go west!
December 28, 2009 8:30 AM   Subscribe

I want to spend a while (1-4 months?) wandering around China-- specifically, central/western China.. I speak Mandarin, and I've lived in Beijing before. Where should I go?

I was planning a big Southeast Asia trip, but the idea of lots of flights, many new languages, and the backpacker circuit is frustrating me. I think I'm going to set aside that trip until I have a travel partner. I've spent about 4 months in China-- most of that working in Beijing, but also visiting Shanghai, Suzhou, Wuxi, and Hangzhou. And Hong Kong. I loved the Beijing lifestyle but wasn't wild about the rest. I love the cuisine of Shanxi, Shaanxi, Sichuan, and Yunnan, and I'm interested in all points west.

I figure that speaking Chinese will get me pretty far off the beaten path, but I know hardly anything about China or travel in China. Where should I go? What should I do? What does it all cost? (I have no idea what to expect in terms of budget!)

I'm mildly concerned about safety, mostly because I was mugged within two hours of my arrival the last time I visited. I'm a somewhat experienced backpacker (trekked 500 miles in a month, hitchhiked through Albania) but I'm pretty easily spooked all the same. And I LOVE to plan ahead.

Thanks in advance for your ideas!
posted by acidic to Travel & Transportation around China (14 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Yangshao! Guilin! My friend's sister is Miao and speaks fluent English and Mandarin, along with the ethnic dialects. She's a great tour guide for the Miao Minority areas and can get you a room with a Miao family during festival time. MeMail me if you need her contact info.
posted by jeanmari at 8:47 AM on December 28, 2009

Also, budget is cheap, cheap, cheap. This was in 2001, but we were eating hotpot meals for a couple of dollars a day. Backpacked and traveled by train. Going with a guide for part of the way was the way to go for us because she could negotiate while we were out of sight, get a better rate, and then we would pop up. I was traveling with my husband, who is a 6'7" bearded guy, so we didn't run into any trouble, but we're pretty cautious anyway. The Thorn Tree forums have a lot of great info on the specifics of traveling in western China that will be more updated than what I have.
posted by jeanmari at 8:51 AM on December 28, 2009

Yangshao is really lovely. Touristy (mostly Chinese tourists), but the area is beautiful.

I really enjoyed Dali - but it might have been where I was mentally at the time. Tiger Leaping Gorge, and Lijiang are worth seeing as well. If you're into hiking and that sort of thing, I imagine you'd find some nice spots between Kunming and Shangrila that would be worth visiting.
posted by backwards guitar at 9:19 AM on December 28, 2009

Best answer: If you have the chance, I'd suggest going to Xinjiang. I think things are still tense there because of the riots last summer, but it's amazingly beautiful and pretty much everybody will be hospitable. Definitely go outside of Urumqi. I'd suggest going to Kashgar, at the very least. There were riots there last summer too, and it's probably hard to get to any more remote places now. The main reason you should go to Kashgar is that the Chinese are systematically tearing down the Old City, so you should go see it before it's completely destroyed.

If you do want to venture as far west as Xinjiang, you should probably learn about its fascinating (and heartbreaking) history. Are you in China now? It might be hard to get accurate information about the Uyghurs due to the Chinese firewall situation, but just try to get as solid a grounding in the history as possible. It'll make your trip a lot more interesting and less tourist-y.

Food (as you probably know) is really cheap. Make sure to eat lots of kabobs and naan, and find a good Hui restaurant if you possibly can. If you want to be culturally sensitive, try to eat only in restaurants that are Halal. Eating in a Chinese restaurant where they serve pork will alienate most Uyghurs.

Oh, and remember to bargain for all souvenirs! Everyone will try to get you to buy things for exorbitant amounts.

Finally, if you possibly can, learn at least a few words of Uyghur before you go. It'll help you make friends with locals, who are wary of pretty much everything Chinese. It'll also help you navigate around the area. A lot of people think that since Xinjiang is part of China, Chinese and a working knowledge of Chinese culture is sufficient. It's really not. You'll be able to travel fine, since most business is conducted in Chinese. But if you really want to gain a better experience, it's best to understand the Uyghur culture.

Useful links:

Lonely Planet Guide for Xinjiang

NYT article on the Old City in Kashgar

Google search for "Xinjiang Travel." Most of the information in those guides looks pretty accurate.

