I travelled to China, a virtual non-English speaking country for three weeks. I walked and ran along the Great Wall of China, climbed Mount Emei, rode bikes on Xian City Wall and around it’s bustling streets. I walked thousands of steps through various historical and significant sites from the Terracotta Warriors, the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace, Tiananmen Square and stayed in various accommodation from 5 star hotels to a monastery deep in the mountains.
The itinerary: Scroll to your place of interest 😊 or feel free read on and enjoy the ride.
Day 1 Travelling to Shanghai
The night before we stayed in accommodation at Melbourne Tullamarine airport. The Park Royal rating of 4 stars rooms were underwhelming for the price, but convenient when catching an early morning flight and not wanting to set a 4:30 am alarm or risk missing an international flight. We woke, tired after a busy day prior and made our way to the airport to discover our Cathay Pacific flight to Hong Kong was delayed 2.5 hours! We could have saved ourselves the expensive, non romantic overnight hotel stay as it turned out, but these things happen.
This was our first time flying Cathay Pacific. We wouldn’t be booking further flights if given better options in the future. The plane seemed a bit old, rattled and seemed to have a lot of engine noise. The inflight service just ok. Resulting from a late departure in Melbourne we almost missed our connecting flight from Hong Kong to Shanghai. To the airlines credit they had a staff member waiting to aid a quick boarding onto our Dragon Air flight, and we were on our way to Shanghai.
We arrived in Shanghai and were transferred to our luxurious 5 star accommodation at the Jing An Shangri-La, West Shanghai. My first impression was comfort and the familiar smell, similar to that of Crown Towers Melbourne foyer which felt welcoming . Our room was modern, bright (If the afternoon sun shone it would filter in and improved the ambience), and the king size bed more than comfortable after an 18 hour day. The heated bathroom floor we were later to find out was good to dry our hand washed clothes on. It had a first class gym and decent pool.
The Shangri-La met our expectations of a 5 star Hotel.
Day 2 Shanghai
The electronic blinds blackened the room and opening them in the morning felt like a scene from a favourite movie of mine – The holiday . The buffet breakfast was impressive. I tended to treat myself a bit too much 🙊.
We visited the Bund during the day and night. This was an impressive sight at night having drinks on the balcony of the Roosevelt House.
View from The House of Roosevelt balcony.
China and the toilet situation!
Many restaurants don’t have toilets and require you to use public toilets in the street area.
We walked the streets of Shanghai, in which was my first experience in a public toilet block. A foul stench almost had me dry reaching and toileting became an issue for me from there on. 1. The cleanliness, 2. toilet paper issue, 3. disposal of and 4. the potential of having to use a squatter toilet. I avoided public toilets if I could. I learnt to always carry my own tissues as toilet paper is either supplied by purchasing via a machine prior to going into the toilet cubicle or by free supply in the general area in the toilet block. Toilet paper is not disposed of in the toilet, it is to be placed in an open basket with other objects like used sanitary pads from previous users of the toilet.
As I sat in the foyer toilets in the Shangri-La, feeling revolted by someone’s used pad within a nose sniff, I wondered why the disposal of such pads would not at least be rolled it up in some toilet paper prior to placing in the basket out of courtesy for other women using the toilet. Obviously this was the Chinese way. If there was any chance of a sanitizer for used pads or thoughtful disposal for other women it would be most likely to be seen in such a high level hotel. To my dismay this was not the only time I experienced having to be in a toilet cubicle with open waste bins filled sanitary pads and paper with other body excreta on them.
On reflection about the cleanliness of the public toilets. There was always a janitor there attending to cleaning, However I think that in a population of 26 million people living in Shanghai, the amount of patronage these toilets get would be difficult to be kept spotless at anytime. China is a county of billions of people.
A warning from me. Don’t think oh I have done a poo I can’t throw that in the bin with faeces on it. Do so. I blocked a couple of toilets whilst in China doing just this. Both times I needed to defecate in a public toilet, I blocked it. The hotels are ok, there you can flush paper down the toilets
Back to the streets of Shanghai
In Shanghai in particular we were approached by many people trying to sell us ‘genuine’ Rolex’s 😂or Mont Blanc pens or designer bags. Ted of course bought some ‘genuine’ Mont Blanc pens! Be prepared to barter if going in to the ‘fake’ markets or buying from street sellers. Like all big cities it had a mixture of high-end shopping and market shopping. After walking 22,340 steps we arrived back at our hotel.
