Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

Youth Hostels in China

October 4, 2007

YHI LogoWhen being on my trip for more than a month in China, I found it most convenient to stay in one of the International Youth Hostels (国际青年旅舍, Guójì Qīngnián Lǚshè). It seems that only a few years ago such youth hostels were a rare found and when leaving behind the more international cities they were virtually not existing.

In recent years China is more and more becoming a country for Westerners attending not only tours as part of a tourist group but individual backpacking and low budget travelers as well as a becoming a country in which Chinese more and more use their chances to travel on their own. With a growing importance of this clientèle new youth hostels in the many cities are springing up like mushrooms while one even has the possibility to chose from several youth hostels at major travel destinations.
The youth hostels are often located in the city center, often in old hutong building or other special houses, like the youth hostel in Jiuzhaigou that was in an Tibetan style building.

Xiangzimen Youth Hostel in Xi’an
The entrance of Xiangzimen Youth Hostel in Xi’an leads into an old courtyard.

As they were mostly opened not too long ago, the interior is generally very modern and often much better than other low budget hotels. When looking at their mission statement, it is clear that many do not simply see themselves as a provider for chap accommodation but also as a service provider, sometimes offering bike rental, free movies and laundry service. However, some hostels were opened inside a larger hotel, so one floor of the hostel has rooms with more beds but these kind of youth hostels lack a bigger room for gathering. Youth hostels that have such a room sometimes even feature a free pool table like Chengdu’s Loft Hostel or the Xi’an Xiangzimen Hostel.

Loft Hostel in Chengdu
The Loft Hostel in Chengdu.

A lot of hostels also have free Internet available or charge only a small fee (Internet is generally cheap in China and a Net Bar (网吧, wǎngbā) down the street will only charge very moderate prices, anyway). Some youth hostels also feature a small library which can be quite useful because when being on tour with a backpack since one is happy about every item one does not need to carry. Sometimes one can also find some travel guides that are more detailed for the specific region and therefore much better than a book that covers the whole country.

If one seeks information about nearby tourist sites, the current weather condition or what local food is a no-miss, one can usually go to the front desk and gets some comprehensive information – no matter whether you speak Chinese or only speak English. Many hostels have maps available and tell you where to go and how to get there, it is very convenient to have the staff reserve bus, train or flight tickets and saves a the way to the station and waiting in line for quite a bit.
In some hostels we met highly motivated staff, in Chengdu we even happened to spend one evening having some beers with one of the staff members. She told us that it was her day off – she still came to the hostel because of “the atmosphere”. The atmosphere in Chinese youth hostels is indeed very special: There are a lot of international guests who are open to share their travel experiences, some Chinese tourists, many of them in a youth hostel for the first time. Most of the “first timers” were very impressed and some were considering to become a member of hostelling international (A membership card that is valid worldwide gets you an average discount of 5 yuan per night and cost 50 yuan).
Even it not a member, a bed in costs only about 25 to 40 yuan per night in a shared room. It can be fun to be in such a room because I was able to hook up with other travelers when I was on my own. Often the hostels also have single or double rooms that are more quiet – I have never came across a guy who snored as loud as one Chinese who shared a room with us in Jiuzhaigou.

Youth Hostel in Jiuzhaigou
Tibetan style youth hostel in Jiuzhaigou.

Looking for a hostel at the next stop is very easy and in the youth hostels usually the staff can recommend another youth hostel at the next city you are going to and make a reservation. To check for hostels online, there is the official web page of Hostelling International, but since many of the Chinese hostels are very new, they have not been added yet. The page of the page of YHA China offers a map and also links the newly opened hostels.
One bad thing about youth hostels in China: It’s often hard to find them, since they tend to hide their blue “HI” sign so I often had trouble getting to the hostel even with directions…

Kaiyue Youth Hostel in Qingdao
The Kaiyue Youth Hostel in Qingdao used to be a church building.

