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Northern China on my own? What should I consider?

Northern China on my own? What should I consider?

Old Sep 1st, 2009, 09:56 AM
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kja
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Northern China on my own? What should I consider?

Greetings, all! I’m considering going to China for the first time and have been very encouraged by several threads that suggest that I might be able to manage on my own. Before I decide, I’d like your input on what I should think about.

I’m a woman who has been fortunate enough to be reasonably experienced as a solo international traveler, but have only been to Asia once (a delightful 3-week trip to Japan). I would be aiming for a trip of about 3 or 3.5 weeks in May (after the May Day holiday). I know there is way, way too much in China to see in such a short time, so I’m approaching the idea as a "first" of what I hope will be several trips. My highest priorities are Beijing and Xi’an, and because I generally prefer seeing an area in at least some depth, I’m thinking of staying more or less in northern China. Other destinations I’m considering include Datong, Wutai Shan, Pingyao, Luoyang, Qufu, Tai Shan, and Chengde.

So, what should I consider before making a decision?

Xiexie!
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Old Sep 1st, 2009, 02:22 PM
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> So, what should I consider before making a decision?

Not making a detailed plan, but simply deciding on a list of priorities, booking travel and accommodation as you go, setting off, and seeing what happens. Never put yourself in the position of absolutely having to be on a particular train, or somewhere (other then your point of departure from China) on a particular day.

Arrive in Beijing with some accommodation booked for the first couple of nights, if you must, then see how you feel. Datong-Wutai Shan-Pingyao-Xi'an could take you about ten days if you take things gently. These places are connected by frequent buses/minibuses none of which need booking in advance (the day before if you really want to). So you can be entirely flexible. Datong is a filthy town, but it typically takes two full days to see its three main sights (caves [reachable by city bus], Hanging Monastery, Wooden Pagoda [both out of town--one day minibus tour worth considering but don't shop). Best part of a day to get to Wu Tai Shan which is a bit of a zoo, but if you want to visit the main temples you need probably two full days there. Half day to Taiyuan and on to Pingyao. Two days for city and day trips to magnificent mansions in surrounding countryside (travel light and you can hop off and see one en route from Taiyuan). Day to get to Xi'an. But that would be a bit of a rush. Take it more slowly.

Then Luoyang (train), Qufu (one full day), and see whether you've time for Tai'an (about three hours to the top if you climb Tai Shan; not much else of any interest), although assuming about five days in Beijing, and three in Xi'an, plus ten en route, if you have 3.5 weeks this should be possible: point being that at any point you feel time to be running out you can turn back to Beijing. Beginning with only three days in Beijing will enable you to leave time for a little more at the end, and let you choose as your time runs out whether you want to keep on doing what you're doing, or turn back earlier.

Chengde can be done from Beijing with a single overnight stay, but deserves two nights. Bus (from Liuli Qiao station, or 'black' bus/taxi from northeast Beijing) is quickest to get there but the train route back, departing early afternoon, is a pleasant winding run. I'd save that for if you find you get back to Beijing early.

But the main points are: make your travel decisions as you go; book your tickets as you go and find your accommodation on arrival (bargaining down the prices dramatically); be prepared for the odd thing to go wrong but have time in hand so it doesn't matter.

Although this is all northern China there's still a lot of variety, and although some of it is off the beaten track of major tourism there's nothing here that doesn't see a fair number of foreigners every year and is well used to dealing with them. You'll meet other independent travellers as you go, and may end up on an entirely different route.

Peter N-H
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Old Sep 1st, 2009, 03:25 PM
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Hi kja!
Great response Peter N-H!

The wooden temple sites in Wutai Shan, which was just added to the UNESCO World Heritage list, and in Datong are fantastic (here is a Google Map of wooden temples if it helps: http://bit.ly/16fQBv).

Also, the Yungang Caves outside of Datong (also a UNESCO World Heritage site) is our favorite of the cave sites in China due to its accessibility, high quality of art and architecture and excellent state of preservation, (here is another Google Map of cave sites in China: http://bit.ly/ocgjJ)

Enjoy your trip!
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Old Sep 1st, 2009, 03:58 PM
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Thanks so much, Peter N-H and approachguides!

