ESCAPE FROM GOLDEN WEEK
When Nick and I went to China in the fall of 2016, we flew directly to Shanghai from Chicago via a 15-hour flight on American Airlines. I usually avoid flying on US-based carriers as much as I can, but the $500.00 roundtrip direct flights to Shanghai and back were impossible to say no to. When we flew to Shanghai, it was a couple of days before Golden Week was set to start. This is a weeklong holiday where most of the people journey back to their respective homes and families to celebrate the Mid-Autumn Festival. All it took was one Google Image Search for Golden Week to convince us that we are not ready or equipped to brave the massive crowds of holidaying locals. We decided to wait out Golden Week in Hong Kong and the Philippines, and do our actual China trip two weeks later after we arrived.
We left Shanghai 36 hours after we arrived. We planned on spending 4 days in Hong Kong before flying to the Philippines for 10 days. The direct flights from Shanghai to Hong Kong are expensive enough to begin with, and with us flying at the beginning of Golden Week, ticket prices were insanely inflated. After reading through a bunch of articles online and countless hours spent on Skyscanner trying to look for the best fare, we decided to fly to the port city of Shenzhen in Southeastern China and then cross the border by land, on one of the hundreds of buses that ply the route between Bao’an International Airport and Kowloon in Hong Kong. The flight was quick, on time, and dirt cheap.
After we left the departure area, we followed the signs to get to the international bus station. The Bao’an Airport in Shenzen is so massive it took us over 10 minutes just to walk out of the building from the baggage claim area. The bus station is in a building across the airport and was connected via an overpass. It was easy enough to buy the tickets and wait for our bus in their lounge. There were several buses running every hour, but you need to figure out which one goes to where you need to go, or downtown Kowloon in our case. Once you get your tickets, ushers will place a color coded sticker on your shirt, and this helps them direct people to the right buses, especially after crossing immigration on the Hong Kong side. We didn’t understand this at first, but after they dropped us off in front of the immigration building on the China side and saw that there were literally hundreds of almost identical buses doing the same, we had a panic attack. How are we going to find our bus after we go through the gauntlet of humanity in front of us? When we finally cleared immigration an hour later, helpful ushers were directing people to the right buses based on their stickers. It felt like we were cattle, but at least it ensured that we got on the right bus.
WHERE AM I?
When we flew back to China, Chengdu was our first destination, and we were coming from Cebu City, Philippines. To make the trip as cheap as possible for us, we had to fly to Hong Kong from Cebu, and from the Hong Kong airport, we took a ferry to Shenzhen, and from Shenzhen, we had a direct flight to Chengdu. This journey took us the whole day, and when we finally collapsed at our hotel bed a little past midnight in Chengdu, I had to ask Nick which country we were in. I literally lost track already. Though to be fair, we could have cut out 8 hours from our journey if we flew directly from Hong Kong to Chengdu, but this would have cost us at least $300 each, as opposed to the $120 we spent. Also, since we had 8 hours in Shenzhen, we were able to leave our bags at the airport and explore several of the attractions downtown. This became a recurring pattern on our journey around China.
We spent three days in Chengdu, and this was definitely nowhere near enough to even scratch the surface of this amazing city. After Chengdu, we were scheduled to fly to the city of Xining. This was our gateway to the Amdo region of Tibet. While most people assume that Tibet is only the Tibetan Autonomous Region and/or the area around Lhasa, and thus need a permit and a booking with a group tour to visit; the provinces of Gansu, Qinghai, Yunnan, and the western part of Sichuan province are part of the Amdo and Kham regions. These provinces are technically a part of the Republic of China so you don’t need a permit to visit, except for a handful of small, politically sensitive areas. These parts of China are ethnically and culturally Tibetan, so it’s a good place to experience Tibetan culture without paying through the nose for permits and tours to visit Lhasa.
THE MIDNIGHT FLIGHT TO NOWHERE
Our flight to Xining from Chengdu was scheduled to arrive at 1:05AM, and the airport was about 45 minutes to an hour away from the city. There are only two direct flights between the two cities, and unfortunately for us, the more reasonably scheduled flight that arrives in Xining at 10:45AM cost 3x more than our midnight one. We could have taken the train, but it would’ve cost about the same as our flight and taken at least 24 hours. China is so huge that train journeys lasting 20 or more hours are common place. Our tight budget limits our choices but also forces us to get creative in planning our journey, as well as making the most of what we have.
