China: DIY tourism and independent travel…
Following on from our Guide to Train Travel in China we wanted share with you our insights into how to organise your own visits to some of China’s must see attractions, without having to fork out for an organised trip!
Of course, there are absolutely loads of things to see and do in China but we can’t possibly mention them all, so we thought we’d focus on the ones that people usually visit with a tour group because they believe it is too difficult to DIY…
Beijing & the Forbidden City
Travelling around Beijing itself is easy peasy, with hundreds of bus routes, a super efficient (and cheap!) subway system and countless taxi drivers on every corner. To make things even easier for you we would definitely recommend that wherever you plan to go or whatever you plan to do in the city, you get a friendly, English speaking local to write down your destination in Chinese before you leave. This way you can always make yourself understood when asking for help or directions.
One time in particular, we asked Mike at Dreams Travel Hostel to write down that we wanted to go to the zoo. He scribbled down something completely incomprehensible to us but sure enough, we handed it to the bus driver and ended up getting off at the Zoo! Although from the bemused look on the driver’s face when we handed over the note I’m sure Mike had written something funny like “they really love the Pandas, please take them to see the Pandas”. If you speak Chinese, maybe you could decipher his note for us now!
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Beijing’s big attraction is without a doubt, the Forbidden City. Now known as the Palace Museum, it lies to the north of the infamous Tiananmen Square and is easily accessible by subway or bus. Lots of hostels, hotels and tour operators offer tours here but you will probably pay over the odds for them. It’s perfectly feasible to create your own ‘tour’ by getting the bus there and picking up an audio guide and a map once you arrive.
We jumped on the bus from outside our hostel – you can get either the 1,2,4,5,10,20,37,52,210 or 728 and get off at Tian’anmen Bus Stop. Just listen out for the automated announcements while on the bus – there are digital signs and spoken announcements before each stop so you know where to get off. You’ll probably find that quite a few people get off at the Forbidden City anyway so if in doubt – follow the crowds!
Getting off at the Tian’anmen Bus Stop means that you’ll be entering the Forbidden City via the Meridian Gate (which is now the only entrance). Once you pay the entrance fee of 60Yuan (this was the price we paid for visiting in September) you can buy an audio guide and / or a map of the whole complex. We personally skipped the audio guide but I believe they are around 40Yuan – instead we bought a souvenir ‘route map’ from the shop near the entrance. This contains really detailed explanations of each part of the City as well as possible routes that you can take to explore it.
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Xian and the Terracotta Warriors
Much like the Forbidden City is to Beijing, the Terracotta Warriors are the big attraction in Xian. Again, there are loads of tours visiting this fascinating place but in the spirit of independent travel we decided to go it alone!
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We were staying right beside the South Gate of Xian’s old city wall – a really good location with everything we could possibly need within walking distance. Our hostel offered a tour for 160Yuan per person but with a lil’ bit of research we worked out that we could get there a lot cheaper by getting bus number 306 from Xian Railway Station. The station is really easy to get to – it’s in the north of the city close to the Shangde Gate and you can take one of about 6 buses that go all the way there. You can also jump in a taxi and get there for around 10 Yuan.
The number 306 bus costs 7Yuan each way and takes just over an hour. You can find the 306 parked outside the station, in a parking lot to the right. Just walk away from the entrance for a few metres and you should then see a load of buses lined up. Watch out for the numbers on the signs as the rest of the information is in Chinese!
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Pay your money directly to the conductor and take a seat. You’ll know when to get off the bus at the Museum as it will pull into the car park itself and from there it’ll be pretty obvious where the entrance is!
A word of warning however for those of you planning to make your own way to the Museum from the railway station like we did – you will more than likely be accosted by a taxi driver or person working for a tourist bus who tells you that the 306 doesn’t exist anymore. THIS IS NOT TRUE. Some guy tried really hard to convince us and we almost fell for it. Just stand your ground and tell him that you know it exists and that you don’t need his help. He will try to make you feel silly and tell you that you’ll end up stranded somewhere but don’t fall for it. The 306 most certainly does exist – in fact there are about 4 or 5 of them sat in the car park at any one time.
