Monday, August 7, 2017

China (Beijing, Xian, Shanghai)

For about two years, China had been on my list, just because I wanted to go see The Great Wall, the only wonder of the world left on my bucket list! But for some reason or the other, it didn't happen. So when it was time to plan for our next vacation, the decision was simple. We gotta go to China, and any other place would be a bonus. Here is our brief itinerary:
Day 0: Arrive in Beijing
Day 1: Tour of Great Wall of China -> half a day in Beijing
Day 2: Forbidden City -> Train to Xian
Day 3: Xian tour -> Terracotta warriors -> Fly to Shanghai
Day 4: Suzhou day tour
Day 5: Hangzhou day tour
Day 6: Shanghai day tour -> Fly out around midnight
This is a part of a much longer three week itinerary where we traveled to Indonesia, Cambodia and Singapore with a one day stop over at Kuala Lumpur

What to expect:

Let us get the expectations right. There are plenty of similarities between India and China, both being overpopulated, modern developing countries. I felt in many ways, China was more developed than India. But here are some observations and pointers to keep in mind:

Comfortable high speed trains
  • There is no concept of a queue. It is mostly a funnel. After a couple of days, I was in that mode as well, "hum jahan khare hote hain, line wahin se shuru hoti hai". And it took me a while to unwind from that mode after getting back. Glad I grew up in India and knew how to deal with it.
  • Hailing a cab is an art. But it isn't important that the person who hailed the cab, would be the one to get in. Person closest to where the cab stops, usually gets in. And the cabs can outrightly refuse to take you.
  • Traffic is crazy. But, no matter how crowded it is, honking was way less than what I hear in India, close to nil. I was super impressed.
  • Delayed flights are a norm. Be surprised if your flight is on time. And this is in general for east and south east Asia. No one will update the monitors or make announcements about the delay.
  • China is surprisingly clean, with no garbage on the roads.
  • People do not speak English. Use google translate even for address translations. And carry taxi cards for your cab drivers. they are life savers.
  • Always take cabs from taxi queues outside your train stations or airports. Some drivers might offer you out of line service and you may be enticed to skip the queue, but it is not legit and they will ask for twice or thrice the amount. And always go by meter.
  • People won't keep their phone on silent. There is no concept of personal space (remember we are in an overpopulated area), so in trains, buses, queues, no one leaves a gap. Just like home, India.
  • Carry cash. Credit cards are not widely accepted. People mostly use phones to pay using their Wechat app. And you cannot link your cards to this app, as you don't have Chinese bank accounts. So, this is really tedious for travelers. So always remember to carry cash.
  • I was able to use my cell phone through VPN and we had cell reception in most of the places.
  • China has their own version of an app for every app in the US. And mostly, its a better version. they have their own, Google (Baidu), Uber, Whatsapp, etc. 
  • Most resourceful website was: Travel China Guide

When to go:

Super crowded Forbidden City entrance
We travelled in the hot and humid month of August. It was pretty much like Indian summers when we were feeling super hot and sweating the entire day. Good thing was we knew what to expect and planned our visit in such a way that we would be go out after breakfast and get back around noon and then step out in the evening again. Or we would travel in the air conditioned vehicles/public transportation.
One thing to remember is that all touristy places are super crowded during summer break (June-July-August) and during Chinese New Year. August is comparatively less crowded for summer vacation travels, but I thought it was still quite crowded. 

Where to fly:

Depend on what route you are planning. We intended to travel further to south east Asia and hence decided to fly into Beijing first. Luckily, the flight options were also plenty from this airport and hence we picked Beijing. Also, if you intend to visit only the great wall, their is a 72-hour visa on arrival for many countries. You could easily see a few landmarks in that time around Beijing.

