Trip to Beijing, Xian, Shanghai and Hangzhou

#1 Aug 15th, 2014, 12:03
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#1
Folks, next week I will be visiting these cities for a couple of weeks and plan to start a live photologue depending on my Internet access. I have done some basic prep work and hope that suffices during my visit. The biggest concern for me (I think) will be the local language. Have installed some basic language apps (including offline ones) on my Android phone to help out. More details on my prep work on the next thread. Am open to your suggestions. Thanks!
#2 Aug 15th, 2014, 12:34
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#2
Visa process

Depending on the region of your residence, you need to apply at one of the Chinese Visa Application Centers located at Delhi, Mumbai or Kolkata. Bangalore falls under the purview of Mumbai. You can either go in person to submit your packet or send it through a travel agent.

I used the service of Thomas Cook located at MG Road, Bangalore. They charge a service fee of Rs. 1700 and this is in addition to your other visa processing fees. Once you complete your packet, you visit their office and they first screen your application. The second screening happens when your packet reaches their Mumbai office. The third screening is when it is submitted to the visa application center. Usually the first two screening is sufficient to ensure your packet is complete with all the required documents and information. Thomas Cook is prompt in providing you automated email updates on the status of your application till it is submitted to the application center and when it is received back from them. I found their service very good.

Do try to directly call Thomas Cook's local numbers or visit them directly to get immediate attention. Using their toll free number or email request is slow. The representative told me it takes a minimum 48 working hours (Note: Not 2 working days). He was very emphatic on that. So for example, one working day is 8 hours and 48 hours is 6 working days (Sat, Sun and public holidays excluded). According to him the reason for this much time is their large load of customers seeking visa services. I was able to subvert this by directly calling their local Bangalore number listed on their web site.

When it was time to submit my packet, I visited their office after complying with their checklist. But they sent me back with some additional requirements. A couple days later my first screening passed and the packet was sent to Mumbai. Thomas Cook Mumbai came back with some additional requirements and it took a few more days to resolve that. My packet was finally submitted to the visa application service on a Monday and by Thursday I got my tourist 30 day single entry visa stamped. My passports was couriered back to Bangalore and it reached on Saturday morning.

Some useful links:
1) http://www.visaforchina.org/
2) http://www.thomascook.in/tcportal/visa
3) http://in.china-embassy.org/eng/lsfw/qz/
#3 Aug 16th, 2014, 12:28
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#3
Android Apps

I am yet to test them adequately but have installed the following free apps on my Android phone.

1) Google Translate with Chinese Simplified & Traditional Offline language pack
https://play.google.com/store/apps/d...ranslate&hl=en

2) Pleco Chinese English dicitonary - Look up words and hear their pronunciation.
https://play.google.com/store/apps/d...sesystem&hl=en

3) Codegent - Learn Chinese Mandarin phrases
https://play.google.com/store/apps/d....chinese&hl=en

4) Waygo - Translate Chinese text to English using your phone camera (Specially useful in interpreting restaurant menus)
https://play.google.com/store/apps/d...opreview&hl=en

5) Mapfactor - GPS Navigation with loaded China offline map
https://play.google.com/store/apps/d...avigator&hl=en

6) Tripadvisor offline city guide for Beijing and Shanghai
https://play.google.com/store/apps/d....catalog&hl=en

7) Explore Beijing subway map
https://play.google.com/store/apps/d...metro.bj&hl=en

8) Explore Shanghai subway map
https://play.google.com/store/apps/d...metro.sh&hl=en

9) Air quality China - Checks the real time air quality index of major cities
https://play.google.com/store/apps/d...rquality&hl=en

10) Google Chrome - has an automatic and seamless translator of pages to English.
https://play.google.com/store/apps/d...d.chrome&hl=en

Apart from above apps, also bookmark the following site(s):

1) Dianping restaurant reviews - Very popular with the locals and works beautifully with Chrome that automatically translates the pages to English
http://www.dianping.com/citylist
#4 Aug 16th, 2014, 16:17
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#4
Hotel Bookings
Used Tripadvisor to read reviews of hotels and hostels. Then reserved them on the following sites:
1) Expedia http://www.expedia.co.in/Hotels
2) Booking.com http://www.booking.com/
3) Ctrip (popular in China) http://english.ctrip.com/

Flight Tickets
Cleartrip http://www.cleartrip.com/

Train tickets
Note that to book train tickets online in China, you will need a Chinese bank card. There is no English version of the official website www.12306.cn You can book tickets online 20 days prior to departure. So I used the service of China Travel Guide to do the booking http://www.travelchinaguide.com/china-trains/ You can select your train and buy from them online using your credit card or Paypal account. Once they purchase your ticket, you will receive a confirmation voucher. You can then opt for them to post the printed tickets to a local address in China or you can collect your ticket at any major railway station before departure by showing your ID and the confirmation voucher.

