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Ann and Rick's China Trip

We had a wonderful vacation!  We booked online with Travel in Guilin and had a great experience working with our travel representative, Sunny Xie (sunny@Chinatours.freechinalink.com ).  She was very patient and helpful planning our itinerary to offer suggestions and meet our requests.  Sunny is very responsive to emails and can make any arrangements you might need.  Mid-to-late April and October are supposed to be the best months for traveling in China weather wise, and the fall is said to have less air pollution (which is high in winter and spring).  Do avoid traveling in China on May 1st  (equivalent of Labor Day) and October 1st (National Day) when all of China have a weeklong holiday and go traveling by the millions!  In Beijing we enjoyed beautiful plum, cherry and apple blossoms, as well as flowering magnolia!  The cottonwood trees were sending out so much "cotton" that it looked like it was snowing in some areas!  Our tour included hotel buffet breakfast and a Chinese lunch (excellent food, just too much of it!) each day, and we were on our own most evenings.  We were met at the airport by our tour guide and driver for that city, helped to check in to our hotel, met faithfully for tours, and helped with airport transfers and check in.  Our guides were delightful young men and women who had studied Chinese Culture and English in university.

We arrived in Beijing on April 12 and enjoyed our stay at the beautiful Peninsula Beijing Hotel.  We had a day to rest up and did take a walk in the "neighborhood"—lots of cars, bicycles and people!  The hotel is in a great location for walking, but we learned quickly that pedestrians have NO right of way—even if there is a green walk light!  It is dangerous and quite an adventure to get across any street.  Watching the "traffic dance" we had great admiration for our son's success at bicycling miles across Beijing last year!  At the hotel we enjoyed a fruit that we had never seen before: Fire Dragon Fruit!  It has a lovely pink and green firm skin, the fruit was white with black seeds( resembling small sesame seeds) throughout and it tasted similar to a kiwi.  Do try it if you have the opportunity.  Also we had delicious fresh squeezed grapefruit juice at all the hotels, actually from a palmetto that is quite large and pear shaped.  Everyone is encouraged to drink bottled water throughout mainland China and we never had any stomach problems with the food.  Eastern toilets are typical in public places, but some Western toilets are available in the larger restaurants—and in all hotels.  A packet of tissues in your pocket/purse is a must.

The 14th we did a 3 temple tour:  The Lama Palace (Tibetan Buddhism), The White Cloud Taoist Temple, and the wonderful Tanzhe Temple (40 km from Beijing, and older than the city!).  The Tanzhe is situated on a beautiful peak.  It was the most interesting temple, but involved climbing uphill and quite a few steps.  Saw the biggest magnolia trees we've ever seen!!

Sunday we attended 6:15am Mass at St. Joseph's Church near our hotel.  A large congregation chanted in Chinese throughout the service.  We enjoyed exploring Wangfujing (walking) Street and had dinner at the Courtyard restaurant overlooking the Forbidden City and moat (also within walking distance from our hotel).  The restaurant is contemporary, beautiful décor and an interesting menu.  Unfortunately the flavors did not live up to the beauty of the food on our plates.  We found it typical throughout our tour that there is very little littering (and the streets and sidewalks are swept twice a day!) but that spitting anywhere is still an issue despite attempts at public education.  Throughout our tour we were pleased and amazed how many Chinese tourists we saw.  Many walked in large groups with matching colored baseball caps led by a tour guide with a colored flag!

Monday we started touring in earnest.  We were dropped off with our guide, Annika (all guides had a western name as well as their Chinese name), at one end of Tian'anmen Square and continued walking through the Forbidden City South Gate to the back gate to meet our driver.  We had our first of many stops at a shop after the tours during the week—fresh water pearls, jade and silk.  We then toured the beautiful Temple of Heaven and were finished by 3pm and were too tired to wait for a Kungfu Show at 5:30.  There was quite a bit of renovation work going on in all three of these main sites prior to the Olympics, with some buildings closed to the public.  Actually, all over Beijing there was an amazing amount of construction and renovation going on!!  Quite a forest of construction cranes! 

Tuesday the 17th we had an early start to walk the Sacred Road, lined with large animal and human statues, and see the Ming Tombs (9 flights of steps up and down!).  We drove through orchards and country fields to the Mutianyu Great Wall (70 km north of Beijing), which has a 1580 meter cable car to transport you to the wall (of course there were plenty of steps at both end to keep us in shape!).  The Great Wall is truly spectacular, and Rick's favorite tour of the trip.  How they moved all that stone up those mountains (much less food and water for millions of workers) is quite amazing.  We decided early on that the Chinese are in good physical shape with all the walking, steps, hills/mountains and terraced farming they do!!  Be sure to have good walking shoes!!  We enjoyed a delicious roasted Peking Duck dinner at one of the oldest restaurants (1864) in Beijing, Qianmen Quanjude.