Transportation between cities:

China is very well connected with high speed trains and flights. Of course both the options are pretty convenient. Pick the one that's available and suits your time and budget goals.
  • Trains are on time, neat and clean. Getting to the station and designated waiting room is pretty straightforward and language isn't an issue. Only thing is that you have to book them in advance through a third party and they need to send you paper tickets. We booked all our tickets from the travel china website and we received them at our hotel. Simple and easy.
  • Air tickets can be bought online, but we booked ours through an agent. The main difficulty with the air travel is that all the announcements are in Chinese at the airport. None of the staff speaks English and they do not update the screens with flight changes or gate changes. We were lucky enough to find someone who told us about the gate change and we ran to the right gate. And all the flights are mostly always delayed by an hour or two. Its the widely accepted norm.

Our detailed itinerary

Day 0

We landed at the Beijing airport around 2:30 pm. After we got off the plane, we went straight to the immigration counter and got in the queue. Then, another plane landed and a whole bunch of passengers came in and formed another parallel queue out of nowhere. New passengers were casually coming in and joining the queue anywhere. Well, welcome to China. It took us good 2-3 hours to get done with immigration and then we picked our bags and headed straight to the hotel via cab.  We were so tired, we didn't consider the public transportation option. We had booked Hilton Beijing Wangfujing and it was an excellent choice. Perfect location and very helpful staff.
For dinner, we looked for an Indian restaurant and chose to go to Ganges for dinner. It was located in a very upscale mall "The Place". Good Indian food and very posh mall to spend the evening at. We picked up the cab cards from our hotel and had earlier printed the cab card for our restaurant to help the cab drivers and they were life-savers. We used cabs for all our transport needs in Beijing.

Day 1

We had booked a day tour to the Great Wall of China for the day through Catherine Lu Tours. Usually we prefer DIY tours, but we booked a private tour after reading and hearing about group bus tours and how they stop are unreliable and take longer than expected and stop at fraudy chinese shops. So, we had a private car and a guide to take us to the great wall. Now the great wall has various sections to visit. primary choice is Badaling, but it is so damn crowded by the locals, that it is tough to find space on the wall. Foreigners usually pick Mutiyanu section or Jinshaling section. We figured that Jinshaling had better views, but was under renovation and was a little further away, so we visited Mutianyu section. This link will help you pick the section!
Hiking the steep section of Great Wall
The whole set up is pretty well done. And our guide, Robert Ren was super helpful and on top of things. You take a bus to the base of the wall and then you can take the cable car up. But for coming down you have an option to take the cable car or the toboggan slide. We picked the cable car both ways and we figured toboggan won't be scenic and the wall was more scenic near the cable car stop.
Once up on the wall, we hiked till the next open tower. I don't exactly remember the tower numbers, but the wall was well maintained and had really steep sections towards the end. The guide requested to stay back and we both climbed the steep section. What views!! Plus all the stories from our guide were a lot of fun and added to the experience. Once we got down, we walked through the street shops selling souvenirs. And as our guide said, "Everything in China is negotiable, except the authority", so please haggle. And he was right, haggle, haggle, haggle! I picked a nice model of the great wall to complete my collection of the seven wonders. Yayy!
Live scorpions ready to fry
From here we headed to a Chinese restaurant close by for lunch. Here, we ordered veg fried rice. Good food. Then we headed back to the hotel. After resting for a few hours, we decided to go to Wangfujing street, which is a posh walk-only area lined up on either side by malls and big brand showrooms. We walked through the souvenir street, where we saw live scorpions perched on the skewers ready to be fried and served fresh to the customers. If you don't eat stuff like that, the smell can make you sick. Once out of here, we strolled on the Wangfujing street for a bit and then headed for dinner in the apm mall next to our hotel. We picked Lime Thai restaurant. The vegetarian rice also smelled of fish oil and I had to leave the food and walk out. Wish we had picked an Indian restaurant nearby. But we went back to the hotel and gorged on theplas we had packed for such situations.
And this is a video of what we saw earlier at the great wall. A cart ride with some background Indian score for entertainment. Enjoy!

