Trip Report - 2 wks in China, Part 1

Apr 20th, 2008, 08:27 AM
  #1  
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Join Date: Mar 2005
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Trip Report - 2 wks in China, Part 1

We recently returned from our 2-week trip to China, and I wanted to post some notes re: our trip. As so much has already been posted re: the actual places we visited, I'm going to focus on the itinerary, hotels, guides, and travel planning.

Our trip was in late March/early April, and this was our first trip to China, although we've traveled in many other Asian countries. This was the only time available for us to take the trip, and although it was at times a bit chilly and/or rainy, it was worth it to me to have fewer tourists around.

Overall Itinerary:
Day 1: arrive Beijing
Days 2-5: Beijing. Overnight train to Xi'An
Days 6-7: Xi'An


We booked our own flights to/from China, and booked our own hotels online (various websites). We booked our train and internal flights through www.chinahighlights.com, as several travelers had recommended their ability to get you revised tickets if/when flights changed, and we wanted the ability to contact someone in-country if needed. Maybe it was just that it was off-season, but all our flights were fine, so perhaps it was an unnecessary expense, but it made us feel more secure, as we didn't know quite what the tourist infrastructure in China would be like. We did not book any tours through chinahighlights, only the flights/train. Service from them was just so-so; they didn't provide us with actual e-tickets of any sort, just a general itinerary, which didn't include the codes or ticket numbers the airlines needed to re-confirm our flights. Also, our agent argued with me over the types of trains available from Beijing to Xi'An, insisting that no trains existed that had only two berths and private baths, until I gave him the train number and departure time and offered to book it on a competitor's website. He also made some other minor errors. Service wasn't horrible, and it met our needs, but I can't give them a glowing recommendation either. On the other hand, they were very upfront re: the costs, and we had absolutely no hidden fees, which people using other websites have encountered.

Day 1 - arrive in Beijing 2:30 PM. We stayed at the Beijing Spring Garden Courtyard Hotel - West Garden, which is a hutong courtyard-hotel I read about on Fodors. We loved this hotel. Only about 8 rooms, in the Xicheng District not too far from Beihai Park. We booked a deluxe room, which was small but comfortable, with traditional furnishings and a lovely little courtyard. Great staff - they were so friendly and helpful. Some staff spoke more English than others, but they were all very friendly.

We loved staying here instead of a regular hotel downtown, both for the location and for the atmosphere. I would highly recommend it if you're looking for something a bit different. I suppose some might feel it's a bit removed from things, but I didn't feel that way; Beijing is so big that you're often taking a cab anyway, so a few extra minutes in that cab were no big deal. We booked through sinohotel.com, and at the last minute I decided to have the website provide us with airport pickup/transportation to the hotel. I was glad we did - even though we paid more, it was worth it to me to have a driver meet us with a sign, and drive us straight to the hotel. I guess because the hotel is in a hutong, the taxi drivers always seemed confused when trying to find it. We had brought the name and address of the hotel in Chinese characters, blown up on the copier to make it easier for the cabbies to read, and we also marked it on a map, and also had the hotel's business card w/ map and phone number. Even so, every cab driver seemed confused by the address, so it was helpful that we got to know the nearby streets pretty well so that we could direct them. That's another reason I was glad we paid for the driver from the airport.

I liked the location of the hotel because it wasn't too touristy; we enjoyed wandering around the nearby neighborhoods. Also, it was easy to find cabs when we needed them, and there's a Bank of China just a block away, with both ATM and bank branch that was able to break the large bills we got from the ATM. Again, I would highly recommend this hotel if you're looking for something different; the staff was great, and the atmosphere was really special.
Since we didn't arrive until late, we just wandered over to Beihai Park and explored the neighborhoods near our hotel that first night.

