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We did it! -4 weeks of independent travel in China - a detailed report

We did it! -4 weeks of independent travel in China - a detailed report

Old Nov 16th, 2010, 09:26 PM
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Thursdaysd: You bet...don't have to be young! We have been traveling the world independently for about 40 years...but first time to China in 1984 about the only way in was with an authorized, legal group. In '07 we did it independently (we're now 81 and 73) just hiring local guides mainly for their cars!!!

LvL: We paralled much of what you visited. Your 0utstanding report will influence others to do it alone! So I'll share some pix which you will certainly recognize.

http://picasaweb.google.com/stuartto...25260086950274 (This won a runner-up in the China photo contest)

(the rest of the Guilin-Yangshuo, Dragon's Backbone and Vicinity pix)

and here is what China looked like in 1984...scanned pix..just enlarge by clicking on pic and using magnifying glass icon if you wish (See Yangshuo old boat dock from 1984)


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Old Nov 17th, 2010, 06:27 AM
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Fabulouis trip report - enjoyed it very much!
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Old Nov 17th, 2010, 12:44 PM
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Thursdayd- You know, the more I travel, the younger I feel (at least in spirit!)

Thanks Lurker--and thanks Stu for the pictures...they are wonderful and we recognized many spots! Congrats re: China photo contest! I am still working on husband to finish editing our photos so we can post them on the web for interested viewers.

Only a few more days to report..

Day 22 Yangshuo

For something completely different I booked a Chinese cooking class today. The company is called the Yangshuo Cooking School. Although the husband is a good cook and would have enjoyed this, he chose to spend some time on his own (hmmm…3 weeks in each other’s company 24/7…maybe it was time for a little break from each other!) Anyway, he decided to do some walking around the hotel and town while I was cooking away.

I was picked up by van with another couple from hotel who were also doing it. We drove to the main street of town where we were met by instructor Tessa, and another couple from Australia. The 5 of us walked into the very large, bustling farmers market and followed Tessa around as she explained what kinds of food one could find at the market—prepared local delicacies, some unusual vegies, animals (live and dead, including dog!), and other “unknown” products, some moving!

Once through the market we got into a bus that was already 3/4 full with an Italian group. We drove 15 minutes to a farm outside of town. There was a patio set up under trees and a large room open to the outdoors that had been set up with woks, burners, food to be prepared, utensils etc. Working with the 5 of us, Tessa first demo'd a dish, then we would copy. We made-- 1. steamed chicken with mushrooms; 2. egg dumplings with pork; 3. stir-fried pork with vegies; 4. Yangshuo stir-fried eggplant; 5, stir-fried greens. Everything turned out very good (I’m not a bad cook but certainly no gourmet so found the cooking part quite easy and learned it is really in how you prep the ingredients that make the dish (as well as adding a secret ingredient—fish sauce!). We had a feast of it all to end the session then were dropped off back in town. I do recommend this activity to anyone who loves to cook, and the price for about 4 hours –and meal—was quite reasonable!

In town I met up with husband as he was eating a lonely lunch near Buffalo Bar. After finishing up some souvenir shopping, we walked back to the hotel (this time amid the chaos of the temporary covered street market) and spent some time packing for the transfer to Shanghai tomorrow. We relaxed on the deck with a glass of wine and some nuts—dinner would be a little later tonight as we were heading to the Sanjie Lu Light Show. The hotel had purchased tickets for us and had arranged for transportation.

When we were ready to go, we first settled our hotel bill for all expenses, then called for a taxi to Buffalo Bar. We were asked to wait there for a free ride to the Sanjie Lu Light Show. While waiting, we met the owner of Li River Retreat and Buffalo Bar (Australian) and had a great chat with him. We eventually were picked up in a van filled with Chinese (from another hotel?),and drove 15 minutes to the show’s parking area, which was a seething mass of cars, buses and people! We were herded out as a group and taken to wait near the ticket entrance, then asked to follow a woman in through the gate. We were given tickets, told the return to waiting spot after show, followed the teeming masses into the viewing area and found our seat. The show was a visual spectacle performed on a lake with illuminated karsts as a backdrop. It comprised of a number of stories that explained the culture of the local peoples. Not having a program guide or knowing the language made the stories hard to follow but it was all fun to watch. Was it worth the pricey admission? Questionable. But it was an enjoyable night out.