When we arrived in Xining, Nick was suffering from severe stomach discomfort, and by the time we got down to the baggage claim area twenty minutes later, we saw them wheeling off our backpacks already. The airport is small and only served by a handful of flights, and since we were the last and only flight for that night, the airport staff was more than ready to close the airport and head home. There are no taxis at the airport and only one bus route ply that route, and unfortunately for us that night, only one actual bus was there to take passengers to town. When we got to the bus stop, the bus was already pulling out and it was nothing short of a miracle that the driver even stopped. When we tried to get on the bus, he was trying to refuse to let us on. I can’t remember if somebody intervened on our behalf, or if he finally took pity on us, but either way, we made it on the only bus to civilization, standing room only.
Keep this story in mind if you take the same midnight flight to Xining. DO NOT MISS THE BUS! Sleeping at this airport is not an option as they literally close it down. There are no hotels or accommodations nearby and taxis are non-existent. There are taxis downtown though, and we were fortunate enough to flag one down that was super helpful and made sure we got to our hostel.
JOURNEY TO TIBET
From Xining, we wanted to go to Xiahe, home of the famous Labrang Monastery of the Yellow Hat Buddhist sect. To get there we needed to take a 3 hour bus ride through some of the most stunning scenery. Admittedly, there were a couple of heart stopping hairpin turns, but the view was more than worth it. After we drove past some industrial looking ghost towns, the landscape changed into scenic mountain views blazing with the reds and oranges of autumn. An hour later, we were driving by an alpine lake, then the steppes, and eventually to snow dusted mountains. It’s a good thing that leg of the trip was beautiful because the process of getting on that bus was a nightmare and a half. Special mention though, to the middle aged Chinese ladies relieving themselves on the side of the mountain and having way too much fun doing it.
Xining was just a jump off point for us, a way station to get tickets for the next portion of our journey. Nick and I booked as much as we can of our flights and other means of transport, but the bus ticket to Xiahe, as well as the train ticket to our onward journey to Xian needed to be booked locally. The plan was to stay in Xiahe for 3 days, then come back to Xining after so we can take the train to Xian. We tried to book not only our ticket to Xian while in Xining, but also our Xian-Beijing train journey. We looked up the schedule online, and we were fairly confident that we could manage the transactions by ourselves. We could not have been more wrong.
First, the Xining train station is massive. There were at least dozen entrances on three levels. Second, there are armed guards at every entrance, and you need to get your bags scanned by an x-ray machine before you can even get in, even if it’s just to ask a question or check if you are in the right place. When we eventually found the correct place to get the tickets, there are several by the way depending on your destination; we found a mob of people pushing and shoving to get to the front. This, despite the fact that there are metal stanchions leading up to each teller. When we finally managed to make it to the front, the lady spoke no English, which we expected; but for some reason she had trouble understanding the note our hostel receptionist wrote for us. He wrote down for us all the details of our trip so we would not have to worry about the language barrier. It took another 15 minutes and at least three other people who spoke varying degrees of English before we figured out what was happening. Our Xian to Beijing train was full, and when we tried to look for another time or date, we were told that they were all full. To this day, I’m still not sure if that was the case, or if they just got annoyed with us holding the line. We did manage to get our ticket to Xian, but we don’t know if we got the lower bunks we requested. At that point, you take whatever win you can get and be thankful that you even got a ticket.
After we got the train ticket to Xian, we still needed to get our bus tickets for our trip to Xiahe the next day. According to everything we’ve read, and what the receptionist told us, the bus station should be immediately adjacent to the train station. So of course, we spent the next hour trying to figure out where in god’s name this damn bus station was. We ended up in a random basement, an abandoned building, a creepy department store, and another abandoned building before eventually finding it. It was the building that looked like a supermarket from the outside. And of course, this being China, we couldn’t buy tickets in advance and had to get it an hour before the scheduled departure time. It’s best not to miss the bus as there’s only one a day to Xiahe.
