- Travel Topics
We spent 55 days in China. Here is a collection of our impressions, travel tips, and the cost break down.
This isn’t an outright no as some things were just out of our control, but there are definitely a few tweaks we could have made to our China trip. Firstly, we spent an extra day in Shanghai for really no reason at all, when another day in Hangzhou would have been more interesting. Later, we “wasted’ 4 days in Guilin, 2 of which were sacrificed to the rain. Frankly, we weren’t that impressed with the city or the attractions and one day would have been sufficient. Similarly, at Zhangjiajie we sacrificed a few days due to fog and pretty much just lounged around the hotel when a few days later it wasn’t much better. Lugu lake was really nice, but there is also a lake in Dali that we didn’t go to but could have in it’s place (and not have gone out of the way). Lastly, by the time we got to Yunnan province we had both run out of steam for China and it showed in that we did relatively little in Dali, Kunnming, and skipped Shangri-la altogether.
Unfortunately with China being so big some days will just be lost as “travel days” where you spent time getting from one place to another and by the time you have figured out trains, buses and how to find the accommodation there isn’t much time or energy for any sightseeing. We lost quite a few days this way even though we tried to take night trains when we could. If you are going to be flying to China, consider cathay pacific business class as an option.
We had our guard on the moment we got in Beijing Airport. I can’t remember the last time I was clutching my bag so hard. I don’t know why, but I thought we were going to get robbed straight off the plane. Preconceived notions die hard. As it turns out we did not get robbed in China at all, though it’s never a bad idea to be on guard in a foreign country.
The first two weeks of China were a bit disappointing to say the least. We weren’t that enthralled with Beijing. Sure, the sites were impressive enough, but we couldn’t escape the fact that is was just a big, dirty city. People hassled you. It took forever to get anywhere. The Great Wall was spectacular, but if not for our two day hotel stay in the beginning it would not have been a place we wanted to spend 5 days in. Xi’an, in many ways, was the same. We both found the Teracotta Warriors a bit lackluster (though worth it, but perhaps our expectations were too high). More and more we were beginning to realize how difficult it was going to be traveling around. Places took forever to get to; long, 15 hour train rides were not uncommon. Often, the main sites that you associate with a city (The Great Wall, Teracotta Warrior, The Panda Breeding Center) take several hours to get to and involve multiple buses, etc. On our first train ride we got stuck taking the hard seats over night (pretty much exactly what it sounds like), which I thought were awful. When we finally got to Shanghai, we were delighted as it’s basically a break from the rest of China.
A little while later we were in Guilin in the South. We had high hopes that by finally getting out of the big cities things would start to look up. We were right, but not until we reached Yangshuo a few days later. Teaching English and conversing with the students really invigorated us. Biking around the karst peaks was extremely peaceful and picturesque. From then on we felt that the best part of China was going to be nature and we centered the rest of our trip around that; Zhangjiajie, Jiuzhaigou, Tiger Leaping Gorge, etc. Unfortunately, while we were in the South we didn’t make it over to Taiwan, despite finding some great hotel deals on Expedia. We have scheduled that for 2014 instead.
Originally we were quite pleased with the food in the sense that restaurants tend to offer a multitude of choices. If there’s one hundred things on the menu, we should be able to find something to our liking – no? Unfortunately, more often than not the Chinese completely butchered meals by drowning it in grease – even vegetable plates. It’s a shame but I will never remember the country as a place of good food, and after a week in Vietnam we are already so pleased with both the quality of food as well as the service.
Thinking back it’s pretty easy to label the Chinese as being rude, but I don’t think that’s fair. Sure, people trying to sell you stuff tend to be a bit obnoxious. They’re touchy, loud, and very in your face in a way that Korea and Japan weren’t. We were prepared for it, but we weren’t prepared to like it or even completely overlook it. In reality, they only represent about 10% of the Chinese people you interact with. The rest, despite the nonexistent English, are actually pretty friendly/helpful in their own way. They got Vicky and I to where we needed to go and that shouldn’t be overlooked.
Despite being somewhat uncultured (nose picking, spitting, etc), the Chinese people did have their own “je ne sais quoi” that grew on you after a few weeks. But after a few more weeks we were a bit weary of it, and our last few days in Dali and Kunnming were largely spent in the hostels because we just didn’t have the energy or enthusiasm to venture out. We both just felt that we had taken China as far as we were going to go with it and were excited about new prospects.
Judging by what other travelers have said, I expect that overall it will have been one of the most difficult countries we traveled through, and this makes us feel really great. In the end, while difficult and at times hair-pullingly frustrating – it was doable and we’re better off having gone there. That’s all that matters.
Best food: We had some great meals and it’s difficult to pick just one but our Peking duck meal with our couchsurfing host in Beijing was nothing short of spectacular. The duck was presented in many different ways; crispy skin to be dipped in sugar, thigh and breast meat to be rolled into pancakes and minced meat made into buns.
