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Bushwackers1 Mar 1st, 2006 12:13 AM

Hong Kong, Beijing, Xian trip report (part 1)
 
The following is our long overdue review of our Hong Kong to Beijing to Xi’an and back to Hong Kong trip that took place Nov 21-29, 2005. It will probably take several posts to get it all on Fodors.

Overview: I live in Chicago while my wife is in the military and stationed in Okinawa, Japan. We are in our mid 30’s and had been planning this trip for almost a year. This trip met our high expectations.

This website was an incredible asset in helping to plan this trip. Special thanks to rkkwan whose expertise of the island helped us gain efficiencies in planning this and whose recommendation of the Tiglion Travel Service (HK travel agency) saved us close to $400 on airfare from HKG to PEK. Due to the help of the community here at Fodor’s, I would like to offer review and opinions to what is currently our trip of a lifetime. I am going to use a bullet point format so that people can pull out the key parts that interest them – plus I started this in a narrative format and it quickly grew too long!

Transportation

Getting there
• Adam: ORD to SFO on UAL and then SFO to HKG on SQ 001 (Singapore) – business class (miles redemption) on Singapore is divine – 60 channels of on demand entertainment made the flight very tolerable. I also had the same routing back to Chicago. Highly recommended if you like red-eye flights as I landed in HKG at 6:30a and left at 9:55p – I was able to maximize my time. Also, the Airport Express train was an easy and relaxing way to get to Hong Kong Island from the airport. All airports should be like HKG!

• Maggie: OKA to TPE (Taipei) and TPE to HKG on China Air – a piece of cake since her air time was less than 3 hours combined.

• HKG to PEK on CZ140 (China Southern) – clean A320 – easy flight, though you have to be bused from the plane to the terminal.

• We did the overnight train from Beijing to Xi’an. This fit our schedule the best and the train compartment was clean though you will need to buy 4 tickets if you want a sleeping compartment to your self. The attendants on the train spoke perfect English, so no language issues. We used the Oriental Train Company out of the UK (with offices in HKG). Very easy to do business with, but also more expensive. There are some other sources out there to purchase tickets in advance (I just can’t remember their names). I would recommend researching them.

• XIY (Xian) to HKG on China Eastern – clean A320 also and also an easy flight.

• We used Robinson Li (www.beijingtaxi.com) from the airport and for the Great Wall. A very nice person who was waiting for us at the airport. He gave us another driver for the trip the Great Wall which was a disappointment as the driver’s English was not as fluent. That took away from the ride to the Wall as we had questions about day to day life in Beijing that would have made the trip better. If you get him, make sure –that he will e your driver the whole time. I would try to get a guarantee of this.

• We used Clarence Guo ([email protected]) in Xi’an. We were very happy with him. He speaks English and was an excellent tour guide at the Terra Cotta Warriors. Very happy with the service.

• We used taxis and subways extensively in Hong Kong and Beijing. Simply put – cheap and plentiful. The best way to get around.

• Also, in Hong Kong, get an Octopus card. It made travel on the subway and ferries easy and fast. No need to look for loose change. Also, you can use it at various merchants around town like Starbucks and 7-11.

Accommodations

As a Hilton Honors member, both of our hotels were Hilton properties via point redemption.

• Conrad Hong Kong: The Conrad was a nice hotel with great service. We had a harbor view room and watching the how much action goes on in that harbor is fun in itself. Other hotels though do have locations closer to the action, though with readily available cabs getting anywhere in HKG was easy and cheap. If you are a Hilton Honors member you can’t go wrong staying here.

• Hilton Beijing: Upscale in design with good service, this hotel is again a good place to stay if you are a Hilton Honors member. You need to cab it everywhere, but they are also cheap and plentiful so it is not a major issue.

Weather

• Hong Kong – Sunny with highs in the low to mid 70’s and lows in the upper 60’s. A very nice time to be there and it made for some lazy outdoor breakfasts.
• Beijing – Sunny, hazy with highs in upper 40’s/low 50’s and lows in the 30’s. Not as cold as I thought it would be (still warmer than Chicago), but you still need a warm coat.