Day 2 - Beijing
We would've preferred to save shopping for later, but since the Panjiayuan Antique Market is only on weekends, and it was Sunday, we had to go. The market is enormous, but keep in mind that the vast majority of the items are not really antiques; there were a lot of very good (and some not so good) reproductions, which is fine if you know that up front and pay accordingly. We had a lot of fun browsing and left with some nice souvenirs and a few really nice finds. We love markets, so we spent a long time there, then browsed the neighborhoods near our hotel.

We had the hotel book us tickets for the opera at Liyuan Theatre that night; certainly we paid more to have the hotel book them, but the convenience factor was worth it; they picked us up and dropped us off. Although I knew we wanted to go to the opera, I was torn re: whether to go to Liyuan Theatre since it sounded kind of touristy, but I finally decided, heck, we ARE tourists. Yes, it was touristy, but we enjoyed getting to watch the performers put on their makeup before the show, and we appreciated the English subtitles. The show was just over an hour long and included two short operas; we loved it, and were surprised by the acrobatics involved in the performance. We saw lots of tour groups seated at the more expensive tables in front, which included snacks and tea service, but we were fine w/ the standard seats.

Day 3: Beijing
We had pre-booked a private tour with Jane Yeo (recommended on this site) for the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, and the Temple of Heaven. Jane spoke excellent English, gave a great tour, answered our endless questions about the Chinese culture, and took us for a very nice lunch. Price seemed reasonable for all that we got. She also helped us get dinner reservations, and when we had a few minutes to kill, she took us to the Pearl Market. Thinking they only sold pearls, I was going to skip it, but actually they have every Chinese gift/souvenir you can think of, plus other floors with knock-off purses, electronics, etc. Although we have bartered our way through markets around the world, I hadn't realized just how low the vendors in China would go. We picked up a few gifts for family back home, and where I would have been happy to pay 1/3 of the marked price, Jane got them drastically lower. With her as our assistant, I actually did wind up getting some pearls, and some other fun items. It's important to note that Jane does NOT include any "shopping trips" built into her tours as many other guides do - those high-pressure sales jobs in markets and factories. She did this only b/c we were in the area and had some time to kill, and I asked about where to buy gifts for family.

That night, we had dinner at Li Qun Roast Duck Restaurant, recommended on this site. It was a lot of fun...make sure you have reservations, as many groups were waiting quite some time for a seat. Li Qun is certainly not the hole in the wall it once was; although it's tucked away down a tiny alley, the clientele were almost all tourists, and as their popularity has risen with write-ups in Fodors and Lonely Planet, I'm sure their prices have too, but the food was good, and we had fun.

Day 4 - Beijing / Great Wall
We hired a driver through our hotel to take us to the Great Wall at Mutianyu. Again, we knew we were paying more by booking through them, but there was the convenience factor. Make sure that when you get out of the car, you go to the ticket booth/entrance on your LEFT, and take that cable car up to the wall. Then you can walk along the wall (for about 90 min), and take the toboggan run down. Our guide led us straight to the cable car on the right side instead, which meant that after walking the wall, we had to walk all the way back to take the toboggan (which hubby was determined not to miss). We should've looked more carefully at the map, but I assumed our guide was taking us to the only ticket counter; didn't realize there were two options.

We left pretty early that morning, so there weren't too many tourists there; also it was late March, so not high season, and although it was cold, we worked up a sweat climbing.

When we returned to Beijing, we spent the rest of the afternoon/evening in the hutongs near Houhai. We got roped into a rickshaw tour, but ditched them once we realized it included high-pressure sales of porcelain, etc., and we just wandered on our own instead. Really no need to have a tour, it's fun to just wander around. We also visited the Drum Tower and Bell Tower, and had a good dinner near the Silver Ingot Bridge.

Day 5: Beijing
This was our last day in Beijing, and we spent much of it at the Summer Palace. The grounds are enormous, and you could easily spend a whole day exploring the acres of temples, pagodas, gardens, picturesque paths, and islands.

