What a tourist can expect in China
In some years China will become the world’s number one tourist destination and well, thats not surprising. The country is well prepared. Facilties for tourists are excellent, in terms of hotels, decent toilets at tourist monuments, well organised tours which take you around well preserved monuments and ofcourse good road and rail links.
And then China itself is a wonderfully unique experience. If you like to delve into ancient cultures then this is one place you will love. China is not the place to shop however, not if you are from India as the silks and pearls and clothes are cheaper in India.
Tourists can take either a 8 or 10 or 14 day tour which usually includes a visit to about four cities in China. Bejing, Xian, Guilin and Shanghai. This could include a three day cruise on the Yangtze river.
The first stop is usually Beijing, the northern most city. It’s also the capital of China and the main attraction here is one of the seven wonders of the world – the Great Wall:
This is a 6700 kms long wall (parts of it are over 2000 years old) and it’s set amongst such beautiful mountains and valleys that this is one sight you will never forget for the rest of your life. To reach the Great Wall, you need to drive about half an hour to reach the outskirts of Bejing and then you take a cable car and go up a certain distance …and then you have to walk. The steps are steep and the scenery breathtaking!
The wall, like a giant dragon’s tail, snakes it’s way up and down across the mountains and across five provinces…and its the only man-made structure that can be seen from the moon.
The Forbidden City (1420) is another big tourist attraction in Beijing. It is a sprawling (74 hectares) place and in fact the world’s largest palace complex, host to Chinese emperors who lived here for five long centuries. It is surrounded by a six meter deep moat and a ten meter high wall and contains 9,999 buildings.
The Emperors lived until 1924. In 1987, this site was listed by UNESCO as a World Cultural Heritage Site. The palace houses some very beautiful treasures and curiosities and the architecture is unique.
Tiananmen Square lies just outside the Forbidden City. It is actually the courtyard of the old Emperors, and was used for ceremonial occasions – when the Emperor wanted to address the common people. The Square has a granite Monument (seen in the picture) to the People’s Heroes which was built recently (1952).
The Square has been re-built and well preserved.
Walking through the Forbidden City is very tiring as it’s a maze of courtyards, one inside the other! You go in at one end and out the other…the walk is over two hours and more if you linger…
The Ming Tombs are another place on the tourist’s itinerary. They are the mausoleums of 13 emperors of the Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644). Because of their unique architecture, history and the treasures housed inside, you can spend hours here. The picture you see on the right is of the Emperor’s crown, delicately woven out of gold.
Another place we visited was the Temple of Heavan. The Temple was built in 1420 A.D. during the Ming Dynasty to offer sacrifices to Heaven. This temple has been well preserved, as all of China’s monuments. In fact this enthusiastic ‘preservation’ has often come in for criticism as it tends to give a distorted view…some of the monuments look brand new!
The Acrobat show (on the itinerary of most tourists) was great fun. We didn’t really expect much and were pleasantly surprised to see the well-trained acrobats and the aesthetic presentation.
After Beijing, the next stop was Xian. We took a night train from Beijing. The train station was spotlessly clean and I could not help compariing it to our Indian platforms. Not just the platform, but also the rail tracks. Absolutely clean. Besides the fact that the Chinese work hard at keeping everything clean, the fact is that only those with valid travel tickets are allowed to enter. This stops the riff-raff from entering the railway station.
Our train journey was fairly uneventful. We took traveled by a ‘Z’ class train (we were told its a ‘better’ type of train) and traveled by first class. Ofcourse Indian first class compartments are as good, if not better, but the toilets were cleaner here.
Xian is very different from Beijing. It’s an old city, with a history of over 3000 years. It’s ancient architecture and historical monuments (it used to be the capital of the old dynasties) makes this city stand out from the rest of the Chinese cities. Xian is said to be as legendary a city as the ancient capitals of Cairo and Athens and Rome.
The most startlingly beautiful sight in Xian is the Museum of Terracotta Warriors. The solders stand exactly where they were discovered…a museum has been built over them. The buried clay solders are thought to be a miracle – it’s a wonder that any Emperor would built a life-size army to watch over his grave!
Each and every warrior has been carved out of a different person, and therefore not only is each soldier different, each has a different expression. Actual soldiers were used as models by the Emperor’s sculptors. Legend has it that the Emperor killed the sculptors after the work was over as a lot of treasures and sacrificial objects were buried at this site, many of which have been housed in a museum now.
The site of the Terracotta soldiers was discovered in the 20th century, but the excavation is not over. In fact, it has been stopped for fear to destroying the figures beneath the ground and the Chinese are waiting for a new technology to be perfected, a technology which will make the excavation possible without damaging the figures. These clay statues were once all in colour (when they were first discovered) but over the passage of time, these colours have faded away. One can but only imagine how beautiful the solders must have looked when they were ready to be buried.
The other important places to see in Xian are ruins of an ancient 6000 year old city, the Pagoda, and a Mosque. It is interesting to see that the Mosque is built in an architectural style that is more similar to Chinese architecture rather than the typical Muslim architecture that you see in other parts of the world.
There was an Opera show on our agenda. It showcased Chinese dances and dinner is served during the show.
The third city we visited was the city of Guilin. The place is famous for its stunning landscape. The Li river cruise, which lasts for about half a day (an early lunch is served on the boat) takes you along the winding Li River gorge where you can see breathtaking scenery of the oddly shaped hills. The swirling waters, the thick greenery and the wide open sky makes this cruise the high point of the Guilin trip.