After the show, we headed back to the entrance and found our driver. Once back downtown, we found and ate dinner at Pure Lotus Vegetarian restaurant. Not only was this restaurant visually attractive (and strangely empty but it was 9pm by this time) but the food was definitely one of the best we tasted on our trip!

Although the bars were hopping and the street was full of people, we wandered back to Buffalo Bar and asked them to arrange for a taxi back to hotel for the night.
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Old Nov 18th, 2010, 09:02 AM
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Can't wait for thew Shanghai portion of your trip!
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Old Nov 18th, 2010, 05:51 PM
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Sound really wonderful and interesting. Expecting your next writing.
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Old Nov 20th, 2010, 04:21 PM
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Shanghainese...unfortunately we did not spend much time in Shanghai as we had 2 days out of the 3 1/2 we had, at Expo. I know there is way more to see, so maybe one day...

**WARNING - This is a long installment of 4 days

Day 23 Ping’an/transfer to Shanghai

The decision to see the rice terraces was a last minute one. Originally when planning the trip, I really had my heart set on seeing them and had made enquiries at several hotels in Ping’an for an overnight stay. But after reading forums about the timing of the harvest and whether we would be visiting at the best time, we were not so sure it would be worth going, so in the end, didn’t factor it into our plans.

But after some more thought, and after reading in the hotel brochure that it would be easy to organize from Yangshuo, especially if you had a late flight out of Guilin (Ours was 6:30), we decided to go for it. However, it was going to cost us! We chose to splurge on this…thinking we will never have the opportunity to be here again. We had the hotel arrange a private driver for us and I think it cost us about RMB700. He would take us to the terraces, wait for us, and then drive us to the airport.

We were up at 6am, ate a quick breakfast of toast and juice and our driver arrived at 7. It is a 3 hour drive to Ping'an, mostly on highways (and one toll expressway which bypassed Guilin) but as we ventured into the mountains, the road narrowed and snaked through the valleys. After a harrowing windy road up the side of one mountain, our driver parked at the entrance to Ping’an and waited for 4 hours while we explored the village and followed trails above through the rice terraces. We actually got to the village and trails before many of the tourists! Despite the fact that the harvest had already concluded, the landscape and views were incredible. The small village is perched on the side of the mountain and we had fun exploring the narrow stone paths running between the buildings. I had the typical “tourist” encounter with the locals—as we were following a trail high above the village, we met a woman who asked if I wanted to see her hair and take some pictures of it for a few RMB. I couldn’t resist.

Later after hiking as far as we dared in our time allotted (and if we were staying overnight we would have hiked to the next village as the hiking conditions were great!), we returned to the village and had a so-so lunch at the Countryside Hotel. We wandered a bit more through the village, where there was a lot of construction going on, and eventually walked down to meet up with driver who would drive us to Guilin airport.

Our flight to Shanghai was delayed an hour, but did get off within the hour and arrived about 45 min late. When we arrived we asked at an information desk where we could catch the airport shuttle and which one we should get for our B&B (showing the address we had been given). We were told Shuttle #3. We found the bus stop, asked for clarification by bus attendant but she did not speak English. As the bus was ready to leave, we made a quick decision to get on anyway, fingers crossed it would all work out. The bus was very crowded and we had to stand most of the way with our luggage between our legs.

Our discomfort was soon forgotten as we entered the city and were dazzled by the brilliant light display on bridges and buildings. With some help from a few passengers who spoke a little English, we finally got clarification from the attendant as to which stop to get off. We knew we still had to flag a taxi, and after about 20 minutes (it was about 11:30pm by this time) were dropped off safely in front of our B&B on a quiet side street in the French Concession district. A Chinese guy was waiting for us on the front steps.

The Magnolia B&B is a small “designer boutique B&B” that we chose for the area and great service prior to the trip. The owner, Miranda, is a young woman who spoke excellent English and was extremely helpful pre-trip in organizing tickets and transportation for the World Expo during a “Peak” period of the fair. Unfortunately we didn’t meet her until the last day. She had 2 locals, who didn’t speak English, as her representatives. While they made sure our needs were met, it would have been nice to have been able to talk to Miranda and ask her our questions in person. The B&B was not “budget” but was quite comfortable and adequate for our needs (good made-to-order breakfast, quiet small rooms with a very comfy bed, good bathroom/shower, free Wifi).

The Chinese host had us fill in some forms, gave us some Expo tickets and transportation info and showed us our room.

