Sunday, December 30, 2007

My China Trip - Daily Itinerary

On the same lines as the Japan trip itinerary post, this also promises to be a monster post, especially since I spend a few more days in China than in Japan. Again, there are links to other individual posts, and here are some more:


Dec 2, Sunday - Day 1: Nihao!

  • Immigration at the airport is not a problem. It is similar to the experience I had at the Chinese Consulate in San Francisco: They are brutally efficient :)
  • I had booked my 3 night stay in Beijing at the Far East Hotel and Hostel, a Lonely Planet pick Lonely Planet China . They offer airport pickup service, RMB150, which I requested since I was getting into Beijing slightly late and just wanted to get to the hostel without any hassles.
  • The guy was standing there with my name on a piece of paper. We have a nice and swift ride along the big roads of Beijing. I notice how the traffic is so much more chaotic than Japan. Plus, Beijing seems all massive concrete roads and buildings. Not the historical cultural capital I was expecting.
  • The Far East Hotel and Hostel is at a fantastic location, walking distance from Tiananmen Square, Forbidden City and Temple of Heaven. Plus they have a good lounge area with a pool table and free internet access. Also, 3 nights in the dormitory cost as much as the airport pickup :)
  • I later discover that every hostel and hotel has a person taking care of your travel planning. Far East had a full desk, staffed 24/7. I talk to them and book a trip to the Great Wall, RMB190.


Dec 3, Monday - Day 2: Trekking on the Great Wall

  • We (me and 8 others staying at the hotel) set out early in the morning for the Great Wall. It takes 3.5 hours to get to the Simatai and Jinshanling sections steep climb up the Great Wall, which are less touristy and partly unrestored.
  • We have 4 hours to trek 10.5 km on the wall and get to the pick up point across a suspension bridge. I see maybe 20 other tourists in the 4 hours, but see about 50 Chinese peddling postcards and photobooks.
  • The wall is awe-inspiring. IMG_1627 IMG_1629 The views breathtaking. IMG_1611 IMG_1641 In total, we see 5 barriers, 67 watchtowers and 2 beacon towers.
  • We get back to Beijing around 6 pm. After freshening up at the hostel, I head out with Scott, a lawyer from Australia, to have Peking Duck. We have a huge meal (no pictures :(  ), RMB75/person.


Dec 4, Tuesday - Day 3: Exploring Beijing

  • In the morning, I book my overnight sleeper train ticket to Xi'an, RMB450, and the Yangtze river cruise, RMB1042.
  • After that, I walk to Tiananmen Square, which is about a mile away. IMG_1661 IMG_1667 There are lots of people and lots of army units performing coordinated movements.
  • Across from Tiananmen Square is the Forbidden City. IMG_1738 IMG_1691 IMG_1687 It is impressive in it's scale. However, it is not as well maintained as the temples and shrines in Japan.
  • I find the nook where the Starbucks used to be. Now it's just a coffee shop. IMG_1699
  • From the Forbidden City, I take a bicycle taxi IMG_1744 to the Temple of Heaven. Parts of the park are being restored, but the main temple is open and I like it a lot. IMG_1754 IMG_1758
  • Just walking around the park, I run into groups of Chinese playing games, singing, or performing dance. I really like this group of old Chinese playing a string instrument. IMG_1771
  • On the walk back, I run across a dumpling restaurant :) Oh yeah. IMG_1772 IMG_1773 RMB60.
  • At night, I go to an acrobatics show. RMB150 for almost 2 hours of people doing Cirque du Soleil stuff! Dude, now that's awesome :) IMG_1796 IMG_1791  (Watch a 2 min video of guys in white jumping up and down vertical poles)
  • I head out to Lonely Planet recommendation for dinner, but find out that the entire block has been demolished. Seems like an appropriate end for my last full day in Beijing.