Day 2

Thanks to jet lag, we were up early. We grabbed croissants from our hotel cafeteria and took a cab to the Forbidden City. Our guide from the previous day had told us all about the emperor and his stories, so we understood the historical and cultural significance of this place and we were looking forward to it. The guide dropped us pretty far off as the area is cordoned off to regular traffic. We walked across the Tiannmen Square to the entrance of the Forbidden City. 
Inside the Forbidden City
We had bought our tickets online as the number of tickets sold daily are limited. But we had to collect them here. It took us a lot of effort and sign language to figure out where to collect them from. No one was able to help or guide us. After being throw around from one window to other, we finally figure what one of the guard was trying to say. Once we got our tickets we were in. It is for sure very huge and magnanimous. But, I was tired of all the ticket hunting and heat and humidity and wanted to just reach the exit located at the other end. It is a long walk, as it truly is a huge city built inside the wall. Long corridors, beautiful rooms, small gardens. Very charming and very crowded.
Once we exited, we went to a garden located right across the city. Another tip from our guide, Robert from previous day. Its called Jingshan Park. Its a short walk to the top of the hill and it offers a good view of the entire Forbidden City. It is much less crowded, had shade and is worth the effort. I enjoyed this short hike and got a 360 degree view of the entire city. 
Then we got down and started looking for a cab back to our hotel. Most of the cabs refused to take us as it was a very short ride and not worth their time. So we walked back, all tired and sweaty to our hotel. We freshened up, packed our bags and headed straight for lunch, to the Ganges restaurant again. We didn't know when would we get to Indian food next, so it was time to gobble up. Hailing cabs isn't easy here in China. Because, even if you hail and stop it, someone else might get it and second, they may refuse to take you. Nevertheless, we reached our hotel and hurried up to load our bags into the cab for a ride to the Beijing West railway station. Btw, cabs weren't available, so our hotel staff called for their local replacement of Uber. 
At the station, we couldn't figure out which gate to enter from, it was all in Chinese. But after a couple of tries, we were let in through one of the gates. Once inside, it was easy. Everything was in English too. Platforms or Waiting Room numbers. We went to our designated waiting room and got a couple of seats. 20 minutes before the departure, the gates opened and we walked to our assigned seats. Simple and easy. We were off to Xian now.
But but but, an hour away from the destination, our train was halted.  We wondered why, and looked around to see if someone may know English and luckily found someone. He explained there was an earthquake in Chengdu and they are checking the lines. All announcements are only in Chinese, btw. And we had no cell reception. Hence our need for a translator. We were halted for 4 hours. And people here watched videos on cell phones on full volume, didn't have their ringers on silent and I had a running fever. And giving dirts to the people doesn't help, they will still have their constantly pinging phones on full volume. Well, we finally reached at 2 am instead of scheduled 10 pm. Took another hour in the long taxi queue to get a taxi and we reached our hotel at around 3:30 am. We were staying at Hilton Xian. Again, a great choice. Good rooms and very courteous staff. 

Day 3

Since we were super tired and I had fever, we had texted our guide that we would start our tour at noon instead of 8 am. So, we decided to skip the pagoda temple visit and cycling on top of the city wall. They are highly rated activities in Xian, but, oh well, next time!
Each warrior looks different from the other
I felt better after having caught up on sleep and feeding on theplas to my heart's content. At noon, we were all packed and ready as the plan was to go directly to the airport from our Terracotta visit. A cab and our guide was ready and waiting for us. Again, we booked through Catherine Lu tours and it was great experience overall. Our guide, Sally was great and told us stories about the Terracotta Warriors and the city on our drive to the museum. After an hour, we were here and decided to go get lunch first. She had picked a great restaurant for lunch. Had excellent lychee tea here, was so refreshing as I was feeling under the weather and vegetarian chow mien were just like Indian street noodles. Do not know the name of the restaurant as they were all noodle restaurants in that area.
From here we went to the museum. We went from pit 3 to pit 2 to pit 1. Hence, it kept getting better. Pit 1 will simply take your breath away. It feels overwhelming to see these artifacts and think that someone built an entire city for their after life. It was great for sure, but didn't live upto the hype I felt, or may be, may be it was my fever and the heat. 
Kneeling warrior
Having checked this off my bucket list, we bought a souvenir warrior from the shop owned by one of the farmers who discovered these wile digging in his farm. How nice to see him right there. Then, we headed back to the airport and our guide informed us that the flight was late. Not surprising at all. She helped us through all the checking and everything and we were on our own. Our priority pass got us free access to the vip lounge and we spent our time on a couch eating free snacks. Well, we headed to the gate for our flight, but figured the monitors are never accurate. Our flight was further delayed and this wasn't the gate. With no one speaking English, we tried looking for other foreigners around us to help us out. Luckily found a family who guided us to the right gate. We got here and waited to board. As per the monitors, our flight had left 3 hours ago. I wonder why are they even wasting electricity on these. No one updates them or even looks at them for reference. Our flights were with China
Eastern airlines. Like any other regular airlines, they were comfortable and we didn't face any issues.
Well, once in Shanghai, we took a cab to our hotel, Radisson Blu. Time to rest up and recover now.