Day 24 and 25 Shanghai and World Expo

The World Expo has been reported on and discussed in many forums/ trip reports so I won’t go into too much detail on our experiences. We had a package tour for 3 days—this included transportation to/from the Expo from various hotels, and one quick access to a random pavilion each day. The first day we caught a later bus at a hotel near our B&B, and stayed later at the Expo (we wanted to see it all lit up).The second day we went early and got in as the gate opened. Both days the crowds were overwhelming. After two days of the chaos we decided to forego the third day (even though we had pre- paid for it).

Our impressions of Expo…HUGE, crowded, intense, visually overwhelming, often jaw-dropping! Other posters were right in saying that the best part of Expo was seeing the various pavilions from the outside—some amazing architecture and visual displays. For most of the popular pavilions the line-ups were way too long for us (4-6 hours).We did wait one hour to see the Japan Pavilion and a few European Pavilions, but enjoyed mostly the “Theme” Pavilions, which surprisingly had few line-ups. We also enjoyed a musical concert at the Thailand pavilion. And being Canadian, we had backdoor access to the Canada pavilion (by showing our passports). I got hit with a wave of pride and homesickness as the “all things Canadian” displays made me long for familiar places! We ate lunch and dinner at Expo the first night but food was very expensive compared to what we had been paying in the rest of China.

We left earlier the second day at Expo and headed to the Bund to get a close-up look at the spectacle of the Shanghai skyline. An exit out of Expo was close to a Metro station so we decided to forego the free bus transportation that came with our tickets and make our own way home. The metro was cheap and very easy to figure out and we got off at the end of the “Nanjing Dong Lu” shopping street. We walked along the Bund for a ways, awed by the lights and atmosphere. We were also looking for potential dinner places (not a lot right along the Bund). Down a side street we happened to notice a sign for a “brew pub”. We had dinner there (western food) and apart from the smoky atmosphere, quite enjoyed our meal (and great beer too). Then we walked back to Metro station and made it back to our B&B.

Day 26 Shanghai

Our goals today were: 1. exploring the main sights of Shanghai; 2. buying prescription eye-glasses; 3. visiting the museum (husband’s thing); and 4. having an extra special dinner somewhere as it was our last dinner of the whole trip. There was no rush getting out the door today so we took our time with breakfast “Skyping” home, etc. Then we began our exploration of Shanghai by walking through the streets of the French Concession area near our B&B. We found a Metro station and figured out how to get to the main train station where we heard there was a 3-floor building filled with places to buy prescription glasses. We had a bit of trouble deciding which exit to take out of the metro station and which direction to head once out. But after a bit of wandering, we found the “Sanye Glasses Market” at the north end of the train station.

The eyeglasses market is three floors of vendors selling thousands of glasses. As you ride up the escalator, people are calling out to you to entice you into their place. When we got off on the 3rd floor (not sure why we went to the top floor) sales people from different venues all vied to get us into their shop. We went with the first one we saw as she smiled, seemed less aggressive and the store was bright and cheery. We figured all venues were competitive and had similar products so chose not to “shop around” in the building, or we would have been there all day. The salesgirl helped us choose frames for both regular and sunglasses. We had brought our prescriptions with us. We were told to come back in 1 hour to pick all 4 pairs up. It cost us, after some bargaining, about RMB1600—or about $250 Cdn. Or $65 each pair, about ¼ of what 4 pairs would cost at home. Quality? Well, not 100% sure (although they assured us they were the best) but they seem perfectly fine and we’ve had no problems since being home.

We next headed to “People’s Park”. As we got out of the Metro station, we encountered a huge crowd milling around just inside the entrance. At first we were not sure what was going on. Lots of people were in deep discussion, some were on cellphones, little “signs” written in Chinese were displayed along the wall behind them. Hmm….we eventually figured out that this was something that we had seen on a travel show on TV…matchmaking. Apparently the parents meet to try and find a partner for their adult children. While I can’t imagine this happening in North America, it must be a successful way of going about it for the Chinese—judging by the hundreds of parents there!

We walked through the pleasant park, enjoying the sun, scenery and peacefulness amidst the bustling city. We eventually saw in the distance our goal—the Shanghai Museum. To get to it, we had to go under the road and along what turned out to be a rather cool little underground shopping street.