Last but not least is an (incomplete and unsorted) list of the youth hostels the I can recommend:

  • Chongqing Nanbin Lu: Tricky to find but very cheap rooms and friendly staff.
  • Teddy Bear Hotel, Mt. Emei: Friendly staff and conveniently located at the foot of Mt. Emei
  • Shanghai Mingtown Youth Hostel: Located right in the city near People’s Square
  • Qingdao Kaiyue Hostel: Located in an old church building
  • Lijiang Old Town: In one of the narrow streets of Lijiang’s ols town – on clear days one is supposed to the the snow covered Yulong Xueshan from the hostel.
  • Loft Hostel in Chengdu: Has a cool loft and the best staff I have met in Chinese youth hostels
  • Jiuzhaigou (郎介之家, phone 0837-7734818 or 0837-7734616): I did not expect to find a youth hostel there, not very much comfort, but it’s in a Tibetan style building and the owner and manager also makes some Tibetan style food.
  • Xiangzimen Hostel Xi’an: After getting a free pick-up from the train station the friendly staff welcomed us in this old but newly renovated Chinese house with a courtyard.

Back to Beijing

September 17, 2007

I got back to Beijing and it somehow was a little bit like getting home: After having been on the road for more than a month, when I got back to the Chinese capital I was familiar with how to get around, the language the people are using there (Beijing Hua, 北京话) and all the little things that are different in other cities.

When I was in the southern part, my travel partner and me sometimes were a little frustrated when we did not understand people although there were using Mandarin to talk to us. We were afraid that we were already forgetting the words we had learned during our studies at Beijing University, but as it turned out, it was just the accent that made us not understand some people. As soon as we got back to Beijing, we once again understood what people in the streets are saying.

Painting ornaments at a temple
Construction is still to be seen everywhere, but  it seems Beijing will get ready until the Olympics next year.

Although I was not in Beijing for only about a month, the city is in such a fast process of transformation that even after this month of absence, the city was not the same: Construction sites had been moved or completed, others had been opened. At the Xizhimen subway station we even went in the wrong direction because the passages had been changed.
At Beijing we stayed in the Youth Hostel near the Lama Temple. I had last been to the area in July and the changes made to some buildings were significant and the Beixinqiao subway for one of the new subway lines seems to be ready for the opening of the number 5 subway line.
At the subway and bus stations we also noted a difference in how Beijingers enter the trains and buses: They lined up “civilized”, just as promoted by the propaganda posters scattered in the station. Well, it was September 11, the official day to promote lining up properly, so there were plenty of stewards making sure that everyone is in line. There were much fewer stewards the next days and by September 14, everybody was back in the old scheme of pushing oneself into the subway as quick as possible in order to get one of the rare seats…

I only stayed in Beijing for a couple of days before returning to Germany. Thus, the main focus was not to do some sightseeing (although I still managed to get to Tian’anmen once again and had a look inside the Great Hall of the People) but to see some friends and get my baggage ready to meet the 20 kg limit for the flight to Germany.

Cloudy days in Yunnan

September 10, 2007

After having had a lot of rain during the first days in Yunnan, the weather got somewhat better – or at least we got used to the occasional rain that was coming down every day. The clouds still kept the snow covered mountains hidden, but at least we got an idea where they are as we were able to see the foot of the mountains. The clouds also made a mystical background of Dali’s three pagodas that we saw in the late afternoon on our second day in Dali.

Three pagodas in Dali
The three pagodas in Dali.

On the second day in Dali we first took the local bus to Xizhou (喜州), a little north of Dali. There we were kind of dragged into one of the “minority shows” featuring traditional dances and songs of the Bai people. These shows are usually part of the trips that most Chinese travel groups make and they are mostly not especially traditional. However, after being offered a big discount we had a look at the Bai architecture and saw the show that was included. Anyway, we got the impression that there are a lot of minority groups doing dances in Dali and Lijiang, our next stop.

Dances by a minority group in Lijiang
A dance performance is trained in a school yard in Lijiang.

