Traveling to China Without a Tour

First, let me be very clear that I love tours.  They can take all the work out of travel and allow you to see, learn and experience things you’d otherwise miss when doing it on your own.  However, sometimes a tour doesn’t fit your needs, time frame or mood for a particular trip.  So here’s a blog about my “DIY” experience in China while visiting my daughter, who is living and working in Chengdu.

 

Chengdu

Arriving at the airport and getting through security in Chengdu was quick and easy. I had a non-stop 15-hour flight from JFK to Chengdu on Hainan Airlines, which just recently expanded to offering international flights to/from the U.S. and mainland China. The passengers were almost exclusively Chinese.  However, the flight attendants spoke English and everything was presented in English as well as Chinese.  The flight was smooth and pleasant, the seats were comfortable, the food was tasty and the service was very good.  It was interesting to be served hot water, rather than cold, to stay hydrated throughout the flight, but that was a fun beginning to the cultural differences between our two countries and I found the hot water soothing during an overnight flight.

 

The metro and train both go right to the airport, so the adventurous and those comfortable with metro systems, can go right into the station, purchase a ticket and use public transportation for approximately $1.  My daughter met me at the metro station, so I didn’t have to be too adventurous, which was nice since I was exhausted and ready to just be led. DIY TIP: If you’re headed to any of China’s main cities and want to use the public transportation, download a metro map app in advance (such as “Chengdu Metro Map”) and know ahead of time which stop you’ll need for your hotel.  Also be sure to have Chinese Yuan on hand in small denominations.  You will not be able to use credit cards or USD.  There are automatic machines as well as a ticket window for purchasing tickets and the metro itself is smooth, clean and efficient.

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Hannah meeting me at the metro in the Chengdu Airport

Chengdu is a sprawling city that unfortunately suffers from incredible pollution. The inland location and being surrounded by mountains causes the pollution to be trapped. Gray skies are normal and air quality is not good.  However, the city has its charms.  The food is both excellent and inexpensive.  It’s famous throughout China for its Szechuan cuisine, which is spicy and delicious.  Hot pot restaurants are also popular and fun.

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Famous Chinese Hot Pot in a spicy broth or plain

We visited the monastery in Taikoo Li, which had beautiful artwork and offered some interesting glimpses into the Buddhist religion.  I found it intriguing that there were a series of temples, each portraying Buddha in very different forms, some of which were almost cartoonish in character. Yet it was a place of meditation for the believing Buddhists, not just a place to be admired for its artwork and creativity.  Buddhism in Vietnam, Cambodia and China is unique to each country and region, and very syncretistic.

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Outdoor displays around the temple area – this one for Chinese New Year

Shopping is definitely a main pastime in China. The malls are plentiful and massive. They are also very modern and beautiful. The New Century Global Center is jaw-dropping.  It’s hard to describe how vastly huge the place is when you walk up to it.  Inside, the soaring marble atrium, and vast amenities are impressive.  There’s an IMAX, a full waterpark, an ice-skating rink, an Intercontinental hotel, and a myriad of shops, cafés and restaurants.  But malls are massive and everywhere.  Here’s one that gives a nod to the animal that put Chengdu on the global map: the panda.

 

Naturally, we had to take a morning to visit the famous Panda sanctuary.  This place isn’t just great for pandas, it’s great for humans.  The vast, green park is an oasis on the edge of the city. The park is really well done and we loved the gardens, the pandas (especially the babies!) and the discovery center with information about the history of protecting pandas and breeding them in Chengdu.

BEIJING

We left Chengdu for an 8-night stay in Cambodia and Vietnam (see my separate blog for those countries).  When we returned to China at the end of that trip, we flew from Ho Chi Minh City to Beijing. We were supposed to arrive in Bejing just after midnight, but the plane had a defective front tire.  It was maddening to watch from the terminal as 5 people stood around and talked while 1 or 2 intermittently did the work to change the tire. Even after it was changed (which took an hour of waiting and conversing with 10 minutes of work), something was still not right and another 45 minutes elapsed before the correct person could arrive to do whatever needed to be done.