The Museum itself was very good, very well-laid out and displays were informative and visually appealing. And…it wasn’t too crowded! Later we walked back to the Nanjing pedestrian street and stopped for a drink at an outdoor café along the street to do some serious “people-watching”. With Expo happening in the city, we observed people of many cultures enjoying the shopping scene.

We had made reservations earlier for a restaurant recommended in our Fodor’s guide, called “Shanghai Uncle”. We found it easily and enjoyed a wonderful last dinner out. The food, especially the pork, was excellent and the price of the meal was very reasonable. We decided to cab it home as it was late, but finding a taxi was a bit challenging. While there were a lot of cabs passing by, they were all full (this being a Saturday night in the city). But, eventually we did, and headed home happy about the excellent day we had.

Last day tomorrow…plus… “What I Learned About Travel in China…”!
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Old Nov 22nd, 2010, 01:20 PM
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Day 27 Last day of trip

Our flight home didn’t leave until 6:30pm so we had part of the day to explore more of Shanghai. After packing and settling our bills (and meeting the B&B owner Miranda for the first time) we left our bags at the B&B and took the Metro to Yu Gardens. We wandered first through the huge and very crowded street market, buying some last minute souvenirs. We had lunch at a restaurant in the market (can’t remember name). The food was good, but it was the first and only time we actually had the waitress remind us to put in ”Tip” amount on the credit card bill!! After lunch we paid and entered Yu Gardens. It was very beautiful and not very crowded. We came across an orchestra performing in one of the courtyards.

We needed to head back to the B&B in order to pick up our bags and be at the airport by 4:30pm. We decided to take the Metro to Dongzhimen Station, then transfer to the Maglev. The Maglev was a unique experience, as the speed got up to 415km/hr! Whoosh! Our ten hour Air Canada flight boarded on time but was delayed on the tarmac by 45 minutes (tarmac congestion). But soon we were on our way home, filled with many wonderful memories of China.

Some of these may easily be gleaned from other reports and forums, but these are the things that stick out in my mind:

INDEPENDENT TRAVEL – can be done! And pretty easily. Would we have seen/done more with a tour? Yes – but doing it on our own, we saw what we wanted and traveled when/where we wanted. The total cost of our 4 week trip was quite manageable and I think comparable to what a 2-3 week trip with a tour company would have cost. When we needed train tickets, drivers or transfers, our accommodation hosts readily researched and booked them for us at little or no charge.

BOOKING FLIGHTS AND HOTELS – Everything was booked in advance via internet. For flights, I compared the various travel companies but decided to go with Travelzen. It was an easy website to use and the prices were the same if not cheaper than the other sites (C-Trip, Elong). I checked prices every day and purchased most about a month before the date needed. After booking, I received an almost instant receipt, then confirmation. I printed both and brought all papers with us, but most of the time the check-in agent only really needed our passports. It took a month for each charge to go through our credit card account. Hotels were all "middle-of the road" as far as prices. They ranged from about $25 to $110 per night (average was around $60), and include B&Bs, a hotel room with kitchenette, a hostel, a river “retreat”, and a 4*hotel. We were very happy with our choices.

DOMESTIC FLIGHTS – Be prepared for delays! And gate changes! And being a bit frustrated! Not knowing the language was a barrier, but with persistence, one can eventually get the information needed. Also I would never book a late evening flight again for the sake of a few dollars. Leave lots of time (2-3 hours) between flights when you are doing a transfer. We had flights 1 ½ hours apart and we missed the second one due to delays with the first. All flights were smooth and service good. Food (snack-type) was always offered, even on short flights. Best airline – Air China, China Eastern; Worst – China Southern

MONEY – We used mostly ATMs, with success, taking out RMB2000 at a time. A few times some ATMs didn’t want to take our card, so we had to find other machines. Most of our hotels took credit card for payment.

GETTING AROUND – We walked a lot! Taxis were really cheap, and plentiful. We also took the Metro in Beijing and Shanghai – also very cheap and easy to figure out. Maps were not easy to find so we relied on our guide (Fodors) and hosts at our accommodation to help us. We did get lost a few times! The train (from Datong to Pingyao) was an experience. I would not recommend a “hard sleeper” unless you sleep like a log. And bring your own food.

SITESEEING – Go early in the day and expect large crowds of Chinese tourists at all major sites. Even though we were traveling somewhat off season (October) there were always a lot of tourists, lineups etc. October was a great month to travel, with the weather ranging from about 12 degrees celcius in the mountains of Yunnan to 23C in Beijing, Yangshuo and Shanghai. Very little rain.

