did not find fascinating was the Pearl Market. Get me out of here.

I have never wanted to go to India. So I wonder how that will seem when we get there.

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