By that point, there was no way we were going to make our connection in Guangzhou. I was preparing in my mind, thinking about where we should go at the airport to be re-scheduled and then where I would get internet to try to book a hotel. However, none of that was necessary. China Southern was very impressive. We arrived in Guangzhou and there was a team of China Southern employees flagging us down as we exited the plane. They put red stickers on us, directed us where to go for customs and immigration and then met us on the other side of that line. We were accompanied to another area, where we were given our new tickets for an early morning flight and maps that explained where we should go in the airport to be assigned a hotel. Everything was done in English for us and they even explained that our luggage would be handled by them, so we didn’t need to do anything with it.

At the hotel desk, we were given a choice of hotels, vouchers to hand to the hotel, and then were transported free of charge to and from the hotel.  It was very impressive! The hotel left a lot to be desired (no way were we showering there and the carpet was so filthy we wouldn’t dare take off our shoes except in bed).  The bed was also standard Chinese, which means it was literally a board. However, they had tooth brushes and robes and the sheets were clean.  We were so thankful to have all that fuss navigated for us!  Another big shout-out to the Chinese airlines (both China Southern and Hainan Airlines, which I flew on for a combined 7 flights during this trip) is that even for the shorter domestic flights just under 2 hours long, a hot meal and drinks were always served free of charge.  Luggage was also free. After getting bare bones service from American airline companies for so many years, it felt like a real treat.

Entering Beijing, my first impression was how sprawling the city is. There is also such a mixture of old and ultra-modern.  While the metro in Chengdu has everything in dual languages, including the choice for English at the self-service ticket kiosks, Beijing sometimes has translations and sometimes not.  Hannah had downloaded metro maps for each city we were in, which helped, but it’s not always obvious which metro stop you need for various tourist sites.  For example, we headed straight to our hotel by taxi (DIY Tip: only use the metered taxis at the official taxi stands where there are attendants!).  I have to admit we stayed in American chain hotels and were very grateful for the cleanliness and amenities. Our beds were heavenly and the staff was able to accommodate us in English.  I don’t like to be an arrogant American, but the fact is, you just can’t learn all you need to know in a language just to visit a foreign country once or twice. So picking hotels where English was spoken well was critical. Our mistake was that we forgot to explain to the concierge that we wanted to go to the Summer Palace, and off we headed to the nearest metro.  When we got there, there was no English translation at the ticket machines and we couldn’t figure out which stop we needed.  Thankfully, a helpful lady at the information desk in the metro was able to help us.  We learned to use lots of pantomime and Google translate!

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Even after we got off the metro, it wasn’t immediately obvious which way to head for the Summer Palace.  There was an exit sign with the name in English, but upon exiting, no further directions.  We walked around for a bit until we found the entrance.  From there everything became obvious because we just followed the massive crowds.  Unprepared for a decision of “through” tickets vs. “entry” tickets, we went with the less expensive option. We assumed as we walked along that the “entry” tickets allowed you into the few places that had indoor exhibits.  We didn’t see many.  In fact, we were surprised by how much of the park was exactly that, a beautiful park with decorative pavilions, some temples, lots of walking paths and as always, lots of shopping stands. We walked around and enjoyed the beautiful views. Having rented an audio guide inside the gate, we thought we’d get a bit of history.  But it only worked for us in a few areas, so we got very little from it. DIY Tip: Don’t count on an audio guide since quality is questionable. We made the entire circuit, though the lake area was closed because it was frozen. Fatigued from fighting hordes of people, we returned to our hotel, which was like an oasis of peace and comfort after navigating busy streets, crowds of people and packed metros.

