Wednesday, October 3rd, 2007

China Trip (9/20/2007-10/02/2007)

I wrote this trip report in the air plane back. Partly, this is to document our activities and my observations; and partly, I hope this TR serves as some kind of beta for others who are interested in visiting China. I will include links and resources wherever I can. And I try to include fares and fees just to give readers some idea what things cost in China. The numbers are given in RMB (Chinese currency) and at the time, the conversion rate is about: 1 American Dollar = 7.5 RMBs.

Thursday, 9/20/2007: Arrive in Beijing, Laoshe Tea House

* Inside the airport, there are counters where people in uniforms try to sell tour packages and shuttle rides. Even though they seem to be affiliated with the airport, for all I could tell, they were just some businesses who rented space from the airport and target at making money off of tourists who have no clue how things work in China. The cheapest way to get to Beijing is take Airport Buses. They have buses on sixes routes that take customers comfortably to various destinations. We took Airport Bus to Beijing Rail Road Station located in central Beijing (16 RMB/person) followed by a 13RMB taxi ride to the hotel at Wangfujing. I heard that a taxi ride from the airport to central Beijing costs no more than 200 RMBs although some tourists have been charged 600 RMBs by those “Black Taxis”.

* We strongly recommend Laoshe Tea House. Programs every night include a variety of Chinese performances such as Peking Opera, Sichuan Face Off, Kou Ji, Chinese Music, Acrobat, Magic, etc. Prices vary based on where you sit. For example, it was 120 RMBs per person for us sitting at the third row. The tea and snacks included are just so so and they do not have any non-caffeinated teas. It’s better to reserve seats before you go (+86 10 63021717)

* We took a tricycle ride afterwards and the “driver” offered to take us to the Liuli Street. The allies were pitch dark at 11pm unlike what he earlier claimed to be “well lit and beautiful” and we refused to go in. I was almost ready to poke him with Erik’s crutches when he insisted on taking us into the dark allies.

Friday, 9/21/2007: The Forbidden City and Makye Ame Tibetan Restaurant

* The Forbidden City is full of artifacts and stories. An amazing tour but tiring even for someone who is healthy and in good shape (like me). Tickets cost only 10 RMB per person and you can also spend 40 RMB to rent an audio guide in English which automatically air the instructions into your earpieces based on your locations.
* We picked up Chris, a woman from Kansas, on Tian An Men Square who asked us for directions to the Forbidden City. She did the whole tour with us. A very interesting company.
* We went to Quanjude at 3, but they do not open for dinner until 4:30. So we went to Makye Ame Restaurant after a rest in our hotel instead. It’s a Tibetan Restaurant with live performance. We enjoyed the food, performance, and the artifacts in the restaurant. Make sure to ask for their guestbooks when you are there. They make an interesting read.

Saturday, 9/22/2007: The Temple of Heaven, The Great Wall (Mu Tian Yu Fortress), and Quan Ju De Peking Duck

* We reserved a taxi for the day for 700 RMB. I made the arrangement the day before when I found one taxi driver trust worthy. It was his partner who drove us around, but we had a good experience.

* We went to the Temple of Heaven the first thing in the morning. It’s a beautiful place. Popular with local residents and tourists alike. We saw hundreds of local residents doing morning exercises throughout the beautiful park. We also saw hundreds of guided tourists wearing the same red baseball hats flooding the wide paths in the park. Since Erik was still walking with two crutches, he was not walking too fast. When I stopped to take photos, I told him to go ahead and I would catch up with him later. I then lost him after that. Had to go to the Park office for assistance. Because their announcer could not speak English, they asked me to describe Erik so that their people could help me look for him. The description was simple — Lao Wai (a foreigner), and crippled on two crutches. He appeared before they were able to find him. It turned out we were running up and down along the opposite sides of the north-south axis of the park.
* We chose to go to Mu Tian Yu Fortress for the Great Wall because 1) it was known to be less crowded than the more popular Ba Da Ling Fortress (but it might not be the case that day because the highway to Ba Da Ling was being reconstructed), and 2) it has chair lifts up and down which was more friendly to Erik’s injured ankle. There are two companies that operate lifts there. One only has chair lifts up and down, and the other one has chair lift up and a slide down. We went for the latter (95 RMBs round trip per person). The slide was super fun. The food booths and little shops along the road are definitely not shy in ripping off the tourists. Our taxi driver paid 3 RMBs for a pancake with two eggs, while the price given to us was 15 RMBs for a pancake with only one egg.
* We went to Xiushui Market for silk shirts. Again, this is a place where the asking prices do not mean anything. It seems the young girls there could speak multiple languages fluently, and they know all kinds of tricks. First, they talk sweet (e.g. “you look so handsome in this shirt”), then they play guilt trips on you (e.g. “I have cut the price by so much for you and I am not making any money!”), and when they see you really want to walk away, they get nasty (e.g. “you are not nice! I have spent so much time with you and cut the price so low for you.”). Their tricks work very well on Erik. But we bought four shirts for him (definitely NOT at a good price) and he seems to like them, so that’s good. There, make sure you try the clothes on because the size labels do not mean much either. And make sure to check the clothes closely because many of them have major defects no matter how nicely they are packaged.