Overall we ate well in Shanghai. I’d suggest having a translator app on your phone in the event you find yourself eating at a local restaurant. It is highly likely the menu will be in Chinese and your waiter won’t speak English. Generally at night we felt safe walking around as long as you didn’t go down certain laneways.
Day 3 Shanghai
Once again on foot we walked Shanghai, thru the people’s park. Here was a sense of laughter and relaxation. It was a Sunday and many locals come to the park to socialize by way of singing, playing cards or board games. Some even practiced mind and balance. One man stood for an extended time balancing a pole on his foot.
We went to a contemporary art exhibition in a gallery in the park and had a very bad coffee on their rooftop cafe but the tiles on the walls in the toilets had us talking!
Look closely 👀
Day 4-7 Shanghai
As we initially went for business reasons much of the next few days was dinners and things related to business.
One day however I did go to an area called the Tianzifang which is made up of interesting alleyways of boutique and craft shops. Once again as tourists be prepared to haggle if shopping in the markets or smaller run businesses.
Day 8 Leaving Shanghai and heading to Xian
We had booked via our travel agent prior to leaving to catch the overnight train to Xian from Shanghai. Our tickets were booked however we had to collect them. If this is something you need to do I’d suggest making sure to give yourself ample time. This process is not something you would want to be doing in a hurry. On arrival to the railway station it looked like we were to present to a window in front of us to collect the tickets as a result of poor signage saying tickets with and arrow pointing indicating metres. Ted went over and came back to me quite annoyed at how rude the women spoke to him and we were no wiser as to where to go. We decided to enter the station and see what was inside. Security is much more prevalent in Shanghai. The local train stations all have X-ray security upon entry. This requires you to put your bags on a conveyor belt every time you enter. So were in! We’d passed the security check, now where? Ok now what do we do we were thinking. The hardest part of catching the overnight train was collecting our tickets. It took us sometime to locate the collection point. It wasn’t conducive to Westerners. There were no signs in English. We found ourselves at a widow where people appeared to be lining up for tickets. As we got close to the window there was a tiny sign on the window of the ticketer saying English. For those who may find themselves doing this in the future, enter the station and head left to the staff sitting in booths, left hand que. Here we showed our passports and were issued our tickets.
The ticket will display the train number, ours being Z92 and what ‘waiting bay’ you need to be at is displayed on a LED board against your train number. Ted managed to work this system our reasonably easy but the whole time we were just guessing. There is basically no signage in English or English-speaking staff to assist you. Or English-speaking patrons for that matter!!!
It was rather big with rows of seating. Some seats had padding but you had to pay for those. We were finally sorted and in the right place but now had some time to wait for our boarding. The lights also seemed to take sometime to be put on in the waiting bay. We were almost sitting in the dark before they were switched on. Food choices weren’t great. We had KFC for lunch whilst we waited.
As the time got close to boarding, in true Chinese style people gathered in a disordered manner near the entrance gate. The gate opened and there was a rush to the cabins to tag your bed. Fortunately for us this wasn’t a problem. We had first class tickets. However we had no idea how the cabin system worked as we briskly walked with the other passengers and found our carriage number 5. I was looking into the cabins were there were 2 sets of bunks as I walked past carriages leading up to number 5 and thought, god I hope we aren’t sharing with anyone else. We think everyone was rushing to get the bunks they wanted in the shared cabins. Fortunately one advantage of first class was we got our own cabin and en suite. Boom!!
I think that was the only extra advantage of first class. On entering the linen had been placed on the beds for patrons to make themselves and basically had no mattress’. They were rock hard but funnily I didn’t mind it at all. The cabins were very small, meaning our 2 suitcases took all the floor space standing upright. There was a little table under the window and a shabby tablecloth. In the en suite was a half a roll of toilet paper on the toilet roll holder and it had that Chinese toilet smell we had become familiar with. It was basic but I liked the train, it was a fun experience. Ted went to find some coffee or tea and came back with an urn, those ones you often see the Chinese at home using. It had luke warm water in it. There was no milk, tea or coffee or food for that matter to be found.