That evening, we took the night train from Beijing to Xi'An. We paid extra for the deluxe soft sleeper that has only 2 bunks and a private bath. Most have 4 bunks and a shared hall bath; only certain trains have the type of compartment we took, but it was worth it. We were very glad we took the train; it was convenient, allowed us extra time in Beijing and Xi'An, and the train itself was very comfortable and much nicer/cleaner than I expected. It was fairly easy to negotiate the station and find our train, but we arrived at 8 PM for a 9:20 PM train, and found that was perfect timing. Recommend bringing snacks/drinks with you, and make sure you keep your train ticket - you will be asked for it when exiting the station! We stashed ours somewhere and couldn't find them, and other tourists were similarly dismayed when they couldn't exit without their ticket stubs. We couldn't find ours at all, and finally snuck out with a large tour group.

Alright, this is getting too long...I'll put the rest in a second posting...



copilot is offline  
Apr 20th, 2008, 08:36 AM
  #2  
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Oops, our itinerary didn't make it onto the posting correctly. Itinerary should be:

Day 1: arrive Beijing
Days 2-5: Beijing, overnight train to Xi'An
Days 6-7: Xi'An
Day 8: Travel Xi'An to Guilin and on to Yangshuo
Days 9-12: Yangshuo area
Day 13: Travel to Hong Kong
Days 14-15: Hong Kong
Day 16: Depart
copilot is offline  
Apr 20th, 2008, 09:07 AM
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Thanks for taking time to post..I am following along with pleasure..
ekscrunchy is online now  
Apr 20th, 2008, 09:44 AM
  #4  
Jed
 
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If the rest of the trip report parts would be added as replies to this thread, it would make it easier for everyone to follow your whole trip comprehensively.
Jed is offline  
Apr 20th, 2008, 09:45 AM
  #5  
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Trip Report - Part 2

Day 6: Xi'An
We stayed at the Howard Johnson Ginwa Plaza, near the South Gate. It was a nice hotel, good price, decent location. Not right in the center near the Drum Tower and Bell Tower, but not too far of a walk.

Other postings have discussed the sights to be seen in Xi'An, so I'll just add a few notes...I was glad we spent one extra day in Xi'An, other than our trip to see the Terracotta Warriors. We enjoyed seeing the Drum Tower and Bell Tower (be sure you time your visit for the performances), and we loved browsing in the Muslim Quarter. We wandered there both nights, and had a great time; although it's described as a night market, it's very different from the night markets we've seen in other Asian countries; less touristy. Lots of fun. Also, look for Gao's Grand Courtyard at #144 Huimin Street, in the Muslim Quarter. We enjoyed wandering through the historic home, and caught a shadow puppet show there. I personally found Culture Street too touristy, and although we had a decent dinner at De Fa Chang, I thought it was highly overrated and overpriced, and the staff weren't very friendly. Seems to cater mostly to huge tour groups; we had better, cheaper, more enjoyable meals elsewhere.

Day 7: Xi'An and Terracotta Warriors
We had booked Clarence Guo in advance for this trip, as we was recommended by many on this site. It wound up being a half-day tour to visit a cave-dweller family, then the Terracotta Warriors Museum, then lunch, then returning to our hotel. Clarence has excellent English skills, and he is very knowledgeable. He has some theories about the warriors which are different than the prevailing theories, and it was very interesting to hear his ideas and the rationale behind them. We also found the trip to the caves very interesting, and the other guides we researched did not include that in their trip. I did feel that the price was high for what wound up being a half day, and Clarence seemed a bit annoyed that we wanted a private tour...he had multiple tours going on, and he wound up having a colleague take us back to Xi'An so that he could meet another group that day. He was willing to accommodate our wish for a private tour (booked many months in advance), but he clearly seemed to wish that we would've just joined a large group so he could handle us all at once, and we sort of wondered if we were being rushed through that day so that he could accommodate a larger and more lucrative group, even though we were paying what seemed to be a rather high price. That said, we could have paid far less, but would not have seen the cave dwellers or heard Clarence's interesting views on the history of the warriors. He was polite and professional, there were no hidden fees, and ultimately, we had a great time.