P.S. Don't be intimidated by Xinjiang! Just because it's so different from the rest of China doesn't mean you have to be wary of the people there or something. Just try to be as culturally sensitive as possible. Good luck!
posted by pecknpah at 9:54 AM on December 28, 2009

I'm surprised you're so spooked given your experience. I traveled alone through China three times. The first time I went as far west as Xiahe, Chengdu, Emi Shan, Lijiang, Kunming and Jinghong on my way to Vietnam by land.

The next time I followed the silk road from Mongolia to Kyrgyzsan which was interesting but took a long time and was a bit repetitive. I was there before the riots in Urumqi and you should be careful but I don't think I would rule out travel there now. I was there in the summer and it was pretty darn hot but you get used to it. I also took the train from Golmud up to Lhasa which was really beautiful.

Don't be intimidated by Xinjiang! Just because it's so different from the rest of China doesn't mean you have to be wary of the people there or something
I hung out with some students from Eastern China while I was in Urumqi. It was kind of funny, they approached me near the train station because they were scared of all the touts surrounding them. They told me that they were scared because Xinjiang is "so wild" and the people are "not like the rest of China." They seemed to be more comfortable with me speaking English than Han Chinese speaking Mandarin in Xinjiang. I rely on my intuition and was cautious but it wasn't a scam.

I took a basic Mandarin class before the first trip but had very little language skills and with the different dialects once I got out of Beijing most of what I learned didn't help. I'm just telling you this to show you that you can go off the beaten path without getting into trouble with a lot less than you have going for you. I love to plan too so if you want to read about my adventures and the planning I did deciding on that route send me a mefi mail.
posted by Bunglegirl at 10:12 AM on December 28, 2009

I saw a thing on TV about this giant outdoor elevator, if I ever had the chance I'd go there. The countryside around the area looked amazing on the TV I'll bet it's breathtaking in person.
posted by TooFewShoes at 10:47 AM on December 28, 2009

I've been in China for 2.5 years now and have traveled pretty extensively. By far, our favorite trips have been to Yunnan, Gansu, and Sichuan. Sichuan was the most recent trip, and all of the Tibetan areas were off-limits to foreigners. That really put a cramp in our trip, but we still enjoyed it. Yunnan was great; we were there in the winter, and headed south into the mountains from Kunming. Loved it and would definitely go back. Basically, just take a bus to Yuanyang from Kunming and then spend a week or two going from village to village. Even among the ethnic minorities, the Mandarin was pretty easy to understand. In fact, the Mandarin was easier to understand than some of the weird dialects in the big cities in the east where I usually am (Nanjing, Suzhou, Hangzhou, etc.) Gansu was great. Part of the enjoyment was that we were invited to a wedding out there. But, when we departed from our friends and just started traveling around, every city and village was pretty interesting. The desert was breathtaking. The food is the best we've had in China. There's this amazing non-alcoholic fruit beer everywhere. And you can easily get to Tibetan areas of Gansu and Qinghai. As usual, we used a guidebook to tell us about a big city or two and then just went into bus stations and picked small cities in between the big cities.
posted by msbrauer at 7:11 PM on December 28, 2009

And by far your biggest expense will be transportation. Trains and buses are much cheaper than the US or Europe, but you're still looking at 20 dollars or more for 5-8 hours of travel time. Hotels are cheap, even in the big cities in the west, if you don't stay at the big fancy hotels. I've paid as little as 2 dollars for a night and my upper limit is about 15 or 20 dollars. In some of the smaller towns, you might have to fight with the proprietor to stay at their hotel. Food, also, is very cheap, as mentioned above. Even in touristy areas, you won't be able to eat everything that 10 dollars can buy you.
posted by msbrauer at 7:30 PM on December 28, 2009

I never made it to Sichuan or Xinjiang, but I did travel around Dali, Lijiang, and then down to Yangshuo for about a month by myself. All of them are beautiful and worth seeing.

As for travel, definitely use trains. To me, it's an essential part of traveling in China. For one thing, they can be quite relaxing, and are a good way to recharge between explorations. I took a 44 hour trip from Wuhan to Kunming, then a 36 hour from Kunming to Guilin, and I treasure the experience.

One thing, though, about traveling by train: bring some food. Before the Kunming-Guilin trip, I stopped at Wal-mart in Kunming and made sandwiches (though anything that keeps would be good) because the train food in the hard sleeper cars isn't that great.