Dec 5, Wednesday - Day 4: The serene Summer Palace

  • My train to Xi'an is at 9 pm. So I check out of the hotel, leave my bags there, and take the subway to the Summer Palace.
  • The Summer Palace is definitely my top pick for sights in Beijing. Although the most visited areas are probably The Hall of Benevolence and Longevity IMG_1907 and the Buddhist Fragrance Pavilion IMG_1894, but my favorite part was the South Lake Island IMG_1883.
  • When I was on the island, the tourist groups left, and it was just me and an old Chinese couple staring out at the frozen lake towards the Buddhist Fragrance Pavilion IMG_1926 IMG_1911 IMG_1920. The only sounds were the small cracking sounds of the ice on the lake, the birds flying overhead and the Chinese woman humming a tune. It was almost meditative.
  • But then a tourist group comes over. It really made me realize how noisy tourists can be.
  • On the way back, I stop at a huge Peking Duck restaurant. Dumplings and half Duck IMG_1929 IMG_1936 IMG_1943. RMB192. It is soooooo tasty.
  • I pick up my bags and head over to the train station. In the taxi, I remember feeling that Beijing has been under-whelming. I had huge expectations from the Chinese capital, and was disappointed that the culture and history is being demolished and concrete highways and buildings put in their place. And then I saw the Beijing West Railway Station. That building blows me away. Beijing West, now the largest railway station in China
  • I have a really nice comfy sleeper. Not that many people traveling, and I share the 4 bed room with just 1 other person. IMG_1946


Dec 6, Thursday - Day 5: Xi'an by bike

  • We get to Xi'an on time, and a person from the Bell Tower Youth Hostel is there to pick me up. Again, the hostel has a good travel service, and I book my Terracotta tour with them. RMB180 for transport, entrance and English-speaking guide.
  • I head out to the Muslim Quarter IMG_1953, a network of small alleys with street food, shops and a lot of other random things.
  • I also stumble upon the Great Mosque IMG_1954 IMG_1962 and say the Asr (noon/mid-day) prayers. Over there, everyone wears the Muslim cap while praying. I didn't know that and was just standing there waiting for the prayer to start when an old person grabbed my by the arm, dragged me to the back of the hall, yelling something in Chinese and pointed me to the bag full of Muslim caps. Aight. I got it dude.
  • I ask for a restaurant recommendation, and then ask them for a local speciality. I order 2 bowls of tasty broth, with lamb and bread that I break and put in the bowl. IMG_1966 IMG_1969 IMG_1971 Awesome.
  • Then I go to the South Gate and rent a bike. IMG_1981 IMG_1989 IMG_1991 Xi'an is one of the few Chinese cities to have a complete city wall. You can bike around it and get good views of the surrounding areas as well as the inner city streets.
  • I go to a Chinese opera performance for the evening. Dinner is dumplings and soup IMG_1993 IMG_1997. And the performance is very colorful. IMG_2026 IMG_2042. RMB278 for the entire things plus transportation.


Dec 7, Friday - Day 6: The Kneeling Archer

  • Our Terracotta tour guide is waiting for us at the reception. We (me, 4 other guests, the guide and the driver) head out in a small van.
  • First on the list is the Benpo Village museum benpo people removed the hands and feet before burying their dead. It's interesting, but I'm here for the Terracotta army, so chop chop!
  • Next is a clay factory where they make Terracotta replicas IMG_2045. They use the same clay, indigenous to Xi'an, that the actual Terracotta warriors were made from. First they put the clay in a mold, dry it, and then put it in a huge oven for upto a month or more. The small ones are made of a single piece, the big ones are made from distinct feet, torso and head parts. This is more or less the same process the ancients used. Makes you realize how advanced they were.
  • At the end of the factory tour, there is... IMG_2047 yup, a display center so you can buy the newly finished Terracotta look-alikes at prices 3x-4x of ones found in the Muslim Quarter. It dawns on me that our tour is structured to get as much tourist money out of us as possible.
  • After a buffet lunch IMG_2055 IMG_2056, we arrive at the Terracotta museum. Drum roll going on in my head.
  • There are 3 pits. Pit #2 is closed for renovation, but that's okay, since Pit #1 is the biggest one and they have moved some of the displays from Pit #2 to the museum.
  • First we have to watch a movie in a small auditorium, which is surrounded by stalls selling random things. The farmer who discovered the Terracotta army is there, and you can buy the DVD or the book and have him sign it. That's all great and stuff, but where are the warriors?
  • Pit #1 is like... wooooaaaaaaah. Massive. IMG_2079 IMG_2138 IMG_2117 You can not help but feel awe at the might of that empire. The emperor put 700,000 workers to build his mausoleum. When he died, his wives, members of his court and all the 700,000 workers were buried alive with him. Stupid emperor.
  • We go to Pit #3, which shows many smashed and broken warriors. terracotta pit 3 terracotta pit 3 After the emperor died, his generals rebelled, and they broke a lot of the Terracotta warriors. This is how they were discovered and scientists and archeologists have been putting them together, piece by piece, for years.
  • Then we get to the museum, and my favorite part of the entire tour. We see the kneeling archer IMG_2288, the only complete statute of its kind found during the excavations. The details of the hair IMG_2252, the sole of the shoe IMG_2257 and the armor IMG_2259 are incredible. I feel like I can stand and look at it for hours.
  • Next to the archer are 2 generals. IMG_2241 IMG_2244 The army overall, has many thousands of kneeling archers, standing archers, and foot soldiers. Then a few hundred captains. But only 2 generals.
  • All satisfied, we get back on the van for the ride home. The guide wants to take us to a silk factory, but we are too tired.
  • After getting back, I hit the streets of Xi'an to soak in the local flavor. I buy 2 sticks of barbecued spicy squid IMG_2299 and then go to a restaurant in the Muslim Quarter for ox tail and dumplings  IMG_2305 . RMB60.


