China’s Top Ten
China turned out to be much bigger and better than we expected in every regard. We had trouble keeping the list down to ten – but here it is, again, in no particular order:
Le Shan and Emei Shan – Le Shan and Emei Shan are two sites near Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan. Le Shan has the world’s largest Buddha – which at 71m tall is probably the biggest statue you will ever see in your life. Emei Shan is a network of Buddhist monasteries strung along several beautiful mountains in the foothills of the Himalayas. Budget three days to see the whole complex. The trail is challenging (think tens of thousands of steps), but the scenery is mesmerizing and sleeping in the monasteries adds to the experience. We will remember Emei Shan for the rest of our lives.
Food – We loved Chinese food in all its variety and intense flavors. Mouth-numbing peppers, dim sum, Peking duck, lagman, the list goes on and on. The best way to find the best food in China is to eat what Chinese people are eating. Do not order the food that you want in a Chinese restaurant; order the food that other people are eating. That will always be the best option. Walk around the restaurant – see what looks good that other people are eating and then point at what you want and say “wo yao yigga” (I want one of those). Trying to find that restaurant in the guidebook in China is futile since addresses have no meaning in Asia. Food is sold everywhere in China. Ignore the guidebook – stop to eat at a restaurant with food that looks good. Point to the food that looks good and eat that. Ordering foods that you want that the restaurant may or may not have or may or may not be good at cooking is a guaranteed recipe to get bad Chinese food.
Xian – Xian is the old imperial capital of China. Unlike most of China, where everything of cultural value was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, Xian has old stuff and a lot of old stuff worth seeing. The terracotta warriors are a great site (try to do it without taking a package tour – they take you to all sorts of miscellaneous unimportant sites and try to sell you stuff you don’t want; riding public transport to and from the site is fast and easy). The city walls are absolutely spectacular – rent a bike to go around them. The forest of steles museum is also impressive – it has the oldest evidence of Christianity in China.
Macau – Macau, an old Portuguese colony, is downright weird. Signs are in Chinese, then Portuguese and then in English. We couldn’t find anyone who knew what Portuguese is. Make sure you have a double-entry visa if you go since going to Macau technically means that you have left China. Macau didn’t suffer from the Cultural Revolution, so there are several historical sites (particularly churches) that are of interest. The main draw (and there is a main draw since Macau now receives more tourists than Hong Kong) is the casinos. There are several American-style casinos, but don’t expect to see American-style games. There is one poker game in town, which is at the Grand Lisboa. There is a blackjack table at the Wynn (with a $30 minimum). The rest is Baccarat, roulette and more baccarat. The currency of Macau is the Pataca (valued at 10:1 to the dollar), but all casinos only accept Hong Kong dollars for bets (valued at 8:1 to the dollar). So make sure you bring Patacas into the casinos with you to pay for food and drinks, since the casinos will only cash you out in Hong Kong dollars. And prices listed are the same whether you are paying in Patacas or Hong Kong dollars.
Xinjiang – Xinjiang is China’s largest and western-most province. If you have had enough of “Han China”, head west and get a taste of Central Asia. The Uygur food is exceptionally good. The Taklamakan Desert is enormous and wild and there are several mountains in the Tian Shan range surrounding the desert that reach above 25,000 feet. All of which conspire to make spectacular scenery. Getting around Xinjiang by train is very easy and very fast despite the vast distances.
Three Gorges – Taking a cruise through the Three Gorges should definitely be part of an itinerary through China. Now that the dam has been built, the rushing Three Gorges have become a placid lake – but the beauty of the Yangtze has not diminished. If you go on a tour – make sure to pay the additional supplement to see the Little Three Gorges. The dam is worth seeing, but is unexciting. To add to the experience and save a bunch of money, take the cruise with Chinese tourists rather than with Westerners.
Shanghai Museum – After spending time in 20 big Chinese cities, Shanghai looks remarkably similar to other big Chinese cities – only that there are more foreigners. The highlight of our visit to Shanghai was the Shanghai Museum. Neither of us are avid museum goers, but the collection of bronzes and scrolls was world class (and entrance is free).
Beijing – Beijing has all the good and the bad of China wrapped in to one. Good luck finding a sunny day while you are there (because of the smog), but you would be very unlucky if you can’t find the excellent restaurants, tourist sites and social scene. This giant, throbbing, very Chinese city is an experience entirely unto itself. Note – when trying to get around Beijing in a cab, do not bother giving cab drivers addresses; the city is oriented around its various enormous shopping malls and tourist sites. So make careful note of the name of the shopping mall closest to your hotel. “The Ritz Carlton or Marriott, please” will get you nowhere.
Great Wall – Go to Simatai. It is the most remote of the Great Wall sites, about 3 hours each way. There are no hordes of tourists or Chinese people selling stuff you don’t want and spectacular views in each direction. The easiest way to get there is to latch on to a tour organized by a hostel. Alternatively, you can ride the 980 bus from Dongzhemin long distance bus stations to Miyun and then hire a taxi to take you to Simatai from there (which should cost no more than 50 RMB for one person or 30 RMB per person for a larger group, negotiate ruthlessly). At Simatai, ride the cable car up halfway – this is totally worthwhile since the hike at the bottom of the mountain is hot and offers few views. At the top of the cable car, hike up the rest of the way – the train is not worthwhile.
Shopping – Buying and selling things is integral to life in China. It happens constantly and is only interrupted by meals. Everything is negotiable – and if you are a foreigner – you must do so ruthlessly. Most purchases we made were negotiated down between 95%-99% from the initial asking price. The key to getting the right price is to walk away, and keep walking after hearing the initial asking price; do not offer your own price – listen to how quickly the price goes down. The last price you hear will be still too expensive, but closer to the mark. Next time you see the item that you want – take 50%-75% off this last price you heard and start there. We negotiated handbags down from 600 RMB to 45 RMB and a stamp from 250 RMB to 1 RMB! So be aggressive. If you are interested in clothing and tailored clothing, go to Alice’s Tailor Shop in Ya Show (a cab driver will always know “Ya Show”) in Beijing. If you are interested in a truly good deal, go to the wholesale markets in Guangzhou – everything that is made in China and sold to the world is here – so if you want to buy 1 or 100,000 sets of golf clubs at a bargain price, this is the place to be.