A runner up would be the soup stalls on the streets. You essentially grab a basket and fill it up with anything and everything you want in your soup (mushrooms, tofu meat, seaweed, greens, etc) pass it to the cook and they plop you selection into a basket to be boiled into a huge cauldron of broth with your noodles of choice. We had this countless times and loved the fact that we could choose exactly what we wanted in our soup.
Worst food: There was no one dish that we utterly despised, but we did have a couple meals that gave us tummy troubles and a handful more that had suspicious looking meat that was barely edible – the consequence of choosing your dish via small faded photos on the restaurant walls.
Best deal: By heading to the national park Jizuhaigou in off peak season we were able to buy a 2 day ticket for 100 yuan ($16). We were there the second day that off peak season started and if we had gotten there just a couple days earlier would have been forced to pay 220 yuan ($35) for a one day pass.
Worst rip off: You get used to being ripped off in China on the part of you being a foreigner and therefore having more money. The worst was probably going to the Great Wall. We got stuck taking a cab by ourselves for 160 yuan or $25, when a direct bus would have only been $5. Unfortunately China makes it pretty difficult to find the proper transportation and sometimes you get stranded!
Bucket List Activities:Volunteer in Asia (Yangshuo English School)!
The key to getting anywhere in China is to have your address written down in Chinese. Then you can show local people and they will direct you (generally honestly) to where you buy the tickets, or catch the bus, or get off, etc. If you have a smart phone look up a phrase or location online and then take a photo of it – this helped us many times.
Only a few China cities had a metro (Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu). In most cases, traveling locally means either walking, taking a bus, or taking a cab. As it is, many attractions in China are not centrally located and thus not walk able. Local buses are you friend, but you have to find the right one. Ask someone at the hostel. Have them write your stop down and ask how many stops it should be. Then show this to the bus driver, and in most cases he will let you know when it is time to get off (though, not always).
If you are going to spend a long time in China get used to the trains. Overnight trains with hard sleepers (6 people per compartment, which is open) were our favorite – cheaper than soft sleepers but almost just as comfortable. We took a total of X overnight trains and almost all of them ran on time and were perfectly clean and safe. The website China Train Guide can be used to look up times and prices, though they are a bit outdated.
Do your research beforehand. When purchasing tickets at the train station make sure to write down the train number, departure time, and destination so you can easily show it to the ticket seller. Bottom bunks are most comfortable since you can sit up, but middle bunks and top bunks are slightly cheaper ($1-2).The hard sleeper compartments are open and there are two seats across from each section in the aisle for you to sit if you are on an upper bunk. We tested out the hard seats, hard sleepers and soft sleepers with the hard sleepers being the best value. The hard seats really are pretty miserable especially since the seat are at a complete 90 degree angle so there is just no way to comfortably sit for hours. Try to take night trains when possible – being able to lay down and double accommodation with transportation is a great budget decision.
Cabs in China are really cheap, which is part of the problem, in that, if you only need to go a short distance many cab drivers will not take you (they consider it not worth their time). If they do, they are more inclined to haggle with you for a ridiculous price than put on the meter. Try to get them to put the meter on, but many will refuse (probably because then they have to report it). Frankly, Vicky and I hated dealing with cab drivers in China and avoided them at all costs. They will try to rip you off and frankly tend to bully you a bit in large numbers.
The most important thing to know here is that buses in China do not have bathrooms. None. Even for an 8 hour plus trip. The bus driver will stop, usually, every two hours or so. Still, you don’t want to be caught off guard. They also generally stop for lunch as well. While some of the roads wind around mountains we did not really suffer from motion sickness. In terms of views buses are definitely better than trains and it really is interesting to get a glimpse of local village life through the window.
These do help a bit, but for many of the major attractions they want additional proof that you are under the age of 24 (no luck for Vicky and I).
Bathrooms are generally not too hard to find, but they are not in the best conditions. Expect squat toilets with no toilet paper, no soap and trash cans overflowing with dirty toilet paper (since you can’t flush it down the toilet). At times the stall doors only go halfway and sometimes there are no doors whatsoever. A few times there were even troughs as the toilet (built into the ground, so you put one leg on each side). There are always bathrooms in train stations though the condition is pretty abysmal. Mcdonalds is a safe bet when you can find it.
China is known for its many scams and it’s important to read up on them so you’re aware. We never actually were approached by any of these scammers (usually young women who speak excellent English), but have known people who were and did get scammed. I think they tend to target young, foreign, women traveling alone. Outside of petty scams, aside from the usual precautions that one should take everywhere, we never really felt uncomfortable or in any danger. We always counted our change and never once received less than we should have.