Day 8: Travel from Xi'An to Guilin to Yangshuo
We flew from Xi'An to Guilin, and then had our hotel in Yangshuo pick us up at the airport (it was a 2-hour drive). We debated long and hard about whether to go to Yangshuo or Lijiang, and finally decided on Yangshuo. I have already planned our second trip to China, which will include the places I had to reluctantly leave off our itinerary...Shanghai, Lijiang, but we loved Yangshuo, so I have no regrets.

We stayed at the Li River Retreat, which we loved. It's located just outside of Yangshuo, on a hill overlooking the river. You do have to walk about 20-30 min. from town to the retreat (or rent a bike), and a market is held on the road each day, restricting access to cars, but we never found this to be a problem; we loved the location. I would highly, highly recommend this hotel; the location is just so beautiful. We stayed in their nicest deluxe riverview room, which (partly b/c it was off season) was still priced very reasonably, and it was a huge room with windows on three sides, looking out on the river and the amazing karst formations. The restaurant was great, with tables outside to take advantage of the views. The staff were very, very friendly and helpful, and we just loved our time here.

Yangshuo was a chance for us to relax, and a great balance to visiting cities like Beijing and Hong Kong. The weather wasn't ideal at the end of March...still chilly at times, and it rained/misted a few days, but we knew that going in. Sure it might have been more fun to raft down the river on a warm spring/summer day, but we also avoided many of the tourists this way, so it didn't bother us. You don't "need" 4 full days to see Yangshuo, but we had a great time exploring the area, and for us, the time spent there was perfect.

Day 9: Yangshuo
We wandered the town of Yansghuo - very backpacker-oriented, with many kind of tacky Western-style bars and restaurants and lots of touristy shops. Hard to even look in any of the stores when the vendors are so aggressive; I tend to buy less when I can't just browse. But we enjoyed the park and some of the wonderful views of the karsts ringing the tiny town. Just a nice, lazy day. We spent time with the hotel staff booking tours for the rest of our stay...as always, we probably paid more to book through the hotel, but they were great to work with, and our bill for 5 nights, plus many meals, plus all of our trips, was still a bargain in my opinion.

Day 10: Yangshuo area
We rented a motorbike and hired a guide (on his own motorbike for the day). Lots and lots of bicycle tours in the area, but due to a knee injury, that's not an option for us, and we're experienced motorcyclists, so we felt comfortable on a motorbike. Drove to the Yulong River, where we took a 2-hour bamboo raft trip. Amazing scenery, so picturesque. Karst peaks rising up out of the mist, men and women working in the fields, water buffalo, tiny villages. After our ride, we got back on the motorbike and drove around for a while before heading to Moon Hill...ok, but kind of overrated in my opinion, but we climbed to the top to say we did it. Spent the rest of the afternoon driving throughout the countryside and enjoying the scenery. That night, we saw the Sanjie Liu Impressions Light Show...I kind of thought it might be corny, but found it to be impressive, and was glad we saw it.

Day 11: Yangshuo Area
Took a looong day trip to the Longji Rice Terraces in Longsheng. We knew this would be a long day, but I didn't want to be so close to the terraces and not see them. I had read that Guilin and Yangshuo were roughly equidistant from the rice terraces, but we passed Guilin airport on the way there, which seemed like a roundabout route! Not sure if that's the only path...had we known that, we would have scheduled the rice terraces on a day we were already coming/going from the airport.

Again, we knew the weather was not going to be ideal, but it didn't really hamper our enjoyment of the sights. It was misty, so we didn't have good visibility from the highest parts of the terraces (as we were actually in the clouds), but from about mid-way up, we had some great views. The area is booming - lots of construction, and it sadly looks like it's becoming overly touristy, but I was still glad we saw it.

