Trip 13: China, Hong Kong, and Tibet.


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Asia » China
June 14th 2007
Published: June 14th 2007
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11/05-12/05

Like I said in the last entry, 1.5 years had passed since I had gone overseas. My wife saw my suffering and offered me some relief in the form of a trip. I decided on China. I wrote I decent review of my trip on www.eurotrek.net which I will cut and paste here...

CONTENTS

1. China- Basic Information
2. Chinese Cities
3. Hong Kong
4. Tibet

1. CHINA- BASIC INFORMATION

People- The people in China are very friendly. Other than aggressive touts trying to sell you everything under the sun, you're unlikely to have many problems. There are two things that are important to know however. 1. People in China do not speak English. Around the more visited cities, people with things to sell you (hotels, tours, etc.) may know some English but for the most part, forget about it. 2. Chinese people harbor the disgusting habit of constantly hacking and spitting. It doesn't matter how crowded the street is, they will spit right next to you. I even saw a guy spit on the floor of a bus. For me, this was the most difficult part of traveling in China and I cringed every time I saw it happen.

Food- Chinese food comes in all styles and prices. For some reason, I felt like the less I paid, the better the meal was. At the nicer restaurants, I felt the food was inferior compared to hole-in-the-wall canteens where a stir-fried meat and vegetable dish with rice cost about 60 cents. I liked the atmosphere better at these places too with their small stools, small tables, and numerous locals. These places can be intimidating to eat at as there are no menus and no English spoken, but try to point to what you want and you'll be fine. Chinese also love their noodle bowls on trains and elsewhere. They are filling and cheap (25 cents). Just add hot water and let it sit for 3 minutes.

Accommodation- I stayed in cheap hotels with my own bathroom and it only cost me about an average of $15 nightly for a clean, comfortable room. Dorm rooms with shared bathrooms are available for around $3 a night pretty much everywhere, but facilities for this category can get pretty bad.

Transportation- Air travel is not too expensive and discounts are usually available. For long journeys, it can cost the same as taking a train and is worth looking into. Bus travel is slow and uncomfortable. Even sleeper buses aren't great because you can't sit when you want to and the beds are Chinese-sized making them uncomfortable for taller people. Train is the ideal way to go, but do research before you go to make sure you check the timetables at a http://www.travelchinaguide.com This will make buying train tickets easier since there's no English timetables at stations and getting through the thousands of people to the information desk only to find they speak no English is disheartening. Remember, numbers are written the same in China as they are in the Western world so if you can say 'Beijing' and show them a written date and time, it makes buying tickets much easier. Try to get tickets as much in advance as you can or you may get shut out of have to buy a more expensive or less comfortable ticket. Hard sleeper is the best way to travel. It's less expensive, comfortable, and a great experience as you can meet fellow Chinese travelers in an open carriage full of bunk beds. Soft sleeper is not a softer bed, but it's 4 beds in a room with a locking door. Slippers, cleaner bathrooms, and a private waiting area away from the crowds at the train station are all perks. Expect to pay 80% more for these luxuries. Hard seat is for the determined. I never traveled this way, but peered in to see a crowded, sleepless mess. It's the cheapest way to go, but I wouldn't recommend it. Taxis and buses are the primary way of getting around the massive Chinese cities. Walking is good in stretches, but trying to do it all on foot will only wear you out. With buses, you can pay onboard. I just jumped on one heading in my direction and followed its route with a map. When the bus made a turn that was out of my plans, I got off and took another one that followed the direction I wanted. Since everything is in Chinese, this is about the only way to do things. Taxis are a good option too. Since they always have to give receipts, you'll never get ripped off. $1-3 will get you nearly anywhere around town.

Visas and Permits- Getting my Chinese Visa was easy. I got it in Hong Kong from the China Visa Office in Wanchai and it only took about 4 hours. Since I wanted it done in one day and had to pay the America surcharge, it cost about $80. In America, you can't apply by mail and have to visit your appropriate Chinese consulate in person, which makes the Hong Kong option that much better. See the Tibet section for info on the Tibet Travel Permit.

Health- Call me lucky, but I experienced no major health problems in China. I never even had any stomach concerns. In Lhasa however, I felt a little sick on the second evening, which passed by morning. While it could have been Acute Mountain Sickness, I think I just got a touch of the flu because my room had no heat the first night I was there and I was freezing. Every other establishment in town wasn't too crazy about heat, or doors for that matter, either. If it was A.M.S., then it wasn't as bad as I thought it would be. It didn't strike me until about 5 p.m. at which time I went back to my hotel and slept it off. I was fine by morning. A.M.S. usually strikes between 24 and 48 hours of arrival to areas over 2,500 m. There's no way of telling who will get it and the best medicine is rest and not going higher!