If you travel by hard-sleeper, get the middle bunk. During the trip, people tend to sit on the lower bunk, even if it's not theirs, and the top bunk is too low to sit up in properly. The middle bunk is high enough for you to sit, and gives you that measure of personal space.

Finally, one of the things that I found sort of interesting is the prevalence of local beer in China. Nearly every place we went had its own beer, with taste and quality varying widely from region to region. The beer I had in Dali was easily the best.

Enjoy your trip, I'm jealous.
posted by Ghidorah at 7:59 PM on December 28, 2009

Best answer: FULL DISCLOSURE: this post is heavily augmented by my photos from traveling around China in 2007-2008. If you love the photos, there is a book you can buy :)

Yunnan just gets better and better as you go further North. Kunming is the loveliest Chinese provincial capital I've visited as far as "cities" go. From there it's a short hop to an neat-but-touristy Dali (be sure to rent a good bike and ride around the lake, and also take the decrepit chairlift up to the mountains and wander about there!). From Dali, the standard route takes you to Lijiang which is equal parts gorgeous (the scenery, color and people) and disgusting (Chinese domestic tourism industry at its worst). There is spectacular scenery at the nearby imposing Yulong Yueshan (jade dragon snow mountain), including a chairlift you can take up to the glaciers at 3500 meters.

Next stop is the incredible, breath-taking Tiger Leaping Gorge, which, despite being in every lonely planet about China ever published is still an incredible experience, with real solitude and plenty of expoure to traditional Chinese agricultureal lifestyles.

From Lijiang, the next move North takes you to Deqin, at which point you will be at a real elevation (10,000+ feet in the valleys, more in surrounding mountains). You will have left > 90% of fellow tourists at Lijiang. The mountain scenery is sublime. A large portion of populace is ethnic Tibetan and will not speak English or Mandarin, but I am sure you can get by. You can explore for weeks from there, by bus, on horseback toor or by foot - all of this can be arranged by travel shops in Deqin. It's also the best place in the world to drink raw yak yogurt and eat smoked yak meat, both of which are incredible (apologies for the pitch if you are vegetarian/vegan).

For something completely different, you might also consider heading to Qinghai province, which has an arresting mix of Central Asia and China, beautful Qinghai Hu lake (alas - likely the hotspot for next avian flu epidemic), tons of Tibetan Buddhist temples and shrines in every size, and a classic Central Asian landscape. Xining is a neat little provincial capital that you can easily get a flight to, after that buses will take you many places over many hours. You can go from here to Xinjiang to Tibet (foreigner travel restrictions permitting). It's a big, beautiful country.

As far as general travel concerns, China is an incredibly safe place to travel in my experience (strong rule of law + a general mandate of protecting foreigners and leaving them be be as long as no rules are broken). Keep your eyes open, hang out with other people when possible, and you will be fine. I advise you to not plan much in advance, because few things happen on schedule when you get away from big cities... having a strict plan will just frustrate you. Feel free to meta-mail me with any questions.
posted by blindcarboncopy at 12:55 PM on December 29, 2009 [2 favorites]

Chengdu might make a good staging area if you plan to check out Tibet, and I found it to be a charming, laid back place (albeit with screwed up Mandarin -- they are to 北京话 what Scots is to English). Have been living in Beijing for years, but am quite poorly travelled so have got little in the way of practical advice -- but if you stop in Beijing, give a shout and we can put together a MeFi meetup with all three (?) members.
posted by bokane at 1:41 PM on December 29, 2009

Response by poster: thanks everyone! i will probably visit every place mentioned in this thread. and blindcarboncopy, your pictures are BANANAS.

definitely, without a doubt visiting xinjiang-- i had friends working there this summer during the riots, and one of my favorite bars in BJ was that glorious xinjiang-themed lesbian bar on nanluoguxiang.

if anyone else has more suggestions pls keep them coming! also interested in knowing what your experience has been with budgeting.
posted by acidic at 3:57 PM on December 29, 2009

Tips for Xinjiang: Lonely Planet is worthless there. The entries are so horribly outdated as to make them counter to reality. Do not take their hotel advice. Find a fellow traveler (not in the communist sense) and ask them for recommendations. Trust me, this will save you a lot of heartache, and being a muslim region, this will score you invitations to people's houses and for guided tours by locals.

