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Wednesday, March 21, 2018

A Month in China! Part 1: Tips for China Trip Planning

Baiju tasting....
Tea in Shanghai...
On a boat in one of the "Water Towns"...
Yummy "meat-on-a-stick"!
Learning to make dumplings
Steam Train...

Bullet Train...

Harbin Ice Festival

Terracotta Warriors...


My chef husband and I just came back from an amazing month in China- a 40+ year dream of mine, since reading “Riding the Iron Rooster” by Paul Theroux when I was in college! As this was a ‘bucket-list’ trip (aren’t they all now? LOL), I spent several months researching and planning it, and learned a lot of useful things, and some that turned out to be not-so-useful, too! Hubs being a chef (and me an unrepentant “foodie”), and both of us being “railfans” who love train travel, our trip was focused on two things, beside the “must-do” tourist sites: food and trains! We began our trip in Shanghai and the Water Towns, and then took the Bullet Train to Beijing, to walk The Great Wall, see and dine in The Forbidden City, visit a first-class winery, and do “foodie” things. We then took a night train sleeper way up north to Harbin for the last day of the Ice Festival and to see the Jewish synagogue museum and tigers, and then went back down to Xi’An, for the Terracotta Warriors and more “foodie” stuff. Then we went to Chengdu, for the Pandas, a Sichuan Cuisine cooking class, to see the opera, take a boat to the LeShan Buddha, and ride one of the last working steam trains. We then took a wonderful 4-night Yangtze River Cruise through the Gorges, and then flew to Guangzhou, before taking a night train back to Shanghai to fly home. I will be doing a blog post on each city with details, photos, and hotlinks to great tours and cool things to do; this first post will give you some tips if you are thinking about planning a trip to China, and I will add to it as I think of more:
1.        Yes, you CAN do this yourself and you do not need to join a tour. It will take a lot of research and much emailing back and forth with people in China, and does entail some risk, but if you find trip planning and research fun, (as I do), are flexible, and love waiting up until 3am for emails from China (as I do), you will love that part of it! (For me, I think that trip planning research is 1/3 of a fun of a trip! The next 1/3 is actually doing it all, and the final 1/3 is enjoying the photos and blogging about it afterwards!) The upside to booking everything yourself is that you will be able to see the things you want to see and do the things you want to do when you want to see and do them, and you won’t have to worry about being stuck on a bus with a bunch of people you may not like all that much, waiting for stragglers, and being disappointed when you can’t do what you want… The other upside to arranging it all yourself is that it will cost far less than if you have a travel agent do it. While tours are often a “bargain”, they are usually only for a week or two and never include all the things we want to do, such as foodie tours, cooking classes, visiting wineries, dining in special restaurants, or taking trains, and I couldn't even find a tour that went to all the places we wanted to go. Based on several inquiries I made, I estimated that a travel-agent-booked tour that included all of what we did would have cost 3 times what we spent. The downside of independent travel for some people is that you will be on your own- you won’t have 24/7 help from a tour guide, you won’t have guarantees that everything will work out perfectly, you will have to pay for each thing you book separately, you will have to handle your own luggage (ugh), and you won’t be with a group of people 24/7. We love to travel independently, and I have booked all our trips to many countries, including Vietnam, Korea, Japan, Chile, Israel, and Italy, but China was different, and involved a lot of pre-planning- and I am Very glad I booked all the tours I did, and that we didn’t decide to “wing it”- we wouldn’t have been able to do a lot of the excellent things we did had we not pre-arranged them. If you want “easy”, however, have extremely limited time, don’t have the time or inclination to do all the research and emailing, or you feel uncomfortable on your own in a country where almost no one speaks English, and want to be with a group of people who do, then definitely book a tour.
2.        Ask for help and advice, but do not believe all the sage advice you get- do your own research and go with your gut! If I had listened to all the advice I received from “old China hands”, including Chinese citizens, and people who live and work in China, we would not have done a number of the wonderful things we did, including the Yangtze River Cruise, (I was told it was the “wrong season” and would be “too cold”- not true), which turned out to be one of THE major highlights of our trip! I was also repeatedly told that "everything" would be closed over Chinese New Year, and that the crowds would be "insane", and the Metro impossible- and none of this was true.