Mobile SIM Card
Matrix - You can buy online and have the SIM delivered to your doorstep. You can also get a prepaid SIM once you reach China but I read somewhere that the roaming charges are high once you leave the city where you have purchased the SIM http://www.matrix.in/Countries/Asia/China-SIM-Cards

Travel Insurance
Bajaj Allianz - You can do it completely online http://www.bajajallianz.com/Corp/tra...-insurance.jsp

Forex
I heard that credit cards are not very popular in China. So either you have an international debit card to withdraw cash or you take sufficient cash/travelers check with you. You have the option of taking Chinese Yuan or USD. I used the service of Thomas Cook and found that their exchange rates for Yuan was very expensive compared to USD. You can convert your USD to Yuan when you arrive at major airports. You can buy online and have it delivered to your doorstep http://www.thomascook.in/tcportal/Foreign-Exchange
#5 Sep 15th, 2014, 00:49
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#5
I was unable to live blog during my trip. But here is a TL along with some photos.

Day 1-2 Beijing

We had heard that the airport taxis to the Beijing city are expensive. So tried the airport express train followed by the subway (with a change over between two lines) followed by lugging our suitcases for another Kilometre to reach our beautiful courtyard hotel located in a Hutong.

We were hungry and they did not have an in-house restaurant that served dinner. So we stepped out to check the food options. There were many road side joints cooking meat and patrons relishing them with beer. We were looking for some place that looked big enough with options to serve us some vegetarian food. Not too far off was a two storey eatery packed with people. We stepped inside and had our first major challenge with the language :-) Thankfully, there was one person at the cash counter who spoke some English and there was also an English menu but the catch was that the food items on the menu did not list their contents. Took some time explaining that we wanted vegetarian food only to move on to the next challenge: Eat food (including rice) with chopsticks. It took us a lot of time to finish our meal including some amused looks at how we got about doing it :-)

Next day our colleagues took us to the Mu-Tian-Yu section of the Great Wall of China. We had heard that the 'closer to the city' Badaling section of the Wall, although more magnificent, would be more crowded. After reaching the base, we chose to climb the stairs to reach the top of the Wall. There is also a cable car that takes you up. Once there, the serpentine view of the Wall amongst the backdrop of the mountains was surreal. It went on and on disappearing into the horizon with watch towers jutting in between. The experience of walking on the pathway on top of the Wall along with the locals was amazing and really enjoyed it.





On our way back, there was a lot of traffic and so took us time to get back to the city. Being a Sunday evening, folks were returning back from neighbouring towns. We reached the beautiful Summer Palace way past the closing time to enter its buildings inside. But the access to the garden and the lake itself was open.



#6 Sep 15th, 2014, 01:15
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#6
Nice to see these photos of Mutianyu section of great wall - I saw a different part (Jinshaling) of the wall.

I also used 'Travel China Guide' for booking tickets for trains - they were very good.

How did you find the language barrier in China?
#7 Sep 15th, 2014, 01:36
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Yes thought about Jinshaling too and were initially undecided between the two. Heard about the cable car access to the top and decided on Mutianyu. Hopefully will be able to do another visit to check out Jinshaling.

Yes the 'Travel China Guide' team is so professional. Buying the tickets from them was a smooth sailing for me although I did wander around the station to get the printed tickets (more on that later). Their website is also so very informative.

Language was a barrier many times but being an Indian and traveling around the country having so many different languages, you do learn to work around the barrier :-) I used a combination of pictionary style communication, Google translate, my best American English put forward (to the younger locals) and a few words of Mandarin that I picked up along the way :-) And the local people are so very hospitable and try their best to help you and that really was the key for us there.
#8 Sep 18th, 2014, 00:12
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Day 3 Beijing

Visited the Temple of Heaven first. It has a set of religious building spread over a wide park with lots of activities being done in groups by the locals ranging from Western ballroom dancing to a Tamil song to playing Chinese chess in the corridors. We also saw people play a game that looked like badminton but with a small wooden bat slightly bigger than a ping pong bat. Playing cards is a popular past time too. Singing and square dancing is also a popular recreation that we often saw at parks and squares.

