I want to see as much of the planet as I can before age, health, and political concerns discourage my enthusiasm for travel. If I'm careful with my money I can afford to spend a month or so abroad each year. This year I set my mind on China.
Initially, my grand plan included Tibet, and Chengdu, the place to visit pandas. I do like a busy (some say crazy) itinerary, but I was forced to admit that China is too huge and distances too formidable even for my keep-on-the-move habits. The must-see destinations of eastern China were quite enough to have me hopping for 30 days.
Mine is a no frills, do-it-myself approach. I research places to stay and plan a basic itinerary before departure then work out daily details as I go, using, as much as possible, public transport and my own two feet for sightseeing.
In China, I elected to stay in hostels that are popular with Westerners. Although many still use the old-fashioned term "youth hostel," these days most welcome travelers like myself who are youthful in spirit if not in age. They were all clean, well-maintained and offered basic private rooms.
I got around pretty much on my own with the friendly guidance of hostel staff and Chinese acquaintances I met en route. Ongoing travel could easily be arranged at hostel tour desks.
Communication barriers diminished by using body language: one can dash in a kitchen and point out what one wants to eat. There was no concept of tipping. Everyone seemed to perform their duties with heart. Every day went smoothly and, I am glad to say, I managed everything within a budget of $40 a day plus the cost of international airfare.
Here's a brief account of my journey with just a few highlights featured.
Immigration formalities were brief at Beijing Capital International Airport. Outside the terminal building I boarded a bus bound for Beijing Railway Station. The ticket cost 16 yuan, about $2. I held a print-out of the hostel reservation I had booked online, which included getting-there tips. I showed the paper to the driver who nodded in approval.
The weather was bright and sunny as the bus moved away from the terminal and hit the Airport Expressway at full blast. We slowed a bit on entering the city limits and a boggling array of flyovers and underpasses came at us one after another. In about sixty minutes we arrived at the rail station. The driver advised me to take a taxi from that point as it would be difficult to find my way on my own.
I knew that the hostel was located in one of the Beijing Hutongs – centuries-old areas known for narrow, twisting streets.
Despite misgivings that I might be taken for a costly roundabout ride, I got in one of the waiting taxis and placed a slip of paper on the dashboard that had the hotel address written in Chinese script. The driver took a look and put the taxi in motion while I tried to relax and watch Beijing pass by in a blurry stream of buildings, plazas, and malls thronging with people.
About 10 minutes later modern buildings gave way to small, grey-tiled houses. Roads became narrower and narrower. Aged residents, dressed for the heat in boxer shorts, played cards in the street. The taxi stopped in front of a two-storey building. I paid around $3 for the ride and, with a sigh of relief, let worries of being ripped off fade away. Here I was at The Far East Youth Hostel, home for the next 5 days. I paid $30 a day for a clean, private room with bath, equipped with TV, fridge, and kettle. It provided western as well as Chinese foods and free Internet access.
Satisfied, I slept well that night, and the next day, I braced myself for a day-long walk. The friendly hostel staff sent me off to Tian'anmen Square with a map and directions that included names of places written in Chinese characters – always a comforting precaution in countries where you can neither speak nor write the local language.
After about a 20-minute walk, I faced an enormous open area said to be "the largest square in the world." In 1966, upwards of a million Chinese rallied in Tian'anmen Square in support of the Cultural Revolution. Then, in 1989, the next generation rallied there in support of democratic reforms. These days, it seems that more tourists than citizens occupy this vast space. I had to muscle my way through many groups wearing identically colored shirts and led by guides flying flags of matching colors.
In the middle of the square stands a large obelisk known as the Monument to the Peoples' Hero – Mao ZeDong. His mausoleum is in the same vicinity, and I wish I could have seen the great leader lying in his glass coffin, but, sadly, it was closed for repairs. Chairman Mao's portrait still hangs from Tian'an Men (Gate of Heavenly Peace), a large, red, 15th century structure where, in October 1949, Mao proclaimed the People's Republic. At the south end of the square, the beautiful Qian Men (Front Gate), dating from 1419, survives in its restored archery tower and gatehouse. Other important public buildings on the square include the Great Hall of the People (Chinese Parliament) to the west, and the National Museum of China to the east.
On the north side of Tian'anmen Square, I came across the Imperial Palace Museum, commonly known as the Forbidden City (Zijin Cheng), so called because it was once off-limits, on pain of death, to all but the royal family and their attendants. Reputed to be the world's largest palace compound, the Forbidden City was originally built between 1406 and 1420 but was sacked and restored many times over the centuries. Today, the magnificent complex consists of 980 buildings covering 183 acres surrounded by gardens, walls, gates, and a 52-meter-wide moat. The site opened to the public some years after the last emperor, Puyi, abdicated in 1912.
I sat down on a raised spot to enjoy the view by fading daylight. Luckily, I sat in the right place at the right time to watch as a group of soldiers marched out of the Forbidden City and performed their daily flag-lowering ritual – a memorable spectacle to complete the day.