We had water bottles in our bags, a left over piece of KFC chicken and an apple each we’d saved from our buffet breakfast at the Shangri La that morning. This was our experience of first class travel on the Chinese rail system. I had a good time and a laugh. I’d do the overnight train again.
Day 9 Waking up in Xian
For rest of our time in China we had pre booked tour guides via our travel agent. I’d recommend this if it’s in your budget. You can waste so much time finding your way to places, trying to buy tickets and checking in and out of hotels and airports. The tour guides speak good quite English and that was a welcome relief. They know their way around the place and can talk the language making touring so much easier and a lot more time effective.
With the guides we got to see more in a day than if we had been trying to do it alone. It was just us and the guide which I liked. We weren’t in a big group with hats and a pole with a flag to follow and so we still had good control on where we went.
There was an unfortunate hiccup when arriving in Xian. We could not locate our guide. We got out our travel documents and rang a phone number to ask what had happened. The problem with this system is they cannot return your call to your mobile which is an international number for them because my Telco is in Australia. We intermittently rang the assistant and then once given the guides mobile her number to see if she was still able to locate us.
There had been a misprint on her instructions for collection of us. She had information we were arriving on the bullet train in which that station was a good half an hours drive from the railway station we were at. After one and half hours of standing next to the police and military security point with their machine guns clearly visible and multiple phone calls the mistake was realised and she came and collected us with the driver where we were then transported to our the Sofitel Hotel. Although a big chain and 4-5 star hotel it had an overpowering damp smell. We rang and ordered a deodorizer that was sent to our room via room service, however it did nothing and we tolerated the smell.
My first impression of Xian was that I liked it more than Shanghai. The people seemed a little more sophisticated. The next morning we met our guide Wei and she took us to the city wall. She organised the hire of bikes after explaining the history of the wall to us and left us whilst we went for a ride along the wall. I thoroughly enjoyed this. I had not been on a bike for I can’t remember how long. It was so much fun.
Whilst riding on the wall we were stopped by some young teenage boys who were on a field day from university. They said they were studying computers. Their English was enough that we could communicate. They asked us how we found Xian different to Australia. It was great interacting with these boys. They had a giggle at our answers and we laughed along with them. I ended up joining in a photo with them. Ted and I took lots of photos on the bikes and we headed back to meet Wei.
We enjoyed the bikes so much we hired some from the Sofitel and braved riding around the streets of Xian. Now that was an experience. You had to keep your wits about you as the traffic of people, other bike riders and cars is heavy and seemed chaotic to us. We couldn’t quite work out the car road rules of giving way but we soon learnt in China that pedestrians must giveaway to cars. The opposite of home. We guessed this helped keep the traffic flowing in such a heavy populated country. China runs at a fast pace. There was always a lot of people going about their day. We had learnt quickly in Shanghai how to avoid street sellers, however there seemed to be less in Xian from our experience which was nice.
Currency, the Internet and Telco’s in China.
Alibaba is a widely used option to pay for purchases and services in China. It is downloaded as an app and when paying you place your phone near the bar code provided in the business and money is electronically deducted from your bank account. If a tourist I suggest going cashed up with Yuan. Credit cards are often only accepted in the bigger complexes like hotels. Most times you need cash to pay if you don’t have the Alibaba app set up.
China is a communist country and the internet is restricted. Sites such as google, Facebook, snap chat, twitter and instagram cannot be accessed. This can be circumvented by downloading a VPN app before leaving such as express VPN. Be careful about being automatically hooked into automatic 12 month payments after the first trial period via your iTunes account. Some VPN sites can be difficult to opt out from.
On arrival to China I received a text from my Telco Telstra saying, ‘Welcome to China, with information about daily plans for $10. This included unlimited phone calls and texts and 1GB of data. I rang the free number provided requesting this and to my dismay my phone was connected to roaming. When I tried to contact anyone via phone to talk about this I had great difficulty and was unable to have my phone taken off roaming and told to go on the internet and change it or put my phone on airplane mode and turn my mobile data off. I tried to access my Australian Telco site on the internet but couldn’t. This was all most distressing having to have my phone on airport mode and if not worrying I would return home to a massive international roaming bill.