Some recreational activities we saw at the Temple of Heaven. Not sure what was being played in the first picture.




In spite of being from India which has a close enough population when compared to China, you will still be surprised to see the number of people at various popular spots. The last time I checked China's population heat map, the population density was more on the Eastern areas and the South. Also I believe the Golden triangle circuit (Beijing, Xian and Shanghai) is very popular with the local tourists.

The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests is a completely wooden building with no nails.
#9 Sep 18th, 2014, 00:17
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Our next halt was at the Forbidden City right next to Tiananmen square. This was the imperial palace and served as home to the emperors. It is also the ceremonial and political center of the Chinese government.

View of Forbidden City from Tiananmen square (This picture was taken the next day when we could visit the square). The portrait in the center is of Chairman Mao.


Just after the entrance.


One thing that stands out amongst the locals is the protection from the sun using umbrellas. The sun is very harsh this time of the year and you will see an umpteen number of umbrellas each having its own style and design. Later at Hangzhou, we even saw bicycles mounts with umbrellas! I was tempted to take pictures of them and maybe make a collage. We initially thought that it is a cultural thing and just used sun screen lotion, regular caps and coolers to protect ourselves but realized how useful an umbrella would have been later into the trip. By the time we left Beijing, I had sun burns around my ear and neck.

Also the weather was supposed to be great the days we were there as there was no smog/fog and the air quality was good. The heat is just minor compared to respiratory problems or foggy views of touristy spots. I did see an odd person here and there wearing masks over the nose and mouth. I hear that it is more prevalent when the air quality gets bad. Along with the regular weather, people also check the air quality published by a couple of agencies before they step out of their homes.

The largest stone carving in the palace carved out of a huge natural stone. From the description, it has interlocking lotus patterns all around, curling waves at the bottom and nine dragons amidst clouds in the middle. The dragon is an imperial signal.


Tiananmen square from the adjoining footpath. It was sometime in the evening and access to it was closed to the public. Not sure why and there was a heavy security presence everywhere.


Later in the evening, we had dinner with our colleagues and some of them took us for a walk on South Luogo Lane. This reminded me of a walk through the gullies of Chandni Chowk in Old Delhi. It was filled with people late into the night. There were cafes, bars, eateries and shops designed in classical Chinese hutong style.
#10 Sep 18th, 2014, 00:21
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Quote:
Originally Posted by schumifactor View Post Some recreational activities we saw at the Temple of Heaven. Not sure what was being played in the first picture.
Looks like Xiangqi.

p.s. Thoroughly enjoying your trip report - do finish!
#11 Sep 20th, 2014, 01:12
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#11
Thanks Vaibhav. I suspected the same too but was not sure. Yes from what we heard Chinese chess is a popular past time. Yes will add more updates over the weekend. Glad you are enjoying it.
#12 Sep 20th, 2014, 12:39
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Day 4 Beijing - Xian

The subway and road network of Beijing equals that of developed countries. There are 5 rings rounds around Beijing, multiple expressways connecting to the suburbs. The subway system has 16 lines and 261 stations! The subway was our frequent mode of transport and all for RMB 2 only no matter how much distance and how many lines you change. The underground stations are also huge. More than Beijing, at Shanghai we felt we needed to walk almost a Kilometer climbing up and down stairs multiple times at the under ground stations to change lines :-) No wonder obesity is not a problem here ;-)

Today we hoped the Tiananmen square will be open and went there first thing in the morning. And here it is!


We then walked towards and on Wangfujing street. It is a pedestrian only street and a shopping area with snack street hutongs crisscrossing it. Pictures of some exotic food. It is your guess what each is :-)









Tonight was going to be our first train experience and the overnight journey from Beijing to Xian. There are faster trains that reach in a few hours but we felt we could save time and money by sleeping through the journey.

Beijing railway station


We reached early because we had to get our tickets printed using the confirmation vouchers we received through Travel China Guide. The experience of getting our tickets done through them was very good and they have a very detailed website in English explaining the entire process and what we need to do to collect the tickets. But in spite of that we got lost at this huge station. There were signs in English but we could not interpret what they actually meant specially since most Chinese do not need to get their tickets printed. It is only those who do not have local IDs or bank accounts that do it our way.