In Lijiang (丽江) we originally intended to only stay about half a day and spend a night in the city that was struck by an earthquake in 1997 and underwent a largescale renovation since then. We planned to tour the Tiger Leaping Gorge, but it had been closed down because of the heavy rain that caused a lethal accident in the gorge and made authorities shut down the gorge completely for at least a week. So we did some day trips from Lijiang to flee the touristy city. The old houses in the city are nice to walk through for one afternoon, but then you get the feeling you have seen everything, as the old houses are almost completely transformed into shops where Chinese tourists can buy all kinds of souvenirs.

First bend of the Yangtze river in Shigu
First bend of the Yangtze river in Shigu.

Our first day trip led us to Shigu (石鼓), where the Yangtse is doings “it’s first bend”. I did not expect the stream to be that big at such an early stage of its course, but its water level was definitely higher than normal because of the rain. In Shigu we walked the village, had a good view from the roof terrace of the school on the Yangtse river and then had lunch at one of the small restaurants selling noodles, fried rice and other small dishes.

Kids in Shigu
Seems like foreigners seldom come to Shigu, so the kids were very interested in us.

In Lijiang we once again rented bikes but the bikes from Aladin (阿拉丁) were mot in such a good shape. However we still made it to the park entrance of the Yulong snow mountain area, but we were not willing to pay the 80 yuan entrance fee so we turned around and took some smaller streets through the plain area above Lijiang. In the evening we took a sleeper bus back to Kunming where we spend the day hiking in the Xishan mountain area.

Rainy days in Yunnan

September 5, 2007

After a train ride that took more than 18 hours I got to Kunming, where I met up with a fellow students after we found the youth hostel there (it had moved about one block, but the sign was still at the old address). Unfortunately after it had started to rain when I visited the Longji Rice Terraces, it never really stopped again. Even the train ride brought me about 1000 km west of Guilin, the weather situation did not change much, so I was welcomed by a lot of clouds when I got to the “spring city” as Yunan’s capital Kunming is nicknamed. Actually the first syllable of Yunnan stands for cloud (云)… When I left the Kunming train station I was also welcomed by several people shouting “Dali, Dali, Lijiang” – offering bus tickets to the two major tourist destinations in Yunnan.

Over the bridge noodles

However, we first spend one and a half day in Kunming, and then took the sleeper bus to Dali. On the first day in Kunming we still had hope, that the weather might get better the second day and took a slow start. So we first bought plane tickets back to Beijing – well, they first spelled my name wrong on the ticket and it took them some time to fix this error. After that we went to the city center, saw the two pagodas and had “Across-the-bridge-noodles” (过桥米线) for dinner. I had these noodles before when I was in Chongqing, the noodles and some meat and vegetables are cut in small stripes and is then put into a hot soup and a delicious meal is ready to eat just after a little moment.

On the second day in Kunming we wanted to got to the Grand View Park first and take a ferry from there to the Xishan mountain area. To get into the Grand View Park and go to the Grand View Tower was no problem, although the title of the park made us expect a somewhat better view on the Dian Chi lake south of Kunming. It was not possible to take the ferry, it had suspended a service, and as the weather was not that good, so we also did not want to go there by taxi, since the view was possible not worth the expenses for the daxi drive. Instead we went to Yuantong Temple, just mentioned in a side notice in my travel guide, but it was definitely worth a visit. For a Yuan 4 entrace fee I did not expect such an extraordinary temple: There was one hall surrounded by water, and the big hall was neatly decorated and featured two large dragon statues – I had never seen this in any other temple in China that I have been to.

Yuantong temple in Kunming
Yuantong temple in Kunming.

In the evening we took a sleeper bus to Dali, however I did not sleep all that much… After breakfast in Dali, it started to rain again, butwe still decided to rent bicycles and to go to Erhu Lake. Anyway, we did not find the way there, so we just toured some villages while getting wet. When we stopped in front of a farm house to put our rain coats on, the farmer’s dog started barking at us, and we ended up being invited for a cup of hot tea – Chinese hospitality is still very important for those people who invited us.

