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

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A trip report by someone who has just returned is always a valuable resource for those who love to plan trips on their own. I know I acquired a vast amount of information and was able to make informed decisions by constantly scanning travel forums and eagerly reading trip reports as they appeared. So I owe a lot of the success of our recent 4 week trip to China to all those who took the time to pass on information, answer my questions and post reports. Thank you to all and here is my report—I hope it isn’t too “winded” and that someone will find it useful for an upcoming trip.

It helps to understand the kind of travel being undertaken when reading a trip report. My husband and I are in our mid 50s and have traveled independently throughout Central America and Europe. We are relatively fit and love walking to discover unique places. We were certain we did not want a guided tour of China and after reading many reports we felt that we could manage an entirely independent holiday without a tour company. We don’t speak Mandarin but were sure we could make our needs known.

We pre-booked all flights (Travel Zen) and hotels via internet—and all worked well, except for one late night flight delay (and this was the one time we really wish we spoke Mandarin!). While many forum posters said one could easily book accommodation and flights while there, we wanted to not have to think about these. Knowing you have a place waiting, often with free airport pickup, was worth the extra $. All of our accommodations were wonderful, ranging from a hutong B&B to self-catering apartment to river retreat-all were wonderful in service and facility.


Here was out itinerary: Oct 4-31
Days 1 – 6 Beijing Mao’er B&B
Days 7 Datong Garden Hotel
Day 8 Pingyao Yide Hotel
Day 9 – 11 Xian Citadines Apartment Hotel
Day 12 – 18 Lijiang Zen Garden Hotel
Day 19 – 23 Yangshuo Li River Retreat
Day 24 – 27 Shanghai Magnolia B&B

For us it was a perfect schedule and itinerary. We saw a bit of the cities, small villages and of course the requisite touristy spots (filled with many, many Chinese tourists but worth it). We think it was the perfect overview of a country that we probably won’t have a chance to see again.

Days 1- Beijing
Our flight from Vancouver to Beijing was smooth, on time and relatively comfortable. We arrived in Beijing about 2:30pm, found an ATM at the airport and took a taxi to the hutong B&B. The hutongs are so narrow that taxis can’t drive down them, so we had to walk in with our backback/suitcases (convertible as we need it). The B&B was very quiet and peaceful, the rooms small and had no windows but that was why it was so quiet. Angela was the hostess and was very pleasant and helpful.

After dropping off bags and freshening up, we set out to explore the neighbourhood. A few blocks away was a pedestrian-only shopping street (Nan Luogo Xiang) with boutiques and small restaurants (it is also where the Backpackers Hostel is so we saw a lot of foreigners). After wandering, we found a place to eat (Drum and Bell restaurant) and had our first introduction to ordering and eating true Chinese food. We were put in a small windowless room with only 2 tables as everything else was full. We ordered 2 beer, rice, a sizzling beef plate, shrimp and a plate of Chinese broccoli. It was a lot of food but we must have been starved as it all went down quickly. Cheap and good. (We figured out eventually that for 2 of us, 2 plates of food plus rice or noodles, is plenty!)

By now jet lag was setting in so we walked back to the B&B and were out by 9:30!

Day 2 – Beijing
Next day, we woke early, eager to explore. Breakfast was at 7:30 and consisted of a fried egg between a bun, a sweeter bun and some Nescafe. We walked first to Jingshan Park (not far from B&B) and paid RMB2 to enter. The park was filled with Beijingers, singing, chanting, dancing, doing Taichi etc. AMAZING and so different from home. The whole park was buzzing with activities. We walked through the park, then up a series of rock stairs to a Temple at top with amazing views, a huge gold Buddha, and an excellent (albeit smoggy) view of the Forbidden City.

We then walked down and entered the Forbidden City at the north end where there was not much of a line-up at ticket booth, (it was 9:30ish at the time). We found a place to buy map and wandered through many temples, park-like areas, amazing architecture. By this time crowds started to build, so we hurried to try to cover as much as possible

After 3 hours of crowd fighting we found a small deserted courtyard oasis, guarded by a man in the corner. We sat and had some nuts, then the guard came over and offered (in sign language) to take our picture. I think he was bored but he was SO friendly (even kissed me on the cheek!!). He was a hoot!

After another hour or so, we exited the FC and tried to find our way to Tiannnamen Square. We found the main passageway to Tiannamen blocked off, and we were directed to a side exit the turned out to be a huge detour along the moat. It turned out some kind of celebration due to Nationall Week was still going on as the main entrance was closed off and there was security checks we had to go through, and 2 huge screens showing patriotic videos. We walked through the huge square to the south end feeling the importance and history of the place.

Then my feet and body said time to rest and eat. We didn't see any restaurants around so decided to walk back the street beside the square and head to Wangfunjing shopping street. We happened upon a side street market with narrow alleys and many stalls and teeming with people. We saw scorpions and seahorses etc on sticks for eating. We got accosted by vendors wanting us to sit and have a beer so we finally gave in and had beer and ordered some kind of dumplings which we thought had meat in them so we asked for one with chicken and one with beef--turned out they were filled with some kind of ground meat and we got cooked chicken and beef on the side. Oh well, the dumplings were blah but the beer was good! And our feet were happy!

We walked further down the pedestrian street and ended up walking back to B&B (looked in a few stores along the way). We revived ourselves then went looking for a nearby restaurant that was recommended in our guide books called "Kejia Cai". We had some difficulty finding it (no name signs) but eventually found it along the lake. There were no tables available outside on patio (very busy) but we could sit inside. We ordered a beef dish, some "greens" and rice--just the right amount. The food was ok, nothing to get too excited about. Afterwards we walked along the lake with many others (especially couples). The lake was filled with pedal boats (it was dark by now) and many couples smooching in corners of pathway. The streets along the lake were filled with nightclubs with blaring music, coloured lights and laser lights flashing. We ended up following another small market street filled with cooking supply shops, then circled back to end up at the B&B.

To be continued…

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    Thanks all for the encouragement to continue..

    Day 3 Beijing

    Today our plan was to explore the Summer Palace. We wanted to buy some lunch items so we could have a “picnic” style lunch where ever we ended up. So after breakfast (this time it was some round doughy balls stuffed with something sweet) we headed out first to find a supermarket to buy lunch items. Angela told of us a big market down the street, where you had to go down 3 flights to the food floor. We found it easily but finding the “typical” things we could buy for a picnic lunch was more difficult. The closest we could find to sandwiches were some pre-packaged chicken “burgers” and they were not in any cooler storage. We wondered how many preservatives were needed in these to keep them from going bad. Despite some misgivings we decided to give them a try (they were actually edible and we didn’t end up with stomach issues). We also picked out some potato chips ( a huge selection of choices) and 2 bananas we pulled off a bunch. For some reason the cashier would NOT let us buy just 2 bananas--don’t know why? So we had to leave them with her.
    We then walked to the metro. The metro system was very easy to figure out and cheap. To get to the Summer Palace cost each about 45 cents! On the walk there we got our first and most important lesson in traffic survival – walk with the pack! Even by the end of our trip, crossing a street was a frightening event!

    The Summer Palace is huge and took up most of the afternoon. Upon entering, the first area was a quaint reconstructed "water" village. We wandered around the canal but it was all souvenir shops and restaurants. We walked up the hill and came to the palace temples---huge, amazing impressive! After wandering around we headed to a lookout towards the lake but the smog was so thick we could hardly see anything. It was quite surreal. We passed through many temples and eventually got down to the water’s edge. People were loading onto a tourist boat so we decided to get on too. The boat with its large dragon’s head prow took us to an island in center of lake that was connected to a 16 arch bridge. We got off here, walked over bridge and back along lake, stopping for lunch and viewing more temples and museum-type exhibits. Eventually we found our way back to entrance and headed out—by this time 4 hours passed (and we could have easily spent a few more hours).

    We took the Metro back to B&B to get ready for a special dinner (it was our 10th wedding anniversary). Another couple staying at the B&B overheard us talking to Angela, our B&B hostess, about wanting to go to a recommended restaurant, the DaDong Peking Duck (where we had made reservations the day before). They asked if they could join us and share a taxi there, which was great as they were a very interesting couple and we had some great conversation. Dinner was amazing, it is a very elegant restaurant, beautifully prepared food, excellent wine! The duck is brought to the table and is carved in front of you into thin slices. The meal for the 2 of us (including a good bottle of wine) cost $75 - the priciest meal of our trip. We took a Taxi back to B&B and called it a night!


