In my usual fashion, I almost missed my 14 hour flight home from Beijing to Dallas. Mental Note: When using public transport to get to the airport always give yourself much more time than you think you should need! Running through the airport getting hot and sweaty right before a 14 hours flight is not recommended. :)I was running so late that I wasn’t able to check out the Air China Business class lounge for a review! And when you have a 15 hour flight ahead of you booked in Business Class, the last thing you want to do is miss it and have them rebook you for the next available flight in coach! 45 hours in coach sounds like cruel and unusual punishmnet to me (and I know first hand since I did a 14 hour flight to Australia in coach back before I knew about the points and miles game). Continue reading “Air China Business Class Review: Beijing to Houston on a 777-300”
When I planned this trip, seeing Shanghai was definitely one of my highlights. Living in Miami the last 8 years has made me love port cities. There is just something about the water next to the skyline that is incredible.Continue reading “Shanghai: The Pearl of the Orient”
Hangzhou (pronounced Hong-Joe which I didn’t figure out til after my video) was my next stop which is an affluent city one hours by high speed rail to the Southwest of Shanghai. As the high speed train pulled into Hangzhou, I was excited to get to my hotel, the Intercontinental Hangzhou. I had 3 nights at this hotel at a pointbreaks rate of only 5000 points a night which meant my stay would be completely free! Walking up to it, I was instantly struck by the design which is roughly a sphere.
As I sat in the rain in my hotel in Zhangjiajie, I looked at my different options on where I could go. I knew that I had to be in Hangzhou in 3 days for my free pointbreaks nights at the Intercontinental Hangzhou, but I wasn’t sure the best way to get there. I also knew that I was one Saturday night stay away from picking up 74,000 IHG points in the Big Win promotion. Looking at the rail map, I knew I had to get to the High Speed rail portions as quickly as possible to make the most of my time. A route from Zhangjiajie to Changsha then high speed rail from Changsha to Wuhan(Wuchang on this map) to Hefei to Hangzhou would do the trick.Since Zhangjiajie is kind of in the middle of nowhere, I had to take a conventional train to Changsha and boy, what a difference in comfort! They sell all the seats and then sell standing room only as well! I didn’t realize I bought a standing seat until I guy came and asked me to move! Luckily that was 4 hours into our 5 hour journey so I only ended up standing for the last hour or so.Continue reading “China: Changsha, Wuhan, and Hefei”
I had read that Zhangjiajie was an incredible place to visit and was similar to some of the scenes in the movie Avatar. So naturally I had to go check it out. I arrived at night without a room and got one of the taxi drivers to take me to a hotel. He first took me to a place that was about $80 a night but it didn’t look that nice and I knew there were cheaper places. I also wanted to be closer to the train station in downtown Zhangjiajie. He ended up taking me to a place that was super cheap at around $20 a night, but it was pretty gross. Normally I like to stay in nicer rooms but it was near midnight and I didn’t want to keep driving around so I took it under the idea that I wouldn’t be in the room much (which was true). The next day I walked around the corner to grab some food and groceries to take to the park with me. I saw the tram that led up to Tianmen mountain and Heaven’s Gate which I was going to see the next day (so I thought).
In the above picture, you can see the bus station where I caught the bus to the Wulingyuan Scenic Area. As I walked up to the National Park gates I immediately saw why the comparisons to the movie Avatar were made.
I have to admit I was a little concerned when I saw this sign! Why would I tease the wild monkeys?! And sure enough next thing I know I saw a red faced monkey heading my way…. But wait, what was that underneath her? OMG it is a baby monkey! And then the rest of the gang showed up. And by gang, I really mean it! These guys were ruthless, grabbing bags of food and candy right out of the hands of the throngs of Chinese tourists.
I stopped by this lake for a photo with some of the rock formations.The formations look amazing with the clouds just covering the tops. But I wanted to go up, up, up via the cable car to get a better view. What!? It has a glass floor? Ooooooh What an amazing view going up!
I’m not sure what this sign was all about…. #China Once on the top of the mountain, I quickly realized I was literally in the clouds! This made for some cool shots, but really it was just about zero visibility. To see how bad the visibility was in the rain clouds: For example, this is what the “Five Finger” formations was supposed to look like from where I was.
This was what I saw on that day. I thought maybe stopping at this Gallery would help, but it didn’t end up being what I thought it was. 🙂 This pagoda up on the top of the mountain did look cool in the clouds though. I took the cable car back down and got some other good shots once I got out of the clouds. I then went on a hike at the base level where the visibility was better.