Day 1: HKG

As my wife did not arrive at HKG until the late afternoon, we didn’t get too much done this day.

• Hong Kong Park – a 3 minute walk from the Conrad, we ventured in here for a happy hour drink at the restaurant whose name is escaping me. It is a nice place to start the evening as you have a scenic backdrop of the well lit skyline. Very enjoyable. During the day, I must have spotted 10 bridal parties getting their pictures taken at various locations throughout the park.
• Star Ferry – the most scenic way to get to Kowloon. Though leaving from the Conrad it was not the most affordable as we had to cab it to the Ferry terminal v taking the Subway. Still worth it for a trip or two over – especially in the evening.
• Temple Street Market – I know some folks don’t care for this, but we enjoyed our selves here as we haggled for some cheap items like chop stick sets and purses. You should be able to get them to go to about 50% of their initial asking price, plus multiple stalls sell the same thing, so walk away if you don’t like the price. We also had a cheap dinner at an outside restaurant. Dinner and 2 beers each for less than $20. Lots of “action” there.
• Lan Kwai Fong – I can see how this would be the happening party spot that I have seen in magazines, but it was a Sunday night and the area was relatively tame.
Day 2: HKG

• Breakfast at the Conrad – is probably the same as in any western hotel in Asia– a big buffet. It and the beautiful Hong Kong mornings (temps were always in the low to mid 70’s) where we enjoyed the breakfasts had us getting late starts on the day. Hey, it’s a vacation!
• Victoria Peak – Day 2 had better weather than Day 1, so we started here (plus we were able to walk from the Conrad). Great views and the tram ride up was a nice addition. Hong Kong always seemed to have a haze around it – pollution I guess – so we never saw a view similar to the pictures in the tour books.
• Joyce Outlet – Joyce is a Japanese department store and they had an outlet center in Aberdeen where we were told my wife could find Prada at a great price. I wish I could tell you it was true – they are closed on Mondays that was the day we decided to go
• Jumbo Floating Restaurant – This is a garish restaurant docked on the water in Aberdeen. My wife wanted to go there and find a back-up plan because Plan A (Joyce Outlet) had fallen through). If you go, eat on the top deck. Very upscale and a great outdoor setting. I was pleasantly surprised out how nice it was and the food is good to boot. From there we hopped one of the many Sampans, bobbing in the water waiting to take someone for a ride, over to Lamma Island.
• Lamma Island – the sampan took about 30 minutes and was a relaxing way to get to the island. It cost us about $20 USD to get to the Southern most town on the island. Our first impression of this town was of how it reminded us of Cinque Terra in Italy. It was a hodgepodge of multi-colored buildings quietly sitting on the water. This is a big island for ex-pats and it was evident as there were ads for Business Week and Australian Chardonnay. We did the hour hike to the northern most town and had dinner there before departing on a ferry back to Hong Kong. We really liked Lamma Island. The hike between the two towns is scenic. There was even an old couple who had a glass front refrigerator set up along the way to sell water and sodas to passerbys. We obliged by buying a couple of bottles of water. Dinner was adequate, but the setting on the water was relaxing and the ferries to Hong Kong were plentiful.

Day 3: HKG

• Lantau Island – after getting to the island via ferry, you take a 45 minute bus ride up the mountain to the monastery. The ride had some scenic shots, but the bus was cramped and the driver hustled through the turns leaving is both a little queasy. The Buddha is very impressive to view inside and outside. There should have been some great views, but it was real hazy that day. We also toured the monastery. We made our way down the hill and had a late lunch at the China Bear which is a British Pub next to the Ferry Terminal. Good lunch. I recommend it for fish, chips and a pint. Overall, Lantau was okay. It could have been better.
• Dinner on Kowloon – about a month before our trip, there was an article in Conde Naste Travel about Hong Kong, there we saw a write up about the “Aqua” restaurants – 3 themed restaurants and one swanky bar in the same building with a great view of Hong Kong Island). We choose Aqua Roma (Italian – nothing beats a good Italian meal). Location – great, service – good, food – okay. I know, we are in Hong Kong, not Italy! We did have friends that tried the Cantonese themed restaurant there that night and they had the same review. If anything, go there for a drink at the bar – well worth it for the view.
• Felix’s at the Peninsula – we went to Felix’s after dinner with our friends. We had read about it too many times to pass it up. Though expensive, it was a nice night cap (hey, we are on vacation we should spend some money). It is a very hip place and the view of the city from the men’s urinals is something to be appreciated (sorry ladies – though an Aussie did come in there to show his lady friends while my friend and I were in there). Plus the lobby of the Peninsula is very upscale and ornate. It was almost midnight when we were there, but it looks like they have a three piece band that plays during the day.