The most visited section of the Great Wall of China is at Badaling, approximately 70 kilometers (50 miles) northwest of Beijing city. I walked to Qianmen Square and bought a return bus ticket at Beijing Sightseeing Tour Center for 90 yuan, which included my entry fee.
At the base of the staircase approach to the wall, I began by inhaling deeply. Scaling that 35-degree incline struck me as quite a breathtaking feat by itself.
The Badaling section stretches for 4.8 kilometers along rolling mountains. At every 200 meters, a tower rose above the wall, overlooking awesome valley views.
Knowing that this massive structure is said to be the only man-made object on the earth visible from outer space, I was still unprepared for the astonishment I felt at the first sight of it snaking uphill and down. When I thought I had reached the highest point I could see tourists moving like ants through the mountains far away in the distance. Now I know why the Great Wall has been chosen as one of the "New Seven Wonders."
No doubt I could have spent much more time exploring Beijing, but my plan called for a move on to Pingyao, about 715 kilometers to the southwest.
For a small fee, around four dollars, the hostel staff got me a sleeper on a night train (160 yuan) and a confirmed hotel booking with a pickup service. As I was arriving in the pre-dawn hours I was skeptical about the "pickup" part of this plan, so you may imagine my relief on arrival to catch sight of a young lady waving my name card. She led me to the Yarman Hostel.
After a good rest, I went out and was immediately struck by a feeling of being back in ancient times. In fact, Pingyao has been designated one of the Chinese Historic and Cultural Cities, and it became a World Heritage Site in 1997. I saw no modern buildings at all, only narrow stone-paved streets lined on both sides with souvenir shops and cafés, food stalls offering noodles, dumplings, fish, snakes, quails, and all sorts of things to goggle the eyes.
In 1974, farmers digging a well in the vicinity of the city of Xi'an accidentally uncovered parts of a figurine. Archaeologists subsequently excavated an amazing find of ancient imperial power: over 8,000 life-sized terra-cotta figures of warriors, horses, and chariots, all arranged in battle formation according to rank. Experts agreed that these sculptures had been commissioned by China's first Emperor, Qin Shi Huang, who died in 210 BC, and this army was buried near the emperor's tomb to serve him in the afterlife. The Museum of Terra-Cotta Warriors and Horses was built to house the excavations. I paid about $20 for a packaged tour that included a visit to the huge complex.
The terra-cotta figures are marvelously life-like with varying facial features, uniform, and hairstyle. Thousands of finely crafted weapons have also been recovered that testify to the skills and knowledge available at the time.
Xi'an is renowned as one of the "Four Great Ancient Capitals of China" and also as the eastern terminus of the Silk Road. A walk downtown revealed a veritable trove of Tang Dynasty, pagoda-style buildings, even the local KFC. I was pleased to run across the city's Muslim Quarter and get a good beef kebab for my dinner.
While in Xi'an, I asked the staff at Han Tang Inn to help with the next part of my journey, which they did for a small fee of about $5.
I got a discounted flight (351 yuan) to Chongqing and left a deposit of 100 yuan for a 3-day cruise on the Yangtze Dragon, a 3-star "budget" category ship.
A young man from China Odyssey Tours met me at Chongqing and drove me to the company's office to complete arrangements. In total I paid 1,110 yuan (about $150) to share a twin cabin equipped with a hot-water shower. The price included entrance to the Three-Gorge Dam and a tour to the lesser three gorges along the Daning River, the chief tributary of the Yangtze. Meals and other optional side tours were not included, and I had to pay 20 yuan to use the sun-deck.
Most of the passengers were Chinese. My roommate was a nice guy who brought along dried food, milk, and fruits for his meals. I used the ship's restaurant, which offered tolerable Chinese-style food: noodles, chicken, fish, and free green tea. The on-board shop sold everything that could be bought from local markets at either the same rates or less. For entertainment there was a karaoke bar.
Meandering over 6,380 kilometers to the East China Sea, the Yangtze is the longest river in China. The ship plied between steep, luxuriously green cliffs through the spectacular Qutang, Wu, and Xiling gorges. Once, we shifted to small boats to enjoy a sail in shallow water. We stopped at many points, so one could get off to buy fresh fruit or tour nearby attractions like the 12-storey, red pavilion at Shibaozhai, or the legendary Ghost City of Fengdu.
On the last day, the ship stopped at a place called Moaping where we switched to overland travel to go to Yichang City, gateway to the Three-Gorge Dam. Free buses were provided for visiting the massive project. Eventually, the dam will produce 18,200 megawatts of electricity and will transform the upstream river to a huge lake.
China Odyssey Tours had already taken care of my plan after the cruise, saving me from going around like a lost cow seeking ways and means to continue traveling. I had a booking for a bus to Wuhan (120 yuan) with a hotel reservation for a night's stay (125 yuan) and a sleeping bus ticket (260 yuan) for the next day's travel to Guilin, and later to Yangshuo near the Vietnam Border.
Truly a backpacker's paradise, this area was not only cheap but also stunningly beautiful, especially because of its picturesque limestone formations. For just $15 at the Sihai Hotel in Yangshuo, I got a clean room with bath, computer, Internet, tea kettle, and refrigerator. Here, I spent memorable and relaxing days exploring the Yulong River Valley by bike, by bamboo raft, and on foot. I scaled Moon Hill, so called because of the natural stone arch cut into the mountainside near the summit. I had another good day at Longji where the large number of terraced rice paddies create an intricate pattern on the hills.