Dec 8, Saturday - Day 7: 1st hopot

  • I've stayed in Xi'an too long. I should've left yesterday night. Anyway, I idle away a few hours eating street food IMG_2308 and then catch a bus to the airport.
  • The plane ticket to Chengdu is RMB270, an 80% discount on the normal airfare. It's a great experience :) The plane is full of young, boisterous Chinese. I am the only non-Chinese.
  • On the bus from the airport to Chengdu downtown, I sit next to Peng. Peng is a salesman, speaks a little English, and bursting with the spirit of hospitality. He takes it upon himself to help me get to my hostel, especially since he lives in the same neighborhood. After failing to flag down a taxi, we get on a bicycle taxi operated by an old man whose legs looked like they might break apart anytime. We finally make it to the hostel, and Peng insists on paying. I feel obliged and invite him and his girlfriend for dinner the next day. (This turns out to be a fabulous turn of events)
  • After checking in, I head out for some local speciality, which in this case is the Sichuan hotpot. IMG_2314 I ask the restaurant owner for a recommendation, and he brings me one of the best meals I've had in China. A hotpot is basically a big bowl full of spicy oil and a lot of solid spices simmering inside, and a smaller bowl in the middle with non-spicy soup and vegetables. You dip the uncooked meat and vegetables into whichever bowl you like, wait for them to cook, and then eat. IMG_2325 This is my first encounter with the Sichuan peppers, and definitely one of the most interesting culinary experiences of my life. I feel the spices jumping up and down on my tongue and lips. The peppers have a really weird aftertaste though, kinda like detergent :) RMB62.


Dec 9th, Sunday - Day 8: 2nd hotpot

  • We leave early morning for a Giant Panda tour. On the way, our van is hit by another van. The other drivers deserts his vehicle and runs away! Our driver calls the insurance company and we are on our way.
  • The pandas are cute. Yeah, that's about it. IMG_2488
  • I reserve my train seat for ChongQing, where I am supposed to get on the cruise boat. Then I head out to find this sweet dumpling place which is a favorite of the hostel owner.
  • I find it (named Yongji Elder Sweet Dumpling and Noodle House), and have what is probably the best noodle and definitely the best dumplings I've had in China. IMG_2502 IMG_2504 I also have my first taste of sweet dumplings IMG_2509 and can only close my eyes and wish the flavor would last a little longer. RMB14. For US$2, I've had one of my best food experiences in China. Are you kidding me?!!!
  • Peng and Fanyuan arrive promptly at 6 pm and we leave for their favorite restaurant. Another hotpot :) IMG_2512 
  • Afterwards, they take me to a nice street with lots of food and other activities. We eat post-dinner street food in Chengdu, play IMG_2544 and meet up with their friends IMG_2555. I get a true flavor of Chengdu life, and make good friends :)