* We went to the famous Quan Ju De Peking Duck Restaurant. It sells its name, so food is expensive here. For example, they charge 160+ RMBs for a duck while many other places charge 40 RMBs. And they charge 10% service fee which they do not deserve. The food is just so so in my opinion. I did order wasabi duck webs without telling Erik what that was. That dish was not bad.

All in all, air quality is terrible in Beijing. My throat started feeling weird soon after we arrived because I could almost feel the particles I breathed in. We stayed in Nanjing Great Hotel at Wangfujing (700 RMBs/night). The breakfast buffet every morning downstairs is very satisfying.

Sunday, 9/23/2007: Arrive in Shijiazhuan and Dinner at the dumpling place.

* We almost did not make the train because we did not arrive at the train station until 15 minutes before departure, and Beijing West Train Station is a HUGE place. I should take all the blame because I took my time packing up and also totally underestimated the distance to the train station. The luggage assistance at the train station refused to help us because it was against their rules. We had to run (or walk fast due to Erik’s injured ankle) with our luggage, but we just barely made it!
* Shijiazhuang is the capital of Heibei Province, but it definitely looks very much undeveloped compared to Beijing and Shanghai. My parents live there. There are not many exciting tourists resorts around, but we got chance to wander around the city during our stay.

* Dumpings are quite delicious.

Monday, 9/24/2007: A coffee house near Jianshe Street & Dongfeng Road

* Missing coffee, we went in town and stopped at the first coffee house we saw. It’s more of a restaurant and the coffee is expensive. They put you in a separate room with soft couches. But people smoke in there so it was not really very enjoyable.

Tuesday, 9/25/2007: A walk around the neighborhood, dinner with the whole family.

* We walked around the neighborhood. I pointed out to Erik the apartment we used to live in before I went off to college and the school I went to right across street from the apartment.

* It was the Mid-autumn Festival today. My whole family in Shijiazhuang got together and went out to a restaurant near my parents place. It’s the nicest in the area, but hygine is not their forte. Erik was challenged to drink by my sister-in-law. It was comical.

Wednesday, 9/26/2007: Coffee buffet near People’s Department Store

* I was going to show Erik the giant department store in Shijiazhuang, but the trip was preempted when we saw a coffee house. This one runs in a different business model from the one we went to the day before — you pay only 18 RMBs, and you can just sit down and eat snacks and drink various coffees, teas, milk shakes all you want. And the coffee was very good too! The low price (<$3 each) for all that service and those choices is just amazing. It turns out that this was our best coffee experience on the entire trip.

Thursday, 9/27/2007: A Bathhouse, Massage, and Foot Massage

* I have heard of foot massage before and never had it. I don’t think it was popular when I was in China. We spotted this bath house two days ago, and since we are leaving tomorrow, we decided to give this place a try. The massage was very refreshing. Erik got a scrub because he did not know how to turn it down. Nobody speaks English there. The whole standard package including a 1 hour 45 minute massage costs only 95 RMBs per person. We paid extra to receive the service in our private room.

Friday, 9/28/2007: Arrive in Shanghai, Chenghuang Temple, and A Five Story Restaurant for crabs

* Parents saw us off at the Shijiazhuang airport (Guoyu gave us a ride).
* Sister picked us up two hours later and we went home to drop off our luggages and took a shower. Then we went to Chenghuang Temple area (aka Yu Yuan) where there are many shops selling good quality artifacts. You need to bargain there too but the asking prices were not too ridiculous.
* Afterwards, sister took us to a five story seafood restaurant. We had Da Zha Crabs along with other delicious sea food.

