China is really big! Where do I go?
April 10, 2009 2:31 PM   Subscribe

After many other ideas have fallen through, I think I'll be going to China about 7 days in May. But it's so big! Inner Mongolia sounds cool; is it worth traveling around Hohhot? I could go surfing in Hainan, but how is the beach compared to Ha Long Bay, or Copacabana, or Playas del Este...?

I'm alone but can meet people anywhere. I am not particularly interested in the major-major cities at this time, unless it's all I can afford to get to. Something that offers more active or out-of-the-way cultural stuff is more interesting than another temple. Of course suggestions other than those in the main question are welcome!
posted by whatzit to Travel & Transportation around China (15 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Seven days isn't very long to spend in China at all unless you're focusing on one city or region. I've been across the North, West and Southwest traveling alone. Even smaller cities in China have populations of millions and you're going to have to pass through one for bus or train connections.

I spent some time in Hohhot when I traveled from Mongolia to Kyrgyzstan along the silk road. Honestly, the only reason I stopped was to take care of getting money and recharging before heading back into areas that were more remote. Hohhot is a big city. There's plenty of tourism to go see the grasslands but most will be geared to Chinese tourists. Having just spent a month in Outer Mongolia (the country) I didn't bother. Besides, it seemed like a very contrived package tourist-type thing to do.

Its hard to recommend an area without knowing what you're interested in. I enjoyed the Xinjiang province but it's far out there and not as Han Chinese as a lot of the rest of the country. I guess some of it could be considered "out of the way cultural stuff" but with seven days don't kid yourself that you'll have time to get too much "out of the way." With seven days why not focus on a region with more to see in a small area? You could spend seven days in Beijing alone.
posted by Bunglegirl at 3:04 PM on April 10, 2009

I think it might be kind of hard to answer this question without more detail...are you travelling alone or with others? Do you speak Cantonese or Mandarin? Are you interested in history, in hiking? Have you booked a ticket? Where do you land?

I spent some time last summer in the mountains of Huangshan--they were beautiful. A fair number of tourists tho. But beautiful. And great food. But I was traveling with people who spoke the language, which no doubt made it an entirely different experience than what I could've managed on my own.
posted by stray at 3:15 PM on April 10, 2009

Response by poster: One city/region, for sure, and not that far out of the way. I'm not kidding myself: I recognize the issues of time, distance, infrastructure, language, etc. I travel a lot.

I suppose I am looking for the region with a lot to see in a small area, and hopefully with less contrived fun. Does that help? But, I don't know where they are in China, aside from the megacities.
posted by whatzit at 3:25 PM on April 10, 2009

that's kinda like saying "where should i spend seven days in the US that's not a big city and not touristy?" you really need to narrow your parameters a bit more to make this a useful question, i think.
posted by wayward vagabond at 4:04 PM on April 10, 2009

Although I took a basic beginner Mandarin class before I went the first time I did just fine in China traveling alone. Its not easy, sure, but if you're open to adventure and your pantomime skills are good you can get by just fine (and this was 2004). I once stayed in a village with only one old government run hotel and I was the only foreigner in town. I walked up to a restaurant, pointed to the veggies I wanted and a chicken walking by and made a stirring motion with my hand. I got something edible!

When I've eaten with people who speak the language it is a totally different (and much more delicious) experience. But finding yourself somewhere that's totally foreign to you where you don't know anyone and don't understand anything is kind of exhilarating too... as long as you just go with the flow.
posted by Bunglegirl at 4:23 PM on April 10, 2009

Yunnan is where I spent most of my time - The Kunming to Shangrila trail has some good spots - Dali, Lijiang and Tiger Leaping Gorge are worth seeing and would take up 7 days pretty easily - you probably don't need to spend much time in Kunming.
posted by backwards guitar at 4:41 PM on April 10, 2009

I have no greater memory from my time in China than that one night we spent in a big yurt in the grasslands. We snuck out into the field with our blanket at some late hour of the night and looked up and spent countless hours marveling at a sky we had never seen before, and have never seen since.
posted by thejoshu at 4:43 PM on April 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: With seven days why not focus on a region with more to see in a small area?
I would like to, but please give me a clue where they are! At this point I would consider the question a success if someone would just tell me whether Hainan is nice or not.

What am I hoping for? good food, a good beach, physical activity, something I can't find at home (Japan). Learn a little bit about China (I don't care if it's Han or mixed or minority). Somewhere with lots of interesting stuff that's not days apart. I'm not afraid of public transportation, crowds, or dirt. Some recognizable places I've really liked include Lisbon, Hanoi, Kobe, Okinawa, Rio de Janeiro, Zurich. Most of them have a "small town" feel despite their size, and are good central hubs for a variety of cool stuff so you can spend one day at the beach, one day in the hills, one day looking at temples/churches, a morning at the market, even while taking in the atmosphere of the place without a particular goal.

I don't care one whit about name-brand or forged DVD/electronics shopping, nightlife, flushing toilets, schedules. I don't want to be sheep-herded around and don't want to go on a contrived tour with a leader carrying a bright umbrella and matching t-shirts.

