Advice for Summer China Adventures
May 3, 2011 4:32 PM   Subscribe

I am traveling solo around northeast and central China for the next two months and would love your advice and sightseeing suggestions!

I left China when I was 7 and this will be the longest I've been in the country since. I've also never traveled by myself outside of Canada and the US, so I'm a bit nervous but also really excited.

My mandarin is understandable, but not fluent. I will be staying with family near Shanghai for about a week to acclimatize so I get more linguistically competent and recover from jetlag.

My itinerary after that is roughly as follows:

Beijing 05/10
Hailaer 05/17
Harbin 05/22
Jilin/Liaoning/Hebei 06/25
Shandong/Hubei/Shanxi 06/02
Gansu/Ningxia/Qinghai 06/10
Xinjiang 06/20
back to Jiangsu 07/01
HongKong 07/28

I'm planning to live in a hostel in Beijing to meet up with other travelers. I have couchsurfing contacts and some family friends lined up for Jilin/Liaoning/Hubei. Hopefully along the way, I'll find other people to stay with for the second month. An uncle is probably meeting up with me for the Xinjiang part of the trip. I'll mostly be going by train.

Please send tips for a novice female travel my way! I'll have an ipod touch with me, what apps should I get? (should I get something to circumnavigate the GFW?) Mefites in any of these places, I would love to meet up with you!

My specific plans are pretty vague at this point, other than seeing more of China than the small corners of Jiangsu my extended family lives, Xian, and the big coastal cities. I am interested in Chinese revolution history and worker/peasant movements. The Youth Autonomy Project that Abiezer linked to in another post is exactly the kind of thing I would love to look up during my trip. (but not too off the wall. I want to avoid trouble with local authorities.) Travel literature/website suggestions would be great too. I didn't bring any books with me other than Lonely Planet so the books will have to be something I can get in China. The website I currently have on my rss are Danwei, China Beat, and China Study Group. Chinese language ones would be especially helpful since I would like to improve my Chinese reading/writing skills.

Sorry about the long question. Thanks in advance.
posted by dustyasymptotes to Travel & Transportation around China (7 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Hi, I did a fair bit of traveling in China a few years back.
For the Northeast, Dandong is interesting because it's so close to the North Korean border; it used to be you could cross a small river and be in North Korea but I would not recommend trying now.

Xinjiang is an amazing region; I traveled there for something close to 3 weeks and I still didn't see everything. Make sure to see Kashgar, it really feels like being in a Central Asian country when you're there.

Spend some time around the Kashgar area too; there is a mountain lake along the way to Tashkurgan where you can stay in a yurt. I went all the way up to the Pakistani border which was fairly memorable and I saw part of the Karakoram highway - the mountain scenery is amazing.

Besides Kashgar, Turpan is also great, and there are some interesting places along the way - Urumqi is worth a stop just because it's such a big city literally in the middle of nowhere.

If you circle down the southern edge of the Taklamakan there are some interesting cities, and you can take an overnight bus that goes directly through the center of the Taklamakan on the cross desert highway which is pretty amazing. You are surrounded by hundreds of miles on either side by completely uninhabited desert dunes devoid of any life; the only thing that holds the shifting sands in place along the roadside are these bushes that stay alive through a massive irrigation system. Every few miles you come across a little blue house, where people live and maintain the irrigation system. And halfway through the desert (again, half a day's driving through completely uninhabited desert dunes) there is actually a rest stop area with restaurants. It's pretty bizarre.

There's a link to my travel blog in my profile if you want to see some pics of Xinjiang.
posted by pravit at 4:47 PM on May 3, 2011

If you find yourself near Jiuzhaigou and Huanglong, they're amazing.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 4:54 PM on May 3, 2011

Best answer: I have friends who swear by the Couchsurfing community across China. They even have meetups in some cities. Young people in even the smallest cities host foreigners and other Chinese to expand their world view and meet new people.

I have a big long curated list of china blogs here though you're certainly on to many of the best ones. For Chinese language exposure, I recommend diving in to Sina's Weibo, the most popular and vital microblog community. Danwei and Danwei writers are on there, so that's a good place to start.

I live in Shanghai, but haven't been to tons of the places you're going. But, if you're planning to travel by bus or train, your schedule looks pretty tight, especially when you're out west. Those are big, big places.

Have fun!
posted by markovitch at 5:10 PM on May 3, 2011

Oops. I meant Couchsurfing, in case that wasn't clear. Here's an article about its take off in China
posted by markovitch at 5:12 PM on May 3, 2011

Best answer: Exciting! My first ever Couchsurfing experience was in Urumqi in 2006 and the man I stayed with is now a good friend. Here's his blog if you want to go back and read about his three years as an American ex-Pat there and his travels around the region. He had some interesting experience passing as a Xinjiang local based on his Chinese/European ancestry. There is an ex-pat community there where you may be able to Couchsurf but I would caution you about staying with a local. In the past few years authorities have been cracking down in Urumqi and that same friend was traveling through during the riots that happened (a year or two ago now) and was detained and fined for staying in non-approved housing. He was staying with his former roommate, a local. She was also fined.

You might not have any trouble at all but just be aware that hotel and internet usage in Xinjiang has some restrictions. I tried to stay in a cheap hotel near the train station and was met by police, who turned me away. Again, this was in 2006, so that may have changed but from friends' reports it's actually gotten worse since then.

I'm female and traveled alone in Northeast, West and Southwest China in 2004 and 2006. I have never had any issues because of my gender, but get a lot of attention as a foreigner. I took a basic Chinese class before I left but could only say basic phrases and numbers. Sometimes I got lost, sometimes I didn't know what I was ordering for dinner but it will work out, don't worry about fluency. Be confident and follow your intuition.

You say you left China at 7—do you look Han? In some parts of Xinjiang you might be treated a bit more negatively by non-Han locals. It's funny, I met a backpacker from Taiwan when I traveled the Silk Road route and although she "looked" Chinese and spoke Mandarin she got much more attention than I did. Somehow locals could tell that she was "different but similar" (clothes, mannerisms?) and for once I was ignored and watched the scrutiny she received.

I basically had an open schedule so I didn't worry too much when the trains were booked up for a week. Don't underestimate travel times because it's a huge country. For example, the high-speed train between Urumqi and Kashgar takes 24 hours. If you're dead-set on your itinerary wI suggest getting your relatives to help you arrange your train tickets in advance. I bought tickets as I went and sometimes got stuck for days because there was no space on the trains. There's a link to photos and a blog in my profile if you want to see where I went or have any questions.
posted by Bunglegirl at 8:12 AM on May 4, 2011

Best answer: I just read a great book about an American traveling in China - Country Driving by Peter Hessler. Might be helpful!
posted by lvanshima at 10:14 AM on May 4, 2011

Hi OP, check your MeFi Mail, message re: Beijing sent.
posted by jeto at 7:49 PM on May 7, 2011

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