It seems like everyone is traveling to China this past few years – and missing out on all the good stuff. In the summer of 2007 I spent 6 weeks living in Xi’an, China and spent an additional two weeks traveling in Beijing, Shanghai, Guilin, and Yangshuo. Whenever I run into people who’ve traveled, or plan to travel, in China I find that their itinerary is rather bland – whatever happened to adventure? So I created a rundown of the places I most often recommend – the hidden jewels.
Come to Xi’an for the Terra Cotta Warriors, and stay within the city walls for a whole different experience. Walk behind the Drum Tower in downtown Xi’an to discover the market place. Take an immediate left and walk under the covered market stalls and take time to marvel at everything for sale. Be forewarned – you should bargain! Something that first is Y500 can be bargained down to Y80. My advice: walk through, see what you want, and buy it the next day. You’ll find deals only if you look at all vendors. Don’t get too lost in the markets – many times while downtown I found lost tourists wandering in the market place. Take a map or a savvy traveler with you.
While walking down the market place you’ll run across an open area to your left – it’s the Great Mosque. Go here to take a break from the heat of the day and relax in the desert garden. But please respect boundaries of where Muslims, and non-Muslims can be – don’t enter the Mosque if the sign says you are not to.
If you stay on the main path behind the Drum Tower, you can find a large building with Arabic written on the placard. If you want some dumplings with camel meat head inside. The menus will have English, so polite gestures and pointing will get you a dinner.
Now, if you get too tired or are looking for an escape, head to the main center (in front of the drum tower) and park yourself at the Starbucks. The staff speak great English, the coffee is the same, there is wifi and you’ll find yourself in the good company of other European and American travelers. If you’re hankering for a ice cream, walk, bus, or grab a taxi to right outside the city walls for the Haagen-Dazs restaurant. Relax in A/C and indulge in hand crafted desserts.
If it is nice weather I’d highly recommend walking or taking a bike ride on the city walls.
It’s night time and you’re looking for fun. Head towards the south gate on Dong Da Jie and you’ll find nightlife lining the city streets and try the 1+1 club. And if you want to pub crawl find Defu Xiang, a hidden road by the South Gate. Looking to dive into the culture? Walk outside the South Gate and play street games and join in a traditional dance in the open square.
In this city you can take a taxi – but why? The metro system is styled after Hong Kong’s ; it’s automated, hi-tech and easy for a foreigner to traverse. Take the metro to all the cool locations, but don’t spend your money on everything. You can walk the Bund, spend time cooling off at Fuxing Park, and patrol all the old estates, parks, and museums. But you’re reading this for the secrets, right?
Secret #1: Don’t spend your money on Jinmao Tower. No need to pay money to go inside this tower when you can make reservations at the Grand Hyatt at a restaurant on the 56th floor, or spring some money and make reservations at Cloud 9 – 87th floor – the highest bar in the world. If three broke college students dressed up and ate at the Grand Hyatt, surely you can to.
Secret #2: Shanghai has the best Mexican food I’ve had. Zapata’s restaurant and bar serves great food and has a great night life. If you’re looking for food during the day, head to its neighboring cafe for some nice sandwiches indoors or out on the patio.
Secret#3: The MagLev train. If you’re looking to go over 200 mph, hop aboard the train to get to and from the Shanghai airport real quick.
Beijing has probably changed too much since the Olympics in 2008. But pre-Olympics the subway was old fashioned -wait in line forever, get a ticket, and hope you can understand the announcer to know when your stop is. I didn’t have too much luck with English -speaking taxi drivers, either. But sometimes it’s fun to get a little lost. At 2:30am after the bars, not so much.
The big secret: The Great Wall of China. Okay, so that’s not a secret, but how to explore it is. To not be a regular tourist, try to visit the it at a different location – I highly suggest picking up The Lonely Planet Guide and picking a place to visit the Great Wall. If you want to schedule a tour and are visiting the popular tourist section, climb up “the Chinese side.” Head to the right, cross the river, and go up the wall on the other side. The climb isn’t crowded with tourists and the views are all your own. Before you head up, though, grab a hat or bandanna, a couple of water bottles, and some fresh fruit. Make sure you don’t get dehydrated. Oh, and if you’re afraid of heights, the climb down makes the word vertigo seem like a kiddie roller-coaster ride.
Guilin and Yangshuo
Come down to Guilin, shop, watch a breakdance competition, and take a boat down the river to Yangshuo. It’s the river boat tour and Yangshuo that is the real attraction. The river, the mountains, and the people that live on the river – it’s all breathless.
Secret #1: Drifter’s Cafe – it’s a shame if you go to Yangshuo but miss Drifter’s. Drifters is the home for the travel weary Americans. You’ll be enchanted by the graffiti walls; travelers sign their names, leave football (soccer) team stickers, and post up pictures of themselves. But even better than the atmosphere is the food! Our group ate one meal a day at Drifters – we had Lasagna, Sprite, banana splits, Long Island Iced Teas, chocolate cake, burgers, and pizza. Before you leave, make sure you sign the wall – if you can find any open space. Keep on West street for other Western-style restaurants; there was one morning the four of us managed to get blue berry pancakes.
Secret #2 Performances – This was an outstanding event – bring a fan and some water and enjoy the visually stunning show.
Did you add this to your itinerary yet? While making travel plans feel free to contact me with any questions about traveling in China – I’d like to help you in any way possible, whether that is finding cheap airline tickets or finding the best Youth Hostel.