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China Wrap Up – Daily Average $33 Per Person

We spent 55 days in China. Here is a collection of our impressions, travel tips, and the cost break down.

Schedule 10/12-12/7

Beijing

  • Beijing 6 days
    • Lots of historical sights in Beijing with many of them taking hours to cover and very far spread apart. We spent 1 day at the Great Wall. Overall we did not like Beijing and should probably have spent less time there, though there is a lot to do.

Terracotta army

  • Xi’an 3 days
    • Spent 1 day at the terracotta warriors (1-2 hour bus ride outside the city) and the other day walking around the downtown area (Drum Tower, Muslim Quarter, etc)

Shanghai skyline

  • Shanghai 3 days
    • Went to an acrobatics show, walked around the Bund and some of the shopping streets in the city. This can all be done in 1-2 days. Not all that much to do in Shanghai but we enjoyed the modern and Western atmosphere.

West Lake

  • Hangzhou 2 days
    • Spent the day walking around the picturesque West Lake. The second day was spent traveling.

Huangshan

  • Tangkou 2 days
    • Here to climb Huangshan (China’s Yellow Mountain)

Guilin

  • Guilin 4 days
    • Spent a couple days sick here, and spent 1 day sightseeing. Not much to do in the city but a necessary stop over if you are heading to Yangshuo.

Yanghsuo Countryside View from Dragon Bridge

  • Yangshuo 6 days
    • Spent a few days volunteering for 2 hours a day at an English College here, using the other part of the day to bike around the city and take a cooking class. Highly recommend. Though touristy very quaint and pleasant.

Zhangjiajie

  • Zhangjiajie 7 days
    • There is nothing special to see in Zhanjiajie city (and we found the city had a dirty industrial feel) but we were here to see the Zhangjiajie National Park and Tianmen Mountain. Due to bad weather we wasted 3 days just hanging around the hostel and then spent 1 day at Tianmen Mountain and 3 days at Zhanjiajie National Park (spending 2 nights at the summit)

panda

  • Chengdu 4 days
    • Chengdu was one of our favorite cities in China. It had an efficient and new metro system and a great feel overall. And this is where you get to see the pandas! Unfortunately Dave was sick for 3 out of the 4 days so we crammed all our sightseeing into 1 day but would recommend spending 2 days here.

jiuzhaigou National park

  • Jiuzhaigou 4 days
    • Fantastic national park with colors that you so rarely see in nature if ever. It was great going here during off peak season as it is much cheaper and less crowded, however, it is very cold because of the elevation and time of year, and many of the trails are closed. Two days I think is good. Unfortunately one of the only ways to get here is by 8-10 hour bus from Chengdu each way so you lose 2 full days just getting there and back.

lugu lake

  • Lugu Lake 2 days
    • We almost didn’t go because it is a bit out of the way but the lake is spectacular. Spend a whole day biking 60 km around it (not for the faint of heart). An added plus – in our 2 days here we did not see a single foreigner.

Lijiang

  • Lijiang 2 days
    • The old town is really quaint and charming. The attractions are a bit expensive though, since you need to purchase an 80 yuan cultural preservation ticket on top of the regular admission ticket to some of the sights. From the Black Dragon Pool you get a spectacular view of the Jade Snow Mountain.

TLG

  • Tiger Leaping Gorge 2 days
    • One of the most fantastic hikes we did in all of China. You feel so close to the side of the mountain. The view is spectacular and the cost is reasonable (60 yuan). It does not feel nearly as touristy as some of the other hikes we did. Takes about two days to do the whole thing but the second day is much easier.

Dali

  • Dali 3 days
    • The old town is charming but we had really run out of steam by the time we got there. We did a great cooking class with Rice and Friends though whom we can’t recommend highly enough.
  • Kunming 4 days
    • Maybe the largest city in Yunnan province but, at least the area we were in, was really nice/upscale. We got our Vietnam visas here, that’s mostly it.
Would we do it the same way? SOMEWHAT!

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.

Our Route

Our Impressions

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.

Bests And Worsts

Peking Duck

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.

Soups

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.

Great Wall

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)!

Tips For Traveling

Transportation

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.

Local Buses

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).

Trains

Hard Sleeper Train

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

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.

Long Distance Buses

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.

Student IDs

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).

Public Facilities

Squat Toilets

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.

Safety

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.

Food and Restaurants

food in China

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).

Credit Cards

Not really. We tried to use our credit card a handful of times with no success and eventually gave up.

Storing Bags

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.

Internet

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.

Nature

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”…

Accommodations

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

Xian: CS

Shanghai: CS

Hangzhou: 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.

Finding Couchsurfers

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.

  • Sent – How many we sent. I sent the same request under both Vicky and Dave profiles, to see if there would be a difference (thinking that Vicky’s profile might have better success since she’s a girl).
  • Accepted – Our request was accepted outright
  • Maybe – This usually means that they accepted a few nights out of all the ones we requested, or maybe could host us.
  • Pending/Declined – Said no or didn’t respond.

Cost Break Down

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:

  • Entertainment – Mostly sightseeing, we didn’t really go out in Japan.
  • Food and Water – Breakfast, lunch, and dinner, as well as snacks (little things we bought in the middle of the day, chips, ice cream, etc).
  • Gifts – For couchsurfers, usually a bottle of wine or some chocolates, sometimes treated to dinner
  • Transportation – all forms
  • Utilities – Things like lockers for bags, pay phones, small purchases like detergent
  • Accommodation – couchsurfing, hostels and one hotel stay

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.

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