You can probably tell that I checked the World Heritage site list when developing a first-pass list of possible destinations. (Thanks for the links, approachguides. I see that the map for wooden temples includes Horyuji, which I very much enjoyed seeing when I was in Japan.)

Peter N-H: The time frames you are suggesting are very close to what I thought might make sense. But I'm curious about your suggestion to make my travel decisions as I go. I tend to prefer to book as much as I can in advance so that I can make the most of my time while traveling. That doesn't necessarily mean traveling with a sense that I MUST catch a particular train or whatever - I agree that it is important to maintain some flexibility. But I spent WAY too much time on my first few trips abroad trying to arrange accommodation, etc. - time that I could have spent enjoying the places I had traveled so far to see! Is your recommendation based on likely costs, a need to be flexible in light of the unexpected, preference, . . ?

I've been a little concerned about that the pollution in Datong and Pingyao might interfere with seeing their treasures, but I'm getting the sense that they can be enjoyed nonetheless. Thoughts?

Also, I tend to like having a sit-down meal at the end of a day of seeing sites and exploring. One of the books I've consulted suggests that finding restaurants that serve meals for people who are alone could be problematic outside major cities. Any comments on that? (I'm sure I'd find wonderful things to eat even so - just something I'd like to be prepared for if it turns out to be true!)
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Old Sep 1st, 2009, 05:19 PM
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The pollution in Datong is really bad, even for China. The temples in town were rather dusty, but the sights outside were fine.

I travel solo, and had similar concerns about meals, but I didn't really have any problems. Sometimes I ate in my (or some other) hotel, sometimes I found really hole in the wall places and just pointed to the ingredients I wanted stir fried, and the rest of the time I ate in regular restaurants. It does limit your choice at any one meal, of course.
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Old Sep 1st, 2009, 05:52 PM
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> You can probably tell that I checked the World Heritage site list when developing a first-pass list of possible destinations.

This is problematic for China, as accession to the World Heritage List there is done purely for the purposes of tourism development, and leads to the immediate and usually drastic compromise of authenticity, extreme wear and tear, and often partial destruction (partial collapse of city walls in the case of Pingyao, destruction of ancient frescoes in Qufu, and so on). Numbers of visitors increase by several orders of magnitude, and in spite of any promises made to UNESCO about management of visitor numbers, often far beyond the capacity of the destination to cope. Expect hoards of Chinese tour groups at all of your destinations.

> But I'm curious about your suggestion to make my travel decisions as I go... Is your recommendation based on likely costs, a need to be flexible in light of the unexpected, preference, . . ?

Yes, yes, and yes (although the third yes is only a result of the first two, and perhaps the second yes is not only because of the unexpected but simply because if you book everything ahead you lose precisely the flexibility that's the main benefit of independent travel). This is just how China is best tackled, and it need not add significantly to your time at all.

Accommodation: Arrive with an idea of where you might like to stay (taken from perusing an assortment of guide books, recommendations from other independent travellers you meet on the way), and head for that place. If, however, on the way, you see something newer or simply interesting (very few guide books are remotely up-to-date or comprehensive given the very rapid rate of change and new construction in China) simply stop and look at that. It is very unlikely you will fail to get into your first choice of hotel, and in most cases you'll pay 30% to 50% less for it simply by showing up with a suitcase. Whatever first price you are offered (and usually that is offered as a discount on what's written on the wall behind reception) ask for a further one. Be friendly, smiley, and show a willingness to leave, and 30% off, 50% off, or even 70% off may be your reward. This is how it's done in China. The exception would be if you want to stay at familiar foreign-brand four or five-star hotels, in which case you'll find the best prices on their own websites. But many of the towns you plan do visit only have Chinese-run hotels, and the approach described is the one adopted by the Chinese themselves. Asking for a discount is expected.

Trains: Can only be booked a few days ahead anyway. Typically hotels will have someone run off to the railway station (or, more likely, nearby ticket agent) for you, and charge about Y20 per ticket (pay no more). So this costs you no time.