SHOPPING – “bu yao” was our favourite and most valuable phrase – literally means “No want”! Whenever we were accosted by vendors, we used this phrase to effectively shut them down. When bargaining for an item, I decided first how much I wanted to pay, then started the bargaining at half that. So if an item was presented first for RMB100 and I wanted to pay no more than 50, I would start the bargaining at 25, eventually getting to 50. I walked away if the vendor wouldn’t come down, and always had them run after me with the price I wanted!

TOILETS – ah, yes…be prepared for all types! My husband and I would rate them 1-10 after each use, with 1 being a trench with no privacy walls (just couldn’t bring myself to use it) to 10 being perfect western-style. Most were “squat” type in the 5-7 range. Important—bring toilet paper! I always carried a small ziplock bag with a stash. There were public toilets everywhere…some were relatively nice.

THE PEOPLE – always helpful, strangers can be a bit curious of us and stare, can be rude by our standards (esp. budging, shoving, pushing on transit/in line-ups, hawking/spitting, loud voices)

LANGUAGE -- We don't speak Mandarin, but we were able to make our needs known. In the cities, it was easy to find someone who spoke English. Gestures and sign language goes a long way. I purchased a "Chinese Phrases" language program through the interest and had a stock of phrases I could use for example "how much?", "thank you", "Where is..?",etc. I think it was appreciated when I tried to speak the language

MOST SURPRISING – How modern and capitalistic the country was despite its communist policies; the cities were amazing, both for the architecture and technology (the neon rivals Times Square); the food was always cheap and delicious--we never had a “bad” Chinese meal; the poor air quality, esp. Beijing; the amount of cars on the road, driving habits and the “pecking” order of traffic movement (with people at the bottom – we’re surprised we didn’t see a lot more accidents!)

Hope my rather lengthy report helps someone have as great a trip as we did....happy travels!
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Old Nov 22nd, 2010, 01:55 PM
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Thanks for your report, LvL - you've provided a welcome addition to the reports of others of us who managed to travel independently in China and to have a wonderful time doing so!

We seem to have many similar observations, but there is one small difference I'll mention in case others find it helpful: You recommend going to major tourist destinations early in the day, but I often found them less crowded later in the day. It probably depends on the site.
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Old Nov 22nd, 2010, 03:28 PM
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Thanks for a fantastic trip report, LvL. I followed along every step of the way. Sounds like you had a great time, and I hope to have a similar experience a couple years down the road. Your tips will be most helpful.
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Old Feb 1st, 2011, 11:12 AM
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LvL, great trip report! I will be traveling to China in May. One question: was the road to the rice terraces from Yangshuo very curvy? Do we need to worry about car sickness?
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Old Feb 1st, 2011, 01:51 PM
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Thank you for posting this very informative report. I am book marking it for a future China trip (hopefully my next trip after India).
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Old Feb 2nd, 2011, 01:23 PM
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Thanks, glad someone is still finding my report useful.

krgystn-from Yangshuo to Guilin is mostly on straight highway (we bypassed Guilin itself via a toll highway). The road from Guilin to Ping'an starts out on the highway but soon heads into the mountains. We didn't find the curves too bad for the first bit, but the last 45 minutes or so, after you cross the bridge and snake your way up to Ping'an the road gets narrow and a little more intense. Our driver took it very slow so we didn't feel carsick (and I often feel sick on a curvy highway especially in a back seat).
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Old Feb 2nd, 2011, 01:36 PM
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thanks LvL, 45 minutes is probably reasonable.
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Old Feb 16th, 2011, 10:54 AM
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May I ask how you contacted Beijing Mao’er Bed and breakfast, I can't find any reservation service info for them.

Many thanks in advance.
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Old Feb 22nd, 2011, 11:42 AM
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Hello Spitz,

Sorry not to respond sooner--I was away in sunny Mexico!
I reserved this B&B through a booking website. Here is the direct link to Mao'er B&B:


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Old Nov 14th, 2017, 04:09 PM
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Hi There,
Very helpful review, thanks for posting!
I did have one question, could you share your experience with getting Visa's in Vancouver? I'm looking to get mine and just wondering how complicated that process was and what time frame was needed?
Thanks in advance!
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