3.        Train travel in China is truly world-class, and absolutely THE way to see the country, and you CAN book train tickets yourself. Based on a tip from the top-notch railroad travel site I used China-DIY-travel to book almost all our train tickets, and the women I worked with (Lyn & Helen) were GREAT! We honestly could not have done this trip without them! Our entire trip was based around being able to travel by train, and they helped me plan the trip to make sure we could get trains to and from each place we wanted to visit. Their English is Perfect, and their customer service is first class- they actually called me when a problem arose! They charge a $10 fee per ticket and are worth every single dime of it! We took Business Class and First Class seats on the world-class Bullet Trains, as well as Deluxe and Soft Sleepers, and found them all to be great. Note that train tickets can literally sell out in seconds in China, especially during Chinese New Year month, and China-DIY enabled us to get all the tickets we needed! They have dozens of videos about the various trains and train stations on YouTube, and they provided us with videos, tips, and instructions for each ticket- with everything written in Chinese!- to show cab drivers and at the train stations. We LOVE them!
4.        If you are traveling by train (or plane) in China, take only a VERY SMALL ROLLING SUITCASE or a backpack! We learned this the hard way. LOL Even if you book top-level Business Class or First Class trains or sleepers, as we did, there will be mass chaos at and in the train stations prior to boarding, escalators to deal with (and often no elevator), huge airport-like stations to navigate, long lines (and lots of pushing and shoving) to get through security and metal detectors, and to get a taxi, and no guarantee of “red cap” porters… The Beijing Train Stations are Especially chaotic and confusing, and there is basically NO English signage…
5.        Basically no one in China speaks or reads English unless they are in the tourism business- which means that you need EVERYTHING- such as the names and addresses of your hotels, restaurants, meeting places for tours, train stations, etc.- written in Chinese to show to cab drivers and people if you need directions. You can do this before you go (China-DIY provided paperwork in Chinese for all our train tickets, as did many of the tours we booked), or get help from a Concierge at a good hotel in China. Remember that your hotel confirmations will NOT be in Chinese, and you will need the names and addresses of your hotels written in Chinese to show taxi or shuttle bus drivers, and at the train stations and airports!
6.        We saw VERY few Western Tourists! 99% of all the tourists we saw- and we saw Thousands all across China- were Chinese! We were often the only non-Chinese present, even at events that we had assumed would be “only” for tourists, such as cultural and folklore events, the Opera, cooking classes, and the steam train! It was Very cool to see so many Chinese people enjoying their own country the way tourists do- complete with taking hundreds of photos with their iphones on selfie-sticks!  
7.        The Metro (Subway) in Shanghai is Great- and EASY to use! We used the machines in the train stations to buy our tickets- you can push a button to get the map in English so you can figure out which station you need and what it costs (fares are super cheap- like 3 RMB, the equivalent of 50 cents), and there is English signage on the platforms and subway cars, as well.
8.        Shanghai Airlines was great! We flew from Chonqing to Guangzhou and it was an excellent experience- unlike United…    
9.        Chinese New Year is Not the best time to go to China- we learned this the hard way. LOL A lot of businesses close for anywhere from a week to a month, train tickets sell out in a nanosecond (why you truly need China-DIY to book your train tickets…), and many tours will be unavailable. That being said, we had a great time, and got to do almost everything we wanted to do, including seeing the Ice Festival… but it took some juggling and a lot of emails back and forth! 
10.    Viator (, a TripAdvisor company, through which I booked most of our private tours in China, was, for the most part, EXCELLENT. Details and hotlinks to each tour company will be in in my upcoming blog posts on each city. This was the first time I had used Viator, and I took a huge leap of faith, as 90% of the tours I booked all over China were through them, and our trip’s success literally depended on them! With one exception it all turned out great. All the tour guides and tours were excellent, as were the vehicles and drivers. We had one tour guide not turn up, and the problem arose when I couldn’t reach either the tour guide or Viator- none of the Customer Service phone numbers worked. This was Extremely frustrating, and while Viator made an immediate refund to my credit card after I was finally able to email them, that didn’t solve the problem the day of the no-show tour guide… Prior to booking I read EVERY SINGLE TOUR DESCRIPTION, made my “short lists” (there are some very unique tours, but you