Day 4

We had initially planned and booked tickets for Suzhou today. But, we decided the previous night that I needed another day to recover. So, we cancelled our trip. And I had to deal with this whole laptop issue. 
Talking about the laptop issue, while checking in for our flight to Shanghai at the Xian airport, I realised I didn't have my laptop and then it struck, after full 24 hours, that I had left my laptop on the hotel in Beijing. #facepalm. When I called Hilton Beijing, they confirmed that they had found my laptop and were more than happy to ship it to my hotel in Shanghai. But later they called that they can't send it by air due to shipping restrictions, hence the laptop wont reach in time. Then after a lot of back and forth, their concierge chief offered to come to Shanghai himself and give the laptop to me in person, procided I pay for his ticket. Well, I felt quite guilty and even if it was my work laptop, I decided to pay for his trip and get my laptop. But shout out to Hilton Beijing folks for being so helpful and prompt in their communication.
Juan temple
And also, we were planning to visit Suzhou, the Venice of the East. We thought of taking a train to the city, a quick 30 minute ride on the fast trains. Also, we were considering booking a day tour with a private tour company, but it never materialized given I got sick and we cancelled our plan. You could consider them if you'd like to go to Suzhou.
So, we had a day in Shanghai. Metropoliton city to the core. We had planned on sticking to the public transportation here and hence gotten our hotel right outside a famous metro stop - People's Square. We started our day around noon and headed straight to an Indian restaurant, Masala Art. Good food. And after refueling ourselves, we decided to do some touristy stuff. Again, hailing a cab is some talent here in China. So, we preferred sticking to metros as much as possible. At a metro station we were looking to buy day passes, but the customer service attendant mis-directed us as she didn't know English. Sometimes, even using the google translate app wasn't helpful. Then while we were struggling with a ticket machine, a young guy in early twenties, offered to help and helped us communicate with the same customer attendant who had initially turned us away. 
We first went to the Jade Buddha Temple which was a-okay and under renovation. Next stop was Juan temple. This was nice and right in the middle of the city. Has a huge coutyard and a flight of stairs leading to the main worship area. This was worth the visit. Next to this was a mall, and we just went in to get away from the heat and luckily the metro station was also located inside this mall.
Shanghai - Across the river from The Bund
We took a break at our hotel and then in the evening, headed out to Hongyi Plaza, a pedestrian mall, very lively and full of hig end shops. From here we walked down to the Bund. We could see the Shanghai pearl distrcit across the Huangpu river. Beautiful skyline views of Shanghai and super duper crowded. After we took a few pictures, we walked around the area and then decided to head out to Kebabs on the grille for dinner and call it a day. 