The 18th we enjoyed a long stroll through the lovely Summer Place.  Again, there were thousands of Chinese tourists and many school children.  Sadly the air was quite hazy.  We had quite a time with our allergies and were glad we had brought antihistamines and cold medications.  We also visited a Hutong in Beijing—a narrow-pathed old neighborhood.  We stopped at one family’s courtyard home and visited with the owner.  Four generations (eighteen people) live in this small but multi-building home (which has been in the family 80 years).  We walked through the hutong and stopped at a school for deaf children.

The 19th we flew Air China to Xi'an and were met by our new guide, Roy.  After a quick check in at the Sofitel Hotel we left to see the Big Wild Goose Pagoda (now the center of four large avenues), passing through a traffic gate in the old Xi’an City Wall, and particularly enjoyed the excellent Shanxi Historical Museum.  It has wonderful artifacts from the Western Han Dynasty (BC202-AD24) that were unearthed from a funerary pit.  We attended a dinner show that evening, Tang Yuegong, which featured good food, lovely dancing and performances of ancient musical instruments.  My favorite was the sheng:  http://www.paulnoll.com/China/Music/mus-sheng.html  This site shows many of the other instruments.  Interesting!!

We were excited the 20th to finally see the famous 2000 year old Terra-cotta Warriors, part of the large tomb area of Emperor QinShihuang, the first emperor of China.  The three pits are within enclosed buildings for protection, about a 10-15 min. walk from the parking lot.  Even though it was only discovered by farmers in 1974, sadly some years after it was built, the weapons of the warrior statues were raided and the wooden roof over the figures set on fire.  The roof collapsed, leaving most of the terra-cotta figures broken.  Many were painstakingly reconstructed.   There are parts of the pits where the terra-cotta has remained covered for future excavation when technology is more advanced and the colors painted on the figures can be preserved.  Of course there were many tourist shops outside the grounds.  We visited a factory that makes reproductions of the warriors, which gave us a better idea of how they had been created.  After a very nice Chinese lunch we visited the Bell Tower (more steps!) and then went to the lovely 1200 year old Grand Mosque in the Chinese Muslim area.  Wonderful mixed architecture combining traditional Muslim and Chinese styles.  The call to prayer tower had an upturned roof and green dragon on top (and no loud speakers!)

The 21st we had an early pickup for our Hainan Airlines flight to Chongqing.  We were quite impressed with the different Chinese airlines we flew inter-city and how large and modern the airports were.  We were met by our next guide, David Liao.  He took us to Ciqikou Old Town, a preserved old guild housing and social area, then to the Chongqing Zoo to see the giant pandas, the Chinese Red Panda (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Red_Panda), two sleeping tigers and a Tibetan bear.  He also took us to E’ling (Goose Neck) Park that has a good view of the city and Yangtze River, and a great mural of the Yangtze River showing the pre-dam water levels and elevation marks showing the huge populated land masses that have been/will be covered when completed.  Originally the river was 100 meters above sea level, it is now 150m and will be at 175m in 2009.  It was a good review prior to our cruise.  David delivered us to our Yangtze 1 cruise ship about 5pm, which we had to climb down numerous steps to the river shore and walk across the rock on planks.  Fortunately he arranged for 2 porters to carry our two suitcases.  Our cabin was small, simple and comfortable, except for the extremely firm mattresses, which we found were the norm in China!! 

Sunday morning at 8 we got underway heading downstream.  At all meals we were seated with a nice group from the USA, Canada and South Africa!  There was a lovely group from Tasmania that we enjoyed meeting, and the majority of the passengers were Chinese.  Rick and I passed on the shore excursion to see Fengdu Ghost City later in the day.  It was raining and we had had enough climbing and walking on all our tours.  We were ready to relax, read and play cribbage!  The river and views were wonderful.

Monday we stopped at Wushan.  The old town is completely underwater now, but the new city built higher on the mountains is much larger.  All buildings in the path of the rising water have been torn down so they won’t be a hazard to navigation.  Numerous bridges also have to be replaced because of the rising water level, including one at Wushan they now call the “Bye Bye Bridge.”  The local farmers have new homes and many have been relocated to other provinces.  About a million people have been relocated from along the river!  We transferred to a ferry for a 5 hour excursion up the beautiful Daning River (Daninghe), also called Little Three Gorges, and back.  A guide told us this part of the river was very narrow and shallow and could be crossed by wading 4 years ago.  Even small sampans couldn't pass.  Passengers, including tourists, would be "invited" to get out and walk and sometimes help pull the boat up the river toward the gorges.  We returned to our ship and completed our journey, docking overnight at the Maoping Dock (Peace Dock).