really have to read ALL of them to find the really good ones!), and then looked at each tour carefully and read the reviews. I took a chance on two tours that sounded truly unique but had no reviews, and in both cases they were excellent! In some cases I was able to find the tour company and look at their website directly and contact them, but that wasn’t always easy (or possible), as Viator tries to block that info until after you book. The upside of Viator is that they do guarantee the lowest prices, and you can easily cancel most tours, but from being in the tourism business I know that they also probably take a huge commission, and so, when possible, I like to deal directly with small businesses. For the most part, Viator’s Customer Service was great, and when there were changes to some of the tours I’d booked they contacted me immediately by email. They often have discounts for first, multiple, or additional bookings, so sign up keep an eye out for emails from them.      
11.    I booked several tours and our cruise directly with individual tour companies via email, and all turned out great. Everyone took PayPal, which made the transactions safe and easy.
a.       Absolute Panda Tours worked with me to create a WONDERFUL 2-day private tour for us in Chengdu that included seeing the Pandas, a professional Cooking Class at the Cuisine Museum and a market visit, going to the Opera, riding one of the last steam trains in China, going by boat to see the LeShahn Buddha, delicious lunches, and a fab Hot Pot Dinner! Both their guides and cars were excellent, and we HIGHLY recommend them- we will definitely use them again if we are lucky enough to get back to China! Details and photos will be in my blogpost on Chengdu.
b.      We took two GREAT “foodie” tours by Tuk-Tuk with Lost Plate Tours:, one on our last night in Xi’An, and one our first night in Chengdu- again HIGHLY recommended! Tours like this take you to local places you'd never find on our own, and allow you to try lots of delicious things you either would never know about, or might not have to guts to try, otherwise! Details and pix of all the fab things we got to eat will be in my blogpost on those cities.
c.       We did a GREAT “foodie” tour in Shanghai with Jim of Shanghai Foodie: Again- HIGHLY recommended! Details and photos of all the yumminess will be in my post on Shanghai.
d.   We took a really EXCELLENT dumpling-making class with Chef Chao Zhou at Beijing Cooking School:  which included a market visit and a lesson on soy sauces and vinegars, and we really learned how to make 3 kinds of dumplings!! 
d.      We took another excellent and fun cooking class in Hand-Pulled and Hand-Shaved Noodles at Cook in Shanghai which I booked online while we were in China. Details and photos will be in my post on Shanghai.
e.      Janvi Chow of Janvi Tours arranged a wonderful “foodie” and cultural tour for us in Guangzhou, and was Extremely nice and helpful:
f.        Lyn at Yangtze River Cruises was EXCELLENT! I booked our 4-night river cruise on the Century Diamond directly with her, and she also arranged for cars and drivers for us at each end of the cruise, dinner at the fabulous Fang Weng Hanging Restaurant in Yichang before we boarded, train tickets, and a flight, and everything worked out perfectly! The cruise from Yichang to Chonqing through the Gorges was one of The highlights of our month in China, and is an absolute must-do! We HIGHLY recommend them and will definitely use them again! Details and photos will be in my post on the cruise.
12.    If you intend to use the internet in China and need access to Google, Facebook, etc., you Must have a VPN, as The Great Internet Wall of China blocks those sites. We bought a one month subscription to ExpressVPN for $12.95, downloaded it easily onto our laptop, and it worked great. Yes, it can be a little slow, but it enabled us to check and respond to our business’ emails (most important), and to post on Facebook and stay in touch with friends… Most Chinese use WeChat, which is the Chinese version of Facebook- and they are on it All The Time…
13.    A holiday in China is not going to be inexpensive. For a start, our two Visas cost $520; unless you can actually go to the China Embassy twice, you will have to use one of the “official agents” on the Embassy website, which will add $100 to each Visa. Yes, “hard seat” train tickets are cheap, but Business Class (the best) and First Class train tickets on the world-class Bullet Trains, and Deluxe Sleepers are Not cheap. Entrance fees to attractions are not cheap, either- in Harbin it seemed like almost everything had an entrance fee of 300 RMB, approx. $50. Private tours are not cheap, but we loved all of them, and unless you’re a backpacking kid who likes doing things the hard way, (like I used to, LOL), we highly recommend them, especially if you have limited time. Often the distances between attractions in China are huge, and having a good car and driver, and a knowledgeable guide who speaks English, makes a HUGE difference in how much fun the day will be and how much you will get to see and enjoy!