Guilin area

September 3, 2007

From Guangzhou I got to the Guilin area by taking a sleeper bus. I actually had planned to got to the city of Guilin first and then take the famous boat trip from there downstream on Lijiang river to Yangshuo. However, when the bus stopped in Yangshuo first, the manager of a hotel somehow talked me into getting off the bus in Yangshuo. Well, I had booked the youth hostel there anyway, so it was all right – only that I missed the famous boat trip. The hotel manager was actually pretending to be the owner of one of the youth hostels in Yangshuo that was closed for renovation. He first showed me the closed hostel and then took me to his hotel. Although (after a little argument) he would only charge me 10 yuan for the night and the beds looked all right, I still preferred the youth hostel that I had booked and just walked out the door.

The youth hostel helped me to arrange my trips around Yangshuo; on the first day, I took a boat to Fuli (福利), a sleepy viallage a little downstream on the bank of Lijiang river, there I jumped on a bus passing to Xingping (兴坪) where I was “welcomed” by several touts that were trying to sell their trips on bamboo rafts. One member of the “welcome committee” even followed me after I had lunch in a little restaurant and waited outside for me. Only when I went into a nice cafe and had a chat with the owners, she would not longer follow me. At the cafe I was told that there is a hill from where I could overlook – and it’s free! The half hour hike up to the Friendship Pavilion (友好亭) on Laozhai Hill (老寨山)  was rewarded with a breathtaking view on the karst mountains in the area and the Lijiang river. After coming down again, I eventually had my boat ride on the river, so I still saw the best part of the Guilin-Yangshuo cruise.

At my second day at Yangshuo I rented a mountain bike and toured the area around Yulong river a little west from Yangshuo. There are a lot of small villages (some of them cannot been reached by car) nested in the steep hills that make the special character of the Guilin area. At the end I climbed Yueliangshan (月亮山, Moonlight mountain), but I think the view from the top was not as good as what I had seen in Xingping. There were no road signs and although I had a map of the area it was hard to find the right way, so I often stopped at the villages to ask for directions. The people there were generally very nice and gave their best to explain where to go, in one village three young children had a look at the map and would even take me to the next crossroad so that I would take right path.

Traveling alone in China is not a big problem, however it is not as interesting as traveling with another person. And it is more convenient when it comes to taxi rides or ordering food because one can order more dishes and share then. In Yangshuo at the night marked when I was looking at the menu (that contained snake and dried rat) and was thinking what to order, two Chinese approached me and asked me to order some dishes together.

In Guilin itself I was basically staying only one night – long enough to meet two Chinese that had the same travel destination as I had: the rice terrace fields at Longji (龙脊梯田), some 3 to 4 hours by bus north of Guilin. So the next day the three of us took the bus to Longsheng and there changed into a smaller bus to the terrace fields. Unfortunately it rained when we got there, so we first looked for a place to spend the night, then took a 2 to 3 hour walk in the beautiful fields and in the evening had a meal overlooking the green fields before getting back to Guilin on the next day.

Guangzhou – Back in Mainland China

September 2, 2007

After my trip to Macau and Hongkong I somehow enjoyed coming back to mainland China – everything seems more relaxed and slower than in hectic Hongkong.

On my first day, I went to the Yuexiu Park after I had a quick look at the huge memorial hall that was built in remembrance of Sun Yat-Sen. The park was huge and the hot and humid air caused me to take rests more often and I spent several hours in the area. Before, I had climbed the 54 meter high pagoda Liurong and had strolled a market nearby. It featured tortoises and frogs, I also could see fresh fish, even though it was cut apart, the fish’s hearts were still beating. It is said that Cantonese people eat everything, and in the northern part of China their distinction between pet, vermin, reptiles and food is different, some people from the north even find it disgusting to think about what their counterparts in the south put on the table.
Much of these food is supposed to have some medical effect, so on my second day in Guangzhou I went to a street market that besides living animals was also featuring dried snakes and seahorse.

Dried snakes in a street market
Dried snakes at a street market.