Day 5

West lake
We had planned to visit Hangzhou today and I was feeling well enough to take the trip. We used public transport to get to the Hongqiao railway station. It was easy to navigate and get to the waiting room looking at the monitors. It was quiet 90 minute journey on the fast train.
After reaching Hangzhou, we took a cab from the station and headed out to the Lingyin temple. There is a walking path here that takes you around the carved caves. Really well done carvings and makes for some good pictures. From here, we headed out to the famous West Lake. This place is huge and it is unlikely that you will be able to walk around the entire lake in a day. So pick the spots you want to visit. For us, we were headed for lunch first, at Omar, Indian Kitchen. The food was below average. but we somehow ate and headed out to the lake. We took a short stroll and then, I came across this costume shop. Sumit didn't believe that I did want to take a picture in the empress costume. But hell yeah, I did. While clicking pictures, a couple of locals were amused enough to take my pictures and I graciously obliged ;)
So we weren't interested in a boat ride, or going to the lily pond or the pagoda. We just wanted a quite stroll. After a while, we figured we had sometime before our train back to Shanghai, so we looked for a mall and headed to a mall for some air conditioned time. Literally. Btw, Hangzhou also has metro, which is super convenient but the metro network isn't as widespread. So, we had to mix and match cabs and metros. After whiling away our time in a cafeteria in a mall, we headed to the station for our return to Shanghai. And we chose Tandoor for dinner. Excellent Indian restaurant. Very upscale and the best Indian food in China so far. More expensive than the ones we had been to, but the food was all worth it. It is located in the premises of a very upscale hotel and in a very posh area. After we had dinner, we headed back to our hotel.
Now at hotel, when I switched on the TV, I couldn't hear anything and the maximum volume was not enough. So I called the room service and they came over to check and said, we fix the maximum value to 20, so that negibours dont get bothered. I was so amused and I told them, if I can't hear, how can the neighbor hear? At least raise the volume enough for me to hear? It was fun to watch Chinese soap operas though. I didn't understand the language but I think I could figure out what was going on. And then I fell asleep.
Lingyin Temple

Day 6

Last day in Shanghai before we fly out to Malaysia and to Indonesia. So, for brunch, we headed up to the 45th floor revolving restaurant of our hotel. Such beautiful 360 degree views and they had some Indian items in the menu too! We had to wait until around noon so that I could collect my laptop from Dennis, who was a staff member at the Hilton Beijing hotel. Once I received my laptop, we headed to the East Nanjing road, to walk around the busy posh streets. After sometime, we decided to have lunch at Din Tai Fung close by, They did have some vegetarian options btw and Sumit was having dumplings for the first time and I am glad he liked them.
Yuyuan Gardens
Then we headed straight to the Yuyan gardens. A maze of narrow streets outside the gardens, filled with souvenir shops. Was like walking around Chandni Chowk in Delhi, We bought some souvenirs and took some pictures in the garden and then headed to the Tanzifang area. This is an upscale neighborhood with some classy shops and restaurants. We got dinner here and then headed back to the hotel. We again went up to the 45th floor to get some night time views of the Beijing city before heading out.
We packed our bags and now were ready to head out. Best way to get to the airport, outside of metro hours would be a cab. And always always, go by the meter. So long China, until next time :)


Food was not an issue in China at all. There are plenty of restaurants of various cuisines. We were able to communicate regarding our vegetarian needs in non-Indian restaurants using google translate and it worked out just fine. We did have theplas for backup and they were helpful in case of delayed flights or trains or late night hunger pangs.


Visa instructions on the website of Chinese consulate, San Francisco were pretty straightforward. There is no appointment system. You just show up as early as possible on a given day and wait after taking a token number. Think of this as your "welcome to china" orientation. Its crowded, there are random queues. And there is this person checking documentation, who will ask you to retake a picture, or make a photocopy of your passport using their photocopy machines and photo booths. And you have to pay for it. You have to make another trip to collect your passport as well. But, overall it was pretty seamless process.

What more to see/do

  • Beijing: Temple of Heaven, Other sections of Great Wall
  • Xian: Bike on top of the city wall, pagoda temple, Muslim quarters. Going to Terracotta warriors by yourself is totally do-able by bus too, if you have time.
  • Shanghai: River cruise at night on the Hangpu river, French concession area and other day trips to canal cities. Zhujiajiao is pretty popular. Take the hop on hop off bus
  • Chengdu for Pandas
  • Guilian for countryside
  • Other national parks