Bushwackers1 Mar 1st, 2006 12:17 AM

Here is the the second part...I will keep everthing on the same thread for reference purposes, so ignore the "part 1" on the header...


Day 4: HKG

• Macau Island – in reading the boards here, I know there are some that like/love Macau and others that do not. We fall in the latter category. I knew that we would be disappointed by the ferry terminal, but I thought it would be made up by the architecture. It was not. The city plaza had potential, but a Starbucks and McDonald’s in the middle took away from it. We were soured. It could be argued that we should have spent more time and seen more of the island, but we just didn’t have the enthusiasm for it. On a bright note, we went to lunch at the Pousada de Sao Tiago hotel and really liked it. We sat out on their terrace and had a great Portuguese meal. The hotel is an old fort and the drive there via the cab became more scenic as we left the city center and came amongst some old palatial homes.
• Happy Valley Racetrack – we met up with our friends one more time and had a blast at the Wednesday night races. The racetrack is in the city so you have skyscrapers as backdrop. The crowd is a mix of tourists (we even saw a couple who was on our ferry ride back from Macau), locals, and ex-pats. The general admission ticket can get you some great views. If you are into horse racing, then this is a must. They do however place bets differently here than they do stateside, so it may take a few minutes to understand their system.

Day 5: HKG to PEK

We flew out at 11:40, so we didn’t do anything in HKG that day. Beijing is in a state of change as they prepare to show themselves off for the Olympics. There is so much construction taking place there.

• Silk Market – if you are coming to Beijing to shop, then this is one of the places. Plenty of designer knock-offs and The North Face Gortex jackets. Merchants are set up in various stalls and will reach out and grab at you to get your attention. Be prepared. Just like at the Temple Street markets, also be prepared to haggle. Shoes, shirts, pants, jackets, purses, etc…are available. There is also a section for DVDs and CDs on the bottom floor.
• Beijing Subway – I only mention this because I thought it was interesting that they did not have automated ticket machines. You went to a counter to buy a ticket then another person tore your ticket before you got access to the platform. It cost roughly 12.5 cents (USD) for a ride. It was also a better ride than the CTA lines in Chicago.
• Tiananmen Square (at night) – we got there around 6:30p. It was about 40 degrees out and the Square was mostly empty except a few tourists, soldiers, and locals still trying to eke out one more postcard pack sale. It was dark and the buildings were lit. It was magnificent. Very peaceful as the only sound was cars going by the side where the Forbidden City was and the picture of Mao (sorry, I don’t remember the name of the road).
• Peking Duck – it was Thanksgiving Night (well at least in China it was Thursday, it was still Wednesday in America), so we got Peking Duck. We found a restaurant about 5 blocks down from Tiananmen Square (opposite from Forbidden City). We had passed a few restaurants and pretty much went to one of the only ones that wasn’t trying to sell us on coming in. We loved the Duck! It is eaten wrapped up in a pancake (similar to a tortilla) with vegetables and plum sauce. You get thin slices, pieces of skin, and chunks. I wish we could remember the name of the restaurant as we liked it so much we ate a late lunch there two days later.


