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Trip to China by Jenny and Charlie Plesums

Monday June 25 through Monday July 16, 2018

This is the intro - there are separate "chapters" for each major part of the trip.


Intro and a bit of history

China is roughly the size of the United States, but has over 4 times as many people. We wanted to see it all in less than three weeks (imagine how we would laugh if someone said that they wanted to see all the United States in three weeks), and we don't speak the language. Therefore we signed up with Overseas Adventure Travel, OAT, which specializes in small group tours with no more than 16 people.

Trip Summary and link to other parts of the travelogue

As you can see from the map, we started in Beijing after over 27 hours enroute. (We might have made it in closer to 17 hours, but American Airlines offered a big discount on Business Class with bad connections!) Why is the Beijing airport called PEK - Peking? It turns out the the city name in Mandarin Chinese sounds like Beijing, but in southern Chinese dialects, such as Cantonese, sounds like Peking. Mandarin is now the primary dialect in most of China.

Part 1 is the entire Beijing travelogue, which is fairly long, (or you can select parts)

Part 2: We flew to Xi'an, and toured the only complete city wall remaining, the historic "Wild Goose Pagoda," and attended a Tang Dynasty cultural show.

Part 3: On Monday July 2 we visited the Terracotta Army, about an hour outside Xi'an.

Part 4: We went off the beaten path for a great day at the Donghan community on July 3, then on July 4 we took the high speed train to Chengdu. That evening we attended a performance of the "Changing Faces" opera (more like a circus than a musical with the fat lady singing). Skip this part if you are looking for traditional tourist pictures.

Part 5: Chengdu has the world famous Panda sanctuary and breeding ground, visited on July 5.

Part 6: On July 6 We flew to Lhasa Tibet for three amazing days at 12,000 feet and more

Part 7: Return to Chongqing July 9 to board a 3 day cruise down the Yangtze River to the three Gorges dam. From the dam site we took a high speed train to Wuhan, since a flight to Hong Kong requires an international airport.

Part 8: Hong Kong July 13-16

Our Travel Group
Courtesy of Len and Carolyn Thurman

Travel Tips and Overview

Censorship

Everybody has a smart phone - even more universal than in the United States. The Chinese government controls (censors) all information. However, when we were "in a closed room" people spoke quite openly about anything. Their Internet does not include Google or Facebook or YouTube, but there are domestic equivalents (that follow the censorship rules). You can use a VPN - Virtual Private Network - that encrypts your messages until they get to/from a remote server (perhaps in California), when they are decrypted and sent on, perhaps to Google or Facebook or YouTube. Most of the adults at least pretended that they did not know about VPNs, but we got the hint that most of the teenagers have that illegal software.

All our hotels offered WiFi. In Tibet it appears to have been shut down for hotel guests by the government for a couple days (but our guide had a way to get in by registering her phone). You can buy a SIM card for an unlocked smart phone for a very reasonable price, with lots of high speed data over the cell network. (I wish I had done it, to avoid some of the irritation.) Install the Express VPN application on your phone before arriving in China; you may not be able to get the program while in China. You can then choose if you want to activate the VPN service after you are in China.

There is no local history about the uprising in Tiananmen Square in 1989. From April 1989 people from across China gathered to mourn the death of the liberal party leader, and to call for political and economic reform. On May 13 hundreds of students went on hunger strike, and were joined by a million supporters. Party leaders visited the students on May 19, and the hunger strike ended, but the protests continued. The military was sent in June 3 and shot or ran over many civilians. The "Tank Man " video on June 5 became the iconic image; it is available outside China on YouTube. The unidentified student who blocked the tanks later disappeared. Overall the death toll appears to have been 10,454. Our guide discretely showed us where it occurred, but none of the natives are aware of it. A professor who spoke to us (in a closed room) admitted that he was there as a student protester, and felt regret that they did not achieve any of the things for which they were protesting.

Communism

Only about 5% of the people are members of the communist party. There is no peer pressure to join the party. Even though China is officially communist, I believe it was in 1997 that there was a major change. Instead of providing all education, employment, housing, and health care, socialist style, the government only provided and required education through 9th grade. Students were required to fund their own higher education, and could also choose their own profession and job, but had to buy their own health insurance and housing. As a communist leader said, it may be a black cat or a white cat, but in the end it works the same, so it is still a cat. Sounds like capitalism rather than socialism to me. Some analysts call it Red Capitalism.

