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Author nfmungard
Partaker
#121 | Posted: 7 Feb 2020 12:27 | Edited by: nfmungard 
Back at home, with a nice Chinese cold having joined me back in Europe...

Itinerary

* Thursday Arrival Shanghai 10:00.
Headed to the hotel, picked up a SIM and then site seeing French concession and Pudong. Rode the Transrapid/Maglev.

* Friday Flight to Xian (8:20h) from Pudong.
I went from Xian airport directly to the Terracotta Army (one transfer) and then returned to Xian. Note: There are tourist buses from Xian Station and from Baqiao. Online you will find that buses only go from the eastern station, but during my visit this wasn't the case.

* Saturday Day Trip Ping Yao
Took the bus to the city center. All straight forward.

* Sunday Day Trip Shaolin/Longmen Grottoes
Took a fast train to Longmen Luoyang. A driver approached me when I exited the train station. We agreed on 500 RMB for the whole day. Worked out splendidly. Have his number if you want to make prior arrangements.

* Monday Xian, Big and Small Goose Pagodas, City Wall, Xian Mosque. Evening flight to Hangzhou.
Combination of subway and foot.

* Tuesday Liangzhu, Great Lake, Train to Huangshanbei.
Liangzhu is best reached by going to metro Liangzhu and then jumping one of the listed buses. On my way back, I picked the wrong bus and had to navigate Hangzhou city center. The West Lake has a shuttle. They go clockwise, so if you plan to use them, you need to walk clockwise, too. Huangshanbei is the high speed rail station. It's still pretty far off the mountain. There is a whole logistical network set up to get you there, though. There are plenty of hotels near the train station. On the other side of the track and you won't find the way the first time you come. Best to take a cab for 500m.

* Wednesday Hongcun by bus, then Huangshanbei by bus, then catastrophe
Lost my wallet and all my money that day in Tangkoucun. Alipay and a Chinese colleague helped me out at short notice. But then I was broke again, as Huangshan is REALLY F**** EXPENSIVE (easily 50€ all in, tickets are ONE way only, WTF). And I saw nil as everything was covered in clouds. I was down too late, the last bus had already left for Huangshanbei, so I had to haggle with a cab driver and alipay again. Paid 100 RMB instead of 200 RMB for the ride. Pooh. Note: ATMs are in short supply in Tangkoucun, so bring enough cash (700 RMB).

* Thursday Suzhou by train, Visit of the Humble Administrator Garden, Shanghai by Train, Visit of Bund
Nowadays, you are supposed to reserve for the Suzhou gardens online (trip.com).

Sites

4.5*
Ping Yao: To me the quintessential Chinese town. Loved it.

Terracotta Army: Impressive. Insane (why?!). Not 5* as is as scope too limited.

4*
Suzhou: I am a lover for gardens and what I got to see what true garden art.

Westlake: See above. The dimensions of the Westlake as a garden are just hard to fathom. And it's not just the lake, there are also large areas (SW) of garden and nature reserve.

Longmen: Big buddhas. Currently they are redoing the foot bridge, so I had to skip on one part of the site.

Shaolin: I visited three components of the main temple and ran out of time. The main temple on its own would have scored a 3.5*. However, I did not venture up the mountain. And the others seem to think that other parts are better, so 4* seems right. You can probably spend more than a day in the area and explore.

3.5*
Hongcun: The waterworks are stunning. And the village feels very intact. Great.

Unrated
Huangshan: Views were inexistant due to fog and day ruined by lost wallet.
Silk Road: The pagodas and longmen are both part of the inscription. I think that the more western castles are the more interesting components.

Tentative and Aspiring
* The Xian City Walls (massive) and the Xian Mosque (Muslim, but Chinese) should both be added. However, I think Xian should just have been a site on it's own instead of slicing it into several distinct nominations
* There is little doubt in my mind that Colonial Shanghai should be inscribed. The Bund is fabulous. As is the French Concession. I am wondering why Shanghai never tried to get it's own WHS, with all the competitiveness in China.