Day 6: PEK

• Great Wall of China – truly the highlight of the trip. Originally we were going to do the Simitai section of the Wall, but our time in Beijing was limited, so we opted for Mutianyu. This part of the Wall is about 2 hours away from Beijing and is mostly rebuilt. The air in Beijing is polluted and full of particles; it was nice to breathe the clean air at the Wall. Very refreshing. We made it to the Wall at 9a and we pretty much had the place to ourselves. We hiked it for about 2 hours, which gave us enough time up there before the tour buses arrived. We were so happy we got there before the tour groups did. It added to our experience. We took the cable car up and down. On our way out, we were forced to go through a gauntlet of vendors – very aggressive vendors. I did a couple of spin moves ala Barry Sanders (sorry for the American football reference) to get by some of them.
• Summer Palace (New) – The Summer Palace was stunning. Laid out over numerous acres and on a lake, it is a peaceful stroll. Some of the sections were closed for renovation. One of the highlights is walking along The Long Corridor which is a covered walkway whose painted ceiling beams feature scenes from the Middle Kingdom. A must see. We probably spent close to 2 hours here. There is also a self guided audio tour available.

(take a break to readjust your eyes...I am almost done. Thanks for reading)

Bushwackers1 Mar 1st, 2006 12:18 AM

Here is the rest...thanks again for reading...
----

Day 7: PEK to XIY

We had an 8p train to catch to Xian on this day.

• Forbidden City – This was the third of the three places we wanted to see in Beijing and it did not disappoint. The former home for many emperors, we strolled with audio guides over the 200 acres. We liked the history of each area and the architecture. Well worth the time and money.
• Tiananmen Square (day) – we came back to the square and were inundated by the throngs of tourists and souvenir sellers. It was definitely more enjoyable at night. We were going to see Mao’s tomb, but it was not open that day. Instead we strolled the area and had a late lunch/early dinner at the restaurant where we first ate Peking Duck.

Day 8: XIY to HKG

We made it to Xian around 7:30a and then had a 2:30 flight to HKG.

• Terra Cotta Warrior Museum Campus– This was our second favorite part of the trip, outside of visiting the Great Wall. The Museum is series of buildings lying where each area of warriors were discovered. It’s amazing at the sheer size of it. It’s also neat to see the state the Warriors were in before they were rebuilt. We were there for a little over two hours, but I could have stayed much longer.
• Cave dwelling village – part of our driver’s package is a tour of a cave dwelling village – folks who actually live in burrowed out sides of hills. These villages are slowly going away as folks move into new housing, many of them though want to stay in their current homes. Everyone in the village does their part to help the whole. The gentleman living in the cave we visited made wood furniture for the rest of the village. We came in through the bedroom where there were children’s posters on the wall. I asked if this was the kids’ room – it was the entire family’s bedroom. Though this is a contrast for those of this in the West, the man couldn’t have been happier. He tried to refuse the packs of cigarettes our driver gave him as thanks for showing us through his place.

We made it back to our hotel in HKG around 6p and went out for a non-descript dinner.

Day 9: HKG and ORD (for me)
• Mid-levels, Central and Soho – Not to say that I have any regrets, but I wish we had visited this area our first day in HKG. What a cool place! As you take the mid-level escalators, you hop off when you see something that you like. There are restaurants and shops (boutiques, antiques, etc…) at every break in the escalators. The restaurants had an open, European feel to it – I believe it is a spot where a lot of ex-pats live. Had we gone there on Day 1, we would have come back just to eat at one of the cafe’s later in our trip. My found a really cool leather shop – lianca – in Central where I bought a passport cover and my wife bought coin/id holders for the friends that watched her dog. It’s been 3 months and the passport holder still has that great smell of leather. We had coffee at one place and then a late lunch at another place. A great time.

We strolled back to our hotel late in the afternoon and then had one last drink in the restaurant in the park – finishing where we started the trip together – before we headed to the airport for my departure. My wife left for Japan the next morning.

Simply put, this was the trip of a lifetime. I feel I ran long with this, but I know I could have added more detail. I will check the boards to see if there are any questions or you can e-mail me at [email protected] if you would like more detail/opinion on something I saw.

DonTopaz Mar 1st, 2006 03:19 AM

Wonderful, wonderful report(s), Adam. Thanks for sharing your trip and its excitement.