    Day 4 Beijing

    Today we planned to hike the Great Wall from Jinshanling to Simitai. Before we left home we had booked the hike via internet, which included transport and all entrance fees, through Beijing Downtown Backpackers Accommodation. The price was quite reasonable and there were no shopping stops. It was also very convenient for us as we only had to walk 5minutes to get to the hostel and bus pickup. Our transport was a small older bus that seated about 20 people.

    A guide (Esther) was with us and explained the route. It was a 2 ½ hour drive to Jinshanling. There was about a 20 minute walk up a gentle slope to the actual Wall. The first bit of the hike was easy. The Wall surface was well-maintained with gentle ups and downs and some fabulous viewpoints. Although not as bad as the city it was still hazy so long distance views were not great but OK. The air was quite warm and humid. There were not a lot of people on the wall other than our group which made it even more special. A few vendors followed us but as we ignored them, they left us alone. Occasionally when we reached a tower, a vendor had set themselves up to sell drinks.

    After about half way through the walk, the surface of the Wall was less maintained and some of the stairs were crumbling and difficult to climb. There were some very steep parts and sheer drop-offs (glad we brought our walking poles from home!). The hike took about 3 ½ hours and ended a bit before the Simitai part, which is still under construction. Our guide was waiting there. A newly-paved trail coming off the wall and down the hillside took us back to the parking lot where the bus waited. We had to buy the proverbial “I hiked the Great Wall” t-shirt. A word of advice—they will try to sell you one in many places along the Wall but hold out until the end and you will get the best price (I think I paid RMB35, while other who bought earlier paid RMB100). All in all it was a great experience.

    Back in Beijing and after resting at the B&B we took a taxi to the Olympic Plaza to see the "Beehive" and "Cube". Everything was lit up and quite amazing and overwhelming. There were many people wandering in park plaza, people were dancing and singing and it was fun to wander around taking in the vibe. We then took the metro to Sanlitun Bar street (ex-pat area) looking for a recommended Thai restaurant. This is a strange environment. When we got out of the Metro we ended up on a long quiet street of Country Embassies with guards outside each gate. We wandered down long leafy boulevards, and eventually found the bar street (but not the Thai place). On one side of the street were huge shopping stores of Western origin( North Face, Haagen Daz); on the other side were bars, neon lights and booming music. The street was backed up with traffic and filled with non-Asian pedestrians. We wandered a bit looking for food. It was very late by this time so we ended up going to a pricey and not so good Italian restaurant. A quick taxi ride and we were back to the B&B and done for the day!

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    Glad you are wanting more because -- warning--our trip was 28 days! So here comes...

    Day 5 Beijing

    Today our goal was to explore the Temple of Heaven. After a breakfast of some more doughy sweet buns and some spicy cabbage and cucumber, we caught a taxi to the entrance. The main tower was impressive. We spent some time walking along the stone "bridgeway" and through the park area. After exiting, we headed for a recommended Noodle house (Old Beijing Noodle King), which we found but it was closed. There was actually a sign in English referring people to another nearby branch, and lo and behold a bicycle rickshaw guy was hovering nearby asking if we wanted a ride there. We decided to take him up on a ride as the price was low and we were starved. The ride was fun and took about 10 minutes of winding in and out of side streets. And we were glad we did as the restaurant was great. You order several dishes, all of which are mixed into a big bowl of noodles for you. Yum! And cheap!

    After lunch we took the metro to a nearby area to try to do a Fodors “hutong walking tour” that was in our guidebook but got totally lost! Some older women sitting outside their home were having a good laugh as we passed them by about 3 times trying to find our way out of the narrow alleyways. Such fun, and of course, we did find our way out and had a great tour of the hutongs while we were at it!

    We took the metro home, relaxed for a bit, then took a taxi to the Peking National Acrobats show (began at 7). We weren’t sure what to expect and admittedly it was a bit hokey, but we were thoroughly entertained. The show lasted just over an hour and had an amazing bicycling balancing finale. Afterwards we took a taxi back to Nan Luogo street near our B&B and found a bar that had pizza. It was OK. By this time we were pretty tired so we headed back to B&B and to bed.

    Day 6 Beijing

    We now were feeling quite comfortable navigating the city and metro system. We even developed some great strategies crossing streets and navigating crowded sidewalks. Today we were going to tackle Panjianyuan Market, purportedly the biggest in Beijing. And yes it was huge, with vast areas of ground stalls as well as rows of 3 story buildings filled with tiny stores. We liked how each area was defined by the product—i.e., one area for paintings, another for woodwork, another for papercutting, etc. We bought some great souvenirs, including a papercut of a hutong building that looked exactly like the one we were staying in. I must admit I was proud of my bargaining skills as I usually got the price down by at least 60%. After a few hours we walked outside of the market and found a busy restaurant and had a good cheap lunch.

    We then flagged down a cab and went to check out the Lama Temple. The weather had turned very dark, even though it was only about 2pm. The Temple was huge, very interesting and full of Buddhas, but the incense smell was quite overpowering. Also it was beginning to rain and we were feeling tired. We had planned to do a “Back Lakes Walking Tour” in our guide book but the rain starting coming down strong so we bee-lined back to the B&B. We really needed some “down time” so basically relaxed for a few hours before dinner. We decided to go somewhere close by to eat so headed back to Nan Luogo Street and chose a Korean restaurant which was OK. By now the rain was minimal and we decided to walk back around the lakes area, but were continually accosted by young guys trying to get us into their club. So back to the B&B for the night we went!

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    Thank you, wonderful narration. Even though we have a cousin living in Beijing, we cannot go there, both my husband and my son are asthmatic, therefore the smog is not going to be good for them. Therefore, I love reading your narration.
    Please keep them coming.

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    Thanks Tracy_W and joecher. Yes the smog in Beijing is noteworthy. I myself am borderline asthmatic and did acquire a cough and sore throat throughout the trip.

    Warning--this next installment is a long one!

    Day 7 Datong

    Today we were moving on, but we certainly had many highlights in Beijing and could have spent a few more days really getting to know the city. There were still sights to see and areas to explore by foot. We also really liked our B&B (Mao’er) and recommend it to those who like middle-of-the road accommodation in a great area. It was wonderful walking off the main busy street down the quiet hutong alley filled with people going about their daily business. Angela the hostess, (niece of owner I think) spoke pretty good English and was always willing to help. She was very helpful with the next stage of our trip.

    We had booked a flight to Datong specifically to visit 2 sites –the Yungang Grottoes and the Hanging Temple. We contacted CITS in Datong while we were in Beijing to see if we could get on their tour that left every day at 9am to both sites. Our flight was scheduled to arrive by 8:25am. We talked on the phone to Mr Gao who said it may be possible for us to take a cab to a nearby hotel from Datong airport and meet up with the tour bus as it passed by. But the directions were sketchy and he wanted us to phone him from the airport when we arrived etc. We decided to forego CITS and hire a driver ourselves. Angela went online and found us a good and cheap driver—I think the day with the driver cost RMB450.

    We left Beijing early and caught a 7:30 flight to Datong and arrived on time. Pei, our driver, was waiting with our name on a card. Apparently he lives in Xian and drives in Datong—or something like that. He spoke no English but we had no problems communicating, except once when I made a comment about how many tour buses were arriving at the site and he interpreted it as we want to get out and get a tour bus ourselves! He was so alarmed that he actually phoned someone he knew who spoke a little English and I had to explain that I was only making a “conversational” comment. Needless to say, I didn’t try and strike up a conversation again!

    From the airport we drove first to the Hanging Temple. The drive was about 1 ½ hours and the roads got a bit windy and narrow. There were many, many trucks on the road and some questionable passing of other vehicles by driver, but he was a good driver overall.