Our next morning in Beijing, we had pre-scheduled a tour of the Jinshanling section of the Great Wall. Our pick-up time of 6:20 am was confirmed by the tour operator the night before.  I chose section because it’s much less crowded than the Badaling or Mutianyu sections.  However, the pick-up was bizarre. We were picked up in a large van, then transferred to a motor-coach with other people, then transferred to yet another motor-coach. By the time we were on our way to the Great Wall, about 1 ½ hours had been wasted transferring from bus to bus. When we got to the Great Wall, our small group of mixed Chinese and English-speakers were given a very brief overview, then some instructions, and then set free to walk the wall and return to our meeting point on our own.  It was nice to be able to go at our own pace, but we were given very little information. DIY Tip: If going again, I think I’d opt for a private tour where I could save several hours in transportation and be able to ask some questions. However, it was nice to just explore.  At the end, we were all taken to a little restaurant, set at tables of 8-12, and fed a really nice home-style Chinese meal with many choices on a huge lazy-Susan in the middle. We had fun meeting our co-travelers. At our table, we had 2 other Americans, 2 Australians who are touring the world for a year, 3 Italians and 2 Chinese. Then we had the several-hour drive back to Beijing in traffic.

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Xi’an

No rest the next morning as we had to leave for the airport by 4:30 am.  I was starting to wonder what my travel agent was thinking with this schedule! 🙂  Thankfully, there’s little traffic at that hour, we cleared security quickly and our flight was on time. So things went smoothly.  We took another official airport taxi to our hotel in the Xi’an city center, which was about a 45-minute drive. Our hotel kindly let us check in early, so we dropped off our luggage, washed up quickly, and headed out walking about a mile to the central train station. That’s where we could catch bus 306 to the Terra-Cotta warriors.  We found the bus line easily, but had to endure constant loud yelling by official-looking people trying to get you to leave the public bus line to go to their private bus line. DIY Tip: The public bus, which takes about an hour, costs only 7 RMB ($1) per person.  I’m not sure how much more the non-stop private buses were charging, but we were so put off by the obnoxious screaming and pushing tactics that we wouldn’t have gone on those for any price. We got on the bus, paid the attendant after departing, and arrived at the Terra-Cotta Warriors at about noon. I was worried about buying tickets because I had read that they stop selling them when the site gets too crowded.  However, that didn’t seem to be the case.  Perhaps being Chinese New Year made a difference?  Regardless, we had to laugh at the ticketing lines.  It wasn’t the first time we found that some lines were super short while others were really long and everyone queued up in the long lines. The explanation for ticket purchases at the ticket windows was only in Chinese, so we couldn’t read them and thought it must be that the shorter lines were for some priority ticket.  However, a nice Chinese guy went in the line, came out with his tickets and stopped by us and said in English, “Go get in that line! Tickets the same!  Line very short!”  I asked, “Are they special tickets?”  He said, “No, no, just normal.  Go!”  So Hannah went and I stayed in the other line and sure enough, it was a normal ticket line. Lots of people followed behind her when she moved over.  DIY Tip: People just seem to be so accustomed to waiting in long lines that they assume if most people are in one line, it’s the right line. We were thankful for that nice guy and his advice since we couldn’t read a thing!

That’s one thing that kept surprising us in Beijing and Xi’an.  Chengdu has so much in both English and Chinese that Hannah has become accustomed to that and thought it was the norm.  But there were a lot of times that even the major tourist spots had almost no English, or any other language, for that matter. It seems most foreigners travel with group trips, so the other languages at the major tourist sites must not be a priority. It caught us off-guard, but we found ways to figure things out. It helped a lot that Hannah can say a few key things in Chinese, has a Chinese phone with a translator and data, and the ability to pay using the Chinese payment system.  DIY Tip: Credit cards are useless except at major hotel chains, and we even ran into one case at the Xi’an North train station metro stop where we couldn’t pay with cash in RMB. We had to use her WeChat payment scan code.