Overall, really happy on my trip. Seeing I did not cherry pick and all sites save Liangzhu were above average, I have to say: China has a very strong list. And with Shanghai and Xian City Walls still outstanding, I don't see the strong additions ending any time soon.

Author elsslots
Admin
#122 | Posted: 7 Feb 2020 12:39 | Edited by: elsslots 
Thanks for the wrap-up, Nan!
I believe you saw 10 Chinese WHS in 8 days? In 2007 I went there for 3 months and saw 'only' 17! But I did more cherry-picking I believe and generally am a slower traveller than you. The increase in high speed railways may have helped as well.

P.S.: and the increase in number of WHS within the country is a contributing factor, China has gained 20 WHS since 2007 (rewarding me with 2 additional WHS for that trip)

Author nfmungard
Partaker
#123 | Posted: 7 Feb 2020 13:11 
Practical Things in China

Visa
Supposedly, you can get a 3D/7D arrival visa nowadays IF you have a connecting flight out of China. Would love to hear from people if that works and how. Personally, I prefer dishing out the money (100€) in advance and not having to second guess Chinese immigration. Also, everyone makes you show your passport and visa, not sure what happens if you travel with an on arrival one.

To get a Visa, you need your full itinerary, including fight in/out of the country and hotels. In Hamburg, they make you fill out a huge form and print out all the receipts. I am not sure if they actually read it or use it. And I am not sure if you can cancel and change your travels. But, you aren't really flexible in China anyhow.

@All: Feedback re arrival visas and changing plans would be appreciated.

In any case, you always have to carry your passport, no matter where you go!!! And no matter what you want to do (train, museum, hotel, ...).

SIM
You definitively need to get a SIM in China. It takes 30min and requires (see above) your passport. You can't rely on public wifis (the few that exist) as even those verify you via SMS.

For some stupid reason, I misread my quota re SIM and ran out of volume too early. Was terrible, so rather get too much. You definitively need internet.

Internet
Internet in China is terrible if you are not Chinese. The Chinese have set up a Chinese ecosystem which works fine. But as a Westerner being used to google, you are screwed. Several key Chinese sites do not have an English version (specifically maps). You can prepare a little by getting a VPN before. I did, but speeds were terrible.

@All: Could have been my VPN but I was under the impression that the general internect connection slowed down my vpn connection.

Payment
Chinese pay everything digitally. However, for tourists cash is king. Only international hotels will accept Western credit cards. Everyone else takes Wepay, Alipay or Unionpay, systems not readily available to a Westerner. So, if you are wondering why I lost my wallet, it was the need for constant cash that was the cause.

You can create a tour pass via the alipay app. In my case, though, it didn't really work and I used primarily cash.

Google Maps
You can download offline versions of google maps. Or tunnel them via VPN. However, I have had repeated instances, where google was way off. So be really careful when navigating by google maps.

Google Translate
Be sure to download google translate English<>Chinese. It works offline and you can point your camera at signs and get a translation. Amazing.

Flying
In Europe we say, trains outcompete planes if the trip is less than 4h. In China, I would argue you can add at least one hour to the equation.:
* Most airports are way outside nowadays and take plenty of time to get to.
* For a flight, you should be at least 2h, better 3h before departure at the airport. Reason are lengthy security checks and huge queues at checkin that I have never seen in Europe.
* The airspace is restricted so flight distances are longer. In addition, we circled Xian for 45min before being finally allowed to land.
So, you should consider if flying makes sense. In my case, (Shanghai -> Xian), it probably still did, looking at the time tables.

Train
The first time I took a bullet train in China, I nearly missed it as I didn't understand how a Chinese railway station is built. In general, the departure section is on the top level. To get there, you have to show your ticket and pass security. If you have not done both, you are not in the departure area.

The departure area is a fairly large waiting area. You cannot descend to the tracks before boarding. Your ticket will be controlled again. Generally, it's all really efficient and safe.

You should bring some time to pass all the checks, so arrive at least 30min early. Also note, that as a foreigner you will have to show your passport on entry and boarding, so always go to the person and show your ticket and your passport

The exits are normally below the track level.