    Built in 491, the Hanging Temple is quite amazing because it hangs on the west cliff of Jinxia Gorge more than 50 meters above the ground. The structure is seemingly held up by bamboo poles (but we found out later there were metal supports drilled deep into the cliff-face). You actually go right up onto the temple walkways on the cliff and climb up to the top room. The walkways are very narrow and are one way, so there is a route to follow otherwise it is difficult to pass others. Thank goodness we were there just before the mass of tour buses arrived. Definitely worth visiting. The only negative was the big dam and culvert with black sludge pouring out of it right beside the temple.

    Next we drove back towards Yungang caves on the other side of Datong. We got stuck behind a huge caravan of trucks, so it was slow going. The driver made an unexpected stop at a place where an old man was standing on the road. We weren’t sure what the reason was but it turned out to be a bit of a tourist trap (seems the buses even stop for him). The old guy lives in a cave next to the highway and shows off his home to tourists. We followed him to his home anyway and he proudly showed us how he lived. Two rooms inside, very basic but he had water and electricity (he had a TV!). We took a few pictures—he was a cheery fellow-- and gave him 10RMB.

    Then we caught up to the trucks again but this time they had stopped. There seemed to be an accident on the highway. The line of trucks went a long way and after some chatting with others, the driver decided to veer off the highway and follow a sketchy muddy road into the fields. Well, after about 30 minutes and some wild driving we made it back onto the highway and drove through Datong to Yungang Caves,

    The driver let us off outside the Caves entrance and we found ticket building (all brand new). However we had a bit of trouble finding the entrance to the Caves- no signs-and there were many new buildings for a tourist "village” you had to go through first. We walked a pleasant pathway through courtyards, psuedo-temples and a park-like area and eventually came across the caves (numbered up to 45). We were very impressed and awed, even with the first few smaller caves and it got better. Some Buddhas were absolutely huge, some painted, Buddhas were carved all over cave walls, very cool!

    When we had seen all, we got the driver to take us back into town and to the Garden hotel . This is a nice 4* hotel, with great service. Our room was great and the price was reasonable. We relaxes a bit then went to look around for dinner options in town.

    We didn’t like the town of Datong at all. The streets were noisy and dirty, store fronts looked uninviting. After 15 minutes we did find one recommended place not far from hotel but it was "fast food" joint and didn't look too great so we wandered a bit in the other direction but did not see any other restaurants along the main street. So we returned to the hotel and decided to eat at the buffet at the hotel (called Latina). This turned out to be one of the best meals we had. It had a SALAD BAR! The meal was pricey but very good…seafood , carved beef, great desserts…Yum! The service was excellent, especially one young waitress, who we gave a Canada pin to as a tip. Well, she was so excited by that she ran around showing the whole staff! After dinner, we called it a night!

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    Great stuff! Interested to hear about the tourist "village" at the caves. Pity they didn't "improve" the eating situation instead. Datong is in a coal mining area, and used to manufacture locomotives, so certainly on the grimy side, but there were a couple of temples and a dragon screen in town worth seeing.

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    I'm glad you managed to see both the Hanging Temple and the Yungang caves - I remember your efforts to figure out how to manage both in one day. They really are something!

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    Thursdaysd-You are right to point out that there are some worthwhile things to see in Datong. We really didn't take the time to explore the town so perhaps we made an uneducated assessment. This was just our immediate impression.

    Day 8 Datong/Pingyao

    Angela at the B&B in Beijing also assisted us in purchasing tickets for the day train from Datong to Pingyao. She was able to secure some lower bunk hard sleepers, (although we didn’t plan to sleep we figured it would be more comfortable for us as the trip was 7 hours and it was still very cheap). That morning we were up early and took a taxi to the train station. There were hordes of people streaming into the station and we merged with the crowds, found our waiting room with the hundreds of people also waiting and after about 15 minutes followed the throng to board the train. In our “hard sleeper” car, some locals had already claimed the lower berth and had settled in. Well, as we had paid extra for the lower bunks, we made it clear through gestures that they needed to vacate the lower bunks. At first they looked at us blankly then ignored us, but after more “forceful” gestures and voices they got up, moved their luggage and went to the aisle seats outside the room, while 2 of them climbed up to the top bunks. We supposed that locals will claim the lower bunks until those that actually paid for them show up.

    It was rather cold in the train, but generally quiet as we travelled through a rather bleak landscape with many smoke-spewing factory towers and abandoned and derelict buildings lining the tracks. A person selling a boxed lunch came by after a few hours and as we hadn’t thought to bring a lunch, purchased one each. It was actually a hot chicken stirfry and surprisingly quite good. After 7 hours (about 3:30pm), we arrived in Pingyao where a driver from our hotel – the Yide Hotel-- was holding a sign with our name. The drive to the old walled town (built 2700 years ago) was about 10 minutes.

    The Yide Hotel, situated in a quiet alley within the walled town, is a beautifully renovated courtyard house built in 1736 by a wealthy merchant. Despite its age, our room had all the amenities required, with a private bathroom, air-conditioning and a large kang-style bed that is heated in winter. We were very pleased with the room and service (and the price!). Julie, the main front desk person, was especially helpful, even walking with us to find an ATM machine that would work for us. There was an onsite restaurant that was very good and we ate there for most of our meals.

    After settling in, we went for walk along the nearby pedestrian-only street, lined with shops, to get a feel for the old town. We found the ticket booth in the center of town that sells a 2 day pass, which would allow us to visit the museums and go up the town wall. We stopped at one small cafe for a beer. We asked for cold beer and the proprietor came back with a frozen beer! Of course as soon as he opened it, it exploded so he ran back and brought us warm beer and proceeded to mix the two to make it “just right”! It was hilarious to watch him as he tried to mix the bottles and beer spilling over the table and onto the street. To make up for it all, he also brought us some free nuts and a taste of some kind of Chinese liquer, which was, to say the least, “unique” in taste.

    We walked some more along the main streets but mostly it was shops although we did find a museum and decided to check it out. Pingyao had been a major banking town so several of its museums have to do with city banking and administration. The Ri Sheng Chang museum was decorated in the Ming and Qing styles, very opulent for a bank, and was quite interesting.

    As it was getting dark, we made our way back to hotel, ate at the hotel restaurant (braised Pingyao beef, broccoli and rice-- good but not very spicy), and retired for the night.


    Day 9 Pingyao/Xian

    We had booked a flight from Taiyuan to Xian that evening so wanted to spend more time exploring Pingyao. We arranged through the hotel for a driver to take us to the airport, stopping at a family mansion on the way. We were scheduled to leave by 2pm so after packing and breakfast, we left our luggage in the reception room and went back out to explore Pingyao. We found a few more interesting museums and a Taoist temple.

    At the Temple, as we were peering into the main Buddha temple area, a monk came out and beckoned us inside. In hindsight we should have declined to enter, but curiosity got the better of me. One monk took me to a table, another came and directed DH to another table on the other side. Both proceeded to do a prayer ritual by Taoist monks for good luck. After chanting and many forehead taps he handed me a paper with some characters on it, made me sign my names on a list and pointed to the RMB100 “donations” that previous people had made. Well, I had no RMB on me so quickly and apologetically extracted myself from the temple and waited for my husband outside, who unfortunately had been persuaded to pay a 200RMB donation! Oh well...we have never experienced a Taoist ritual prayer before and good luck is always a good thing to have!

    We walked towards and found access to the town wall. It was a bit confusing at first as some accesses to the top were UP only and some were DOWN only. A guard came out at one point and shooed us away as we tried to go UP a DOWN access! Eventually we figured it out and walked a short way along the wall for some views of old and new towns. Back at the hotel restaurant we had a quick lunch (cashew chicken, peppered crispy beans and noodles—very good, esp. the beans) and met with our driver.

    We drove first to Quiao family mansion, about one hour away. It was a bit of a tourist trap with huge crowds and some interesting rooms but nothing new. Then another hour and a half and we were at the airport by 5:15 for a 7pm flight, Our flight went off early, was uneventful and we arrived in Xian at 8pm. We found and caught the airport shuttle just outside of arrival entrance and arrived at the center of walled city in front of the Melody Hotel by 9:40. We knew our hotel, The Citadines, was close by but were unsure which direction to head. We wandered a bit but eventually found the hotel a few blocks away off the main street.

    The Citadines Apartment Hotel was perfect for us. It had a kitchenette, a very comfy bed, and air-conditioning. There was always someone at the front desk ready to help and price was also great. It was late when we arrived so we were done for the night!