Flights: Prices in China a few days before the flight are usually dramatically lower than published rates. Go to an agent, and whatever price you are offered, ask for something cheaper. But as long as you are not asking within an expensive hotel, foreigner-haunted area, or expat ghetto, these days you'll get the cheapest available price straight away. There are certain Chinese sites you can use to book on-line and that will give you prices in most cases very close to those you can obtain for yourself, but again in the few days before the flight, with the ticket delivered to your hotel (pay in cash in most cases). But agents are myriad, and you might as well do it yourself.

> I've been a little concerned about that the pollution in Datong and Pingyao might interfere with seeing their treasures, but I'm getting the sense that they can be enjoyed nonetheless. Thoughts?

It's said that the coal dust has now been brushed off the statuary at Datong, but it really is heavily polluted due to coal mining and heavy industry in the area. But the whole of China is disgustingly polluted, and sore eyes and a runny nose and a bit of a cough may be the result for a few days. Xi'an can also be particularly bad. You just have to deal with this.

> One of the books I've consulted suggests that finding restaurants that serve meals for people who are alone could be problematic outside major cities. Any comments on that?

As you are probably aware, for the most part Chinese meals are designed to be shared, so as an individual diner you either have a rather single-minded dinner (one dish plus rice) or you simply order too much. Prices are so low (in non-tourist restaurants) this doesn't matter. You have (revolting) North American fast food options (mainly KFC, with McD, Pizza Hut, etc. close behind) as well, and (better) Chinese noodle chains specialising in one-bowl meals. Steamed, stuffed buns (包子) and boiled/steamed stuffed pasta packages (饺子) make swiftly obtained, hot, lunches ordered by the steamer (笼) or by weight (by the liang, or one tenth of a jin, which is half a kilo).

Wherever you're staying the coffee shop in foreign-run or wannabe four- and five-star hotels will produce club sandwiches, spaghetti bolognese, burgers, fish and chips, etc. or something vaguely similar to them. But avoid all these if you can, because the food is one of the main pleasures of a trip to China, and your route will take you through a number of different cuisines entirely unfamiliar to you (for instance Shānxī Province has vinegary dishes almost entirely unknown in the West, and buckwheat noodle dishes not much found elsewhere in China either, such as 猫耳). Make sure you have a guide book that gives you a proper introduction to them together with the characters needed for ordering (although bi-lingual and picture menus are now very common).

When ordering you can ask for smaller portions (小盘儿, xiǎo pánr) or half portions (半盘儿, bàn pánr), and some restaurants will give you slightly smaller dishes for about 70% of the full dish price.

Peter N-H
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Old Sep 2nd, 2009, 09:01 AM
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kja
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Thanks so much, thursdaysd and Peter N-H! You are both helping me believe that I might actually be able to manage this trip! And Peter N-H - I truly appreciate the wealth of incredibly helpful information you are providing!

I am aware that World Heritage status can be a double-edged sword. Are there places I should consider visiting in lieu of any that I've listed?

BTW, I've appreciated your references to the variety that I'll encounter should I take this trip - variety in both what I'm seeing and in the cuisines I'll encounter. I try to plan my trips in a way that will include a nice mix of things. I've been thinking about trying to spend one night in a small village somewhere near one of my other stops, perhaps Dangjiachun or something like that. Any suggestions?
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Old Sep 2nd, 2009, 05:56 PM
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> Are there places I should consider visiting in lieu of any that I've listed?

I'd stick with what you have. It's all quite doable independently.

> I've been thinking about trying to spend one night in a small village somewhere near one of my other stops, perhaps Dangjiachun or something like that.

A real village, or something that's trying to attract visitors? (Well, many are both at once.) See this thread for one reasonably easy option:

http://www.fodors.com/community/asia...ng-or-xian.cfm

Otherwise you could busk it from Qufu. Or southern Shānxī has several villages with cave houses.

Peter N-H
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Old Sep 3rd, 2009, 09:13 AM
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Once again - xiexie!

Sounds like I can make this trip work - how exciting!

I'm going to spend some time doing further research. I'm sure I'll have more questions later, but until then, many many thanks.
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