To buy a ticket, go to e.g. trip.com. I think the official reservation period starts 4w before. Trip.com will not sell you a ticket, but a potential reservation. They will then send you the reservation when they become available. For popular trips, the tickets sell out fast, so be mindful of the dates.

Generally, I would recommend to buy 1st class tickets for trips longer than 2h. The 2nd class has 5 seats in a row and it's pretty crowded (often sold out). People will get on and off the train all the time and it's not really pleasant. Also, you can't really stretch your legs. So the little extra money you spend on 1st class is well spend.

To pick up the tickets, go to a train station and queue. They normally always have one English desk. Show them the numbers and they will print the tickets for you. Bring some time as queues are long. I would recommend having all tickets printed on your first day.

I also learnt that if you lose your ticket, they can (and will) reprint it for you. You have a seat and it's tied to your passport, so no issues.

@All: I am not sure how you can change a ticket, e.g. go earlier? I also noticed that some Chinese boarded trains for which they didn't have a reservation. Not sure how that worked.

The new rail stations often carry one of these suffixes: bei, dong, nan, xi. E.g. Huangshanbei. It's a bit confusing at times. All it means it North, East, South, West. The bullet train stations were build outside of town (the direction indicates where), so the trains don't have to lose times going a detour. And Chinese don't put spaces. So Guangzhounan means Guangzhou South Railway Station. It can be a bit confusing with tickets.

In any case, always check what your station is and how long it takes to get there. Guangzhounan is 17km outside of town!

Author nfmungard
Partaker
#124 | Posted: 7 Feb 2020 13:19 
elsslots:
Thanks for the wrap-up, Nan!
I believe you saw 10 Chinese WHS in 8 days? In 2007 I went there for 3 months and saw 'only' 17! But I did more cherry-picking I believe and generally am a slower traveller than you. The increase in high speed railways may have helped as well.

Haha, I was overcompensating for New Zealand and the low yield. I wish I had had more time for time for Longmen, Luoyang and Dengfeng/Shaolin (at least one more day). Also, I could have gone to the Grand Canal in Hangzhou and the Canal towns around Suzhou plus more gardens in Suzhou. Huangshanbei with terrible weather didn't really make much difference, though. And Silk Road is the type of serial nomination I despise. Xian should have been one on it's own and then those castles in Western China.

Overall, I had the discussion with Ian. Nowadays, you can create way more efficient itineraries as more sites are inscribed in general and with our tentative site maps, you know what you can tick off along the way.

Author christravelblog
Partaker
#125 | Posted: 9 Feb 2020 06:54 | Edited by: christravelblog 
nfmungard:
SIM / INETERNET
You definitively need to get a SIM in China.

A local sim IS cheaper yes. BUT consider (if you can do eSim) to take GigSky. It costs 50 USD for 5 GB , but, I love to pay that. why?
1) i keep my Dutch sim in my iphone so my phone number is there, i do the eSim as 2nd sim for data

BUT: the GigSky internet has NO BLOCKS. because the APN isn't in China. you can use Google Maps, Facebook everything without VPN.

When in a hotel, I use the WiFi of course when possible and with expressVPN there is also no block. I never experienced problems. (last time i was there Nov 2019 and I go like twice a year). Public wifi & vpn sucks for sure because you need verify with phonenumber often.

Author joelonroad
Partaker
#126 | Posted: 10 Feb 2020 06:45 
For our Chinese visas, the guy at the consulate was happy with 50% of our accommodation booked. I doubt they cross-reference that with where you actually stay/register with the police.

Fully agree about the SIM card, I can't imagine tackling China these days without it.

With regard to internet, paid VPNs are really the only option. Free ones are pretty unreliable, ie you get what you pay for. We used ExpressVPN, our experience wasn't great but I heard VPNs get worse around significant milestones (eg Tiananmen anniversary, party conferences, national week etc) - we were there only a few weeks before the 75th anniversary of the PRC's founding, so that probably explained it.