Money- There's only two ways to change money in China. 1. Your hotel. Other hotels won't do it for you. 2. The bank. Both offer fair exchange rates. Try to avoid changing money at the airport as you usually would elsewhere in the world, since the rates are very poor. ATM's are semi-plentiful. They were everywhere in Beijing, but took a bit of searching out in Lhasa. Every bank and most shopping centers have them. I experienced no black market for currency exchange, but even if you did, I would hardly recommend it.

Climate- The weather was pretty good for November and December. Hong Kong was between 20 and 28 C (around 68 to 82 F) and central China hovered around 10 C (50 F), give or take a few degrees. It got colder just as I was leaving most places. Lhasa was different. Daytime temperatures soared to 17 C (62 F), but dropped well below zero at night. It didn't rain or snow the entire time I was in China.

Time- China is 13 hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time in the U.S. Since it is such a huge country, the western parts such as Tibet don't see the sun rise until about 8:30 am and it sets at around 7 pm at this time of year. Warm Tibetan evenings in December are wonderful times.

Toilet- I have to mention that squat toilets are the norm and if you don't carry around your own toilet paper, you're screwed.

2. CHINESE CITIES

In the order I visited them.....

Shenzhen- Don't go. There's nothing to do here if you're not a huge fan of shopping. It's very modern and unfriendly. I couldn't have had a worst first impression of China

Yangshuo- The mountain scenery surrounding Yangshuo is one of the most incredible things I've ever seen. See my pictures for views of this celestial landscape. The town itself includes a couple of nice parks featuring mountains you can climb, Li River views, and traditional Chinese buildings. It's all very peaceful and inspiring or at least it is in the off-season. A bike is a great way to explore the surrounding countryside. Since the mountains rise straight out of the ground, this is one of the few places where the biking is completely flat with spectacular mountain views. The town itself is one of those backpacker havens with lots of hostels and western restaurants located in one section of town. Across the street is more local and meals are 1/8th of the price.

Guilin- This famous name is disappointing if you go to Yangshuo first. The famous landscape is here also, but it's not as magnificent. One thing I liked was the lake in the center of the city with two tall, thin pagodas. There are also some parks with mountains to climb to pass the time. The city has a very disorderly and chaotic feeling to it, however. A funny story from Guilin happened when I got off the bus from Yangshuo and walked for about 10 minutes towards the train station before realizing my bag was still in the storage compartment under the bus! I ran back only to be confronted by over 100 buses all with Chinese characters displayed. I kind of knew the characters for Guilin and Yangshuo. Of course, the Guilin character was on all buses. After running around for 10 minutes, I miraculously located the bus. The stewardess saw me, recognized me, and opened the compartment revealing my bag, much to my relief.

Wuhan- A surprisingly good place. This is one of those huge Chinese cities that hugs the 1 km wide Yanghzi from both sides (the only city that does this). While much of the town isn't of too much interest, the Yellow Crane Pagoda is a true spectacle. This five-story temple is climbable and includes a serene surrounding park filled with ancient buildings to explore. Crossing the Yanghzi by boat and looking around the main street for colonial architecture are other interesting things to do.

Xi'an- This was easily my favorite city in China. Perhaps it's because I'm a Silk Road enthusiast and this city happens to be its eastern terminus. Because of this, Xi'an has an Islamic flavor to go along with its population of Muslims. Xi'an's central core is surrounded by one of China's only intact, albeit restored, city walls. You can circumnavigate the city along its entire 14 km length, which is full of gates and towers, one of China's lesser-known fascinating treats. Since there's a $3 fee to go up, the walk is free of not only traffic, but people too. This bird's eye view allows a peaceful look at one of China's busier cities. Down below, but still inside the wall, is the Bell Tower, the true center of Xi'an. A short walk from there is the Drum Tower, the entrance to the Muslim Quarter. The Muslim Quarter reminded me a bit of a Chinese Cairo. It's a good place to try local food and to bargain for souvenirs. The best parts of China for me are the tranquil places away from the crazy hustle and bustle of Chinese life. The Great Mosque in the Muslim Quarter is another place where this type of atmosphere can be found. Built in Chinese style, the peace and spiritual energy of this mosque are the same as felt in the Middle East. Four unique courtyards eventually lead to the main prayer hall. Some ancient prayer tablets in Islamic can be found along this walk. Outside the wall, the Big Wild Goose Pagoda and the Shaanxi Museum make good visits. The Shaanxi Museum chronicles the province's history from the very beginning through the Tang dynasty, when Xi'an was the capital, to the Ming and Qing dynasties. Of course, no visit to Xi'an would be complete without a visit to the amazing Terracotta Warriors. Pit 1, the famous view, is the most astounding. Pit 2 is largely empty and Pit 3 gives a smaller and more intimate environment to view some warriors. The complex takes the form of a modern museum, much different then the bucolic setting I'd imagined the warriors to be in. Nonetheless, it was a wondrous experience. Xi'an truly was the high point of China for me (Tibet doesn't count as China!).