SE Asia is a fascinating and amazing place, like a magnetic force that pulls many of us back time and time again. (And certainly for Hong Kong, the more often you visit, the more often you explore and discover.)

aneckc Mar 1st, 2006 08:18 AM

Thanks for a great trip report. We're planning on a trip to China next summer and appreciate your thoughts.

rkkwan Mar 1st, 2006 09:45 AM

Thanks for the great report. The restaurant in Hong Kong Park is called "L16". It owned by a famous ex-Miss Hong Kong and her husband, and they're planning to expand it elsewhere in Asia.

The air quality in Hong Kong is indeed very poor in recent years. It's smog caused by pollution in the Pearl River Delta region in China, and are not really local. Not much we can do. Look at all the stuff one can buy at Wal-Mart or Target here. Good portion of them are made within 150 miles of that region.

WileyCoyote Mar 1st, 2006 03:30 PM

Excellent report. I am going to China in April and I plan to keep extensive notes on my experiences. I hope to post a Very Detailed report on this forum when I return.

Cost-of-living:
Could you give some examples of prices for Dinner, drinks, etc in Beijing and Xi'an? Also, some example prices for other goods (clothing, etc)

Bushwackers1 Mar 1st, 2006 04:33 PM

Wiley --

Food and drinks at restuarants were reltively cheap in Beijing and Xi'an. We had Peking Duck, Chicken with Peanuts and vegetables and two beers each at a local restuarant for about 150 Yuan (about $18 USD). The food and drinks at the hotel was more expensive. Overall, our expenses on mainland were cheap.

Lunch on the way home from the Wall was priced about the same (though we did not eat anywhere near as much) as was the breakfast we ate in Xi'an. There is a bar district in Beijing that we did not make it to (unusual for us not to at least check it out for one drink) so I cannot comment on the pricing there.

Speaking of food, it was interesting that on mainland China, the "Colonel's Chicken" was popular -- that is KFC was everywhere, especially in Beijing.

On the clothing items, they will start you out expensive -- say $100+ USD. I would counter at a price close to 10% on that. Let them come down from there. Keep an eye on quality as some fakes are worse that others. Be picky and walk away if they don't go with a price that you like. Someone else will be selling it and may give you your price. My wife did not buy any purses, so I can't comment on final prices. You should be able to get something in $20-$40 range depending on the type of purse though.

Good luck on your trip. Its such a dynamic place. Please let me know if you have any other questions.

rhkkmk Mar 1st, 2006 06:00 PM

great report thanks for sharring...go back before she is transferred again

easytraveler Mar 1st, 2006 11:09 PM

Thanks for a terrific report! It's wonderful to see familiar places through fresh, new eyes! Thanks again! :)

gard Mar 1st, 2006 11:15 PM

Hi

My wife and I did the same trip a couple of years ago. We started out with a few days in Beijing, took a train to Xi'an and from there we took a flight to get to Hong Kong. I have posted my trip report on my homepage http://gardkarlsen.com/china_beijing.htm

Regards
Gard

Adnama3 Mar 3rd, 2006 06:16 AM

Thanks for the report. Very helpful. At the Wall are there restaurants/bathrooms available since it is an all day event? Thanks for your reply

Bushwackers1 Mar 4th, 2006 01:15 AM

As for Mutianyu, there were no restrroms on the Wall itself. There were however, restrooms before you get onto the Wall. If you take the cable car up then you enter at a mid point -- where you have to decide left or right. We went left and could only go about an hour before we reached the end. At that point we came back (2 hour mark) and stepped off the Wall to use the restroom near the entry point. In other words, there was something close. I cannot speak for other sections of the Wall.

There was a restaurant at the base of the Wall -- a noodle shop. We got to the Wall at 9a and left aroun 1p and was able to grab lunch at a restaurant near the Wall by 1:15p. There are plenty nearby -- they wave you down as you drive by.

My advice, eat a good breakfast, bring some bottled water and a power bar or two and you will be okay. Don't worry if you forget something -- someone will be glad to sell it to you when you get there.

Best of luck and enjoy.


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