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ToniL May 4th, 2005 04:18 PM

our semi-independent China trip
 
Some tips from our China trip in April. We prebooked internal flights with wacts.com and were glad we did, as our flights were full so we would not have been able to book upon arrival in China. We also prebooked our overnight train from Beijing to Xian, and thought the fee for that service was worth not having to travel to the train station to buy tickets when we arrived in Beijing. We were in the last car on the train and it was also full (no idea if other cars had room). We did arrange our own bus travel and had no problem doing that with our hotels. We stayed in 3 star hotels and would bump up to 4 next time. You really do need a phrase book, as few hotel, bank, or airport employees spoke English. Be careful in booking connecting flights, as delays seemed to effect about 1/3 of the flights listed on the screens at airports (we were delayed on 1 of our 3 flights). It was hard getting info at airports as the phrasebook didn't cover things like "can we transfer to a flight that is not delayed" and English wasn't an option. We were in airports at Xian, Guilin and Gangzhou. Also, make sure you have every place you wish to visit written in Chinese. Twice we left our guidebook at the hotel and it was hard to communicate. Both times we had maps that showed where we needed to go, and even though they were big green areas on the map (parks)pointing at them and trying to say their names was no help at all. This surprised me because I thought the landmarks were so obvious (i.e. Yu Yuan garden in Shanghai is a large park near the river only about 10 blocks from our hotel, and pointing the map was no help at all. Also, we had great difficulty getting money. Once, our hotel was not going to cash our American Express traveller's cheques because they were not perfectly flat (they were not creased, just had a curve on one end). Bills also had to be immaculate. My sister could not use her American Express traveller's cheques because they were the type with 2 signatures, and banks were not familiar with them. In cities on the tourist path, like Suzhou, ATMs needed 6 digits and although we were told to try adding 2 zeros to the begiining or end of our 4 digits, we were unable to access our account. Only the main branch downtown was able to process an advance on our Mastercard, they could not use our bank (Cirrus) card. Other cities were somewhat easier, you need to expect the worst though. We ended up going to a Sheraton in one citiy because the main bank branch was closed, and the hotel did get us an advance on our Mastercard. Next time I would get a wad of yuan and carry it to save time trying to get cash on the go. However, we meet a woman that had been robbed on the street in Shenzen. Please don't consider these complaints, they are just what we encountered and to be expected in a country just developing in terms of tourism.

Beijing, Xian, Guilin/Yangshuo and Shanghai were what we expected and we expecially enjoyed the Muslim area in Xian and the Yonghe Gong temple and Dirt Market in Beijing. Hangzhou was a nice surprise. It was my favorite spot, beautiful with the best organized supports for tourism. My husband and son loved Huangshan, but it was a grueling hike and out of the way for travel so I would only go there if I was really into a challenge (I did enjoy using the cable car and seeing the views while walking around the top, though). Suzhou was a big disappointment. Although the garden that we saw was wonderful, the bits of remaining canal were very dirty and not nearly as nice as the bridges in Hangzhou. We wished we had spent more time in Hangzhou and skipped Suzhou. We enjoyed the food throughout the trip, and most of the time we could find restaurants with English translations on menus. Most restaurants, and several of our hotels, would only take cash. We would travel on our own again, with some arrangements made in advance. It was easy to arrange bike tours, boat trips, etc. on arrival in each city as many small travel shops were available and were able to communicate with us. That's all I can think of for now, better get back to unpacking.

rhkkmk May 4th, 2005 09:01 PM

thanks for the report

Klgallo May 5th, 2005 07:48 AM

I am concerned about your problems with the ATM. Were you able to access any ATM with just a 4 digit code? Or was it certain cities that you had a problem? I was told that the Bank of China takes a 4 digit code. Please advise as we are going to Beijing, Xian, Chengdu, Shanghai and Hong Kong in a month.

THANKS!!