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    Day 10 Xian

    We decided to start our exploration of Xian by checking out the museum, which we heard was excellent. We were up at 7:30 and had breakfast in hotel restaurant (you get one free breakfast per room, then have to pay for the second—which is weird since the room is obviously for 2 people). We flagged a taxi to the Shanxi history museum and arrived to a HUGE lineup at ticket booth. It took 40 minutes to reach the front and then we found out we needed our VISA numbers and signatures to gain entrance to the museum (it is free).

    We had read a bit on forums that there was a bit of a controversy about whether you should carry your visa around with you at all times, but the hotel had a safe and we had decided to store our visas there while we were in Xian. We had not so far ever been asked to show them and it was one more thing to worry about as we went about our day’s activities. And this was the ONLY time we ever needed them on the whole trip except checking in at hotels and at the airport. Oh well, we cheated a bit as I tried to remember our visa numbers. I wrote some numbers down (which actually were close but not totally correct but they never asked to see our visas) and we headed for the entrance. We were turned away at the security gate as we found out we had to check our bags in a building across from ticket booth. Finally inside the museum, we were quite impressed as the displays were well done. We spent a few hours, then walked to Great Goose Pagoda, about 1 km away from the museum .

    The north entrance to the Pagoda was through a big Square with row upon row of fountains spouting in sequence. We could see the pagoda in the hazy distance. As it was lunch time we looked around and spied a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant. This is one place we NEVER eat at home, but hunger was pressing and there was nothing else in sight so we thought we’d try it to see how KFC food is represented in China. It was quite “bleh” (regular and “chinese spice” chicken) and we decided not to fall so low again in our food requirements while in China. As we sat at a bench near the fountains and ate a woman came up and asked DH for a picture of him standing next to her family (he was sporting a Tilley hat and had grown a “sort of” beard by now!). Then a few minutes later another family wanted me to hold their baby (who had on those "split" pants that are worn during potty training and screamed the whole time I was holding him) while they too took a picture. This is the only time we were treated as a novelty and asked to pose for pictures (although we certainly had our share of stares in many places).

    After eating and a few pictures of the fountain display, we walked to Pagoda grounds, explored a bit, and climbed to top of the pagoda for a great view of the city. Afterwards, we got a taxi to the hotel and had a rest. Revitalized, we realized how close we were to the Muslin Quarter, so we headed across the main street via an underground passage and found the winding narrow passageways of kiosks, which were mostly under cover. We eventually came upon the Mosque temple, paid and explored for a short time. The temple grounds were undergoing renovations and much of the temple seemed neglected, but it was very peaceful inside.

    We then continued out and along a food street. Our goal was to find a recommended dumpling restaurant somewhere nearby called "De Fa Chang". After some wandering and retracing steps we finally found it on an upper floor near the Bell (or Drum? can’t remember) Tower square. After getting a table, food carts begin to come around with side dishes and you simply point to what you want, as well as order from the main menu of dumplings and other meat dishes (we had pork and prawn dumplings). It was a cheap and good meal. Satiated we walked back to hotel for the night, enjoying the lights of the Towers brilliant against the dark sky.

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    Day 11 Xian

    Today was a visit to the Terracotta Warriors museum. We managed to get a taxi from the main road near our hotel to the train station (actually we caught it going in the wrong direction so it took a bit longer.)There was the usual chaos at the train station and we were unsure of where we were supposed to go to catch the local bus, but our guidebook said go to the southeast corner for the bus so we headed in that direction. We luckily met another couple doing the same thing and together we found bus #306, which according to my research, took us to the TW. It turned out the couple were from an area very close to home where we used to live so we had a great chat on the bus! Once the bus was full it left quickly (cost 7RMB per person!). The trip took just over an hour with the bus stopping at a hot springs resort and a university. Once at the TW museum we purchased entrance tickets and checked our daypacks (no real need to except it allowed us to go in a faster, smaller line to bypass security scans etc.)

    The museum is made up of 4 buildings and the only one really worth visiting is the biggest-- #1, although #3 had some great displays of single warriors encased in glass, so you could, if you managed to avoid the crowds, get a close up picture. We spent some time walking the whole way around #1 for picture ops, and despite the crowds, managed to see enough. We had rented the English audio guide and it was somewhat informative, although it was generally hard to hear because of the crowd noise.

    We were done by 1:00 and headed back to get the same bus. On the way we saw a "Subway" restaurant… YEAH… familiar good food! Finding the bus was easy and we got back to train station by about 2:30. We figured we had enough time to bicycle the wall around the town, so got in taxi lineup then directed the driver to take us to the youth hostel near the South Gate where we knew there was access to wall and bike rentals.

    The Youth Hostel staff directed us to cross the street to get up the wall—easier said than done as the cars were spinning furiously around a traffic circle, stopping for no one. We waited a long time to “meld” with a small crowd and made it across safely. Bike rental Y40 for 100 min. There were few people on the wall and fewer still who were riding so it felt as if we had the wall to ourselves. It was a glorious ride, not too hot and quite surreal, taking just short of 2 hours. It gave us a different perspective of the city. At one point we passed a long line of strange shapes that looked like large decorations that may have been used in a parade and currently were being stored. There were people, animals, trees and castles lining the side of the wall on both sides for about ½ kilometer. It all added a bizarre touch to the ride. The ride around the wall was definitely a highlight of our trip!

    After dropping off the bikes, we walked to a nearby street called "Bar Street”. It was a shady, tree-lined street with a cool quiet atmosphere. We sat and had a beer at an outside table, then it was a short walk back to hotel. After relaxing for an hour, we walked back to the Muslim street market. We were looking for a Muslim restaurant called “Jiasan Guantang Baozi” which supposedly has a “blue arch” over the entrance. Well, they must have removed the arch…but we found it from looking for the street address. It was a busy, noisy restaurant with 4 floors. Every table was full that we could see, so we hung around the entrance on the 3rd floor until someone came by and sat us at table with 2 British women. Just as we settled in, introduced ourselves and had started a beer, we were for whatever reason moved to another table with a young Chinese couple. We ordered dumplings, vegies and noodles and the meal was good. The only negative was that the tables were covered with this plastic sheet that had not really been cleaned properly so things were a bit dirty. Afterward we walked slowly back to hotel through the chaos of the night market street and to bed.

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    althom1122-the bikes we rented were quite "rustic" to say the least, but the ride itself made up for it! We also went over the 100 minutes we were allowed and they didn't charge us extra! Glad to see you are reading trip reports now for a trip still in the distant future!

    Day 12 Lijiang

    Transit Day to Lijiang via Kunming. We walked the 2 blocks back to the Melody Hotel to catch the airport bus. It was perfect timing as we got on and the bus left! Shortly after arriving at the airport, we discovered the flight was delayed and there was also a gate change! All this information was written by hand in Chinese on a white board in front of the gate and it took some persistence to find out what was going on. As a result of the flight leaving late, we would miss our connecting flight in Kunming by 30 minutes. So while husband waited for luggage upon arriving in Kunming, I went to China Southern (our connecting flight) to see if we could get another flight. They gave us seats on one leaving an hour later (but cost us $22 each more). We worried about how to let our hotel know of our new arrival time for pickup but a nice "C-Trip" agent let me use her cell phone to call and inform them of the delay. One scare- I stupidly left my money belt with passport and travel documents, etc. at the security gate in one of the trays. Realizing this 5 minutes later, I raced back in panic, but they still had it… WHEW!

    It turned out our new flight was also late! But we made it to Lijiang by 5pm and our hotel pickup was waiting. It is a good thing to arrange a pickup as the hotel itself is in the old town, which is a maze of narrow stone streets, and we wouldn’t have found it easily. The Zen Garden hotel offers free airport transfers if you stay 5 days or more and we were booked for 6. The driver dropped us and our luggage off at the top of a windy stone road. A guy was waiting with a bicycle and cart, and our luggage was put in the cart and we were directed to follow him down the road to the hotel, about 5 minutes away.