Also it is COLD there this time of year. At one point in Aksu, while buying tickets for the train onwards I put my bare hands on a live steam pipe and still could not feel them. Did I mention it is cold. A nice cao baozi stuffed with fatty lamb will keep you fueled up and warm, plus the fresh bagels are nice and toasty in the Kashgar old city. Do not buy meat products from a guy in a Kyrgyz hat unless you really want to try horse (though you've been in BJ, so what's a little donkey or horse now and then?). If you go now you won't get to make it into any of the "Icky-stans" as the mountain passes will be snowed in, after the spring thaw it is advisable to get your visas in advance and get multiple entry fro each country you will come near to (eg. Tajik, Kyrgyz, Uzbek) as you may never know when you cross back and forth between them up in the mountains and valleys, but the local gendarmes certainly do!

Did I mention that it is hot in the summer? Yeah, it's friggin hot in the summer, like death valley hot, like, train tracks warp hot, like a camel will drop dead and shrivel to camel jerky in minutes hot. It's warm. Probably better to go in another season lest you be cooped up in a poorly ventilated metal box with thousands of your newest friends for hours upon hours on end.

The Chinese ride the trains. You speak mandarin, so thats great. The Uighurs and others ride the bus. So, if you want to meet Uighurs and Uzbeks and Tajiks and Kyrgyz, ride the bus. I recommend the overnight sleeper into Kashgar as the driver will let you sleep in until Kashgar dawn saving you from having to stumble through the dark to find a crap hotel per an outdated Lonely Planet as you would after you are bounced off an arriving train. The Han conductors could give a shit that it's physically 3:00 AM outside, it's 9 in Beiging and by god that the official fucking time!

Some spots to definitely hit on your way along the Iron Rooster:

Dunhuang, Gansu - the dunes and caves are incredible.

Turfan - say hi to the imam at the Emin mosque (see my profile), light a candle (cotton ball dipped in sheep fat) in the tombs out back and he'll scribble a blessing on a scrap of paper for you (take paper and pen).

Urumchi is actually a nice city by Chinese standards and not the homogenous concrete jumble you've no doubt come to love. Sure it's concrete, but it's a crossroads town, particularly after the thaw and the trade corridors open up.

Kashgar - you must go to Kashgar. Don't argue, you must go before they bulldoze the old city. e ready to see your first real burqua.

Yarkand (Shache) - is an overnight jaunt by bus from Kashgar. Interesting Uighur town. If you are too jumpy, you might get a little freaked out here as you are starting to get into "Indian Country" This point on is where the Chinese and Uighur seperatists are occasionally shooting it out whenever a caravan on weaponry can get smuggled in over the mountains from Talibanistan.

Have fun! Don't be scared, but do be vigilant. Remember you can always run to the comfort of the Han side of town if you ever feel nervous. Uighurs are angry right now, but they are not bad people and they, like most desert muslim peoples, are at heart warm and gracious, humorous and lively.

PS - also second Yunnan and all that has been said. The farther you get to the top the better it gets. Lijiang is wonderful (off Chinese tourist season). Dali is OK. When I arrived in Zhongdian the Tibetan guy that a friend had arranged to meet me threw my bag over his shoulder and turned around with a stained tooth grin and said "Welcome to Shangri La" and it really was. It's a great place to stop over on your way to Deqin. The Tibet House is a rustic hostel in a Tibetan home there (outside toilets, cold water, awesome food, awesome owners) if you get to know them the daughter of the family (that really does all the work) will take you to the Monastery, but this will be no guided tour you've ever had before. First, a la strip club, she'll make you break a larger bill (say 50 kuai) into tons of singles, then she'll push past the monks at the ticket booth and pull you past the barricades into the heart of the monastery, where she will show you (force you) where and how to pray and where to drop a single or two for this god or that lama.

In Dequin find Tashi (formerly of Tashi's Mountain Lodge). I saw Tashi carry an old, crippled man on a pilgrimage (complete with baggage) on his back up the Meili glacier, so needless to say Tahi is a great guy and the guest house is beautiful!
posted by Pollomacho at 8:35 AM on December 30, 2009

I just barely dipped my toes in China, but if you've never been to the Kaifeng night market, you should go. It's really fantastic.

There's this one dish, it honestly looks like a giant bowl of jello. They tip it over, chop it up, and serve it on its own. Tastes really good, apparently one thing you do is pop it into the 5 spice bread that's also available there and also delicious. And of course you have the expected assortment of grilled-things-on-sticks.
posted by Deathalicious at 5:58 PM on January 18, 2010

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