Frankly, I don't know if anything I wrote will help.
posted by whatzit at 4:46 PM on April 10, 2009

Like backwards guitar says, Yunnan Province would be good. Dali and Lijiang are nice. There's always Guilin/Yangshou. I haven't been but I know its pretty and isn't a big city. There's lots of tourists, but I think you can get away from the group dynamic by hiking or renting a bike.

I think things in Beijing are interesting—The Summer Palace, Forbidden City etc. are pretty amazing. You can hook up with a small group in a van to go to the great wall and hike part of it. There's some nice temples too but you might have seen enough temples. So if you're flying through Beijing maybe spend a day seeing some of the big sights there.

Its good to know you're from Japan, that makes a difference because some of the stuff that might seem 'exotic' or new to someone from the US won't be too interesting to you.

I know nothing of beaches and have never heard of Hainan. I think a lot of the places I went to in China don't fit your beach/hills/sight seeing requirements. Actually, I pretty much stayed away from the coasts completely in China so take my advice as you will.
posted by Bunglegirl at 6:00 PM on April 10, 2009

Best answer: If you do the Beijing city-break Bunglegirl suggests, you could add in a couple of days in Pingyao, a well-preserved walled city in Shanxi that's a comfortable overnight train-ride away (sleeper train saves on a night in the hostel) and worth a couple of days poking around (that part of Shanxi was quite wealthy back in the day and the countryside around is littered with cultural sites like temples). It's a bit touristy now (haven't been back for a few years so that's out of date) but if you don't speak the language that's probably handy.
The two locations together would be a decent history tour without too much stress and travel.
posted by Abiezer at 8:38 PM on April 10, 2009

Pingyao is definitely a bit touristy. Huangshan is also kinda touristy, but it's also incredibly beautiful, so you can wander around on your own and still get a lot out of it. When I went it was kinda cold, so there weren't many people around, which was nice. I took a weekend trip to Yangzhou once and liked it quite a bit. I saw most of the sights one day and then the next day pretty much just wandered checking out old neighbourhoods and eating street food. The food was good, the city was nice, and it's also a night train ride from Beijing. I've heard lots of great stuff about Yunnan but never got a chance to go myself.

As for markets, I've heard there's a huge one in Tianjin but don't know any details. In Beijing there are a bunch with various specialities and some general ones as well.
Electronics: Zhongguancun
'antiques': Panjiauyuan (cool place even if the stuff is fake and you don't buy anything)
camera stuff: Wukesong
general: Dongjiaoshichang, near Dawanglu. This place has all kinds of stuff but my favourite part is probably the building devoted to cookware and all things related to food preparation. There's also a pretty large area devoted to tea and tea related stuff.

I'm sure there's tons of other markets in Beijing, but those are the only ones I've been to. No idea about beaches unfortunately.
posted by benign at 9:50 PM on April 10, 2009

Best answer: Kashgar!

I mean it. Just go out there and take in as much as you can in 7 days. I was on the other side of Xinjiang for awhile in 2006, had a lot of fun, and saw some amazing sights. And that was the touristy Han side. Get yourself out to the more culturally pristine areas in the west and just bounce around. You will not, will not, be disappointed.
posted by saysthis at 11:13 PM on April 10, 2009

If I only had seven days in China, I'd head for Lijiang or Yangshuo, the latter being the object of my current focusing illusion as it's where I've spent the last couple of days. Yangshuo is as touristy as they get, but for a good reason. You can easily spend a few days there exploring the countryside (just flickr it), and there's a big international rock climbing community available if that's your thing. Since you like to meet people but don't speak any Mandarin (I presume), in addition to the foreigners occupying West Street always on the look-out for new acquaintances, Yangshuo is also a Mecca for Chinese students of English, who go there either for a short term course or simply to meet and talk to foreigners.
posted by klue at 7:35 AM on April 11, 2009

Response by poster: Outcome:
5 days Beijing, 4 days Xi'an.

Beijing, in summary:
1. Great wall (obligatory) at Simatai: unrestored, FEW TOURISTS, clean air WIN. (organized through couchsurfing's Beijing city group), dinner at Dadong Duck Restaurant (expensive, long wait, worthwhile)
2. Tiananmen Square and surroundings, Forbidden City, Hutong wandering, food
3. Summer Palace, kebab BBQ behind a little cafe somewhere in Chaoyang
4. 798 art stuff, Sichuan style Hot Pot

1. Terra Cotta Soldiers (a city bus goes directly there from the train station!)
2. Xi'An Museum, Little and Big Goose Pagodas
3. Shaanxi History Museum, Muslim Quarter
4. Folk Culture House, Great Mosque: Both really nice retreats in a very very busy neighborhood in a very busy city.
I can't begin to describe or identify all the really delicious things I ate in Xi'An.

Next time though I'm planning on going further west, which was what I wanted to do this time (but it's just too damn far).
posted by whatzit at 6:02 AM on May 12, 2009 [1 favorite]

Glad you had a good time. The weather has been really decent this Spring, so good karma on your timing too. I might make it out west this summer, as looks like one of my brothers looks will be visiting. Always fancied Kashgar as noted above, and Dunhuang too, because I'm sure however touristy it's got it'll be hard to spoil too much, bit like the Terracotta Army.
posted by Abiezer at 2:06 PM on May 12, 2009

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