Kathy

Marija May 5th, 2005 08:24 AM

Thanks for the info and the reference to wacts.com. Did you have any problems with getting the tickets? Thanks for the ATM card warning. We'll have to get a 6 digit number for one of them. Any other advice you have is eagerly awaited. We're leaving for three weeks at the beginning of September!

ToniL May 5th, 2005 10:06 AM

We had no trouble with wacts, they delivered out tickets to the hotel we used in Beijing. Kay, in the Chicago office, was extremely helpful. We were able to use an ATM in Guilin with 4 digits (at a Bank of China). The others that we had trouble with were mainly at Bank of China, although we tried other banks and the Sheraton to no avail. So, definately try to get a 6 digit pin before you go. It is a tricky issue, because if you carry a large amount of cash or traveller's cheques they risk getting damaged (and the bend in the ones we had refused was truly minimal). I think they may have some counterfeiting problems, and worry that bills or cheques are being damaged to hide imperfections. Out hotel in Beijing cashed travller's cheques for us, and I know from a past trip that Hong Kong is no problem. We didn't try a bank machine in Xian. We expected the hotels that we prebooked through sinohotel.com to take credit cards, so we didn't start to need to conserve cash until the latter part of our trip.
Something I was glad I did was to take Dukoral before the trip. It is meant to protect against cholera, but was discovered to prevent/lessen the symptoms of traveller's upsets. My sister was in China the month before us, and more than half of their group was sick at some point. We had no trouble, and did eat street food, etc. I don't know if it is approved for that use in the U.S.
For bargaining, I couldn't believe how low we could go in some places. One shop had a teapot I liked, and they started at 1200 yuan. I got it for 250. We picked up fake North Face jackets in Beijing for 135 yuan, when they started at 580. I think they ask a high price for items that you might believe are real or antique, then go to a realistic price when they see you haven't been fooled. The discount on souvenirs was usually just over 50%. Although much of what we saw was repetitive, if you see something you like buy it right away. I saw teapots I liked in about 5 stores in Suzhou and thought they would have them in Shanghai and never saw them again. Also, I bought my Dragon Well green tea at a Carrefour (a lot like Walmart!). We went in to pick up toiletries and noticed that it was it was a lot less there. I was glad I brought a little plastic Melitta cone and filters and a pound of coffee as it was hard to find in restaurants and every room we were in, including the train, had either a thermos of hot water or a kettle.
In the Xian area, we went to a restaurant in a town near the warriors where we were the only foreigners. They had some items on the menu translated into English. We had hired a car with guide for 300 yuan (and an additional 100 to drop us at the airport instead of back in Xian)and the guide told us that the regional specialty is chicken with pomegranite which was not on the translated list. It was fantastic. Our phrasebook helped us to order in the 2 places that didn't have English tranlations. Everyone has fried rice, noodles, pork with greens, so if you can ask for that you are in good shape. We mainly ordered vegetable dishes flavoured with meat as the vegetables were consistently excellent. We loved fresh bamboo sprouts, and never ordered a green bean dish that was not tasty.
In Suzhou and Guilin, there were airline offices that offered shuttle buses to the airport. In Guilin it was free, and in Suzhou it was only 80 yuan to Shanghai Pudong. The Suzhou bus was booked up so my son didn't use it, we should have stopped in the day before to book ahead.
A bathroom tip! Sometimes in bathrooms with squat toilets, there will be one Western toilet usually in a handicapped stall. Always carry paper.
And the Forbidden City has a lot of scaffolded areas, as it is being restored. It is still lovely though. We all rented the Roger Moore commentary, but I wish we had just rented one. There is lots of time to relay what you have heard, and then you would be talking with your companions.
We were really glad we went to the Yonghe Gong (Lama Temple) in Beijing, it is beautiful and has great atmosphere. Our favorite temple was in Hangzhou, the Linyin Temple. We really should have had at least 4 days for the West Lake area.
If you are asking for information try more than one person. We often got wrong answers, and think that people didn't want to say they didn't know so would just point any old way. Like when we showed a restaurants name written in Chinese script, we were given really different directions from one fellow who we thought might have been trying to steer us to a place he wanted us to go.
We had a great trip, any inconveniences were small compared to the fun we had. And people were very friendly and really tried to help us. I hope some of this helps!