You can see the scale of some of the formations next to this building
It was right after this creek that I made a critical error. I was happily plodding along a nice trail and saw a staircase jutting off to the left going straight up the mountain. I thought to myself “I came here to take the path less traveled!” and so up the stairs I went. And up. And up. And up. And the further I went, the more committed to getting to the top I became. It ended up being like the stairmaster from Hell and while I was taking a break, I saw this coming my way!
I think this woman had the right idea!
I saw this wicked spiderweb on the way up too.
When I got back up on the mountain I was back into zero visibility again but ran into this Avatar inspired photo op spot.
This bridge certainly looked foreboding. But I crossed it! It was about this time that I ended up getting lost in the park! The signs were a bit ambiguous and asking people was no help because no one spoke English. After a while I decided to go back the way I came in which meant going back down the thousands of stairs I took to get to the top of the mountain. And all this was at the end of the day, the sun was setting and my phone battery went dead! So imagine me running down the trails trying to get out of the park before dark while monkeys were howling from the woods. I finally made it out in darkness and of course all the buses had stopped running. There was a little string of shops right outside of the park and there were some street vendors cooking stir fry and drinking beers. I ended up befriending them and they let me charge my phone and share their fire since it was a little cool that night. One of them even ended up acting as a taxi to take me the 30 minutes back to my hotel! Another great story about how friendly the Chinese people can be.
I was exhausted and frustrated with the weather. When I woke up the next morning it was pouring rain and I didn’t want to go out in it again and not be able to see anything. When I looked at the forecast and it said rain for the next week there, I decided it was best to go ahead and get out of the area even if I didn’t get to see Heaven’s Gate or some of the other cool things I planned on seeing. Sometimes the weather just doesn’t cooperate with your plans. 🙁 Since there are no fast trains out of Zhanjiajie, I ended up taking slow trains to Wuhan, and spent two nights there at a Holiday Inn which met some of the requirements for my 101,000 point IHG Big Win! I’ll talk about my time in Wuhan in my next article!
I arrived in Xi’an (pronounced SEE-ANN) via high speed train and made my way to my hotel, the Ibis Heping Gate, which I booked on Expedia at a rate of $31/night with 5% cashback through UPromise.com. It ended up being a bit of a walk from the Metrostation and I would probably recommend a taxi if you have luggage. I passed some interesting passenger bridges along the way… In the Ibis elevator, I had to take a picture of this awesome sign. The next morning, I took the tourist bus (which leaves from the train station) to the area east of Xi’an where the Terracotta warriors were discovered in 1974. Hard to believe that no one even knew about this amazing feat before then! This was built as a tomb for the First Emperor of a unified China, Emperor Qin. He ascended to the throne when he was only 13 and immediately ordered the start of construction on his tomb. He was advised that whatever he was buried in his tomb with would go on with him to the afterlife which is why he decided to bury thousands (estimated 10,000) of these Terracotta Warriors to protect him after his death, including some people and horses alive. 700,000 people worked on his tomb during his life and after his death. This is Pit 1. And a video of me walking into the main room for the first time.
Notice how each of them has a different face and hair style.
It was raining a bit but I still headed outside and took a walk around the grounds.
When I got back to town I grabbed a bite to eat and took pictures of some of the random things I saw.
The next day I walked along the old inner city wall and took in some great views of the old and new city.
My last day I checked out the Bell Tower, the Muslim Quarter, the Great Mosque of Xi’an and wandered around trying fun foods.
On my next to the last day in Xi’an, I figured out that I would only have time to see either the Tianzi Mountains (numbers 1, 4, and 12 in my 12 sights I wanted to see) or Leshan (numbers 3 and 5 in my 12 sights I wanted to see). I ended up deciding to go the Pandora like mountains of Zhangjiajie and skipped Leshan which would end up being a mistake. Getting from Xi’an to Zhangjiajie would have taken a lot of time via train (because there wasn’t high speed service) so I decided to pick up a one way flight from Xi’an to Dayong for $138 on China Eastern Airlines. In my normal fashion, I ended up getting to the beautiful new airport with only minutes to spare, but made it on my flight. As always, reply with any questions and follow me on Google+, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to make sure you don’t miss any great info!
People who follow this blog know that I am somewhat infamous for missing my flights around the world. Well I decided this wasn’t good enough for me so I decided to start missing trains as well! I had purchased a ticket ahead of time as recommended on the last high speed train of the day from Beijing to Zhengzhou. Zhengzhou was a city I decided to visit purely because 5000 points nights were available at the Crowne Plaza on the IHG Pointsbreak list I wrote about in this article. And I am glad I did because it was awesome! Zhengzhou was the subject of a famous documentary on Dateline on China’s Ghost Cities. Well, it is a ghost city no more! But let’s get back to missing my train.
