As a child I would spend hours looking at a map, my mind fantasizing about far away countries. Ever since I have been planning a trip to China. I promised myself I would go and that I would stay for long. It’s simply not the same to stay for a week than for a couple of months, especially when traveling to places that have so much to offer, like Russia, the country we visited last year. Who knows when will you go back? Plus how else could you soak into a culture? You need time just to move around the biggest countries on earth. In 2015 we spent three months in Argentina and Brazil, and we feel we barely scratched the surface!
This year it’s time to fulfill my dream of going to China and Japan, and we are going for 4 months, with a short stop in Belgium and the Netherlands. While it seems pretty easy to travel around Japan, a perfectly organized country, China so far is posing particular challenges. Compared to its eastern neighbor it still seems a bit stuck in time, its huge, chaotic and so very diverse.
What are the main challenges of visiting China?
Buying a plane ticket to the Far East
In our text about finding the cheapest plane ticket we mention several search engines and a good webpage for low cost carriers. This time we wanted to get an even better deal. Several websites are fully dedicated to finding outrageously cheap plane tickets so if you follow them on social media you might get lucky and get the best bargains.
I follow two websites on a regular basis: the international Fly4free which offers great deals from all over Europe to any worldwide destination and the Spanish Happy Low Cost which does the same thing but mostly for flights originating in Spain. The former published a scandalous offer of flights from several European destinations to China and Japan, and I managed to get tickets from Amsterdam to Xi’an (China) and from Tokyo to Amsterdam for 240 eur altogether. Basically we won’t have to go back to China from Japan in order to take our flight back to Europe, plus we get to go back to Belgium and the Netherlands on the way. Flights from Barcelona to Belgium/Netherlands start from 15 eur, so you can imagine how happy I am. It takes time, but you can’t beat 240e return to the Far East.
Choosing an itinerary in China
China is a fairly big and diverse country, so visiting a region or two was not an option. So we decided to spend two full months there. I am sure it won’t be enough, but at least we’ll get a glimpse of the world’s most populated country. Since most Chinese visas let you stay for a maximum of 30 days at once, we’ll probably fly to Hong Kong for a couple of days and then continue our Chinese route. The perfect excuse to go back to Hong Kong after just a year. Woohoo!
I started preparing our route by typing ‘Best places to visit in China’ in Google. Google offered quite a few places with photos included. After that I checked several websites, including one of my favorites Touropia. I also checked the list of Unesco’s World Heritage Sites in China. Of course I couldn’t plan my route without Lonely Planet. For destinations inside a specific region I checked TripAdvisor’s Top Places to visit.
As you know, our focus when traveling is architecture and nature, and China has loads of both. Our first month will include destinations far from each other, so we will be taking flights. We are landing in Xi’an, famous for its old Terracotta Army and the magnificent 14th century city wall. After that we are going to Chengdu to see cute pandas and the Leshan Giant Buddha. Our third region is beautiful Yunnan, where we will visit reputedly one of the most beautiful Chinese cities: Lijiang and a couple of national parks. After that we’ll spend a few days in Pingyao Ancient City. Finally we are flying to Beijing where we’ll spend 10 days around the capital, the Great Wall, hanging temples and grottoes.
On our second month we’ll move exclusively by land. We’ll re-enter China near Guangzhou where we’ll continue to Guilin and the gorgeous Li river to enjoy one of the most breathtaking views in China. After that our route continues to the relatively isolated ancient town of Fenghuang and one of the most spectacular national parks: Zhangjiajie National Forest Park. From there we will be heading to Shanghai through a series of national parks and heritage towns.
Internet in China
China is one of those countries that block many internet sites. In fact Chinese authorities block all Google websites, including Gmail, Google Maps, Translator, and Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Youtube and other social networks. Our main concern is whether we will be able to publish our website texts. Google has alternatives, but what about our own Happy Frog Travels?
It seems that the best solution is using a reliable VPN network. There is an ongoing process of shutting down VPN networks, but at the moment some of them still function. After a thorough online research I concluded that the best service is ExpressVPN. Supposedly it is reliable and relatively fast. Let’s cross our fingers and hope it works.
There are a couple of very useful Chinese sites too. Youdao Translate seems a very useful basic language tool. Baidu Maps has the most up to date maps of China, but it’s entirely in Chinese, while Map of China has some English names. For a quick translation of transport and food Waygo is an app to use. By scanning a text in Chinese it recognizes its letters and translates it into English.
Accommodation and Transport around China
Accommodation in China is abundant and inexpensive. Local hotels accepting only Chinese tourists offer rooms for a couple of euros a night but it’s usually not possible for foreigners to stay there. There are plenty of cool midrange hotels between 30 and 40 eur, while luxury hotels start from 50 eur a night! Naturally the exceptions are Beijing and Shanghai, but even those two cities are not as expensive as Europe.
Our preferred way of searching for a place to stay is through Tripadvisor where we compare prices on different websites like Booking, Hotels and Agoda. But for China in particular Ctrip is a good website offering hotels, plus train and airline tickets too. At the moment of writing this text (March 2017) Tripadvisor and other Hotel sites still work in China.
Over the last decade China has made huge progress in transport infrastructure. Most large cities have a metro network, which is expanding at an impressive pace. Metro systems have signs in English and Chinese and are therefore relatively easy to use. Contrary to that, local buses have signs in Chinese only, so using a local bus can be challenging.
Between cities one can take a train or a plane. Fast trains are not that cheap, sometimes slightly less than plane tickets. Chinese Railways has its website in Chinese only, so foreigners have to buy train tickets mostly through intermediaries. A list of useful online agents can be found here: Seat 61 China. Airline companies are abundant and prices vary depending on the destination. The cheapest company that operates flights to Japan is Peach. Flights from Shanghai to Tokyo or Osaka start from 50 euros one way.
Back to the roots
To be honest, when I started my online research about China I was a bit worried about the quality of our trip. It’s not that I am addicted to the Internet, but I do like to find hotel and flight bargains or to check which restaurant is top rated. And I have to admit that I am completely addicted to Google Maps. Being an architect and an urban planner I connect to cities through maps.
But then again, I used to travel when there was almost no Internet, the good old ‘knock on every hotel door’. It was so exciting! E even travelled when there was no internet (he is not that old, it’s the Internet that’s young!) and never had a problem, it was more of an adventure and you got to experience the local’s life a bit more. So travelling around China might just bring us back in time and give us an opportunity to disconnect once again. Actually, I am really looking forward to that!