Members of the communist party may not be affiliated with any religion, not even the traditional Buddhist religion.

Population

The population of China is 1.4 billion people, compared to 325 million in the United States. Four times as many people in roughly the same land area. No shortage of labor, but not a lot of good farm land for so many people. And the cities are big. Beijing, the capital, has almost 12 million people (24 million with surrounding area), Wuhan 10 million, Chengdu 7.5 million, Xi'an 6.5 million. The smallest city we visited had 3 million people. Much of the housing has become high rise apartment buildings, with condo type ownership of the individual units.

Under Mao Zedong's leadership the government encouraged families to have as many children as possible. Beginning in 1970 families were encouraged to marry at later ages and only have two children. The one-child policy (with some exceptions) was started in the 1979. It was so successful that the birth rate fell to 1.4 children per woman, below the replacement rate of 2.1 children per woman, meaning that the overall population is aging, with fewer working age people. On January 1, 2016 the policy was changed to allow all families to have two children. To enforce the policy, birth control pills are provided. When a family wants to have a child, they are given a renewable 2 year permit to conceive. After they have all their allocated children, an IUD is surgically implanted. Younger people who have grown up in small families have come to prefer small families.

Names and Language

Our tour guide was Zhang Zhuo (where Zhang is the family name, listed first, and Zhuo is the given name). The president of China today is Xi Jinping, so is properly called President Xi.

As Chinese learn English they traditionally adopt a western name, and use it far beyond their English classes. Our guide's English name was Jenny (she even had business cards with that name). Traditionally all the bus drivers take the name Jack. Beijing Jack, Xi'an Jack, Chengdu Jack, etc. One of our guides was named Rosita. Why the Spanish name? Because two students in her English class chose the name Rose, so the second got Rosita.

Practically all the signs are in Chinese, few have other languages. One notable exception: over many male urinals was a bilingual sign "Take one step closer."

Squat toilets (as contrasted to western toilets) are common, and are not always clean (how can you miss?) Jenny regretted not taking her pStyle optional accessory that men don't need.

Our hotel reception desks were not staffed by English speaking people. If you wanted a wake up call, contact tour Jenny, and she would inform the desk. If you wanted a softer pillow, call Jenny. Tour Jenny was amazing.

Domestic travel

As in the United States, distances are huge. Airplane travel is widely available, but more expensive and less convenient than train travel. Most of the larger Chinese cities are now connected by high speed trains. To achieve the high speed, the track must be smooth with gentle curves and slopes, so tunnels and raised tracks are often required. One pair of cities dropped from a 16 hour trip on a regular train (around the mountains) to a 4 hour trip (through the mountains). The highways are good and the cars are similar to what we are used to (lots of Toyotas, VWs, BMWs, and Hondas) but the train is the primary inter-city means of travel.

Airport security in China does not allow a battery in either checked or carry on luggage, unless it has the milliamp hour capacity printed on the outside of the case (The printed capacity is key). I don't know what the Chinese limit is but my cell phone recharger battery had no label so was confiscated on the first domestic flight, and Jenny's smaller unlabeled cell phone recharger was confiscated on a later flight. Some air regulations (perhaps what they were enforcing in China) allow "small" batteries (under 100 watt hours, which is 100,000 milliwatt hours; at 5 volts (common for USB) this would be 20,000 milliamp hours. The devices containing the batteries should be carry on; up to 2 spare batteries must be carry-on. Larger batteries may require airline approval.

Bicycles and motor bikes

Chinese have used bicycles for years as personal transportation. A new idea has evolved in the last few years with several vendors in each city. Find a rental bike, scan the QR code with your smart phone application. It unlocks the bike (or gives you a 4 digit code to unlock it) and rents the bike to you at typically 1 yuan (15 cents) per hour. Leave it anywhere, no special parking places. When you are done, scan the QR code again to lock the bike, inform the company where the bike is (based on your GPS), and terminate the rental. Your account (when you install a particular company's program), will require a modest deposit and identification. In practice, someone might rent a bike at the metro station to save the 10 minute walk to their office. As a result of widely available cheap bike rentals, people are abandoning their own old bikes, and huge bicycle graveyards have developed. We even saw a truckload of dead bicycles, being taken for recycling.

In most Eastern countries, motor scooters are everywhere, spewing smoke from their two cycle engines (oil mixed with fuel). Not in China. Practically all of the motor scooters are now electric. No pollution. No noise. Scary fast as they silently sneak up behind you. To encourage the electric scooters, no license plate is required (but gas scooters and motor cycles must be licensed as usual.)