What I have found from this experience is you really need to get to the station about 20 minutes before your train to have time to go through security and make your train on time. I know this because I showed up about 5 minutes before my train and didn’t make it! I went back to the booking window and they informed me the only other train that left that night was a slow train that would take 8 hours instead of 2 and there were no seats available, standing room only! No Thanks! They rebooked me at no charge for the 7 AM train, with the caution that if I missed my replacement train I would have to buy a new ticket. I quickly used my IHG App on my unlocked iPhone to find a room at the Holiday Inn Central Plaza to stay until the morning with free breakfast for CNY497 per night (about 80 USD). This also helped me qualify for the Big Win promotion IHG was having. Since my train left at 7 AM I barely had time to eat but it was actually a pretty great breakfast!
I took the taxi to the train station and got there at 5 minutes until the train left and they told me it was too late but let me try and run for it, but they were of course right so I ended up having to buy another ticket for the next train which was about $51! So don’t make the same mistake I did and show up at least 20 mins before your train leaves!
I left from the newly built West train station in Beijing and it was clean, efficient and quite busy. I was impressed by the scope and scale of all of the mass transit in China
These are the high speed 300 KPH CRH trains made by Siemens which are the same ones that make the ICE trains throughout Europe. Arriving in Zhengzhou (pronounces Jeng-Jow) I was immediately impressed by the massive scale and scope of the city. I noted on arrival that the city felt like the pair of shoes you bought for your children that were too big, but you knew they would grow into.
I didn’t know at the time that this was one of the “Ghost Cities”, but it did seem like construction was still going about at a crazy pace even though the current spaces weren’t being occupied. You can see two massive towers being built right beside the train station.Zhengzhou was a city that the Chinese government decided based on its central location to make into a high speed railway hub for the entire country. It was quite an ambitious decision, but one that seems to have been a good one. I took the single metro line (with 4 more lines under construction) to my hotel, the Crowne Plaza Zhengzhou which I got at a Pointbreaks rate of just 5000 points a night! The lobby was very opulent.
My room appeared quite nice as well. But my room was very hot! I ended up having to ask for a different room because evidently the air was not working on one of the floors. But the replacement room was cool enough. There was a large swimming pool and ping pong tables as well. The Chinese really do love ping pong!
I went out in search of a local specialty called yangrouhuimiman (Mutton Noodle) and ended up running into a local guy at the restaurant that spoke great English and ordered some other food for me as well. I asked about beer since he was drinking one and he told me they didn’t serve it in the restaurant I was at since it was a Halal place but he would go buy me some from a market. When he returned with it he wouldn’t let me pay! He said it was his treat and welcome to China! Wow! All of this food was about $3. After lunch, I walked around a bit and took pics of some of the interesting things I saw like these chickens for sale.All over China, there was interesting architecture around every corner. I took a long walk through town down to the Ruyi lake area and surrounding art museums and convention center.Ruyi lake was quite impressive and there were lots of people flying some crazy kites. You can see all of the high rise buildings that surround the circular lake area. This type of master planned design is hard to accomplish without a brand new city.
I then took the metro back over to the Erqi Memorial Tower area and walked around some more. The double pagoda is the highlight of the square but there are video screens surrounding it as well that gives it a little bit of a time square feel. Some of the brightly colored shops near Erqi Square. Some of the fruits for sale that I came across on my walk I even ran into a cyber cafe with tons and tons of people surfing and playing games online. The highlight of my one night in Zhengzhou was definitely this couple. I saw a street cart with a long line of people (which Anthony Bourdain says is always the best way to choose street food) and it looked great as the guy cooked it!
When they saw me filming them I tried to tell them that it looked good, and with the help of Google Translate, we started going back and forth talking about where I was from and why I was in Zhengzhou. It turns out this is a husband and wife that run this stand. Next thing I know, the guy runs off to the store and comes back with two big beers and sits down to drink with me while I eat with a tiny cup for each of us (which is how they drink in China evidently). We finish those two beers and I tell them I want to buy some more and off he goes and comes back with a 6 pack which we proceed to drink more of along with some other chicken wing type snacks for me to try. It is getting late at this point and I have an early train so I tell them I have to leave and they won’t let me pay for anything, not even the food! Welcome to China they say! What hospitality from someone who probably makes some small percentage of what I do each year. So is Zhengzhou a ghost city? Not in my book! It does still have lots of room to grow and spaces to fill, but Zhengzhou ended up being one of the highlights of my trip because of the incredibly nice people I met.
