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Published: October 22nd 2017
Geo: 18.2458, 109.478
Gill & Johns Guide to China
Our last couple of days in China have been spent being looked after and well fed in an international style hotel. A quick walk up the beach to build a few sand castles (see the pictures) and then sitting by the pool forcing down some very nice beef burgers (even better than Gills) or eating in an Italian restaurant. Nothing of interest to you dear reader so instead below are our thoughts and suggestions to anyone who wants to follow in our footsteps;
Everyone we know who has been to China returns and says "you won't believe the rate of change". Everyone is quite right, no guidebook or map is worth the paper it is written on, it will be out of date before it is printed. The changes aren't confined to cities, we got lost in the countryside using a map published last year because lots of unmarked tracks had been turned into concrete roads. So whatever advice we give will be out of date almost before we get home, anywhere we recommend as a nice quiet spot will be overrun with tourists by next week but new places will be opening up just
We were in two minds when planning our trip whether to do it ourselves or take the easy option and go on an organised trip. Following some advice from others we are very pleased we organised it ourselves, the tour groups seem to rush from place to place trying to tick off as many "must sees" as possible but they don't really see anything. They also stay in western style hotels and eat in restaurants aimed at tourists. Travelling in China is easy, air travel is much better and easier than in the UK (although beware the flight time seems to be takeoff time, not gate closing so don't cut things too fine). Apart from the hassle of having to queue for your tickets as you don't have a Chinese ID card, train travel is a million miles better than at home but you do need to book as the trains are very cheap and popular. In fact the reason you need an ID is that the authorities found that touts were buying up all the seats on popular routes and then selling them at a profit, insisting on an ID stops this, as everyone has to carry one
Somewhere in Siberia
Why is the man in the orange jacket hiding under the coach?
it is hardly a issue for a local.
If we did the trip again we would probably take more of a chance with the arrangements, we booked everything before leaving the UK so had to stick with the schedule, in practice we wold have liked to have spent longer in Yangshuo but had a flight booked so had to move on.
We would also consider driving ourselves in future, the driving we saw was not too bad the most dangerous aspect of Chinese roads is being a pedestrian. We only cycled through one big town which was OK, on the minor roads cars tend to take more care around cyclists, perhaps because a bike can do more damage to their paintwork than a pedestrian.
Taxis are cheap, fairly clean and in our limited experience, reliable although we always got the hotels to book them for us thereby avoiding the cowboys.
Language - written and spoken Chinese is so difficult you are not tempted to even try (apart from things like ni hao (hello) or xie xie (thanks). Road signs, metros, most stations, airports and menus all write everything in both Chinese and English. We tried a little electronic translator we had a couple of
The border between Europe and Asia photographed at 50mph.
times and the Chinese all have translators on their phones but this was never satisfactory and probably led to more misunderstandings. ("go and have a play" - this meant please wait 5 minutes).
A little preparation goes a long way, make sure you have your hotels name or anywhere else you want to go printed out in Chinese, a paper copy of a map helps as you can show someone and on a menu you decide what you want in English, point to it and the waiter reads off the Chinese version. Which brings us to...
Food - There is no getting away from it the standards of cleanliness in many kitchens are not up to UK standards and some of the food is very strange indeed. Asking questions like, "is this cooked in butter?" or "can I have it without tomatoes?" is impossibly complicated even in good hotels. We almost always order different dishes so that between us we can sort something out. I don't think we ever had serious problems, when buying street food one or two items were horrid but we bought them to find out what they were like and found out! Neither of us are fans of
Ships on Lake Baikal
These ships are iced in for 6 months of the year. Just look at the blue sky, the temperature is about -15c
shellfish so this restricted our choices in some places but other than that we had some very nice meals.
Drink - wine is very expensive which is a shame as we like a drop or two and just paid through the nose in order to drink it.
We did not have a decent cup of tea anywhere! The problem is not the tea in China, it's the milk. Hotels only provide creamer and shops only sell long life in small cartons. In 2008 there was a big health scare regarding milk, the authorities say that 300,000 people were affected and 6 babies died. Two people at the centre of the problem were executed, but now almost all milk you can buy to drink comes in cartons from New Zealand or the Netherlands and is long life UHT, not ideal for a nice cup of tea.
Beer - the local beers are similar to Amstel, sometimes draft but mostly in bottles and cans. The Chinese don't drink much and are very concerned when I order a second or third bottle expecting me to fall over. It is under 4% alcohol so this is unlikely. On the other hand they do drink spirits on special
Mongolia in winter, probably not easy to live in but great to visit.
occasions and get plastered.