Beijing- I had expectations for Beijing that were too high. The city itself did little for me, but the sights were top notch. I first went to the Temple of Heaven, which was buried under scaffolding. The Olympics are coming. Tiananmen Square, the largest square in the world, impressed me with its size and grand Communist-era buildings. That brought me to the Forbidden City, the largest set of ancient buildings in all of China. This palatial estate dazzles the eye at every turn. The gates, temples, stables, and everything else are all done in the most pleasing of styles, which makes for an exploration without low points. Peering into the chambers (you can't go in) gives a good look at what royalty must have been like in the Ming and Qing dynasties. The other 'great' thing I did in Beijing was climbing the Great Wall. I went to Badaling. I read it was the most touristed place to view the wall, but also had the most spectacular surrounding landscape. Since I went on a cold November morning, the crowds weren't too bad. In fact, I had long stretches of the wall all to myself. When you enter, you can go left or right. 90% of people went right, so I went left. Steep climbs and unparalleled views were waiting for me. When you travel, many things don't live up to the hype. Well, the Great Wall is one thing that surpassed all my expectations. It is truly something I will never forget.

Guangzhou- I spent half a day here, which was half a day too long. It's modern and ugly, but Shaiman Island's peace and colonial buildings made it a little better, despite the Americans hauling around their newly adopted Chinese babies. The U.S. Consulate is on Shaiman Island.

3. HONG KONG

Hong Kong is really a fascinating city. When you arrive, it seems a lot like Chinatown in London (it definitely has the same smell as the West End), but there really is a lot more to it as it's a fusion of all things Asian, especially in the cuisine department.

The most striking thing about the city is the view of the Hong Kong skyline with Victoria Peak as the backdrop from the Avenue of Stars in Kowloon. It's especially beautiful on a Christmas season night as all of the buildings are decorated in Christmas lights and there's a thrilling light show at 8:00 pm every night. Staying in Kowloon, the Nathan Road area is full of discount shops, discount travel agencies, discount eateries- basically, it's considered the less expensive portion of town. Whether you find any deals or not will depend more on bargaining skills and stamina. It is an interesting mix of Chinese, Western, Indian, and African cultures. The one place where this is most evident is the Chungking Mansions, which is commonly derided as a disgusting last resort place to stay for people on strict budgets. I found it to be the most interesting place in Hong Kong. For me, it's the epicenter of what I envisioned Hong Kong to be- a busy port city with people from all over the world. At Chungking Mansions, you'll find a fusion Africans and Indians with a few stray Westerners and a couple Chinese merchants all under one roof which creates an energetic hive of activity and a contrast of styles. The bottom floor is filled with dozens of shops and ethnic fast food stands serving anything you want for far cheaper than average Hong Kong prices. The upper floors are a warren of guesthouses with some restaurants and businesses mixed in. I fell in with the Tanzanian gemstone-trading crowd which made my end-of-trip feeling resemble more of a 'First time Africa' emotion. Seeing my new friends in action and learning about their life in Hong Kong and in Tanzania was one of my richer experiences of this trip.

Crossing the causeway to Hong Kong Island is a highlight as this means taking the famous Star Ferry. Tremendous views abound on the short 8-minute trip. The northern part of Hong Kong Island is a labyrinth of office buildings and shopping centers connected primarily by skywalks. It would be easy to spend a whole day in numerous buildings without ever going to ground level or crossing a street. While the shopping isn't too different than what I would find in Akron, these shopping centers are the best places to eat. There are food courts (Pacific Place in Admiralty and the Ocean Center in Kowloon are the best) with takeaway restaurants from all parts of Asia. These places represent the best food to cost ratio in Hong Kong and provide good Chinese, Indian, Vietnamese, and Singaporean cuisines along with many others. Hong Kong Island's highlight is taking the Peak Tram up to Victoria Peak. Be warned though, the tram doesn't go to the top of the peak and if you decide to undertake the steep climb, your rewards will most likely be few. It's not possible to access the top of the peak (you can get close) due to a TV tower and the views are usually hazy. The view from the upper terminus of the Peak Tram is where the best views of the skyline are. Another viewpoint, which is lesser known, is the observation deck from the 55th floor of the Two IBC Building, the tallest building in Hong Kong. The best part it is that its free! Taking the trams along the north coast of Hong Kong Island is another fun thing to do. But if you go too far west, you're likely to stumble upon the disgusting smells of the dried seafood market. From the IBC Mall, an interesting diversion is taking the Central Escalator. A 20-minute ride completes the longest escalator journey in the world. It passes through the SoHo district, which is full of 'trendy' restaurants, bars, and cafes. Getting off the Central Escalator at Hollywood Road and walking west will take you through a mixture of Chinese antique shops where buying any size statue that you fit on your cargo ship will be possible. For me, Hong Kong was more about an experience than sights. There are museums and various other things to do, but just wandering around and taking in all the activity is what makes Hong Kong an interesting place to visit.