Dec 10, Monday - Day 9: 3rd hotpot

  • I wake up late and get to the Chengdu train station. It is very cramped. Apparently the 4 hour train to ChongQing is very popular. Thankfully the overhead luggage rack has just enough space for my big backpack, and I stuff into my seat with my other backpack. The next 4 hours aren't very comfortable :(
  • At ChongQing station, you have to queue up to get a taxi and there is a big line. Of course the enterprising Chinese have figured out another solution, and lots of people offer their private cars to take you where you want. Since I am a foreigner, I am their prime target. I am almost appalled at their blatant efforts to con me. They ask RMB100 for a taxi ride worth RMB20. Jesus, do they think I am a complete idiot. I laugh and end up negotiating them to RMB40.
  • After settling into my hostel and contacting my agent for the cruise, I head to ChongQing downtown IMG_2559 and another hotpot, which is also a ChongQing speciality hopot at qui ho guo restaurant, Chongqing. This one is not as spicy as the one in Chengdu. I like it, but not as much.


Dec 11, Tuesday - Day 10: First night ever on a boat!

  • Today is the cruise day. I find out that all the tours are extra charge. No surprise there. I book the Three Gorges and the Dam. ~RMB200 each. I also buy a Wuhan to Shanghai air ticket, RMB500.
  • I go to a Lonely Planet recommendation for lunch and have beef and spinach. IMG_2577 Although it is delicious, I am unimpressed since I have been having such great food :)
  • We (me, tour agent, and 3 other travelers) board the cruise boat at night. our ferry for the yangtze The skyscrapers of ChongQing downtown are pointing lights on the Yangtze river, which looks really neat. lights from chongqing downtown to the yangtze 
  • The company that runs the boat service has decided to downgrade everyone to a smaller boat (200 passengers). That leads to a scramble for the first-class rooms. I get my bed, but the couple that came with us has to settle for a second-class cabin. When I get to my room, I find 8 Chinese sitting all over the beds and using the bathroom. Eh... excuse me, this is a 2 person room. Of course no one speaks English. One woman speaks a few words. She tells me that they are all tour guides, and one of their friends is my cabin buddy. So they all came up to enjoy the first-class room. That's all good, except that I can't have 8 people in there at night, and they are smoking. Ahhhh! The woman says she will work something out and I go to the front of the boat to sit and wait.
  • Thankfully, they find a second-class cabin for themselves, and now I have the first-class 2 bed cabin for myself. Naaice!
  • I invite Arek, from Poland, who is stuck in a third-class cabin, to share the cabin with me. He accepts without hesitation :)


Dec 12, Wednesday - Day 11: New Chinese friends

  • There is a tour of Ghost City early in the morning, which I decide to go to. An island that will go underwater once the Three Gorges Dam is completed has been evacuated and turned into a tourist theme park. ghost city on the yangtze 2 ghost city leading up to the temple It's okay, but overall unimpressive. I pay RMB80 for it. Arek finds a way in for free :)
  • Back on the boat, we (the only non-Chinese on the boat) while away the time playing card games. This greatly interests the Chinese and one of them who speaks English comes over. He is with a group of teachers going back to Hangzhou, and they invite us for dinner.
  • At dinner, the dishes keep on coming and we keep on eating. we get treated to a huge dinner The group of teachers is very friendly and they make sure we have a great time. post-dinner happy 3 After dinner, we end up at the front room of the boat and sing karaoke :) karaoke on the boat


Dec 13, Thursday - Day 12: The Three Gorges

  • Another day on the boat. Woke up for the Qutang Gorge qutang gorge 3 and then docked at Wushan we dock at wushan for the Three Gorges tour.
  • We get into smaller boats for the first part of the Three Gorges tour. They are indeed marvelous lesser three gorges 1 lesser three gorges 2 lesser three gorges overview. At a stop, I eat a fried bird on a stick. chicken on a stick
  • After the first part, we had to get into even smaller boats that go further into the gorges. our small boat in lesser three gorges lesser three gorges 12
  • After the tour, we are given a ticket to a performance in Wushan. First, we and the teachers group go and have a grand meal. IMG_2888 IMG_2889 IMG_2890 we have a massive dinner in wushan. Then we head to the performance and I get my picture taken with the ladies on stage :) me and the performers in wushan.
  • When we head outside, we see people dancing in the city center at night. Very nice. people dancing at midnight in wushan We eat barbecued meat IMG_2978