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Example of lines going into the Terra Cotta Warriors as we head out

Once we made our way into the Terra-Cotta Warriors, we had to brace ourselves once again for absolute congestion.  Here there were many signs in both Chinese and English explaining what we were seeing, relating some history, and describing the archaeological digging process. We were pleasantly surprised and grateful at this point!  Sadly, the crowds were so thick that we were moving in waves of bodies, just trying to stay in one spot long enough to actually see the objects and read. Though we had many nice encounters one-on-one with kind people, in crowds, mass mentality takes over.  At one point, I was shoved so hard in the back, I turned around to glare (usually we just accepted that we would be pushed and shoved).  It was a tiny old lady studiously ignoring eye contact, but shoving her way through the masses. Shocking, but it seems it’s just survival when there are so many people.

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After making our way through the three halls, we stopped for lunch and took time to de-compress.  It was fascinating, but wow, what chaos! I imagine it’s a bit better if going outside the several weeks around Chinese New Year!  Also, if it fits in your schedule, it’s definitely best to get there right when it opens. Although I’d been trying lots of local foods and some drinks (like hot sesame seed water served with our meal), on the way out of the Terra-Cotta Warriors complex, there was a massive shopping area that included a Starbucks. It was a magnet.  I ordered a soy milk mocha and Hannah had her Green tea latte and we were fully restored to a good mood.  Sometimes you just need a little of the comfort of home!

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Sometimes, even in China, we just need a Starbucks break.  Hannah and I loved this girl’s style!

We queued up for the public bus again, returned to the train station, and walked the mile back to our hotel in the dark.  Thankfully, cities in China are pretty safe if you pay attention and stay in main areas. We are limited to menus that show pictures of what you’re ordering, so we shopped around a bit on our way back for the right kind of restaurant and found one only a few doors down from our hotel. There were a few mistakes with the order, even with us pointing at pictures (some had options involved), but we were happy with what we got and just considered it another adventure.

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First Class Compartment on the bullet train to Huashan

So tired, we fell into bed, but had yet another early morning.  I had pre-purchased bullet train tickets for one of the earliest trains available to Huashan, which are the mountains outside Xi’an, known as the mountains that inspired the Avatar movie scenery.  I could have hired a private transfer, but it was very pricey and I thought the bullet train would be a quicker option.  While the bullet train was fun to ride, smooth and super-fast (305 km/hour), by the time we had walked to the metro stop, took 2 metro trains to the train station, took the bullet train to Huashan station, and took the free No. 1 bus from the train station to the ticket center, it didn’t save us any time.  We then had to purchase park entrance tickets and a shuttle bus ticket into the park.

At that point, we had to make the decision of going on the North Cable car or the West Cable car. The majority of people take either roundtrip West Cable cars or go up the West and come down the North.  This is because the West Cable car arrives at a much higher peak, so you can opt to just visit the 2 most dramatic peaks without as much stair-climbing, or you can make the whole circuit of all the peaks and finish at the lower one, avoiding much of the climbing. There’s also the option to hike (a cement path and stairs) all the way up as well.  This path was mostly covered in snow when we were there at the end of February, so that really wasn’t an option for us.  We decided to take the North Cable car to get in a bit of exercise and also save some money (roundtrip on the West Cable car costs 3x more).

As we learned, we would never have made it hiking up plus doing all the peaks in one day and we certainly didn’t have to worry about exercise!  We arrived around 9 am, when it opened, and weren’t on the cable car to return down until after 4:00 pm, about an hour before closing.  We had arrived at the cable car station by 3:30, but the line took a solid half-hour. In addition to the time issue, our legs were exhausted. By the end of the day, Hannah’s phone app said we climbed 245 stories with only 9 miles. It was almost exclusively on stairs. Even if not completely accurate, we climbed a LOT of stairs.

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Stunning cable car views to North station with snow-covered steps below

Huashan is stunning. I’m really glad we went.  We were so lucky that the day warmed up to the point where we were stripping down to one layer (we were prepared for below 30 temps) and the sky was clear blue.  Much of the snow from the previous months was melting, though some of the steps were still pretty treacherous.  We also got there at the very end of the low season pricing. High season is very expensive when adding up the transportation to and from the park, the park entrance fee, the shuttle buses within the park, and the cable cars.