Tuesday the 24th we were transferred with our luggage to buses to tour the impressive Three Gorges Dam and fascinating huge 5 level locks that hold several large ships and take about 4 hours to transition from one side of the dam to the other.  There is an "elevator" being constructed to move smaller vessels (less than 3000 tons), which will take about 30 min.!  We were then driven on a picturesque road on the side of a mountain along the river that cost 1 billion RMB to build (5 tunnels and 40 bridges) to the Three Gorges Tourists Center in Yichang.  Our new guide Michael and our driver met us and took us to lunch.  It was an interesting 300km expressway drive to Wuhan through farming and city areas.  Fields in most parts of China are small, planted and harvested by hand, and still plowed with water buffalo. We were interested in the numerous fish farming ponds.  Wuhan is a huge city, with large automobile factories and big population of foreign workers, particularly French.  We stayed at the Shangri-la Hotel Wuhan.

Wednesday the 25th we had a morning tour of the exceptional Hubei Provincial Museum with thousands of exquisite artifacts excavated in 1978 from the tomb of Zeng Hou Yi.  We enjoyed a performance of chime bells, stone chimes and other ancient instruments.  The museum is being expanded and is a must see! (Open 8:30am-5pm; Chime performances at 10a and two other times for a separate charge of 30RMB.)   We also stopped by the Yellow Crane Tower before heading for the airport at 11:30am for a flight to Guilin.  We were met by our delightful (and one of our favorites) guide, Rebecca, who helped us check in at the Sheraton Guilin. Guilin is known for the beautiful scenery and had over a million tourists in 2006.  There was less pollution as the top industries are tourism, agriculture and pharmaceuticals (no large factories).

The following morning she took us to the Elephant Trunk Hill, a beautiful park on the Li and Peach Blossom Rivers that features the Water Moon Cave.  One side of the cave drops into the water making an image quite like an elephant drinking from the Li River.  Many minorities settled in this area so there are beautiful costumes for show and photo opportunities.  We stopped by the CITS travel agency office and finally met our delightful agent, Sunny!  Rebecca then took us to Fubo (Whirlpool) Hill to overlook the city—but be warned!  There are 318 steps up and 318 back down!!!  Reed Flute Cave was extensive but easier to walk through.  We enjoyed the limestone formations, stalactites and stalagmites and lit pools.  That evening really enjoyed Rebecca's company on a boat ride of the 4 lakes next to our hotel (Fir Lake, Banyan Lake, Osmanthus (a favorite tree in the area with fragrant flowers) Lake and Wooded Dragon Lake).  It is beautifully lit at night and features waterfalls, hills, cormorant fishing exhibition from bamboo fishing rafts, and numerous bridges built to resemble famous bridges around the world (including a little Golden Gate!).  It was a delightful experience that we highly recommend.

The 27th we were driven 40 min. to the wharf to board our ferry for the Li River Cruise.  Rebecca joined us.  This was the most beautiful countryside we saw in China.  It is a 52 mile ride to Yangshuo that included a buffet lunch.  We passed bamboo groves, sleepy villages, water buffalo, fishermen, and the most amazing shaped peaks in the mist with wonderful names such as Looking Out For Husband Rock, Nine Horses Painting Hill, and Boy Worshipping Guanyin (goddess of mercy).  Arriving in Yangshuo about 2pm we walked the gauntlet of numerous vendors to our hotel, the Paradesa Yangshuo Resort.  The area is cooler than Guilin.  We were glad we had jackets with us.  Also we had brought bug repellent, and did see quite a number of mosquitoes on the river and in Yangshuo, including our hotel room.

Our driver met us the next morning and Rebecca showed us 2 local "sites", the Big Banyan Tree (1410 years old) and drove where we could see the Yangshuo Moon Mountain.  Fortunately for us it was raining and we declined walking up the 980 stone steps to see the Moon Cave!!  We highly recommend the Li River Cruise, but would suggest it is better to be met and driven back to Guilin that same day after a quick look at the shops-and skip the Tree and Moon Mountain. We did see lovely rice fields and green farmland on the return.  We were very fortunate we didn't have rain on all our tour days this trip as most of the sites are outdoors and we would have needed better raincoats and bigger umbrellas than we had with us.