Dec 14, Friday - Day 13: The Three Gorges Dam

  • We pass the Wu Gorge in the morning, wu gorge 10 and then get off at Yichang to take the bus to the Three Gorges Dam. Bye bye boat.
  • The dam is huge. It will generate the same amount of power as 18 nuclear power plants when finished, and will be the largest hydro-electric plant in the world. three gorges dam 3 
  • One cool thing was the ship locks, a system to get big ships across the dam. ship locks at the three gorges dam It had 6 levels, each taking about 30 minutes to go through. Massive engineering.
  • After the tour, we head to Wuhan, where I plan to stay for the night and then take a flight to Shanghai. The teachers are traveling with us, they are flying back to Hangzhou from Wuhan. As soon as the bus leaves the station, it stops at a restaurant and everyone has food. The teachers again treat us, to a dinner of freshly killed and cooked fish in soup dinner in yichang 2 and a bunch of other dishes dinner in yichang 1.
  • The bus driver is dropping everyone off at their individual stops and mine is the last one. I get to the hostel after 1 am.


Dec 15, Saturday - Day 14: Exploring Shanghai

  • Taxi to the airport and then the flight to Shanghai Pudong airport. I take the Maglev train meglev train, or the Shanghai Magnetic Levitation Demonstration Operation Line, to the city. The train reaches a top speed of 430 km/hr meglev train at 430 km per hour. Zoom zoom.
  • Figuring out Shanghai's subway system is not hard, and I make it to the hostel with little hassle. Drop the bags, pick up some street food shanghai street food and on to the Bund.
  • Beautiful place, that Bund. the bund 1 the bund again A very nice walk along the water with great views of the Pudong skyscrapers pudong lights from the Bund.
  • I then walk along East Nanjing Road east nanjing road at night all the way to Renmin Square, and then zigzag nice pedestrian car interchange to Xintiandi, in the French Concession.
  • At Xintiandi (which is an upscale business and entertainment district), I have dinner at Din Tai Feng, a personal recommendation for xiaolongbao (Shanghai dumplings). I think I ended up with a different kind of dumplings (which were nevertheless great) dumpings and drunken chicken and drunken chicken. Dessert was small red bean paste filled dumplings. sweet red bean dumplings Yummy! RMB124. This is an expensive restaurant :)


Dec 16, Sunday - Day 15: Life in Pudong

  • I go to brunch at the Westin hotel and meet up with a very good old friend from school. RMB500. He is the president of the Shanghai Cricket Club and they are having a celebration of sorts for winning a lot of tournaments :)
  • Some of his friends are really nice and offer to show me around Shanghai. They make me an offer I can't refuse. We end up back at their residence, in Pudong, and I get to see the endless skyscrapers where expats live pudong highrises for foreigners pudong highrises for foreingers 2
  • For dinner, I head to Yuxin Sichuan Dish, again a personal recommendation for the best Sichuan restaurant in town. For some reason, it doesn't occur to me that I've had Sichuan food for 3 days in a row recently. Anyways, I order rabbit with peppers and fish in a bowl of spices. yuxin sichuan food dinner  The Sichuan peppers sichuan peppers - little devils I call them teach me a new meaning of the phrase "Respect my authority!"   RMB150.


Dec 17, Monday - Day 16: Flaming Dragon Fish

  • I decide to take it easy and just visit the Shanghai Museum during the day, but not before checking out a local dumplings chain on Nanjing Road. IMG_3305  RMB25. They have awesome exhibitions of Rembrandt paintings, Chinese bronze works, paintings and calligraphy. I take a lot of pictures. IMG_3375 IMG_3387 IMG_3411 IMG_3345
  • Dinner is at Dong Bei Ren. The order is Flaming Dragon Fish, lamb ribs, some meat and potatoes dish and banana dough balls in candy. IMG_3464 IMG_3456 IMG_3473 IMG_3476. RMB87. What a fantastic way to finish my last full day in Shanghai and China. I am ecstatic.


Dec 18, Tuesday - Day 17: End of my Asian vacation

  • I wake up late, eat a good breakfast and get to the Shanghai Pudong airport way in advance. I have a flight to Hong Kong, overnight there, and then on to Pakiland. I get hungry and eat noodles and dumplings, what else :) beef noodle soup and dumplings at shanghai pudong airport They look better than they taste. My standards are now quite high :)


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