We first stood in a line thinking this was where tickets are printed only to find out at the counter that this was the ticket checking line. We were asked to go towards the left of the station. We stood in another line for close to an hour after a baggage check to find out that we need to go another place (not sure what this line was for). Then after another security check to enter an area behind our second line, we found multiple counters with people standing in multiple lines. We hoped this was it and stood in one of those lines again. By this time, we were in near panic mode as our departure time was nearing. We were finally relieved that this was the right line and got all our tickets for all our train journeys in China printed. We then had to go back to the first line to get our tickets and IDs checked.

Then when you enter the station, you need to find the waiting area corresponding to your train. Finally when the gates open, your tickets are checked again and you need to go from the waiting area to the platform . Before you board the train the ticket is checked at the door and finally we were in :-) We booked soft sleepers for all our over night journeys. Category wise they were equivalent to our 2AC trains in India but comfort and looks wise they were the equivalent of 1AC travel on Indian trains. A long passage way in each bogie with adjoining compartments with doors and each compartment had 2X2 berths.

After the ticket validation and entrance, the walk towards your waiting area


The waiting area


The passageway on our train car
#13 Sep 21st, 2014, 01:39
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Day 5 Xian

After arriving in Xian, we stepped out of the railway station away from the touts who were offering us a taxi. We felt all too familiar with similar scenes stepping out of an Indian railway station. In the ensuing me-lee, we missed the taxi line just outside the station. We tried waving a taxi around a major bus stop close to the station but none of them would come. They either did not stop and if they did, after seeing the address to our hostel they would refuse to come. The subway/metro system in Xian is still being built and currently there are only 2 lines operational. Later we found that the buses also lacked frequency and was nothing like the advanced transportation system of Beijing. A 3 wheel tuk tuk finally offered to drop us to our hostel. We eventually found that such rides are not legal and the tuk tuk driver also charged us twice the rate of a regular taxi from the station.

Our first visit was to the beautiful Xian city wall. It encircles the older part of the city. You can explore the path way on top of the wall either on foot or rent bicycles. We chose the latter and loved our ride with terrific views of the city along the way.


A walk along Shu Yuan Men pedestrian street after we exited through the South gate of the wall. It is a cultural street and we saw many sellers of Chinese Calligraphy material.


We then went to the Muslim quarters to check out the street food and the oldest mosque in China.

These guys were beating down some dish with a lot of intensity using hammers. What ever they were doing looked like a lot of effort and they were going at it for a while. We saw many such vendors work like this. Later at Hangzhou, we went to a similar vendor and bought some Indian Chikki like sweet and Indian Soanpapdi like sweets from them.






Great Mosque of Xian.


We then walked back to our hostel checking out the beautifully lighted monuments along the way.

Bell Tower


Drum Tower from a nearby fountain.


One thing we really liked was the community events actively being performed by the mostly elderly at public places whenever we went. Be it square dancing, singing during the evenings or Tai Chi at parks in the mornings, the elderly were leading an active and healthy lifestyle. On our walk back to the hostel, we did notice the same at parks and open spaces. I shared a video of the square dancing we saw here at one of my earlier post.
#14 Sep 21st, 2014, 19:15
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Day 2 & 3 Xian, Xian - Shanghai

This was the day of our trip to see the famous Terracotta warriors. We have mostly despised organized tours within the city or suburbs. Firstly they are expensive and secondly you do not get to spend time or wander around places as and when you prefer. There is always a limited time after which you need to get back. We instead decided to use the public bus 306 (Chinese green bus 5) starting from the front of the railway station area costing us RMB 7 one way per person. It took us some time figuring out where the line was but then it was smooth after that. While we stood in the line we saw a lady shouting and waving at us to come over to a set of blue buses that had Terracotta Warriors and Horses written on them. We learned that these are private buses and run more frequently. But the catch is that although they take you to the destination, you are forced to visit attractions that you may not want to.

The greenish bus on the left is the public bus while the blue buses are the private ones. Note that both have the same numbers.


The Terracotta Warriors and Horses Museum. We visited the museum with an English audio guide and a map that accompanies it. Note that the warriors are human sized sculptures and the excavations are still going on.









The next day was our visit to the Big Wild Goose Pagoda and the largest musical fountain in Asia right in front of it.



#15 Sep 21st, 2014, 19:36
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After reading some of the incidents where people tried to behave in a 'tout' like manner, doesnt seem so different from another developing country. The photos of course make it clear that the infrastructure is at par with developed nations. Good going shumi! If you could post details of your hotels, charges incurred etc that would help.
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