Sunday the 29th was a busy day.  Rebecca picked us up early for our 9:30am China Southern Airline flight to Guangzhou (Canton, city of 10 million people).  We were met by Lucia and our first stop was the Dr. Sun Yat Sen Memorial Hall, then on to the impressive Chen Ancestral Shrine which is more like a fine art center.  The Cantonese architecture and decoration is also quite different.  We had a wonderful lunch at a Cantonese restaurant that is over 100 years old.  As I mentioned, we always were offered a huge variety of food for lunches—a soup, chicken dish, beef dish, pork dish, fish dish, rice, a vegetable dish and fresh fruit for a finish!!  We didn't want to see any more temples or hills, so Lucia took us on a delightful walk after lunch through the legendary Qingping Market with multiple shops of Chinese medicines (including live scorpions!!), spices, fish, pets, and flowers.  We also walked on to Shamian Island, the colonial area developed in 1843 by the British.  The architecture is very European.  There is a famous hotel on the Island called the White Swan Hotel on the Pearl River.  We walked further to see a beautiful Catholic church, Our Lady of Lourdes Chapel.  There were two young Chinese couples being photographed in full Western wedding dress by the chapel, but wouldn't be married there.  Lucia recommended a Pearl River evening cruise if we ever stayed in the city.  It starts at 6:30pm and every 30 min. for a 1 ½ - 2 hour cruise to see the lights of Guangzhou.  We met our driver and Lucia helped us check our bags and get our train tickets at the large train station (resembled a modern airline terminal!!) (Note: internal flights in China allow one checked bag per person with a 20kg maximum weight.  A carry on is allowed and never weighed.  Apparently the bag number and weight can be argued if you show international destination tickets, but we didn't want to tempt fate.)  The express train was very comfortable and took 1hr 45 min to the Kowloon train station.
We were met at the station by another CITS agent and driver, but found that our Kowloon hotel was very close and a taxi would have been easy to take.  We have stayed at the "sleeper" YMCA Salisbury hotel several times.  It has an excellent location next door to the famous (and expensive) Peninsula Hotel and the Star Ferry building.  http://www.asiatravel.com/hongkong/ymcasalisbury   We like the "Family Suite" with a lovely living room and separate bedroom, and a harbor view.  The room to request is a X-31, best 1031 or higher.  We had 731 this time and our harbor view was blocked in front by the Cultural Center.  You would need to book well in advance as this is a great deal!!

We were in Hong Kong for five days and enjoyed old and new sights.  Our favorite haunt is Hollywood Road, the antique store row.  We have a favorite, Arch Angel, that is as much a museum as a store.  We have bought an alter table, 2000 year old Han terra-cotta figure and a marvelous wooden bench in the past, and found a lovely bronze Buddha this visit.  This visit we enjoyed riding the Central/Mid-levels Escalator, the world's longest (800 meters) which travels uphill daily from 10:30am to midnight and walking over to the Zoological and Botanical Gardens.  The subway system (MRT) is very easy to use, reasonable and clean (about $1.25 one-way from Kowloon to mid-level Hong Kong).  Note: that even though there are escalators and some stations with elevators, most also have stairs to climb.  Past favorite trips were taking the Peak Tram (restaurants at the top), and several activities and sites in Kowloon including the exceptionally interesting Hong Kong Museum of History (Chatham Road South at Cheong Wan Rd.), afternoon tea at the Peninsula Hotel, drinks and appetizers at sunset in the lobby bar at the Intercontinental Hotel overlooking the water and Hong Kong skyline, good pub grub at Delaney's Irish Pub, and a ride on the Star Ferry.  (Note: The staff at the tourist information center at the Kowloon Ferry Building are very helpful!)

Our son had loaned us his cell phone that he bought in Beijing and it made life so easy.  We could purchase telephone cards for 100RMB at most hotels and newsstands.  We could call the kids easily, and make calls to our agent, Sunny.  It worked everywhere in China except Hong Kong.  has cell phones for rent as well.

A fascinating book about life in China and the impact of Mao on the nation is Wild Swans by Jung Chang.  It describes 3 generations of her strong family: her grandmother, a warlord's concubine, her mother's struggles as a young idealistic Communist; her parents' experience as members of the Communist elite and the family's ordeal during the Cultural Revolution.

I am now reading, River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze by Peter Hessler, recommended by our new Pretoria friends from our river cruise.  It is about his experiences as a Peace Corps teacher living in Fuling on the Yangtze and Wu Rivers from 1996-98.

 

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