    The guy at the reception desk, “Charles”, was very friendly and helpful. The lobby area is beautifully decorated old style with an interior garden and pond and a perpetually-burning fire pit. After some paperwork (and we paid the 80Y old town preservation tax through the hotel) and while we were waiting to be shown our room, we were offered tea, and tasty dried syrupy fruit. Our room (upper floor far left at the end) was basic and clean with good modern bathroom. But best of all, there was a covered porch with 2 chairs and table right outside our door for sitting outside and enjoying view. And what a view—we were directly facing Lion Hill and a brilliantly-lit Pagoda on top. We really enjoyed the facilities and service at this hotel and highly recommend it!

    After settling in, we walked into the main square. It was sensory overload! The narrow windy streets are lined with shops of all types, stone bridges over flower-lined canals, music coming from unknown places, people (actually a lot of people!) wandering. We came upon some guys performing on guitars and drums near a bridge. In the main square, which was teeming with people, you could see strob lights coming from various restaurants/bars lining both sides of canal and hear loud booming music. It was almost like each place was trying to outdo the next. Dancers and singers in traditional costumes could be seen inside. We found one recommended place (Sakura) and decided to eat. We were directed upstairs to a window table overlooking canal and were the only ones up there! We had a front row seat to view the action across into the opposite bar/restaurant and up and down the canal. What a surreal show! We ordered a Naxi style dinner - 2 beer, sweet and sour pork, vegetables with tofu and 2 bowls rice = $11.00!!! We wandered slowly back towards where we thought our hotel was, taking care to note exactly what we were passing, as it would be very easy to get lost in the maze of streets.

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    Day 13 Lijiang

    First on the agenda today was to climb Lion Hill and visit the Pagoda on the top. We followed winding streets up to a ticket booth and paid a small entrance fee to the park. The road winded pleasantly through a peaceful wooded area, with picnic tables and interesting wildlife (curious about the type of bird with the big blue tail). The day was grey and drizzly and there were few people about on the hill. The temple at the top was quite lovely, its entrance flanked by small drum and bell towers. As no one was about, I had the urge to strike the huge bell with the pole hung enticingly next to it (but retrained myself!). The gardens were well kept and the pagoda itself was worthy. The views of the old and new town from the top were fabulous.

    We walked back down towards the old town and came to the main square north of town. Filled with tourists, we noticed that some locals were doing a “circle” dance to some recorded music and were enticing tourists to join them. A huge pair of waterwheels kept the canals flowing, and there were beautiful flowers everywhere. It was still raining and it was lunchtime so we began working our way down the narrow stone streets lined with shops looking for a lunch spot. We came across the "Prague Café"—a mixture of western, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean food. It is also a place to exchange/buy books of all languages. We shared a Tsingtao beer and had a soup and sandwich combo. The Naxi ham and goat cheese sandwich was delicious.

    After lunch, we wandered the streets following the canals downstream until we found “Mu’s Residence” (unbeknownst to us we could have taken a shortcut to our next destination by heading down Lion Hill on the opposite side). This palace is situated on the site of the former home of the Naxi’s ruling family 500-600 years ago and was rebuilt as a tourist destination in 1996 after an earthquake. There are rows of courtyards, rooms and pagodas, some set into the hillside with great views. From the pagodas at the top we heard some local music so followed our ears to find a 10 man-orchestra playing traditional instruments. There was no audience other than ourselves—our own private concert! After a few minutes of listening, one old guy beckoned for us to sit in one of the empty seats next to him and play a little hand bell. Having an educational background in music I couldn’t resist…so there I was, playing in a Naxi orchestra! A few minutes later other tourists arrived and I sadly gave up my seat for others to have the experience. My DH caught the moment in a movie on his camera and it will remain one of the most memorable parts of our trip.

    We wanted to see some town wells in the area that play an important role in the culture of the Naxi people. These wells were built in threes, with each well designated for drinking, washing vegetables or washing clothes. We found the “Baima Long Tan” where a few women were washing clothing or collecting water. We wondered about hygiene and the fact that earlier upstream we had come across people washing clothes in the canals or dumping dish water.

    Back at the hotel we sat on the deck watching the rain pour down, drank tea and ate the complimentary cake that we found in our room. The room contained a large thermos of hot water (replenished every day) so our tea was hot and tasty! We spent a very relaxing hour reading and writing in journals and enjoying the darkening view.

    We had tickets for a Naxi orchestra performance for 8pm that night so headed out for an earlier dinner. We found a recommended place--Lamu's House of Tibet. There were mostly westerners there but the Naxi food was good and cheap.

    The old concert hall was nearby and we got there by 7:30, being told that the earlier you arrive the better the seats. We had purchased the middle priced tickets, which gave us the front row balconey and a great view. There were only a few others (an American tourist family and several Chinese businessmen) who elected to sit in the balconey. The 25 member orchestra was made up of mostly aged men (a number of octogenarians), with a few young women who sang. The music was fascinating however, in our opinion there was too much discussion between numbers and at the end, done both in Chinese and English. Our enjoyment was also spoiled by way too much talking by the Chinese businessmen beside us. In addition one guy constantly chatted on his cell phone. My normally mild-mannered DH was seething and ready to punch someone. We gave a few shhhhh’s and the talking did abate somewhat. The performance ended strangely with a long speech by the founder of the orchestra and a video of a Chinese choir singing "The Messiah"! We’re not sure the money spent was worth the evening’s entertainment.

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    Day 14 Lijiang

    Today was one of those days when, if at home, you would snuggle under a blanket with a good book and not stray too far. It was dark, raining and cool and we delayed leaving our room for a bit, instead doing some hand-washing and emailing (we brought a netbook which was so invaluable). Finally, we ventured out as the rain eased off a bit, and organized a trip to 2 smaller villages near Lijiang. The hotel found us a driver to take us to Baisha, Shuhe and then drop us off at Black Dragon Pool area so we could walk back to town through the park.

    Baisha is about a 20 minute drive from Lijiang and its claim to fame are a temple with some ancient murals and the famous “Dr. Ho” and his herbal clinic. The town itself is relatively undeveloped with a dusty main road lined with the occasional shop or restaurant. There were a few tourists wandering and many were headed the same way we were—to see Dr. Ho.

    We had heard about Dr. Ho from the travel show done by Michael Palin and he was also noted in our Fodors guidebook, so we thought we’d check him out. It was a bit of a strange experience as first we talked to his son (himself a doctor) who asked us to wait inside, giving us some handouts to read about Dr. Ho’s notoriety. Then Dr. Ho (in his 80s I think) himself came out and asked who was next. My DH chickened out but I went into his rather disorganized office and with an open mind, proceeded to let him look at my tongue, eyes and feel my pulse. He asked me a few questions in hard-to-understand English, told me I had a slow-working spleen and digestive system (!), then went to 2 or 3 big bags of some mysterious herbs to mix a concoction. He packaged it up, wrote some basic instructions (1 tsp in cup of hot water 3X per day), his email address if I had any problems, and that was it. He does not take actual payment for this but accepts donations for his time—gave him 50RMB, just for the experience. At the time of this report I have not had the courage to try the herbal mix!

    We next walked 5 minutes to a temple that had several rooms covered in Ming and Qing-dynasty murals. Quite interesting.

    The driver took us next to the town of Shuhe about 10 minutes back towards Lijiang. This town is like a mini-Lijiang only not as beautiful or crowded (although there were tour buses). We wandered for a bit, had a Chinese lunch (good) and met with the driver to take us to Black Dragon Pool park.

    We were let off at the north entrance to the park and needed to show proof of payment of the town preservation fee to enter. The rain began to pour in earnest so we decided to try and find the museum nearby. After asking and being directed towards a pathway, we began following it through the forest. We were getting quite wet and the path seemed to go nowhere. We sidetracked to a nearby road, asking many local people if they knew where the museum was. Surprisingly few people had a clue, so after wandering the street for an hour, totally soaked by now, we decided to walk back towards Lijiang. When we got back to where the driver let us off, we discovered the museum was right there! But as we were dripping wet, we headed back towards the hotel, barely noticing the beautiful pagodas and stone bridges. The walk back to town, following the canal, took about 30 minutes. We pledged to go back to the park and museum tomorrow if the weather was better.

    It took a while for us to dry out, but we managed to get out for dinner at “Le Petit Lijiang Bookcafe”. The meal was so-so, the mistake being, I think, that we ordered western food for change. The "caesar" salad was NOT a caesar (had an egg on top), the lasagna had no noodles and smothered in tasteless cheese, the chicken burrito was just ok.