Pollution and Weather

Beijing is famous for it's pollution. We brought face masks for self protection. During the Olympics, the factories were closed, so the sky was blue, the air was clear, and the traffic was light. Blue skies again for the Asia Pacific games. And blue skies while we were there. Our guide couldn't understand why. We pointed out that General Mattis, US Secretary of Defense, was visiting China during the same days. Aha, said our guide, there was the Olympic sky, now we have the Mattis sky.

In Tibet the high altitude made sunburn an issue. Many of the locals wear a face mask to cover their cheeks as sun protection, not over their nose/mouth to protect their lungs.

The weather in China was similar to summer weather here - hot in the cities and cooler in the mountains of Tibet. There is an interesting rule. If the temperature reaches 40° Celsius (104° F) nobody has to go to work. Therefore weather forecasts predict 39° or even 39.5°, but rarely (if ever) forecast 40°.

Electricity

China, Tibet, and Hong Kong use 250 volt 50 Hz power, like much of Europe and elsewhere. The Chinese plugs look like standard two blade American plugs but beware... In the United States one of the blades is often slightly wider than the other, and those plugs will not work in China. The three prong American plugs will not work - no hole for the third prong.

In Hong Kong the plugs are the usual British style (they were a colony when electricity was installed). Same issues on voltage, but you will need an adapter to use your plug in their outlet.

I often use an American extension cord in a hotel room to provide more outlets where I want them, but I have to use an adapter because of the wider blade. Most electronics now run on 100 to 250 volts as long as you have a suitable plug, but things like American hair dryers and curling irons do not normally work on 250 volts - they will likely burn out and you will have to replace them if you try. The shaver outlet in many hotel bathrooms does not have enough power for more than a shaver (or the small 240 volt night light we carry).

Money

China uses Renminbi or Yuan, abbreviated RMB or CNY (Chinese Yuan); Most of the money is paper, although a few coins are used for smaller denominations. US$1 = 6.5 CNY ; 1 CNY approximately 15 cents. Tibet uses the same currency as China. Smaller ATMs (such as hotel lobbies) may not have international connections, but there was no problem using the ATMs at the larger banks to withdraw Yuan at favorable rates. If you prefer to change cash, there are many places you can do so, but your US currency has to be the latest version (large picture) in pristine condition - no tears, tape, hard folds, or marks.

In China practically everybody pays electronically using their smart phones, cash is falling into disuse with the natives. In 2016 the electronic payment volume was US$5.61 Trillion (compared to $168 million in the USA). AliPay is a primary electronic payment application on the smart phone (but you have to have a national ID card to activate the service.) They can scan a QR code on a waiter's uniform to tip him/her, or to buy something in an open market. It will be interesting to see how they adapt to tourists if they move further away from cash. They are even including QR codes on a grave marker to tell about the deceased.

Hong Kong has a different money system, the Hong Kong dollar (HKD or HK$). US$1 = approx 8 HKD ; 1 HK$ approx 12.7 cents. ATMs to get Hong Kong dollars are widely available.

Hong Kong has a widely used "Octopus Card" (subway and bus travel, vending, fast food, grocery stores, etc) that we highly recommend. There are several versions:

  1. Tourist card... Purchase HK$39 (US$5) plus as much stored value as you would like; the unused stored balance is refundable, keep the card as a souvenier, buy at a 7-Eleven or many other outlets.
  2. Regular Octopus cards are "borrowed"; bought at a metro station
A Regular Octopus card may be turned in at a metro station (even at the airport on departure): if it has been used less than 90 days, HK$9 fee (about US$1.20) is deducted from the deposit, the balance of the deposit and the remaining stored value is refunded

Other

OAT is well known for always providing ample bottled water in places where the tap water isn't safe. Our first day we got two bottles from OAT to supplement the two small bottles from the hotel.

KFC is big in China, supplemented by a local competitor "Yum". But Pizza Hut has a distinction. It introduced cheese to China. It had never been part of the Chinese diet. When one restaurant tried to serve us an "American" dinner, beef with bernaise sauce, they apparently thought it was melted cheese that Americans liked on their beefsteak.

The number 4 is associated with death in China, so it is considered very unlucky. Therefore there were no guest rooms on floor 4 or 14, and there were no room number 4 or 14 or 24 etc. One hotel did have a 4th floor, but it was not for guest rooms.

Continue the travelogue with Beijing



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