14.    Tickets to attractions routinely sell out, and the entrance lines are ridiculously long; if you do not book a tour or get tickets to attractions in advance, such as for the Forbidden City, there is a very good chance you are not going to be able to get them, or will have to stand in line all day.
15.    Some things in China Are inexpensive, such as street food and shopping in the markets, but you need to be able to speak Chinese to bargain and get a “real deal”, or have a guide with you who does! Taxis are not expensive- assuming they are legitimate taxis and on the meter. Taxi meters start at different rates depending on the city- in Shanghai and Beijing I believe they started at 12 or 13 RMB (approx. $2), and in other cities at 8 or 8.50 RMB (approx. $1.50). Most Chinese use “Didi Cars”, the Chinese version of Uber, and we used them several times, as well, but you need to have the app on your iphone and be able to speak and read Chinese- or have a friend or guide who does. We hailed a Tuk Tuk in Xi’An and easily negotiated a fare with the driver- EVERYONE in China has an iphone with a translation app! Hotels, even name-brand and “fancy” ones, are, surprisingly, not terribly expensive, either. I used our IHG and Hilton Honors “hotel points” for most of our hotels throughout China, and was amazed at how inexpensive many were- most averaged about $100/night, and some Holiday Inn Express hotels in China were only 5,000 IHG Points a night- truly a cheap thrill! LOL
16.    Staying in really good hotels is a very good idea, especially if you do not speak, read, or write Chinese. In a fine hotel (usually 5-star) you will have access to a concierge who speaks English, and who can write things you need in Chinese, offer recommendations, make reservations that may be impossible to get otherwise, get you a cab, give you directions (and a business card in Chinese to help get you back LOL), change money, store your luggage, make phone calls, etc., and help you trouble-shoot problems that may arise. And after a long day of walking or touring, it is Very nice to come back to a lovely room in a fine hotel, preferably one with a good bar or cafe…  and to wake up to a nice breakfast of eggs and bacon or dim sum! The NUO Beijing Changan - formerly the historic Raffles Hotel- is one of the truly great hotels we chose to splurge on and enjoyed on this trip- and if I could move us in there permanently I would! Details and photos will be in my post on Beijing.
17.    Before we traveled I emailed every hotel and told them how this was our Second Honeymoon, and asked if it was possible for us to have a room with a lovely view or a balcony... and every hotel, without exception, did something wonderful for us! Romance rocks!
18.    Bring cash dollars (only PERFECT bills- no rips, tears, or markings of any kind, or they will not be accepted!), and change money at your hotel- the hotels will give you the correct rate and won’t charge a fee. If you use an ATM to change money in China make sure you are not being charged a fee; note that you will have to insert your passport to use an ATM to change money. The airport money change booth is a total rip-off; we only used it to get a bit of cash when we arrived so as to have cash for taxis and tips. Credit cards are not accepted everywhere and not all credit cards are accepted- so always have cash on you. You will also need to have your passports to enter many attractions, so always carry them.      
19.    Tipping… Tipping in China is usually not done, but we did often tip, especially for great service. All the tours we took wanted us to review them on TripAdvisor, as good reviews are sorely needed for these small businesses to stay in business. They all knocked themselves out to make our tours wonderful and many gave us gifts, as well; we happily gave them all 5 star reviews.        
20.    Do NOT use Expedia- we learned that the hard way, too. Even though we are in the travel business, owning the Elkhorn Inn, and have both lived abroad for decades and traveled the world, we got snookered by Expedia, and ripped off for $800. I booked one of their “bundles” that included flights and a hotel for the first 5 nights of our trip during “Cyber Weekend” in November, convinced it was a great deal… only to see the plane ticket prices slashed in half the next day- and Expedia would do nothing. Their Customer Service is totally non-existent, and even our letter to their CEO went unanswered. To add injury to injury, they stole over 3500 points from our account, as well. We will NEVER use Expedia again.
21.    Do NOT fly United. I should have known better, given all the terrible news reports, but I didn’t listen… Their ground and air crews, especially on the return flights from China to the USA, were on an ugly power-trip of epic proportions, and they made all three flights home as horribly miserable for us as they possibly could. We will never fly United again if we can possibly help it.
Stay tuned- the next post will be on Shanghai and the Water Towns!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

A Greaat Ocean Road trip is incredible in itself.