    After dinner and the day that we had, we wanted nothing more than to crawl into bed to warm up and rest!

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    Day 15 Lijiang

    The weather looked more promising today, but still very damp. This was putting in doubt a trip to Tiger Leaping Gorge. One of the reasons we came to Lijiang was to do the 2 day hike of the gorge. We talked with the hotel reception as far as the logistics of getting there and the impact of weather on hiking as we were worried about poor conditions and rock slides after all the rain we had. The guy at the desk (not Charles but really helpful—can’t remember his name) said he could call Sean at “Sean’s Guesthouse” on the Gorge to get details. We talked to Sean a bit and he assured us the trail was good and the weather just fine for a hike (his English was OK but he seemed a bit sketchy with explanations). We decided to book a room there for the night. Sean’s Guesthouse is at the far end of the gorge from Qiatou where the bus drops you off, so we arranged for them to pick us up in Qiatou and drive us 20 kilometers to their guesthouse, from which we would do day hikes in the gorge rather than do the whole trail (in case the weather turned ugly again).

    With this all arranged for the next day (and as you will find out, did not come about as planned), we planned a third day in the environs of Lijiang. First on the agenda was to find the “Puxi” temple within the old town. It was tricky and a bit hidden but we found it. It is an active temple for the locals so we could hear chanting and see the incense burning. We wandered next to the Old Market (food) and checked out the unusual produce and meats being displayed. Then on to lunch at a great Chinese restaurant (can’t remember the name but it was very near the market and close to “Mu’s Residence).

    We had decided to head back to the museum in Black Dragon Pool park and we are glad we did. The museum was free and excellent, with great displays and English descriptions of artifacts representing the Dongba history and culture. Highly recommend!

    After the museum, we took our time to enjoy the beautiful park, with its lovely series of lakes, stone bridges and pagodas. There were many more people in the park as the sun was shining and the air was fresh. One incident left us appreciative of the integrity of the Chinese people—my husband left his expensive camera on a stone wall we were sitting on as we enjoyed a short musical performance. We had walked away for about 10 minutes and when he suddenly realized it was missing, he ran like crazy back to the spot. A tourist group had found it and their guide was holding on to it, planning to hand it in at the Park entrance. He graciously returned to my husband, who was totally stressed and faint with gratitude!

    After numerous scenic pictures, we walked back to Old Town. We decided to split up to do some solo shopping. Later we met back at our room, relaxed on the deck with beer and snacks, and discussed our hiking trip for next day.

    We wanted an early dinner and bed as we had to be up early the next morning to get to the bus. We chose a recommended “Papa Dons Pizzeria”. The pizzas were OK, there no one else in the restaurant (7pm) and the service was not very attentive. Then back to the hotel to prepare for the trip tomorrow.

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    Your itinerary hits almost exactly the same spots I want to visit, only I'll have less time. If I go with my sister, she'll want to do a tour group, but my daughter might join me for an independent trip. I can't wait to hear your thoughts on Shanghai. My only change to your itinerary (other than shortening the stays and probably cutting Datong and maybe Pingyao) might be to switch out Shanghai for Hong Kong. Looking forward to the Shanghai portion of your report!

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    Thanks -- glad I'm not boring at least a few of you!
    Althom1122-My husband was the main photographer and he tells me he will have a link of edited photos in a few days. Also, we only had a day and a half touring Shanghai sights as we spent 2 full days at the World Expo. My comments therefore may not be as useful to you!

    Day 16 Tiger Leaping Gorge (Yunnan Province)

    The day dawned clear and sunny! Our wonderful hotel had purchased for us bus tickets to Qiatou where the hike would start. We took a taxi to the "new” Bus Station (cost RMB10) and we caught the 8:30 bus (RMB 18) to Qiaotou.

    The bus ride through the mountains to Qiatou was a little scary at times, as the driver constantly passed huge trucks on curves and generally seemed to be hanging on the edge of the road with steep drop-offs. The trip took just over 2 hours. A few passengers like us were hiking the Gorge and we were dropped off at Jane’s Guesthouse. Everyone except for us headed into Jane’s-- I suppose to arrange for leaving packs for the duration of the hike. We headed off in a different direction to find an “Ancient gate” that Sean from the Guesthouse told us to wait at for a pickup. Well, we asked many people if they knew where this “ancient gate” might be, and no one really knew. One guy pointed towards the main street so we headed there but were absolutely clueless. We decided to find a phone and call Sean.

    He told us to wait instead at "Margo's Café" as the driver was picking up others from Shangri-la headed for the guesthouse too and would swing by there at noon. We had downloaded a map from Sean’s website showing where Margo’s supposedly was, as well as a ticket booth for the trail. So we tried to follow the directions of the map. Well, the map was basically useless. There was no “Margo’s” Café and no ticket booth that we could see. From the map it looked like we needed to follow the lower road along the river for a while so that’s what we did.

    It was actually sunny and quite warm, and it was close to lunch (and pickup time) and we had no ideas where to go. We walked along the road for a bit thinking it was just around the next bend. We met a young Chinese guy with limited English carrying a backpack coming from the direction we were headed. We asked if he knew of Margo’s or the ticket booth. He told us we were going the wrong way as there was nothing ahead. He thought where we wanted to go was back a ways, so we followed him back the way we came. He asked a few old guys sitting on the roadside if they knew these places. One of them pointed and told us to go further back along the road. Finally he asked another old guy who then pointed back the way we came, indicated 5 minutes and offered to walk us there! We gave an appreciative thanks to the young guy and walked with the local back 100m to a dirt road. The old guy indicated to us to head up the road so we did. We passed a school and a store of some kind. There was no one else on road, but we continued a bit, looking for the ticket booth or Margo's. We came to a fork in the road. By this time we were confused again as things seemed to be way too far along for our destinations and we were seriously gaining altitude. Just then a young Dutch couple came along and we knew then we were actually on the hiking trail, that there was no ticket booth or Margo's near us and that our choice had been made for us--we were hiking the whole TLG trail...and would be staying not at Sean’s but somewhere else enroute. Luckily enough, the weather was warm and dry and the prospect of really doing the whole hike in great conditions was exhilarating!

    We walked with the Dutch couple a short way, but stopped to eat, drink, etc. (we had grabbed a bun of some kind from the store we passed and luckily brought a Power Bar from home). The trail began as a paved road but soon changed to a dirt pathway. The climb was gentle at first but the sun was beating down, the incline began to increase and suddenly I was feeling light-headed and short of breath. I think the altitude was getting to me. Out of nowhere (but I am sure quite calculated) appeared a young guy leading a horse. He asked if we wanted a ride and, as we had heard that this may happen, said no at first. Well, he just silently followed us, waiting I suppose for one of us to crack! And as the trail got steeper and the sun hotter (and me hungrier and more light-headed), I finally broke down and paid Y35 for ride to first Guesthouse (Naxi) about 20 minutes away. It was now about 2pm. We had a delicious lunch and a cold beer there. We chatted with Emily, a translator, who had accompanied another couple (not yet arrived – she had gone ahead as they dealt with some stuff) who gave us her phone number and offered help us in Kunming, her home town, if we wanted.

    Back on the trail we walked a ways but the going got really tough again and just before the “28 bends” I wimped out again and told the horse guy (who was astutely following behind me) I would pay him for ride to top of the 28 bends. My husband, the brave strong man he is, hiked up . I did feel a little guilty as usually I’m a good hiker but I had opted for the easy-out! In hindsight I do think it was a better choice to be the “wimp” than face the possibility of passing out or just not making it.

    45 minutes (and a sore rump) later I was waiting for him at the top at a beautiful lookout point of the gorge that was guarded fiercely by a crabby old guy who indicated we had to pay to use the lookout for pictures. From this point on the trail was flatter and much easier, and we stopped in awe many times to appreciate the breath-taking views. We walked the rest of the way to Tea Horse Guesthouse (it was now about 5:30pm). We got a clean, basic but functional room with private bathroom and stupendous views of the Gorge for Y160.

    We surely deserved the celebratory beer on the deck in front of our room! Later we went for dinner in an outdoor seating area--the food was good and very cheap. We were in bed by 9pm (the generator shuts off shortly after that) and slept deeply all night!