Just south of this streetmarket lies Shamian island, once the only place where Westerns were allowed to do trade with Chinese merchants. Today some of the colonial buildings remain but the narrow streets are filled with Chinese rather than foreign life: In the park area groups of people were dancing, singing, playing potaca, chatting, and some were even swimming in the Pearl River that I had crossed by ferry (1 yuan) to get to the island from my youth hostel.

Shamian Island in Guangzhou
Activities near the Pearl River on Shamian Island.

I could not leave Guangzhou totally without missing its history: About 2000 years ago the Yuexiu king was buried here, along with concubines, cooks and other servants. However the tomb was mostly intact when it was discovered in the early 80s when apartment buildings were supposed to be build there. Unfortunately the day I went to there were no entrance fee, so there were quite a few people but the visit was definitely worth it.

Outside China

August 29, 2007

The past few days I spent outside China – maybe not totally because Hongkong and Macau have been given back to the PRC in the late nineties, but they are still like individual countries in many aspects. The main reason I traveled to Hongkong is that the territory is treated as a special area in regards of visa. As my study visa expired, I needed to leave the country and get a new tourist visa to continue my journey through mainland China.
But Hongkong is not only different on that aspect, compared to mainland China it is very dense, there are people everywhere, anytime. One the one hand it creates a “busy” atmosphere, but there is also a lack of relaxing.

Generally speaking, goods are much more expensive in Hongkong, especially the cost for food and living space. However there are some corners where one can get cheap food as well, but I have to search for it. But we were lucky and found some small streets with small restaurants. They had the menu only written in Chinese characters (traditional ones, so not the same way of writing as in mainland China) and the customers were all Chinese. When in the street one usually can hear all kinds of languages: Indian, Mandarin Chinese, English, German, French… The most common however is Cantonese, that I cannot understand with a few exceptions like numbers and very few words that are similar to their pronounciation in Mandarin Chinese (like “wait for the car/bus”, “fifth floor”). But Hongkong is an international city, so most people are able to speak English – if not, we could still try Mandarin Chinese to talk to them.
Another thing I noticed was that foreigners are nothing special in Hongkong. In mainland China, one is rather often stared at and one can hear children (and adults) loudly talking about “waiguoren” (foreigner) when you come near them. And in contrast to Macau where most of the tourists come from the mainland, Hongkong is very international, so you never know who is a tourist and who is doing business there. So in Macau, where I went to for one day, I was asked how may Chinese pronounciation was that “standard” and not with a southern accent – usually people tell you how good your Chinese is just after you say “Ni hao!”

Anyway, Macau sometimes looks like a European city – well, the Portuguese built it. But there are also a lot of new casinos (whose tax accounts half of Macau’s budget), there is a Formula-3 racing course and newly built skyscrapers. When I visited the city I went more for the traditional options: Some churches, including the famous St. Paul, that only consists of the front wall these days, the old fort on the mountain, the maritime museum and some temples.

In Hongkong our visit was more highlighting the newer sights. Besides an “old” temple (Chinese would laugh about its age, though), we saw the lightshow and the fireworks in front of the skyline, did some shopping for eletronics (these items are expluded from taxation on Hongkong that makes them even cheaper than mainland China), and walked the streets of the financial district. The later we did on Sunday, but that day we could only see a large picknick party going on in the streets as literally thousands of people were having drinks and food in the streets, playing cards and chatting between the skyscrapers. Several people told us that some skyscrapers can also visited for free – however, not on a Sunday. I think we are still used the the Chinese way where most shops are opened on Sunday, as well and were surprised how hard it is to find something to eat for lunch when the tall buildings are devastated.

We also toured the interesting museum the depicts the history of Hongkong and its role during the opium wars and had a look at the botanical and zoological garden. Of course the Peak Tram to Victoria Peak was also in the program, but the weather was a little hazy, so the skyline might not have been as beautiful as on a clear day. Anyhow, in Hongkong the air (and the city itself, too) is much cleaner than Beijing.