In most cases restaurants do not have English menus and the staff does not speak English. Rely on pictures or perhaps knowing a few choice Chinese phrases (Tofu, Rice, etc). Waiters tend to stand at the table after giving you the menu and waiting for your order. Generally meals run between $5-$8 per person if it is in a restaurant. Restaurants often have dozens of options so there are a lot of choices, but English is sparse. Use pictures or point at what someone else is eating (who cares, nobody).
Sometimes Vicky and I would have street food, which is considerably cheaper and in some instances even preferable as you can see the ingredients that the person is using to make the food. Still we were always a bit weary of it since no one speaks English so it can be difficult to discern what you are getting.
When you buy fruit on the street we highly recommend that you look for someone with a scale. There you can see the price and it is less likely that you are going to get ripped off (though it is still possible if they set a high price/weight).
Not really. We tried to use our credit card a handful of times with no success and eventually gave up.
Vicky and I did not notice any place to store bags at the metro, train, or bus station. This is another reason why we Couchsurfed less, as in all cases we were able to leave things at the hostels though for a few days and get it on the way back.
Possibly the worst ever, and not just because there were no wifi spots. Internet was incredibly slow, even when hostels advertised having it. Major social networking sites were blocked (FB, YouTube, G+, Twitter). Frankly, it was a terrible country to be a blogger in.
On the one hand it is spectacular, on the other hand it tends to be commercial, crowded and expensive. Think tobogan rides down the Great Wall, chair lifts and gondolas at all the mountains, high speed elevators to bring you from ground level up to 1000 meters and buses taking you from sight to sight at the mountain summit. Still, I think it is worth it and the best park of China, but don’t expect to be “roughing it”…
We stayed at the following places for each city. It’s a lot and I don’t think it’s worth going into any major details but overall we enjoyed basically every place we stayed. CS = CouchSurfed :
Beijing: First the Imperial Palace Hotel which was really cute. CS
Tangkou: Tangkou Hotel, nice and close to the mountain. Provides shuttle service for fee. No Wi Fi but LAN.
Guilin: Wada Hostel, cool hostel with nice vibe. Lots of young people. Wifi only in the lobby though. DVDs for free.
Yangshuo: Dorms at the English College which we found through Couchsurfing.
Zhangjiajie: Bajie Hostel, was OK. At first the room had a lot of mosquitoes because they left the windows open. No one else we talked to had this problem. One of the girls who works there was super helpful in planning out our entire trip to Zhangjiajie park, though so it was OK. We stayed at their sister hostel at the park summit and while the rooms were simple, accommodation up there is limited and the price at this one was reasonable.
Chengdu: Traffic Inn, nice hostel right near one of the bus stations that goes directly to Jiuzhaigou
Jiuzhaigou: Qinke Hostel. Was really cold and no heaters (just heated blanket). Area didn’t have many options TBH.
Lijiang: Enjoy Inn. This is great for couples because they have 2 person dorm rooms, so it’s very cheap. Atmosphere was nice, in old town. Private rooms with private bathrooms are significantly nicer than the dorms though.
Tiger Leaping Gorge: Halfway House (basically the only place to stay, good though).
Dali: Jade Emu, possibly the best hostel we’ve stayed at. Wifi throughout. Private rooms have TV with dvd player and hostel has DVD collection. Kitchen serves delicious Chinese food.
Kunming: The Hump. Really lively hostel with nice bar and pool table. Tons of guests, very social, nicely situated.
Unlike in previous countries, we did not do an awful lot of Couchsurfing in China. In fact, only four times. This was not because it was difficult to find people. On the contrary, it was easier to find willing hosts in China than in Japan or in Korea. Still, we often found Couchsurfing to be a bit of a hassle. China cities are big – like, really big, and often do not have a metro system. It was difficult to work out with our hosts how to get to their place, usually involving a random bus and a random stop. This might also leave you in some part of the city that is not close to the attractions. With only a few days in each city and the price of a private room in a hostel generally less than $15 a night, it simply wasn’t worth it.
We were counting on China to be cheap and it delivered! It’s true, China attractions (specifically the mountains) can cost upwards of $40. Moreover, transportation (mainly train rides), isn’t particularly cheap either. That said, the cost of a hostel is usually only $5- $10 per person. Food is similar. We kept track of every cost we had down to the purchase level and categorized it into 5 groupings:
So where did we end up?
$33 per person, per day. (NOTE: This DOES NOT include our visas, which add an additional $2 per person per day ($280). Also, our plane flight from Seoul to Beijing was paid for with credit card miles). **Also, in order to get these into per person per day divide by 110**
Overall China had its ups and down for us. We had some great days but we had a handful of bad days as well. China certainly tested our patience and creative communication skills on more than one occasion. Most of all we enjoyed the hikes through the gorges, national parks and mountains. The cities not so much. We spent almost 2 months in China and while we realistically only saw a portion of it we do not have a desire to return any time soon. If you are looking for a travel challenge relatively void of tourists this could be the place for you though.