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    Wow, great installment! I'd love to hike TLG, but not sure I could make it! I can't believe how patient you were (or at least it sounds so now!) about not being able to find your meet-up point. I'd be so mad/frustrated! What a fantastic adventure, though.

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    Day 17 Tiger Leaping Gorge

    We were up early and the first to get breakfast--apple banana crepes and coffee. After paying the bill for food and drink, we were on the trail by 8:20am.

    It was the perfect condition for hiking--clear skies, dry and cool and virtually no one else on the trail. The path out of the guest house was mostly flat and as we meandered along the narrow cliff-side path we could see the river churning hundreds of meters below. Around every bend we were presented with breathtaking views. Perhaps a handful of others passed us on the trail, and many were locals often being followed by a bevy of goats bleating in protest. Around 12:30 our hike ended at Tina's Guesthouse, a well-established inn with a restaurant and an opportunity to arrange for transportation back to Lijiang. The bus back was leaving at 3pm and cost RMB55 each for the 3 hour trip.

    With time to spare, we had a great lunch (a chicken sandwich which was actually stir-fried chicken with vegies in a homemade pita-type bread) and a well-deserved beer at Tina’s. The restaurant patio was filled with young people from an international school in Hong Kong doing the hike. After lunch we went for a walk around the Guesthouse to a waterfall and down the road a ways to look for views of the river. Apparently there is a trail down somewhere off the road, but we really didn’t have time or energy to check it out.

    At 3pm three vans appeared at the Guesthouse and were quickly filled up with hikers returning to Lijiang or Qiatou. I managed to snag the front seat next to the driver for perfect views of the chaos on the road. There were many points along the muddy road where there was construction or were badly in need of repair. Washouts and rock slides are common but you can see that efforts were being made to improve the road and eventually pave it. However, they still have a long way to go to make the road safe. At one place heavy equipment was pulling down boulders on the side of the road, and all traffic came to stop for about 45 minutes. Then, after you think the road couldn’t get worse, we stopped again as the road was only half there. There was work being done to fix a recent landslide. We were instructed to get out of vans and walk through a construction zone to waiting buses on the other side. Once on the bus the road improved and we made it safely back to the Qiatou, the highway and ultimately arrived back in Lijiang by 7pm.

    After showering we decided to go back to “Lamu’s House of Tibet” restaurant as we knew how to quickly get there and what to expect with the food. And as we were flying out to Kunming and Yangshuo early tomorrow, we headed back to the room to pack and call it a night.

    The Tiger Leaping Gorge hike remains our favourite experience of our trip! We are so glad the arrangement we had made with Sean’s Guesthouse did not work out. We also heard from people we met on the trail that the Guesthouse itself was nothing like it was advertised and that Sean himself was a bit “surly”.

    Day 18 Kunming (and transit to Guilin)

    We were up at 6am and the staff kindly had prepared a basic breakfast for us. Then one staff member took our bags in a wagon up the road to a waiting taxi and we headed for the airport. Our flight to Kunming left at 8:40 without any problems.

    The plan today was to enjoy wandering Kunming, then catch a late night (11pm) flight to Guilin (it was a very cheap flight compared to earlier flights—in hindsight, as you will see, I will never again book so late a flight). We checked our luggage at the airport and took a taxi to Green Lake Park. We had wanted to visit the Stone Forest, but with only a day, decided to take it easy and just explore some of the city sights instead.

    Green Lake Park had some lovely pagodas and scenic walkways and it was very peaceful. We walked from one end of the park to the other, people-watching and enjoying the scenery. For lunch we found a recommended "Mediterranean " restaurant called Canned Cafeteria or “Jin Ga Na Xicanting”. It was a lovely quiet place and we enjoyed a tasty salad and pasta lunch. After lunch we began walking to find the big street markets (bird/ flower and city market). We got a bit mixed up in our directions but eventually found both. After wandering a bit, we found ourselves in a big open square, where we people-watched a bit more.

    We decided to check out the “Yuantong Si” Buddha Temple. The Temple was a bit different form others we had visited by its waterway surrounding the inner temple. It was beautiful, very peaceful, not a lot of crowds and we took our time exploring.

    We had earlier noticed on our map that the Kunming Zoo was very close by and with time to spare and little desire to walk too much further, we decided to check it out. We are not really “zoo” people but the sign out front boasted it was one of the top ten zoos in China and claimed to have a lot of exotic animals. We found the whole place to be a big disappointment. The facilities were very derelict, there were few animals (mostly birds) and a large area of the zoo was in fact a huge amusement park (closed). The monkey exhibit was especially sad, being overcrowded and dirty. The zoo was a waste of time so we ended up wandering through the non-zoo park area, taking a rest and a reading break in a peaceful pagoda with city views. It was great to get away from chaos of city for a while.

    It was getting dark so we walked to find another recommended restaurant “Gingko Elite” near Green Lake. This establishment is part of a complex that caters to banquets and conferences. We had a very nice meal on the patio outdoors.

    We caught a cab to airport for our 11pm flight and checked in with time to spare. We noted on the Departures board that our flight said “Delayed” but no reason and no expected time given. At 10:30 suddenly everyone was rushing to gate to get a food package from airline staff. We had no idea what was going but joined the line-up and discovered that our flight would be delayed until 2am!

    Around midnight, people began moving again, this time out of the waiting room. Again, without the language, we had a hard time understanding what was going on. But it seemed like a hotel room was being offered, so we were all herded onto some buses. The buses left the airport to go to what we thought were nearby hotels. Our bus began what eventually turned out to be a 1 ½ hour ride through the suburbs and construction sites of Kunming! We are still not sure what exactly transpired but we figure that the driver was actually lost trying to find the hotel we were to wait in. He drove around for quite a while, stopped and made a phone call then carried on, arriving, to everyone’s surprise, back at the airport! Well, everyone on the bus was livid, there erupted some yelling and shoving between passengers and airline staff who waited for us back at the airport!

    There was actually 2 other English-speakers on our bus who were as totally confused as we were. The 4 of us watched in amusement, then annoyance, as the Chinese passengers continued to scream at and push around some poor airline guy. It seems they all wanted some kind of compensation. We, in the meantime, were trying to catch a few Zzzz’s until the flight left. Eventually it was indicated to us that we could get on another bus that would REALLY take us to a hotel to rest. But as it seems there was only 1 ½ hours until the flight supposedly was to leave, the 4 of us and a few Chinese passengers decided to stay put at the airport to wait.

    At 2:30 am the others who had been at a hotel returned, they loaded the plane (a few Chinese were still refusing to get on the plane unless compensation was made but eventually all boarded) and we arrived in Guilin at 4:30am. They herded us through a dark airport and we got a taxi to our hotel. We actually had to wake up a guy sleeping on the couch in the reception room to check us in. The hotel had been informed of our late arrival and was expecting us in the wee hours!

    We collapsed and slept till 10am that morning!

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    Day 19 Guilin/transfer to Yangshuo

    We awoke feeling quite good despite the lack of a good night sleep. Our accommodation, the Riverside Hostel, was clean, bright and quiet. It was situated right downtown next to the river but off on a small side street (quite hard to find actually). The rooms were large and modern and it felt more like a B&B than hostel. Even though we were only there for a few hours to sleep we would have been happy to base ourselves there for an extended stay in Guilin.

    Although it was late morning, our kind host Daisy cooked us some eggs and toast for breakfast (not included with room). Originally we had planned to find public transportation (bus) to take us to Yangshuo but after our horrendous night, we decided to call our Yangshuo hotel for a pick-up. We arranged it for 2pm. We then packed up,” skyped” home (free Wifi) , then went for a walk through the downtown area near hostel. As suggested by Daisy, we walked around 2 small lakes in the city center. The sun was shining and there were a lot of people strolling in the parks. One lake had 2 beautiful temples in its center, but there was a charge to enter and we really didn’t have time. The other lake had some old bridges crisscrossing it and there were definitely numerous photo ops. We walked through a pedestrian shopping area and back along the river to the hostel. Guilin seems like a beautiful city and we regret not having more time there.