Saturday, 9/30/2007: Shanghai Museum, Urban Planning Exhebition Hall, and Modern Dance Performance

* We visited Shanghai Museum in the morning. Lots of artifacts and history. You can get automated audio tour there too. After a couple of days without coffee, the happiness on Erik’s face when he had a latte in the museum lounge was priceless.

* Outside of the museum, we bought a brass bowl from a tibetan on the side of the road for 100 RMBs (he asked for 600). When you move a wooden stick along the edge of the bowl, it yields a nice musical sound. We thought that was a good find.
* The Urban Planning Exhebition Hall has a giant model of Shanghai on the third floor, where all the buildings are shown as beautiful miniatures. Still, the magnitude of the city is, in Erik’s words, mind-boggling.
* At night, sis and Brother Jack took us to a modern dance performance at the Oriental Art Center. It was a beautiful performance, but I don’t know if anybody knows exactly what the dance means.

Sunday, 9/31/2007: Back to Museum, Starbucks Coffee, Hair Treatment (lunch), Fireworks

* Erik wanted to go back and look for that Tibetan man because he wanted to check out other authentic artifacts as well. However, there are discipline volunteers everywhere maintaining orders because it’s the day before the National Day. The tibatan man is nowhere to be seen. But we were able to sit at the Starbucks for quite a while. The coffee is just like what you get in the US. In the afternoon, sis took us for lunch and then a hair treatment. While sis and I are getting our hair treated, Erik got a lengthy head and shoulder massage after a hair cut. He was happy. It’s even more amazing that people here do not work for tips.

* At night, we went to Century Park (in Pudong) for the firework performance. Oh my god! There were so many people! We were a little late, so, it was a hair raising experience to battle the thick wall of people to get to our seats. The first short half of the performance was done by a Chinese company. The scale is quite impressive. The second long half was done by a company from Chicago. They got more boats, but in general, the fireworks are less impressive.

Monday, 10/1/2007: Fengjing Town, Roman Bath House (shower, Massage, Guasha, Dinner, Foot Massage)

* We drove to Fengjing, a little town with interwoven water ways. It is a beautiful town in that we are walking right along the same path where locals’ residents are located. It opened a window for us to the lives of the locals. We had a lunch with fresh fish and vegetables, but there again you can’t have too high of an expectation on hygine.
* It was a long trip and everyone was tired. So, a trip to a bath house was welcome by everyone. The magnitude of the bath house was amazing — six stories high and it was decorated with giant Roman statues outside. It looked more like a museum from both outside and inside. It was a luxurious experience. There are people serving you every corner you turned. We started with a refreshing shower. Then a 1.5 hour scrub and full body massage. Then we went upstairs for a nice dinner. After dinner, we went inside the movie theaters and got a foot massage while watching a Jackie Chen movie. The whole time inside the bath house, everyone has to wear their provided pajamas and slippers. Erik said he had never been so clean since he was born.

Tuesday, 10/2/2007: Xiao Nan Guo Grill for Dinner (recommend Ox Tail)

* We spent most of the day packing. Sis gave us a ridiculous amount of gifts. We were amazed when we managed to fit them into our luggages. My sister’s family’s generosity is almost overwhelming.

* After Brother Jack returned from the airport where he went 4 hours too early for his flight, we went to Xiaonanguo Grill for dinner. It’s a Japanese style grill. Xin Ran was busy cooking and serving everyone. What a little chef! The Ox tail was really delicious. We also had ox tougue but I didn’t care for it that much.

Epilogue:

Everyday when we were in China simply flew by too fast. I guess that happens when there are a lot of things to see and places to visit. Three places in two weeks. We were a little too busy. We both hope that next time we would be able to just spend sometime at one place and take our time to experience the local culture. My family are really generous to us and they went out their way to make sure our stay was memorable. Well it was indeed. Erik wanted to go back sometime soon. The only downside was we both picked up some bug (bacteria) in China and had upset stomach for a few days. I had to get antibiotics after I got back before the upset stomach would not go away on its own.

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