And like the guide will tell you, the Chinese have names for many of these hills – depending on their shape. You can let your own imagination run riot as you look at each of them. In fact even the clouds take on life as you stare at the hills and the sky…
At the end of this 4 hour cruise you are dropped off at the other end, a small village called Yangshuo. Tourists with a a longer itinerary do put here in this picturesque village which is surrounded by hills. The small town’s main road is lined with cafes, restaurants, hotels and shops. There are activities like trekking for the more adventurous. However as the guides will warn you, the shop-keepers here usually sell spurious stuff. Don’t make the mistake of buying any clothes here. They won’t last. We did buy a T-shirt and it turned limp after just one wash (made from viscose).
Another very exotic place at Guilin is the Reed Flute Cave (240 meters long) where you can see stalagmites and stalactites which have formed over thousands of years. One has to walk for almost an hour before coming out at the other end.
The cave got its name because of the reeds growing around which the locals use to make flutes. As one walks through the gigantic cave one gets the feel of being in a miniature city…another world actually. Coloured lights make this walk an unforgettable experience. Like the hills, the various limestone rock formations will stir your imagination and you will begin to see everything in them – from monsters and plants to human faces and yes, curtains, household objects and even our Hindu goddesses!
An ordinary camera won’t work here because of the dim lighting. Using a flash ruins the effect of the photograph.
Another place to see at Guilin is the Elephant Trunk Hill, which is also on the River Li. The natural ‘trunk’ has been formed because of the water erosion of the soft limestone rock.
Shanghai was the last stop on out itinerary. If you want to do shopping this is the place to do it, but remember that you should have sufficient time here. You can get some good bargains in clothes, knick knacks, silks and jewellery. I will write about the shopping a little more in detail at the end of this post.
In Shanghai a place that tourists head for is the Yuyuan Lu River Garden. Its an old garden (from the Ming dynasty) and was once owned privately. It is a sprawling complex of marvelous buildings and courtyards and takes at least half an hour to see.
Just at the entrance there is a huge shopping centre. You can buy all your souvenirs of China here. There is a wide variety of things available, from purses, bags and various Chinese decorations like paintings and wall hangings. However we could not find any souvenirs of the various monuments we had seen (thank goodness we had already bought them from outside the actual monuments!) or key chains here. Another place to see in Shanghai is the museum.
In the evening we went for a long walk on the Huangpu river bund (a pier overlooking the river) and then a short evening cruise on the boat. The cruise is a must in Shanghai as it takes you all around Shanghai’s coastline. We were lucky enough to see it in the fading evening light when we went up the river and then once again when night had fallen.
Shopping in China
Shopping is not that hot in China, unless you are from the west. For an Indian everything will be fairly expensive because the yuan is six times stronger than the rupee. Why, the very same brands (in malls) have been priced about 25 percent higher than in India! Ofcourse you get far more variety in clothes here as all Chinese wear western clothes.
Shanghai is the best for inexpensive shopping but you need time in Shanghai. If you don’t then its best that you hurriedly pick up souvenirs outside the place you visit. You can easily bargain to about half or one third the price.
The Chinese government has made it compulsory for every guide to take the tourists to a government emporium, every single day. These emporiums are expensive but the quality is guaranteed. On the streets its very easy to be cheated. However Shanghai has good shops and a lot of people pick up silk cushion covers and curtains here. But if you are short of time and not sure what to buy, you should pick up small objects from the various government emporiums you will be taken to everyday.
Buying stuff outside the monuments is not a no-no although our guide warned us about the dubious quality. We picked up a couple of T-shirts from a shop outside the Great Wall and a few in the shops outside the Mosque in Xian and these clothes turned out to be fairly alright. We got T-shirts for about 30-40 yuan each (after bargaining) and this was a good price by Indian standards and the quality was better. The only place we got cheated was at Yangshuo market.
About tipping and guides: Tipping has become customary in China now so you have to tip the guides who take you around. Tipping at restaurants is not necessary if your food is included in the packaged tour. Tipping as such is not an intrinsic part of Chinese life so you will not find people hankering for tips, which is a relief! For a porter who carries your luggage up to your room, 5 yuan is enough. About how much to tip the guide – well if you in a large group then its easy on the pocket. It also depends on how many days you spend at a particular place. If you spend say three days with the guide then 100 yuan is absolutely rock bottom, even if you just a small party. And if you stay for around a day or so, then paying less that 40-50 yuan can be embarrassing. Ofcourse everything does depend on your personal experience with the guide. If you feel he or she has gone out of the way to help one feels more inclined to be generous. We had such a guide in Shanghai, an absolute sweetheart so we tipped her generously even though we spent just a day in Shanghai. Mostly you will find the guides efficient, but lacking a fun-loving nature. They do go out of their way to help however if you ask them politely. They are sticklers about time and that can get irritating for those who just want to relax, rise late etc. The important thing to note is that the guides in China are extremely conscientious, so if they have to take you somewhere and can’t because you are late, they will be very upset.
Overall, China was a fantastic experience. The only disadvantage was that the tourist destinations have become so popular (China is already the number two tourist destination in the world) that every place is crowded.
But crowded or not, the facilities for tourists are good. If you don’t want a rushed trip, its advisable to spend at least 10-12 days in China and if you want to go on a three-day cruise, 14 days is best. An 8 day trip is fine too but there is a lot of walking to do and early morning flights as well so you need plenty of energy!
(All pictures are copyrighted to me)
Related Reading: .China and India – an inevitable comparision
Four Chinese Cities: Beijing, Xian, Guilin and Shanghai
The people who live in Chinese cities – the urban chinese
Eating out in China
China’s claim to an Indian province is preposterous
Ex-Governer of Hong Kong (Patten) talks about the future of China ten years after it was handed over to the Chinese.