The Terracotta Warriors
We were met by Wei at our hotel and our driver drove us to the archeological site of where the Terracotta Warriors were discovered. The site is covered by a building to protect it and allows for good viewing by tourists. Seeing the terracotta warriors is a must do. The history is incredible. The work that has going back into restoring this army of terracotta has been meticulous. Each soldier has a distinct face.
The Muslin Quarter
According to our tour guide this area is made up of nearly all tourists and that the locals don’t tend to go there. Its has a good vibe and plenty of stalls to buy jewellery, silk scarves, watches, bags and eat of the go food. The mosque is a tourist attraction and if you are female and showing flesh above the knee you will be given a sarong to wear to cover yourself upon entry. Featured in this photo is Wei our tour guide. She has been a tour guide for 30 years!
Day 11 and 12 Xian – Chengdu
We were picked up at our hotel and taken to the airport where Wei helped us check in. I had a little excess baggage. My case was within weight allowance for an international flight being under 30kg but a few kgs over the 20kg limit for flights within China. Something to consider when packing. We paid excess baggage but it was minimal about $20AU. Although we travelled by planes within other places of China, this was the only airport that asked us to pay excess baggage.
We were at our gate with ample time but the gate had been changed whilst we waited and because we couldn’t read the signs we did not know what gate it had been changed to. There was a last-minute panic when Ted checked the screen for our flight number and realised it wasn’t coming up at the gate we were waiting at.
I stopped a passer-by and with my translator app explained our problem and she worked out which gate we needed and directed us to where we needed to go. We bordered just in time and were on our way to Chengdu.
At Chengdu airport we were met by Eben our 27-year-old young-looking tour guide. He was the guide who was to take us on our mountain hike up Mount Emei. He took us to our driver waiting patiently in the car and we were transported to our hotel. All the tour guides use drivers. The drivers and the tour guides work from different companies but have links to each other and is all organised by the companies and our travel agent. The cars are new and extremely clean. You are offered a bottle of water as you get in the car each day. If there is no driver available the guide books a taxi. The guides are paid a fee by the booking company and within that cost is allowance for travel for us, our meals of lunch or dinner, the purchase of tickets if required. The guide uses the allowance at his discrimination.
Day 12 we drove about two and a half hours to Leishen and booked into our hotel for the night ready for departure to commence our walk up Mount Emei or Emeishen = Emei (name of the mountain) +Shen (mountain) the following day.
That night we prepared our bags. We left our cases to be stored at the hotel and packed a back pack with enough supplies to do the hike.
Day 13-15 Climbing Emeishen
This was the trip highlight for me.
Click on this link to read about Emeishen and hiking of.
The night of our return from the mountain we had dinner at a Western style food restaurant. Sometimes you just want some home style food.
After dinner went to see a live theatre. It was colourful and professional. Above the stage was an LED with English translation, not all of the show was translated but enjoyable non the less.
Day 16 The Big Buddha, Leshan.
The Sechuan Province is rebound for it’s spicy hot food. Eben took us to a restaurant for a hot-pot meal. We had the mildest hot pot and with no offal. The hotter the better for the locals, and they love their offal! This was a great opportunity having Eben order for us and to our liking but still ensuring we had an authentic hot pot meal. It was one of my favourite dishes we ate on our trip throughout China.
The big Buddha is 1,300 years old and took 90 years to carve into the cliff rock. The story goes that the happy Buddha looks after people and many of the people who lived in Leshan were killed or flooded by the river so a happy Buddha was carved into the cliff rock on the river to look over the people of Leshan. It’s worth s look. It only takes about 30 mins on the boat to see.
You can choose to walk up the stairs for a view on the cliff if preferred over the boat cruise.
After seeing the big Buddha we were transported to the airport to catch a flight to Beijing. In Beijing we were met by our tour guide and the driver, Lucy and Mr Wong and taken transport to our beautiful 5 star hotel, The Regent . It was on a par with the Shangri La in Shanghai.
The Forbidden City
Temple of Heaven