Now, back to China. I don’t usually take a lot of cash with me on trips because I prefer to use a miles earning credit card whenever I can. I guess being a travel guru I should have researched China a bit more before I got there: I just assumed I would be able to use my Chase Sapphire Preferred card there since it has no foreign transaction fees and gives me double points on restaurants and travel expenses. So when I had my first nice meal and I whipped out my chip enabled aluminum Sapphire card, I was surprised when they said they couldn’t accept it. Then I started looking around for those window signs saying Visa accepted here and didn’t find any! What I did see was the UnionPay logo.After a little research I learned that this is China’s home grown payment processing system and Visa, Mastercard, and American Express are not accepted here outside of hotels and some very limited western focused restaurants. So I was looking at not getting any miles, points or cashback on most of my spending including all those bullet train fares. That just isn’t acceptable! Luckily I found that the Discover It card has a reciprocal agreement with China Unionpay! It turns out that they also have an agreement with JCB Japan which means it will work well there too (although I didn’t have any problems with Visa when I was in Japan). Discover also has no foreign transaction fees which means I will get the true exchange rate from Yuan to USD on my spend without any markup.
I took my Discover Card to the train station in Beijing displaying the Union Pay logo and had to convince them (via google translate) to try it since the card doesn’t actually display the UnionPay logo on the back of the card. The charge went through perfectly in all cases but one (where I am pretty sure the attendant was doing it wrong). Cashback Success! I ended up using my Discover Card at some tourist attractions and restaurants as well without any problems after assuring them it was UnionPay.
Travel sometimes throws you curveballs and you need to have a plan A, B, and C ready. Discover ended up being my plan B and made me an extra 1% on a lot of my spending on this trip. I can take this 1% cashback and use it on my next trip! Maybe it didn’t exactly save my life, but it sure saved my wallet and allowed me to buy this particle mask at 7-11 which saved my lungs!
If you want to know more about the benefits of the Discover card, read about it in our article about the 3 best cards to build your credit or if you just want to apply for this great no annual fee card then click here to apply! If you get it now, it will be ready to help you out when it is your turn to visit China!
When I started doing my research on the Great Wall of China, I found that while the Badaling section of the great wall was the closest to Beijing and the easiest to get to by train, the Jinshanling section was a more impressive section as well as being much less crowded with tourists. Two interesting things about the Great Wall that I didn’t know were that it isn’t one continuous wall, but instead multiple unconnected sections of wall. It was also not built all at one time but in different times across different dynasties of China.
I took the public bus from Wangjing West Subway station and used my transportation smart card (which I also used to get around the Beijing subway) which gave me a discount off of the bus fare. Check out this link for everything about the getting there by bus. I had planned to do a 12 mile hike from the Jinshanling section to the Simatai section but decided after about 6 miles that that was enough.
The 2 hour bus ride was quite scenic with mountains popping out of the mist and rice paddies on the side of the road.
Once I got into the scenic spot (what they call the park), I saw an interesting approach to a seating problem. 🙂
Here is the main entrance to the section of the wall.
A very serious looking rider greets you to the Wall. Almost right away you are treated with some amazing views of the wall crawling across the mountaintops. You can literally see it for miles across the mountains. A panorama of the wall is the best way to capture it.Here is a virtual walk down the wall.
The further I hiked, the better the views became.
Such an amazing feat of engineering considering the time it was built. Who needs a stairmaster when you have the Great Wall!?
A shot from inside one of the towers I really couldn’t get enough pictures of this amazing spot. Can you see it all the way in the distant mountains?
One of the older, unrestored towers. I stop for a break on a rough section of wall. More stairs. This is probably the most people I saw at one time all day on this remote section of the wall. Another Panorama Come with me to China!
The world is mine! Another neat shot from within a tower.Here is an overview of the wall experience I had.
This is near the spot where I called it a day.
A Mongolian woman engaged me right when I first arrived and offered to be my guide if I bought some of her souvenirs she had in a backpack. I told her (honestly) that I didn’t have much Yuan with me and didn’t want her services but she was persistent and wouldn’t leave me alone. So I let her walk with me and talk and got her to act as my photographer and videographer. At the end she offered me some kind of boring souvenirs so I skipped them and just gave her whatever small Yuan I had in my pocket (maybe $10 worth) which she wasn’t really happy with but I warned her I didn’t have much going in so I didn’t feel that bad about it. Evidently she hikes up and down the wall several times every day as a tour guide. Talk about a hard job!
In retrospect, the Great Wall really was one of the highlights of my trip. In particular I would recommend the Jinshanling portion of the wall to avoid the crowds and also see a more impressive section of the wall.