Day 12: Yangshuo Area
We took a private boat to the tiny village of LiuJong, which was not touristy at all (at least not in early April), and was very picturesque, with crumbling old buildings and great photo ops. Our boat then took us on to Fuli for their market day. I didn't find Fuli itself very interesting, but we enjoyed wandering the market. This is a market for the villagers, not for tourists, so don't go expecting to find souvenirs; it's vegetables and live chickens and fish, and baskets of spices, and sidewalk dentistry and medical procedures (which were a little unnerving), but it was interesting to see.

This was our last full day in the Yangshuo area. We could've seen a lot more, as there were many other trips and activities available, but this was a much-needed vacation as well as a chance to see China, so we needed a bit of down-time, and we loved the chance to just relax in such a beautiful area, with such stunning scenery. Sure, you could "see" some of the sights in just a few days, but we relished the chance to kick back.

Day 13: Travel to Hong Kong
Late afternoon/evening flight from Guilin to Hong Kong. Took the airport express train to Kowloon, and then the free shuttle bus to our hotel - this was all at a reasonable price and worked well. Stayed at the YMCA Salisbury in Hong Kong, which is not really a Y like we think of, but a regular hotel right next to the Peninsula in Tsim Sha Tsu, right near the Star Ferry Pier. We were happy with the price and location.

Day 14: Hong Kong
Took the Star Ferry to HK Island and spend the day wandering. Walked all through the Western District with its old and picturesque neighborhoods, browsed Hollywood Road (too high-end for us) and Cat Street (interesting, but most items are reproductions), took the Midlevels Escalators, and had a great lunch in Soho. Visited Man Mo Temple, then took the tram to Victoria Peak. The tram was a mob scene, and although the views from Victoria Peak were great, it was sad to see the enormous, tacky complex of tourist shops they've built up there. In the hours it took us to get up there and back, I would've rather explored other areas of the city.

Day 15: Hong Kong
Fantastic dim sum breakfast, then on to explore Kowloon and see several museums - we particularly liked the HK Museum of History with its sections on different cultures. I wished we had had more time in HK; we didn't make it to Lantau Island, and there were many other places we would've liked to see. But I wouldn't have shortened our time anywhere else in order to add time to HK, so we'll just need to return some day.

I hope our report is helpful. As I'm off on a business trip shortly, I don't have time to write up all the wonderful details, but so many other postings have already done that. I wanted to at least touch on the things that we wondered most about when planning the trip...where to go, where to stay, etc. We had a fantastic time; China is just such an amazing and intriguing country, with so much to see and do. We found the people to be very friendly and helpful, and the country itself to be fascinating. After much anguishing over our itinerary, I think it was just right for us, and was a good intro to China, with a nice mix of cities and countryside, tourist sights and relaxation. We already hope to return some day to see more - particularly the Yunnan and Guizhou provinces, but for our first trip, it was a great experience.

copilot is offline  
Apr 20th, 2008, 02:04 PM
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Thanks very much for sharing your experience!
Shanghainese is offline  
Apr 20th, 2008, 02:46 PM
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Yes! Thanks again. Very helpful..
ekscrunchy is online now  
Apr 21st, 2008, 05:56 AM
  #8  
 
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Hi Copilot, enjoying your trip report which brings back so many fond memories of our Beijing sojourn in August last year.

And so happy to read that you enjoyed the Spring Garden Courtyard Hotel as much as we did!

It’s always so gratifying to know that recommendations/reviews are helpful to other Fodorites and receive a similar ‘tick of approval’ .

Cheers,
Jackie
FurryTiles is offline  
Apr 21st, 2008, 10:35 AM
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Thank you for the nice report. Did you book your private boat to Liu Jong via the hotel or can one walk up and request services?
marksfour is offline  
May 1st, 2008, 08:00 AM
  #10  
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We booked the boat to Liu Jong through the hotel, but I feel certain that wasn't necessary...if you asked the hotel to write down the Chinese characters for the name of the town, I'm sure you could just go to the dock and find someone to happily take you.
copilot is offline  
Sep 21st, 2008, 11:39 PM
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Very impressive report. You might try travel to Yunan and Guizhou and you will enjoy that travel with lots of minority things.
Chinaren is offline  
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