4. TIBET

Tibet could possibly be the most mind-blowing experience of my life. Despite being restricted to Lhasa due to time constraints, it was one of the best things I ever did. The people, their traditional ways, and their spiritual energy complemented by the soaring Potola Palace (or is it the other way around!) and numerous others shrines all contributed to a place that showed me a new perspective on life.

Getting There: If you have money it's easy. If you have a credit card and want to pay over the next six months or so like me, it's easy at the time. I had my permit arranged in Xi'an at a hotel near the train station called Ludao Binguan. A guy named Jim Beam (no joke) who is the manager can arrange a Tibet permit and plane tickets in a day for about $350. This includes a one way plane ticket, the Tibet travel permit, three nights hotel accommodation in a dorm room (you can upgrade), and a tour guide who actually shows up in Lhasa, but most people tell him they just want to explore on their own. I traveled to Lhasa as a tour group of one. Buying a plane ticket back to traditional China is more straightforward. There's a ticket hall in an alley near the Potola Palace that can arrange tickets to anywhere.

The Plane Ride: I flew from Xi'an to Chengdu where I changed planes and flew to Lhasa. Get a window seat on the Chengdu-Lhasa flight and you'll be treated to two hours of unbelievable Himalaya scenery. This was one of the unexpected highlights of my trip.

Lhasa: Lhasa is a magical place. It's about an 80-minute minibus ride through the mountains and villages of traditional Tibetan homes to Lhasa. After riding through the Chinese part of town for a while, you finally see it! The Potola Palace comes as a mirage in the middle of this forbidding landscape. Thirteen stories high and set on a hill in the middle of town, this imposing fortress is a sign of the mystique that is yet to come.

Lodging: I stayed at the Snowlands Hotel. I upgraded my dorm to a double room. Then I came back that night and noticed my room had no heat. So I went downstairs and upgraded again. My new room with heat was cold anyways and the next day, I had to have it fixed after I caught a cold. The point of all this is that Tibetans don't have and don't need heat, even in the dead of winter. A normal door in Tibet is a wool blanket and the night watchman at my hotel was sleeping outside in sub-zero temperatures. Getting warm when it was dark was one of the biggest obstacles for me. During the day, temperatures rose to nearly 16 degrees C!

My hotel was in the Barkhor area, a famous pilgrim enclave. The focal point of this area is the Jokhang Temple, which has stood in the same spot (but perhaps not with the same building) for 1,100 years. This is the most important temple in Tibetan Buddhism and there are always pilgrims worshipping. For me, the most interesting part was making the Barkhor Kora (pilgrim circuit) around Jokhang Temple. In a clockwise direction, we all made the 400-meter circumnavigation of the temple. The streets of this route were lined with pilgrim vendors peddling everything from prayer flags and icons to clothes and electronics. The pilgrims were dressed in traditional colorful clothing and most spun handheld prayer wheels. Most of these people had made long journeys from other parts of Tibet to see the treasures of Lhasa. Since poverty is so prevalent in Tibet, there are many beggars who are actually just trying to fund their journeys and have some cash to make monetary donations to the statues in the temples. In my life, I've never seen a group of people who were so devout.

Sights: Potola Palace-This brings me to what is possibly the greatest site I've ever seen, the Potola Palace. The view of the building from the outside is stunning. The red and white winter residence of the Dalai Lamas rises above the city like a deity floating into heaven. But if you can believe it, the inside is just as life altering. When you first enter the palace, you go through a few empty ho-hum rooms and some courtyards. As I was exploring one courtyard, I discovered one of the aforementioned blanket doors and decided to go inside. What I saw is something I will never forget. It was a chapel filled with hundreds of statues of Buddha and other Gods ranging from the size of a fist to a Buddha statue that was three meters tall. This led to series of over 30 chapels with similar statuary, but all were unique. Some features of these chapels included tombs of the Dalai Lamas, thousands of gold and silver statues of Buddha and Dalai Lamas, miniature golden temples, many pilgrims, and yak butter candles, which smell quite bad. These chapels provided every emotion possible. I was awestruck by the devotion of the pilgrims. I was overwhelmed by the sheer amounts of statues. I was even a bit frightened by some of the large mean-looking statues of Gods that are meant to scare away evil spirits. Exiting the temple left me enlightened, at peace with the world, and relieved. Nothing I have ever seen has left me feeling like that. Just typing this has brought all the emotions back and has left me breathless.

There's nothing else I can write. Just go to Tibet. Trust me.

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