    We had a bit of time to relax on the deck beside the river until our ride to Yangshuo arrived. The drive took hour and a half, arriving in Yangshuo at the Li River Retreat about 3:45pm. The weather was sunny and warm and almost tropical in feel.
    The Li River Retreat is about a 20 minute walk outside of town on hillside overlooking the river. This was by far the best accommodation for us on the whole trip! Our room was the double deluxe, which we got for an excellent rate on the internet (the posted price in the lobby was double!). We were on the top floor with a private deck, with some amazing views of the river and karsts. It was so peaceful and beautiful, especially at night when the karsts were lit up by various flood lights from the town. It was so wonderful that we decided to stay put for the night. We relaxed on the deck with books and a glass of wine, had an early dinner on the deck in front of hotel, and made it an early night to bed to catch up on sleep.

    Day 20 Yangshuo

    Today we were going to hike along the Li River. Our hotel information brochure showed the basic route from Yangdi to Xingping, and we had read on forums that it was a great hike, with several river crossings, through the countryside. We had an early breakfast (American style) on the hotel’s main floor deck (not included with room), took taxi to bus station and caught a 9:00am local bus to Yangdi. The ride was about an hour and they really packed in the passengers! We were dropped off right at the docks with many motorized “tourist” rafts waiting on the shore. We knew there was supposed to be a ferry boat system to cross the river, so we didn’t want to get on a raft. We wandered a bit along the shore asking anyone if they knew of the ferry boat to cross. One woman told us to wait 12 minutes in a spot for a “boat” but we think she was trying to sell us a private boat. Finally a woman on an older, larger, very battered boat called us over. This turned out to be the legitimate ferry, and we each purchased a ticket booklet for 2 crossings,

    After the 3 minute crossing to the other side, we began to follow a dirt road and path through farmers’ fields. The local people were out and about. We passed orchards of orange trees and other crops we couldn’t name. We met a Chinese tourist couple who were also out walking part of the same route who kindly helped us figure out where the next river crossing was (it is not marked and our map was sketchy—we had to ask locals for help many times on this hike). Often the trail ran on top of the 3 meter high cement retaining wall along the river. At one point we bought some oranges from old woman, rested, ate a snack and had a“chat” with some old guy tried to sell us a raft trip to Xingping. We had fun trying to tell him we really wanted to walk there!

    After about 3 hours of walking and 2 river crossings, we came to a small village where again several people tried to sell us a raft trip. We knew there was a crossing point close but were not sure if this place was it. We wanted to walk a bit further too check so told them NO and began to walk away. Some woman actually chased after us with a little note showing a map and explaining in English that this was the crossing needed to continue to walk--- price was RMB20. As we really weren't sure and we were getting tired, we decided to use her after all. The small motorized raft took us across and down the river 300m to a cement dock. Just after we got off, we saw what looked like the actual ferry dock there so we figure we got taken. But the ride across was so cheap anyway, and took about 30 minutes of walking off our hike, so we were glad we did it.

    We continued our walk, mostly on dirt roads and somewhat away from the river, and eventually began to see more homes/ buildings. At this point we were hot and thirsty so found a restaurant with a deck overlooking the river and had a cold beer. After another 30 minutes walking, we came to the tourist boat launch, bridge and old town of Xingping. The Old Town looked like what Yangshuo may have looked like before the tourists arrived—some vendors, old windy stone streets etc. We wandered through shopping area, bought a few souvenir items, then asked about the bus back to Yangshuo. We were directed down one street and found the bus idling at the end, almost full. After boarding it left immediately for Yangshuo (great timing!) The ride back took 45 min.

    When we arrived back at the bus station, we wandered a bit and found the pedestrian street market , then the” Buffallo Bar” which is owned and run by the same Australian guy as the Li River Retreat. We had an OK dinner there (burgers and fries for a change!). The people at the bar can organize a taxi for you to return to the hotel, which we did.

    We enjoyed a glass of wine on the deck and agreed that the day was a success and the hike was a perfect activity in this beautiful environment.

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    kja-As I write this report I am reliving our experiences and yes, I am amazed at some of the things that happened and what we did. For 2 "older' middle-of-the-road travelers who insisted on doing things independently, we did good!

    Day 21 Yangshuo


    Today we had planned another “active” day -- a bike ride through the countryside and raft trip down the Yulong River. We decided to rent bikes in town rather than from the hotel as we didn’t want to have to ride through the crazy traffic. We took a taxi to the Magnolia hotel and rented 2 mountain bikes in great shape. While we were finalizing the rental, a young woman came up and asked if we wanted a guide for the day. We had thought we could figure the route out on our own, but there was something about the woman that made us decide that perhaps we would be better off with a guide. Great decision, as in hindsight, we would have had no clue how to do what we did with the guide. Her name was Sophia and she was soft-spoken but had good English.

    Sophia jumped on a bike and led us out of town. I had asked her to try and take us on roads with little traffic and she took us through the park and other quieter roads through the city and out into the countryside. We were riding to Yulong Bridge, along peaceful paved roads at first, then more country dirt roads, then smaller dirt paths. Our route wove through fields and farms, all very beautiful, and we stopped for many photo ops. She took us on a small detour to visit a very old farming village that had a stone wall around the main residences and narrow passageways connecting homes. Some older locals were out in front trying to sell us water and fruit.

    Two hours later we arrived at Dragon Bridge (ancient stone bridge) and the small town of Yulong. As it was close to lunchtime Sophia took us to family restaurant with riverside tables—floating on a raft tethered to the restaurant! We had a nice meal of chicken, greens and rice, and beer. During lunch, bamboo rafts were gliding by, on one there was a bride and groom in full formal wear doing a photo session. We had a great talk with Sophia about her life in China. She did her guiding to supplement income of her farmer husband and to help her in-laws with whom she lived.

    Sophia next organized the raft trip down the Yulong River. She got us a good price---at one point another tourist came over and asked us what we had paid. He said he was being asked to pay at least double! The boatman put our bikes on the back of the raft and off we went. The boatman poled us down river for about 1 ½ hours. As the river level was low, we had to be pushed over numerous berms, some of them quite high, resulting in splashes and wet toes! But the scenery was beautiful and the ride so very peaceful. Sophia met us at end (she had taken a truck down), and we began the ride back to town, arriving back at the bike rental place about 4:30pm. We were so happy to have hired a guide—Sophia’s services for the day cost RMB150.

    Afterwards we walked a bit through shopping streets. We had booked a massage (me—RMB100) and a reflexology treatment (husband—RMB 90) as well a diagnosis in Chinese medicine for 5 pm. We found Dr. Lilly Li’s rather small disorganized office easily. The total cost for services was RMB270 for a very good massage and reflexology session, and a rather generic diagnosis for both of us on our general health (we are surprisingly in great health for “old” tourists)! Overall we are glad to have had this done, especially after a few days of hiking and biking.

    Afterwards we went to eat at China Café, one of the recommended restaurants. The restaurant was busy but we saw a sign that indicated there was ”rooftop dining”. We asked if we could eat up there-- no problem. We climbed 3 flights of stairs to an open rooftop deck with only one table, as well as a tent (!) and other misc. items piled in corners. Interesting! But the view was great, the waitress put candles out and we had a good Chinese meal for cheap in complete privacy under the stars.

    We walked back to hotel along the river in the dark-about 30 minutes. We followed a long covered passageway that was eerily empty (it converts to a huge tourist market avenue between 11am – 3pm every day). At one point we heard a loud engine and noticed lights on the river. We stopped to see what was going on. It was “cormorant fishing” with a tourist boat chugging along side and the fisherman balancing on a raft that was in spotlights. We watched for a while—4 or 5 had been birds tied to the bamboo raft and were swimming ahead of it. Every now and then the fisherman would pull one in and if the bird has swallowed a fish, would squeeze it out of its neck. Tourists in the big boat were leaning out of windows shooting photos non-stop! Very cool to watch.

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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/stuarttower/GuilinAndVicinity#5073025260086950274 (This won a runner-up in the China photo contest)

    http://picasaweb.google.com/stuarttower/GuilinAndVicinity#
    (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)

    http://picasaweb.google.com/stuarttower/ChinaPix1984#

    stu

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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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    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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    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.

    *WHAT I LEARNED ABOUT TRAVEL IN 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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    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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    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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    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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    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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    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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