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Notice the line-up of people on the stairs?

As with everything we encountered, we had numerous times when we were in lines of people, walking the paths and up and down the stairs.  For this reason, we especially enjoyed the East and South peaks.  They are not visited by everyone, so the crowds are much thinner and the views are still dramatic. There were, once again, many stands and cafes selling food and trinkets all along the paths. Our favorite trinkets were the medals (which we assumed said something like, “I climbed Mt. Huashan.”). We were very impressed by some of the young children (and older people as well!) who were diligently making their way up stairway after stairway. We decided most of those kids deserved a medal, even if they only made it to a couple of the peaks!  In many areas, there are locks with red ribbons clasped to the chains that line the paths, which are supposed to ensure everlasting love for couples who leave them behind.

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Our return train was at 6:00 pm and I thought I had allotted plenty of time.  As it was, we got turned around and didn’t see the return free bus stand and started worrying about making it to the train station in time to make our train.  Thankfully, Hannah has a Didi app.  This is the Chinese version of Uber. It’s hooked up to her Chinese payment system, so she could order us a Didi car and just like Uber, we could track it as it arrived.  She paid with the app when ordering the car, so we just hopped in and paid only 10 RMB ($1.45) for the two of us to be quickly and comfortably brought back to the train station.  We should have been using that more often!  There were taxis lined up and one tried to get us ride for 110 RMB. Taxis are not supposed to advertise a price.  All pricing should be set by the meter.  So aside from getting a taxi at the airport or one ordered by our hotel, we refused to use them.

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Taxis lined up to the right.  The bus was around the circle on a different street.  Didi came straight to where we were standing!

Finally, the day we were leaving Xi’an and taking the brand new bullet train line to Chengdu, we got to sleep in.  What a needed break!  We relaxed in the hotel until noon, then made our trek by walking to the metro and taking 2 metro lines to the train station.  It was noon on Saturday at the end of Chinese New Year.  We weren’t thinking.  While we were squashed into the metro with our luggage and backpacks, I asked Hannah why we didn’t hire a Didi.  She just shrugged.  We were both so programmed to take the metro that it was just what we did.  We won’t make that mistake again.

Traveling on your own in China is NOT easy. Without Hannah’s knowledge of how things work, all her phone apps for metro maps, google translate, Didi and WeChat Pay, it would have been a real challenge to get around.  We had a great time and saw most everything on my “must-do” list for China. But it was definitely exhausting and took an enormous amount of planning.  Here’s a list of some hints for traveling to this vast and interesting country:

  1. Bring plenty of Chinese Juan (RMB) in all denominations. You will almost never be able to use your credit or debit card.
  2. Download metro maps for any of the cities you’ll be visiting before you leave.
  3. Download Google Translate.
  4. Get the names and addresses of your hotels in Chinese so you can show them to taxi drivers or people helping you find your way.
  5. Watch out for people in uniforms yelling at you to get in other bus lanes if waiting for local busses to popular attractions.  There are often private companies running busses along the same routes at higher costs.
  6. Be ready to go through security checks at every metro and train station.  Be ready to quickly put all items on the scan belt and walk through the detectors.
  7. Many bathrooms have in-the-floor toilets as well as a few western-style toilets.  If you don’t want to use the floor toilets, check all the stalls to see if there are western toilets available.
  8. Bring tissues with you.  Sometimes there’s toilet paper, but not always.
  9. If you are sensitive to air quality, bring or purchase a mask.
  10. Google is not available in China, but Bing is.

If you’re interested in a trip to China, whether by tour (recommended unless you’re visiting someone there!) or on your own, I’d love to help you plan your vacation!

3 thoughts on “Traveling to China Without a Tour”

  1. Sounds like quite the adventure! Seth works in Hong Kong August-January and travels to China to rock climb while he is over there. We have never visited, though.
    Thank you for helping Noah and Darbey with their honeymoon plans!

    Like

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