Google doesn't work as you mentioned, but strangely enough Microsoft's Bing works fine. It would even happily load cached versions of wikipedia. I didn't find offline Google Maps that useful, but Baidu Maps (despite being entirely in Chinese) was actually quite useable. Apple Maps also works reasonably if you have access to that - at least for finding things.

For train tickets, we had booked all of ours in advance and picked them up from Beijing main station in the first few days. They have an "English counter" there, but the staff had as little English as any other Chinese person. Shuffling train tickets was actually quite easy, you just go to the ticket counter and show them your tickets along with a google translated phone message saying "move to <train number> at <time> <date>". They usually show a confirmation on the screen (in decipherable Chinese) so that you know you're getting the right thing.

Good tip re high speed trains, it's really more like an airport than a train station. Remember that the platform closes five minutes before departure, so you have less time than you think! And as a Westerner, when they open the gates to the platform you can ignore the queue. You can't use the gates because it requires scanning a Chinese ID, so just shove your way across to the staff manning the barriers and enter there, before enjoying that you're the first person on the train!

Author meltwaterfalls
Partaker
#127 | Posted: 11 Feb 2020 02:56 
Thanks for these run downs they are really useful.

One thing that struck me as different from my visit is the importance we all put on internet access now. I only visited in 2011, but just wrote off my phone and used a guidebook. Whilst I liked the time being out of communication range (same as the Camino the year before) I'm not sure I would really do the same now, smartphones have become so integrated into everyday life.

Author elsslots
Admin
#128 | Posted: 11 Feb 2020 05:27 | Edited by: elsslots 
meltwaterfalls:
the importance we all put on internet access now

Good observation. When I was in China for the last time (January 2019) I discovered that I had a rubbish VPN and just gave up caring that I could not access a certain site (this WH website by the way appears to have been approved by the Chinese censors!). I had no Chinese sim either, but when necessary locals were all too happy to use their translation apps to get a message across. Though it must be mentioned that I speak basic Chinese, so getting around usually isn't a problem.

Author nfmungard
Partaker
#129 | Posted: 11 Feb 2020 10:06 
meltwaterfalls:
One thing that struck me as different from my visit is the importance we all put on internet access now. I only visited in 2011, but just wrote off my phone and used a guidebook. Whilst I liked the time being out of communication range (same as the Camino the year before) I'm not sure I would really do the same now, smartphones have become so integrated into everyday life.

It's not so much me who cant do without internet. It's that China is fully digitalized and you need to keep up. And with my quota running out I was quickly down to travelling offline again and no worries there. The phone number was more important.

I also think that some of the use cases of a phone were solved via books/maps in the past.

joelonroad:
For our Chinese visas, the guy at the consulate was happy with 50% of our accommodation booked. I doubt they cross-reference that with where you actually stay/register with the police.

Interesting. In Hamburg they ask for all days covered. I will ping a friend that he may try in a different country and see if he has more luck than in Hamburg.

christravelblog:
BUT: the GigSky internet has NO BLOCKS. because the APN isn't in China. you can use Google Maps, Facebook everything without VPN.

Will check it out. Was always looking for a global provider to save myself the hassle of getting a local vpn etc. However, in China having a local number does actually pay off.

Author Zos
Partaker
#130 | Posted: 20 Feb 2020 19:32 
nfmungard:
Google Maps
You can download offline versions of google maps. Or tunnel them via VPN. However, I have had repeated instances, where google was way off. So be really careful when navigating by google maps.

The best maps for travelling in China are Amap and Baidu Maps. They are in Chinese but very easy to use. You can Google the chinese names of the places you want to visit and paste it on the map apps. The maps will give you transport options and will track the stops in real time - perfect for not missing your stops. On small towns, where they dont have the numbered bus systems, the transport choices are not on these maps though.

Author nfmungard
Partaker
#131 | Posted: 23 Feb 2020 15:15 
I couldnt work with the Chinese maps, honestly. It wasn't so much the place names, but if the commands are in Chinese, I just had a hard time. Not sure why they can't even do a simple Romanicazion of the app.

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