Marija May 5th, 2005 10:35 AM

Thanks!

paigeTN Jul 15th, 2005 02:14 PM

ToniL. Your report is very informative! My husband and I visited Beijing, Xian, Shanghai, Suzhou & Hangzhou 2 months ago. We were on our own the first 4 days, then joined Ritz Tours the next 8. We just loved China! I'm planning a return trip for next spring, to Guilin, Yangshuo, Longsheng, and Lijiang. We'll travel more independently this time though. We plan to rent bicycles and explore Yangshuo in depth, something that we won't be able to do with a tour.

We're from the U.S. Can we flight to Guangzhou, then Guilin and so on? Or do we have to go through either Shanghai or Hong Kong? I believe you mentioned you were not from the U.S...but may be someone who's knowledgable can help us out?

I've found lots of info on the web on the places we'll visit, but I really need help on the bigger details...like booking international flights and domestic flights, etc. If we go through Guangzhou, are the airlines safe?

Thank you so much!

rkkwan Jul 15th, 2005 02:28 PM

Guangzhou is served by Northwest & JAL from Tokyo. China Southern (CZ), which is based in Guangzhou, also has direct flights to Tokyo, plus LA and Seoul.

Those are your main choices for flying directly into Guangzhou. You can also connect via Hong Kong.

CZ's 777 service from LAX is codeshare with Delta, but be aware that their coach class is 10-across (also with no individual screen), where most airlines put 9-abreast in 777s. However, they are also refurbishing their fleet and adding a premium economy class, which is probably 8-abreast.

Neil_Oz Jul 15th, 2005 08:42 PM

Interesting the way reactions to places can be so different - I was wishing we'd spent only one night in Hangzhou and an extra night in Suzhou. I thought Hangzhou's city centre was bland and lacking in character and liked the buzz of the main shopping drag in Suzhou, but we might not have given the place a fair go - we were there in the middle of the National Day holiday week and the crowds around the lake detracted from our visit.

We used our 4-digit Australian bank's PIN at Bank of China ATMs in several cities with no problem, but it's definitely something you need to check out with your bank before travelling.

paigeTN Jul 15th, 2005 09:46 PM

Thanks for the great info rkkwan! It's people like you who make these forums such wonderful sources of information. We will definitely go from L.A. to Guangzhou. I've heard that it was cheaper than H.K. too.

Would you know good travel agencies/websites who can arrange our domestic flights for us?

Thank you much!

rkkwan Jul 15th, 2005 10:12 PM

Well, let me correct myself on some details.

Regular economy on CZ's 777 is indeed 10-seat across, 3-4-3. But they do have individual personal screens. Likely to be older movies than on US/Europe airlines.

"Pearl Class" or premium economy is 7-across 2-3-2 with a 40" pitch. That's really better than most airlines' premium economy as they are usually 2-4-2 on 777 or 2-3-2 on Airbuses, and usually 38" pitch. So, at least on paper, CZ's "Pearl Class" is best in comfort.

I'll tell you that LAX-CAN is a very long flight of 14+ hours. You really do not want to be in a regular economy seat on CZ.

jimdrew Jul 16th, 2005 01:37 AM

When I travel, I always kept large sums of money with me and at the hotel. Most 3 star and up hotels have safe deposit boxes at the front desk. I also wore one of those money pouch deals around my neck and under my shirt for money, passport, and credit card. On my last trip, I used www.elong.com. It's a Chinese site that has English and extremely low prices. Way lower than expedia or orbitz etc. Now these hotels have limited English speakers but I did okay in them. You can get super expensive or super cheap. On that site, they list the amenities and the ones you may look for are ticket service (train, plane...), currency exchange, and Western breakfast. I don't mind Chinese breakfast since I spent a few months there, but western breakfast was like a birthday party for me.