Hotels - we stayed in a few chain hotels aimed at tourists which were OK but no different from Birmingham or London but most of the time we booked places highly ranked in Trip Advisor or recommended by friends. We were very impressed by CTrip, a sort of booking.com in China. They were very reliable, they don't take money up front, you pay the hotel directly, but you guarantee the booking to them with your credit card. Having a professional interest in these matter we asked Clarence of Warrior Apartments about his view as a hotel owner and he rated them highly as well. It allows you to make the booking in English, get a confirmation in English which you can understand and the guest house also gets the booking in a format they understand. Ctrip also send you the address information in Chinese so you can print it out.
A couple of hotels we booked directly via email, ringing them up is never satisfactory, you get the one person on reception who does not speak English and both you and they get frustrated.
Security / Big Brother - We only visited the affluent eastern side of China, perhaps
Games in the Hutongs
In the Muslim back streets of Beijing
things are very different in the west where the population density is much lower so the following may only apply to the bigger cities, however the security on the metro and for the sights in Beijing was a real pain and a joke. They insisted on scanning rucksacks and suitcases but shopping bags are ignored. My camera or camera batteries seem to set off the walk-though scanners but no one took the slightest notice. Anyone wanting to blow up the metro would have no difficulty in getting their bomb through with a little planning.
That apart we saw little evidence of police restrictions, road blocks or any other form of harassment. We are sure it does happen and political dissidents are harassed or locked up but as the Muslim guide we met in Beijing put it you have to remember how much progress has been made in the past 30 years. In living memory millions of people were starving, sent into forced labour for being too intellectual and local petty feuds were carried out by the party officials which led to people being killed. His view was that things have never been as good and that as long as that trend
Arrival in Beijing
of improvement continues the government should be supported and encouraged. The alternative is very worrying indeed, what happens if there is a recession or a series of protests similar to Ukraine but of course on a much larger scale, it could easily happen. Every person under the age of 40 has a top of the range phone with messaging going all the time, the internet is everywhere and is used for booking trains, shopping etc, they seem further ahead than the UK in the use of technology. I carefully printed out all the bookings of flights, hotels etc, the check in clerks look at me as if I have come from the dark ages, it will be on their system, if not they will expect me to show them the booking on my phone, what is all this paper for? So if unrest does kick off it will spread very quickly, you certainly get the feeling that the reforms have let the genie out of the bottle, there is no way it will go back in, a bit worrying.
That's enough home spun politics from us, what about the sights?
You can't come to China without visiting the Great Wall, the Forbidden
Games in the Hutongs
Locals enjoying themselves in the Muslim area of Beijing
City, Shanghai and the Terracotta Army. We travelled out of season so with the exception of the Forbidden City all the others were easy to visit and straight forward. The same could be said for all the other sights we visited in each area although it is worth reading all the small print about prices etc, as in many cases the hotel can get a better deal booking for you in advance or there are expensive or cheap days (and big discounts for the elderly). Judging by the size of the car parks and infrastructure around entrances (queuing systems etc) in summer at weekends many sights could be hell.
The sudden increase in affluent Chinese with cars and money has led to a massive increase in the number of attractions for tourists. These will probably not have guides in English (buying tickets or finding the place will be easy but the exhibit descriptions or labels will only be in Chinese or terrible English) so you need to do a bit of reading up before you go but there certainly won't be a shortage of things to do, although we mostly enjoyed walking round the streets and watching the locals going
Nice Garden Wall
The pointing could do with some attention, perhaps I will make a bid for the work.
about their business.
So it is now six weeks since we left home, we have had a great time and no real disasters (unless the journey home has some surprises in store) nor any regrets about what we did or did not see or do. I have a dream that one day we will have an open ended holiday where we can move on when we are ready and decided what to do next on a day to day basis, to some extent that is what we have done on the last few trips to Africa but there is always the end date when the hire vehicle is due back and the plane home is booked and of course work awaiting us in the UK. This holiday was more organised than most, every night was booked in advance so it is surprising that it all went so well.
China and Mongolia are places we will come back to, Siberia was great, did I mention Lake Baikel, and the train journey from Moscow to Beijing was great fun. Now it is back to reality via three flights and a UK train ride which won't be anywhere as good as those in China. It
The Chinese love dressing up and having their pictures taken, this was in the Forbidden City
will take a few weeks to sort out the pictures then we can start dreaming of where to go next, perhaps somewhere with a nice cup of tea!
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