We got on the bus at 12 o’clock and arrived at the museum entrance by around 1.15. The entrance fee itself was 90 Yuan so we worked out that we saved 92 Yuan by getting there ourselves – this more than covered our lunch and dinner later that evening!
Cuddly Pandas at Shanghai Wildlife Park
Our Panda mission in China kept on taking a wrong turn – the weather was too bad for us to visit the conservation centre in Xian, we ran out of time to visit Chengdu and we didn’t particularly like the conditions at Beijing city zoo, so Shanghai really was our last chance to see Pandas being Pandas!
We had read about the Shanghai Wild Animal Park on the internet as it had recently received four Giant Pandas during the lead up to the World Expo. The park is the first national ‘safari’ park in China and is about 35km outside of Shanghai city centre. They have a special Panda Garden there along with a bamboo forest to feed them and we really wanted to see these beautiful creatures in a nice environment. We’d read reports that getting to the park was a bit of a mission as it isn’t on a metro line but after a bit of research we found it really easily!
First we hopped onto metro line 2 at People’s Square and got off 8 stops later (towards Pudong International Airport) at Zhangjiang High Tech Park. From there we got on the Zhangnan bus (pronounced Chang-nan) at the bus station just opposite the metro exit. There are quite a few ticket booths there and we asked an attendant which bus we needed – the buses don’t have numbers or any English writing on them so we wanted to make sure we got on the right one. The ticket to the Shanghai Wild Animal Park cost 5 Yuan (50p), which is brilliant considering that the bus journey was about 25 kms.
At the other end, the stop where we needed to get off was right opposite the park entrance! The entrance fee itself was 120Yuan (in September 2010) and this includes both general entry as well as the bus ride for the ‘safari’ part of the park. The place is absolutely huge and we were pleased to see that the Pandas and the other big animals such as Lions, Tigers and Bears all had big fields to roam in surrounded by trees and lakes rather than concrete and metal bars. The Pandas, as we expected, were the highlight of the trip and we must have stood and watched them for at least two hours!
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Shaolin Temple, Dengfeng
If you want to sample the true essence of China, you’ve gotta get out of the cities and into the mountains. One very special way to do this is to combine China’s awe-inspiring scenery with its ancient Kung Fu culture – we did this with a visit to the original Shaolin Temple. Initially, I wasn’t too interested in visiting the Shaolin Temple; it really was Richard’s idea but I am so glad he talked me round as it was one of the most unforgettable experiences of our entire trip!
To get there, you need to get the train to the city of Zengzheng – this is about 7 hours (overnight) from Xian – and then jump on a bus from the railway station to the smaller city of Dengfeng. The bus to Dengfeng takes just two hours and the chances are that you would stay in the same hostel as we did – the Shaolin Travellers Hostel – as I think it’s pretty much the only one there! The hostel is then a 20 minute drive by taxi to the Shaolin Temple.
If you decide to make a day of it at the temple like us, you can also visit the Pagoda Forest as well as take the cable car up to the San Huangxzhou mountainous area. This is where the three main mountains of this area all converge – Mt Shaoshi, Mt Taishi and Mt Song – and is home to the hanging plank road, a treacherous walkway strapped onto the side of the mountains which you can walk along for around 3 hours, taking in the spectacular scenery!
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At the end of hanging plank road, you will come to a small car park where, if you wait a while, you can grab a taxi back to Dengfeng at a cost of around £3 (or 30 Yuan).
This brings us to the end of our three part guide to overland travel in China – if you missed part one ‘Guide to Train Travel in China’ or part two ‘Surviving those Train Journeys’, then feel free to check them out now, otherwise we hope we have shown you that travelling independently in a strange and foreign land needn’t be as scary as it first seems! In fact, the uncertainty and unfamiliarity really do add to the adventure!
If you have any tips of your own about travelling independently in China or visiting little known tourist attractions without a guide, then let us know!