Though it was peak season, the hostel at Yongshou managed to get me a ticket on the sleeping bus (750 yuan) for the 20-hour trip to Shanghai, the commercial and industrial hub of China. Accordingly, the city has its share of attractions old and new: Jade Buddha Temple, Yu Yuan Garden, French Concession area, People's Square pedestrian mall, and the Shanghai Museum of Science & Technology where one could play ping pong with a robot. The highlight for me was strolling the Bund, a boardwalk along the river lined with a mix of German and British architecture as well as Chinese.
One day I made a day-trip to Hangzhou 180 kilometers from Shanghai, a two-hour train-ride (45 yuan). Hangzhou had numerous historical sites to see as well as the National Silk Museum and a Tea Museum. I was in the mood to leave history for other tourists and go instead to West Lake where I just sat for hours on a wooden bench watching the daffodils waving. Then, for a brief diversion, I took a short cruise on a dragon boat, several of which operate from different wharfs around the lake (25 to 45 yuan).
Now, with time running out, I returned to Beijing on a fast train (220 yuan), a 10-hour trip. Settled once again at the Far East hostel, I felt the comfort of being in familiar surroundings, and I had one more day to fill. Often, with so many national treasures and glorious scenes to choose from, the hardest part of do-it-yourself sightseeing is deciding which historic, cultural, man-made or natural wonder will win your attention. On my last day in China, I was wooed away from central Beijing to the Summer Palace, about a 90-minute journey by bus.
Recognized as the quintessential Chinese garden, the Summer Palace was listed, in 1998, as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Construction first began in the Jin Dynasty (1115-1234) and expansion continued over time to contain a complex of classical pavilions, towers, bridges, gardens, and an enormous man-made lake – Kunming Lake.
The Summer Palace is gorgeous, though having to experience it with about 50,000 other tourists did, I must say, diminish the innate serenity of the place. Crowds are something you do have to get used to on China's tourist trail.
On day thirty, I boarded my homebound flight feeling completely satisfied that my time and money had been well spent.
China is the third largest country in the world after Russia and Canada. It has a total area of 9.6 million square kilometers with a population of 1.2 billion. China shares its borders with Afghanistan, Bhutan, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, North Korea, Laos, Mongolia, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Vietnam.
Climate: With latitudes spanning nearly 50 degrees, China's climate ranges from tropical and subtropical zones in the south to frigid in its northern regions. The Beijing region has four distinct seasons with temperate weather in spring and autumn. Autumn months tend to be clear, and summers tend to be hot, humid, and rainy. Snow can be expected in winter. In the Guilin/Yangshuo region weather ranges from mild to hot and moist. Tibet's high tundra zone is dry and cold year round.
Documents: A visa along with a valid passport is required by most visitors to China. Apply at nearest Chinese embassy or consulate. Or ask your personal travel agent to help.
Departure Tax: Payable in Chinese currency at special airport tax desk before check-in. International flight: 90 yuan (C$11; US$12). Domestic flight: 50 yuan (C$6; US$7).
Money: China Yuan Renminbi (RMB/CNY) As of November 2007; C$1 = 7.862; US$1 = 7.46
Foreign currency and travelers checks can be exchanged at hotels, airports, Friendship Stores, and other shopping areas. Major credit cards are accepted at most hotels and state-run shops in large cities. Smaller shops, hotels, and restaurants likely expect payment in yuan. Currently, acceptance of foreign ATM (Automated Teller Machine) cash cards cannot be depended upon.
Safety: Use normal caution in crowded areas: handbags with straps slung across shoulder and chest; secure, hidden money pouch preferable to wallets. Carry only small amounts of cash. Have locals write addresses of destination points in Chinese characters.
Yangtze Cruise and Bus Travel.
Hostels were clean and well maintained. There was a daily change of bed cover, pillows, and towels. They served western as well as Chinese foods. Breakfast cost $4 to $5 and a little more for lunch and dinner. Chinese meals were much cheaper ($1 to $2).
Beijing: Tourist trains run from Beijing Railway Station, Beijing North Railway Station, and Beijing South Railway Station to suburban attractions. Tickets can be booked from any ticket office, travel service, or purchased aboard trains. Conveniently, the site admission fee can be included in the purchase price.
Forbidden City: Open daily, 8:30am-5pm. Admission: RMB 60 ($8). Special No 1 bus and get off at Zhongshan Phongshan Park or Tian'anmen.
Great Wall: Open daily. Take bus 919 from Deshengmen (a little east of JiShuiTan subway station). Fare: 12 yuan one way. Return from the same bus stop as arrival. The last return journey is about 4:30pm. Admission: RMB 80 ($10). Information: www.kinabaloo.com.
Summer Palace: Open daily, 7am-5pm. Bus 907, 375, 801, 808, 732, 394, 718. Admission: RMB 20-50 ($3-$7).