At last, I've finished blogging about my China trip. I may talk about China again, but more on a meta level than on a "today I did this..." level.
For clarity, here is the order the entries should be read in:
- If I'd kept digging that hole in my backyard, this is what I would have found
- Gerd Bucerius would be proud
- Traveling with a 3-word vocabulary
- East meets West again and again and again...
- Beijing Zhan
- Even the Forbidden City has a Starbucks
- The day I became a man
- The Goose Pagoda, brought to you by KFC
- Tour of Babel
- What's the word in Chinese for "shampoo"?
- D'oh, Canada
I also added some pictures that Koichi took. If I ever get my film developed I might post more.
In the meantime, I want to add some details for Googlers:
- The Super 8 in Shanghai was at 151 Miaopu Rd, Pudong.
- The hotel in Harbin was the Holiday Inn. It was across the street from the pedestrian area.
- The hotel in Beijing was the Beijing Zhongan Hotel.
- The hotel in Xian was the City Hotel (I think it has a different name in Chinese, but everyone knows it as the City Hotel). It was half a block or so from the Bell Tower on Nan Dajie (the south road).
Prices ranged from $20-$50 a night for rooms that could take two people and were perfectly comfortable. (The one in Xian even had a refrigerator.) With better planning it's probably possible to find more closer to the lower end of the price range. Some of the airports did seem to have desks that provided day-of booking services that may have been competitive, although we didn't try them. We picked places that were possible to pre-book from where we were, although that did seem to make some prices less competitive and sometimes required that we pre-pay. Oddly enough the Super 8 was logistically the most difficult to book remotely, and it's unclear whether the front desk recognized the reservation we'd made (I'm not sure if it wasn't in their system, or if they just couldn't read my printout). And it didn't seem able to take American credit cards so I had to pay in cash.
Hotels almost uniformly also require a deposit. Harbin required one equivalent to the cost of the stay, although they would accept it through a hold on my credit card. The other hotels all required 200 yuan in cash. Save the receipt they give you for it, and when you check out they'll give you the money when you hand it back to them.
In Harbin, go downstairs. There is a kiosk that sells tickets. The bus is across from it. It makes many stops but eventually ends at the CAAC hotel (possibly also called the Swan Hotel), where you can easily catch a cab to wherever you want to go. To go back to the airport, do this in reverse. (Buy the ticket from the kiosk outside the hotel.)
In Beijing follow the signs in English. Go to one of the kiosks to buy your ticket (there are several outside the door and one by the buses themselves). There are a lot of lines to choose from, but the staff speaks English and can help. Still, it might be best to ask your hotel for its opinions and directions for the last mile. To go back to the airport, you can catch a bus from the International Hotel (though there may be other locations as well). Buy the ticket from a kiosk on the west side of the hotel.
In Xian, as you leave there are some information desks where the airport bus is noted in English and the staff can answer questions about it. Buy the ticket on the bus. To return to the airport, you can catch the bus from the Melody Hotel that's on the southwest side of the roundabout at the Bell Tower.
Note that buses tend to run from the airport when full, but going back they may only run hourly. Many also make intermediate stops, although going back, if they're full, they may not stop.
Shanghai Air and Air China are perfectly fine to fly. Both served a hot meal on their midday 1.5-2.5 hour flights, although the Air China one might have been a little nicer. They also both seem to fly 737s, although their fleets may not be made up of them exclusively. Seats appeared to have been assigned in order of check-in for both airlines. You can usually only check-in starting 1.5 hours before the flight. Airlines at some airports share the same counters. Note also that certain flights only check in at certain podiums. (In other words, your Air China flight be at one podium and another Air China flight will be at the one next to it.) The people doing check-in understand requests for window seats. In fact, the English skills encountered seemed to be fine (or at least functional for this purpose), both at check-in and on the plane. Watch for their weight limits for luggage. There also are the standard carry-on limitations, but no one seemed too strict about them. China does seem to limit how much fluid you can bring with you on the plane. Again, enforcement varied, but be prepared to jettison your water. They will serve the usual beverages on the plane, albeit in very small portions.
There's plenty of English in the airports in Beijing, Shanghai, and Xian. Harbin, not so much.
At transportation hubs (train stations, airports) take the ones at the taxi stand. There's usually a flat fee for the meter to drop of 8-12 yuan that covers some distance, then it's 1.5-2 yuan per kilometer thereafter. Note that sometimes drivers will take a longer (and therefore more expensive) way because it's on faster roads. For best results, have your destination written in Chinese. Don't expect cab drivers to read or speak English, although those who are learning may want to practice.
Squat toilets abound, and even when you find regular toilets (if in doubt, follow the signs for handicapped toilets; that's often where they are) they may have been used by people who really only know how to use squat toilets. The nicer public toilets (eg, in new department stores, museums, airports, etc.) are well-attended (and generally have more regular toilets), but the attendants may be more pre-occupied with meticulously washing the walls than the commodes.
Note that unlike in the US where one line forms for the next available stall, in China people tend to line up for a particular stall. This can be interesting when the stall you picked turns out to be squat. (This line behavior also exhibits itself in other contexts.)
If you think you might like to use toilet paper, bring your own. I brought some with me that I got at a camping store, which meant I had a nice size roll that was coreless, so it didn't take up much room in my luggage. It's not a problem in hotels, but lots of public restrooms seemed not to have it. Or had it in a big roll on a wall out by the sinks.
I was pretty happy with my Rough Guide to China, although naturally it wasn't perfect and some of the prices listed were outdated. I heard less than good things about other guidebooks.