Help me make the most of a trip to China
November 14, 2013 1:22 PM   Subscribe

I'm psyched because I'm planning to go on a volunteer trip to Guangdong, China in March. However, I'm going alone (will be meeting a group there) and I would like to do some brief independent travel while I'm in the country. More details below the fold.

I'm a relatively experienced traveler but this will be my first trip to Asia and by extension, China and I don't speak Chinese. I anticipate that the volunteering will be labor intensive so I'd like to minimize travel stress before or after the trip. I don't have a lot of time to spare and I think that the longer that I'm in a given place, the more likely I am to get myself in trouble so I was thinking it would be wonderful if I could find day tours of some cities that interest me before or after the volunteering gig.

The organizer mentioned that another volunteer was considering flying to Hong Kong and taking the train to Guangdong. That sounds rad because Hong Kong is a place where I wanted to go when I was a little person dreaming of traveling. So I was considering flying a day early, seeing if I could get a day tour of Hong Kong, then heading to Guangdong. I also thought it would be nice to get a day tour of Guangdong but since we might be there as a group, I think that's a lower priority for me.

My husband also mentioned that I should check out Shenzhen because it is the future. It also appears that Shenzhen has beaches and I love the beach so I'm tempted to see if I can spend a lazy day there before flying back to the U.S. But I feel like the beach is not a great place to go as a person traveling alone and my husband made it sound like looking at the water will give me eye cancer.

I would also love it if I could somehow also see the Great Wall while I'm in China but I realize that China is an enormous country and the suggestion may be on par with asking if I can check out Glacier National Park while on a short trip to NYC.

Priorities: 1) time - I don't have a ton of days off, 2) ease - this will be a leap out of my comfort zone so I want to make it a little easy on myself and 3) cost - I do not have a limitless supply of money but I want to make the trip to China "count."

I would really love if someone could say, if I get myself to Hong Kong/Guangdong/Shenzhen, people from [mystery travel company] will pick me up from my hotel, show me the city, and drop me off so I can hop on a plane the next day happy and home-bound. I'd also like to hear, if you get yourself to [city] and wander around, you will have a great experience. But I am open to hearing, if you go to [city] alone and not speaking Chinese and expect to have a pleasant experience, you are making a Big Mistake.

I would also like to hear general China travel tips. My GP said that he would write me a prescription for a zpack. Do I need to dress conservatively? What can I expect weather-wise in southeast China in March? Are there things that you strongly recommend I don't miss? Is the idea of traveling by myself afterwards completely insane? Should I just fly in, volunteer and fly out?

Thanks for your help!
posted by kat518 to Travel & Transportation around China (11 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I think you should check out or These are domestic Chinese travel companies with English-speaking agents that can help you with your travel plans.

Generally speaking: China is quite safe, and it's completely possible to travel without speaking Chinese, ESPECIALLY in big cities where there are lots of English speakers (in any large hotel, Starbucks, or places like that, there are always people who speak at least some English. Anyone under 30 in a large city who looks white-collar will most likely understand some English).

Hong Kong is very westernized. No need to speak Chinese there. (I mean, it'd come in handy to speak cantonese, but so many people there speak English).

Southeast China should be pretty warm in March, maybe in the 80's. You can check the weather beforehand though.

No need at all to dress conservatively, especially in big cities like Shenzhen or Guangdong! (and definitely not in Hong Kong).

I lived in China for several years, though never made it to Guangdong or Shenzhen. I have heard that Shenzhen is nice, and cleaner than lots of other Chinese cities. Hong Kong is, too, for different reasons.

Things to keep in mind: it will be very crowded. There will probably be more air pollution than you are used to (although southern China is better than northern China). People may stare at you, especially outside of big cities.

Definitely not insane to travel around while there! I can't write much now, but feel free to PM me for more info, and I can check the thread later too.
posted by bearette at 1:41 PM on November 14, 2013

A quick look at flights from Shenzhen to Beijing or Shenzhen to Shanghai suggests that round trip airfare is $500 (US) - $650. Looking at the map, Shanghai is the closest mega city outside of the Guangdong region and is a 19 hour train ride on the fast train. Hong Kong is neat, you can channel your inner Wong Kar Wai, and those skyscrapers being built with bamboo scaffolding is definitely a sight to behold. It's also a finance capital with giant luxury malls and a former British colony that still has a ton of expats. Depending on what you are looking for, it may be more international than you want.

One option may be to fly via Taipei (Taiwan) and spend a day or two there. I'm a huge evangelist for Taipei - it's got great street food, a good metro system, has the hustle and bustle of Asia megalopolises without being so overwhelming that you shut down in overload mode. Taiwan also has great hot springs if you want to spend a relaxing day.

I've done quick trips to Shanghai, Hong Kong, Beijing (once each for all of them) and four trips to Taipei.
posted by spamandkimchi at 2:00 PM on November 14, 2013

You should be able to get much cheaper flights from Chinese travel agencies.