As for traveling anywhere, you need to be very mindful of your pockets so they don't get picked. If they don't pick your pockets, they'll make you pay ridiculous amounts for the products you buy. If they ask you what country you're from, I would choose a poor country. Their eyes light up when they hear that you're from America or basically any of the G8 countries. It's all a game, and start extremely low when bargaining. They'll tell you to quit joking, so tell them to quit joking.

They have some HUGE counterfitting problems. They will scrutinize most big bills (100's, 50's, sometimes even 20 and 10). Try to get exact change when bargaining and get change at your hotel, bank or maybe a convenience store (but the convenience store may even be questionable).

Great report, I've never dealt with flying within China, so I'll keep that in mind for the future! I loved Hangzhou too, I didn't care about the canals in Suzhou really, but I really liked the gardens. Try one of the nearby towns for the good ones from what I here.

From what I have heard from Chinese people, English menus usually mean higher prices and much more limited selection. I think the trick is to find out what some famous dishes are and practice saying them (or at least have the Chinese written so that you can point to it). A menu without pictures is pretty difficult to navigate. Like in Hangzhou, there are 11 (I think) famous dishes and my guidebook listed the names and descriptions.

I like the comments about the toilets. I'm a male, but my sister in-law and girlfriend said there is no way you can prepare yourself for the kind of culture shock you experience in public bathrooms. Try KFC or McD's. Paper is necessary and you may want to bring waterless hand sanitizer. Take a deep breath...:)

Neil_Oz Jul 16th, 2005 04:18 PM

A tip I got before going to China, but forgot to put into practice, is to purloin a takeaway menu in English and Chinese from one of your local Chinese restaurants and point to the dishes you'd like. Of course, the restaurant you're in probably won't have exact equivalents (in our case, most restaurants here in Australia are Cantonese, for a start), but I was told that most will come up with a local approximation.

An excellent local Hangzhou speciality is Beggar's Chicken - highly recommended.

Chinese pronunciation is tricky, and in my experience the slightest departure from the correct sounding of syllables will make your attempts unintelligible, but it's possible to manage a few common phrases ("thank you" and the like) - more a courtesy thing than anything else.

paigeTN Jul 20th, 2005 04:12 PM

rkkwan, how about domestic flights? Here's our itinerary right now:
Guangzhou, Guilin/Yangshuo/Longsheng, Lijiang/Kunming.

Would you know of any local guides you've used who won't take us shopping where we don't want to shop :o)?

Thanks rkkwan!

rkkwan Jul 20th, 2005 06:57 PM

paige - Don't worry about domestic flights. They are cheap, plentiful, and most flights are pretty short. No worse than many domestic US or intra-Europe flights.

Sorry, I don't have information on guides.

paigeTN Jul 25th, 2005 12:50 PM

rkkwan, do you advise booking domestic flights once we're in China? Thanks!

rkkwan Jul 25th, 2005 01:43 PM

paigeTN - Yes, book when you're already in China. Exception is during the heavy travel days like first week of May, first week of October and Chinese New Year. Or if you have to be on a specific flight, or if you need to fly a route with very few flights.

But even then, you can probably still buy a full fare economy or even a business/first class ticket, for the same as getting a ticket here in advance.

paigeTN Jul 25th, 2005 04:57 PM

rkkwan, can we book thru hotels, or only through travel agents in China? I don't really know any local agents. Do you have any recommendations? ToniL did mention wacts.com where she prebooked domestic flights.

Thank you.

rkkwan Jul 25th, 2005 09:45 PM

A hotel concierge may be able to help you, but they can't book tickets themselves. Sorry don't have specific travel agent to recommend.

Patty Jul 26th, 2005 03:52 PM

paigeTN,
Your hotel should be able to book the tickets for you though you may be paying more than if you book through an outside travel agent. You shouldn't have any problems finding a travel agency once there.


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