The bullet train from Shanghai to Beijing is only 3.5- 4 hours, so you could fly to Shanghai and then take the fast train to Beijing. Tickets are about 50 USD each way. They do not need to be bought in advance- there are many many of these trains everyday.
posted by bearette at 2:03 PM on November 14, 2013

these are my brief comments from having travelled a little in china.
it is a great place for travel if you are a little worldly.
- hong kong is good for a day, just to look around
- the great wall can be done in a day, there are segments that are a day bus trips from beijing on tours that are easily booked at any hotel
- nanjing is a good city to wander, because it is traditional, but smaller, and quite safe
- small things that might seem less polite than at home can occur, just let it go
- there is enough english in main cities you will get by
- i wouldnt bother with the beach personally
- if you are flying into shanghai there is plenty to see there for a day or two such as shopping, gardens and old buildings
- the actual travel will often be the hardest bit (train stations, airports, long queues, busy waiting areas, little englsih signs, etc)
posted by edtut at 2:05 PM on November 14, 2013

Where exactly in Guangdong will you be volunteering?

I'd definitely recommend flying into HK and spending a day or so there, then taking the train up to Guangzhou (and from then onwards to wherever you need to be in Guangdong province).

Guangzhou itself doesn't have a ton to see, but you can have some really excellent Cantonese food at much lower prices than Hong Kong. I had the best dim sum I've ever had there. Might be difficult to navigate if you don't speak Chinese though.

If you get a weekend or a few days off, I'd recommend taking an overnight bus to Guilin and spending some time in the Yangshuo area. Yangshuo town itself is horribly touristy but the surrounding karst landscape is amazingly beautiful - picture.

Guangzhou is also only 3-4 hours away from Changsha, Hunan by high speed rail. From there you could take a bus to Zhangjiajie National Park, another spot with really cool natural landscape, and sort of like China's Yellowstone - pretty much everyone has heard of it or been there. Hunan also has some great food if you like spicy.
posted by pravit at 3:29 PM on November 14, 2013

don't go to the beach in SZ. I lived there, you can skip it. Hold off on expensive food in HK. SZ and GZ have great, cheap food, especially seafood. Try a trip to Guilin/Yangzhou if you have the time. It will be overwhelming and much different than you expect, but almost definitely worthwhile.

Uhm, and to put it delicately, try to make sure your volunteer organization is legit.
posted by skewed at 6:27 PM on November 14, 2013

You could try going to the beaches in Hong Kong too - we have some pretty amazing beaches on the islands and they're (probably?) cleaner than the ones in Shenzhen, although March isn't exactly beach season. The weather will be fine with nice temperatures, about 18-20C, but it may rain a bit, and the pollution's usually worse than the US or Europe.

HK is doable in a day if you skip the beaches and countryside and only hit the biggest attractions like the Peak, Mongkok and shopping areas. And it's only a few hours' flight from Shanghai and Beijing, so not impossible to see the Great Wall if you have a few spare days!
posted by monocot at 6:58 PM on November 14, 2013

I've been to China many times. We adopted two girls from Guangdong in the late 1990s and now that they are 17 and 15 yo, we just took them back to see the country they were born in. It was quite a trip.

Yes, HK would be a great place to start your trip. On our first trip we did that. You can take the train from HK to Guangzhou or fly. I would disagree with pravit about sights in Guangzhou. There are a lot of things to see. Lots of museums. The Museum of the Mausoleum of the Nanyue King was our favorite. And we found it all by ourselves with a 10 month old baby in tow. You will also be surprised by all the European architecture on Shamain Island.

About 2 hours to the west is Kaiping, where a lot of Chinese immigrants to the US and other countries built homes when they returned to China.

If you want, you can take a look at the photos I took on our trip this summer. We traveled all over China and you may find something that interests you.
posted by Taken Outtacontext at 1:53 PM on November 15, 2013

I recommend you do start your trip with a little Hong Kong time, if nothing else but to ease the jet lag and immediate culture shock. I have stayed at the airport hotel both times I have been and it has been a relief both times to be able to easily get a night's sleep without much stress. I had a very late (early AM) arrival and they were very accommodating to allow an extra late checkout. The next day, get an Octopus card with a few airport express credits and then have fun going to different markets and such in the city.

What more do you know about your accommodations? Guangdong is a province with several major cities in it, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, and Dongguan City are all 8M+ in size. If you know your hotel name you may find more interesting options to get from Hong Kong to your stay and back. From HKG there is a ferry that you could take for ports in Shenzhen and Dongguan City. I have taken one of the bus services (passenger van) that go straight from HKG through the border and straight to my hotel in Dongguan City because it was a normal stop on their routes. This was very easy for a non-speaker to be able to do. It just took a little up front research to find a bus line that had a good route, then I bought my ticket at the airport. A different coworker took the train into the city and had a more difficult time finding the right stop and his bearings once he took his stop. From that point he took a taxi which gouged him but got him to the right spot. Going the bus route also avoids the currency problem because you have already paid for the ticket in HKD which are easily had at the airport and can find a good spot to get RMB later.

I don't have any good sightseeing tips for this area other than feel free to walk around and explore a little more each day. You will assuredly see something that will surprise, amaze, or disgust you. Maybe all at the same time. It is an adventure after all. Cheers.
posted by metroidhunter at 4:55 PM on November 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

Another vote for going to the Guilin/Yangshuo area. Yes, it's pretty touristy, but the landscape was gorgeous. I enjoyed Hong Kong, too, but it's definitely more international than the other places you'll be. (That's neither good nor bad; it just depends on what kind of experience you're looking for.)

I also found this little book very helpful. I was glad to be able to find the right bathroom, count a bit, etc.
posted by bassjump at 10:46 AM on November 18, 2013

I loved Yangshou and Guilin. Yes, it's pretty. Since we were tourists, we didn't mind the rest of humanity there.
posted by Taken Outtacontext at 11:10 AM on November 18, 2013

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