Later that night at the hostel, when we told the receptionist all about our adventures, he offered to go down to the bus station the next day to make sure we got on the right bus. We declined his gracious offer, but took his advice to fly to Beijing instead of trying to get a train ticket. He tried to help us get a Beijing to Shanghai overnight train ticket, but couldn’t find tickets for it. We tried to get tickets for the fast trains instead, but our date was still closed. So we had no choice but to figure out how to get to Shanghai at a later date.
When we were coming back from from Xiahe to Xining, the owners of the hotel we stayed at offered to buy our bus tickets for a small fee. After the experience we had in Xining, we more than happily paid it. At this point, we realized that trying to save a few dollars will just make life so much harder for us, so it was better to pay a little extra here and there.
THE TRAIN RIDE FROM HELL
After spending three days in Xiahe, we took the bus back to Xining. The only bus on this route left Xiahe at 6AM, and arrived in Xining a little before 10AM, and our train to Xi’an did not leave until 9PM that night, which left us the whole day to explore Xining. It’s a good thing we saw where the left luggage was when we were buying the tickets to Xining 5 days earlier because it was quite hard to find, and it would have been a bitch trying to look for it while sleep deprived and carrying massive backpacks.
The Xining train station is a massive cavernous hall; it almost feels like a hangar. The gates to the platforms and shops are on the main level, and on the perimeter of the second level are the restaurants and little cafeterias. The waiting area is pretty much any and all available space you can find. There are benches and seats on the main floor, but these are rarely available. Whole families are commandeering those seats along with the various livestock and shopping accompanying them on the journey. There are signboards on every gate that let you know what time the train departs, and what we didn’t realize is that the train officials kept those gates firmly locked until only a few minutes from departure. Every time a uniformed rail agent goes near the gates, the people by said gate will rush and try to form a queue, a term I use very loosely as the Chinese’s idea of what a queue is vastly different than in the west. The agent will then wave people away and everyone goes back to their seats. Another rail officer comes near or through the gates, and the process repeats.
Even though all the seats and bunks are technically assigned and clearly indicated on your ticket, the locals acted like it was going to be on a first come-first served basis. Nick and I started to worry that if we take our time boarding the train and wait for the initial rush to die down, someone else will take our bunks. We knew that if that were to happen we had very little recourse in getting our bunks back, between the language barrier and the extremely competitive nature of the Chinese, we knew we had to act like the locals do and make a run for our bunks, which is exactly what we did fifteen minutes before the train departed. As soon as agents walked over to the gates and started unlocking it, all hell broke loose and people started shoving and jostling to get into the front of the line. I distinctly remember standing behind a guy with a box of live chickens in his hand and praying he wasn’t my bunkmate. When we finally got our tickets checked and were waved through, we ran like bats out of hell, an impressive feat considering how much stuff we have acquired at this point of the trip already. When we finally found our bunks, we were not sure if the ticket agent actually gave us the bottom bunks we asked for, and since we couldn’t make sense of how they were numbered, we took the lower bunks anyway. Mercifully, no one tried to kick us out of our bunks and we were able to get settled in pretty quickly. The bathroom was surprisingly clean though it’s my nemesis the squat toilet, but it was good enough. I had a feeling though that it wouldn’t stay clean for long, so we made sure not to drink too much water on the train and to get business done ASAP.
A couple of hours after the train left Xining, I knew there was no way I was taking any more overnight trains while in China. At this point, I was more than willing to pay $300 or more to fly. In addition to being extremely loud, the entire train car smelled like acrid cigarette. The Chinese love to smoke and they smoke everywhere, no smoking signs be damned. Even though no one was technically smoking inside the car, it smelled like they were. They would keep the carriage door open as they smoked in the vestibule connecting the cars. The Chinese also have a different concept of what constitutes inside voice or personal space, and their consideration for others is not always apparent. All night long, people were talking at the top of their voices, often shouting at somebody they knew who was all the way across the other side of the car. A man even sat down on my leg sometime in the middle of the night and had the nerve to get mad at me when I asked him to get off my legs and not sit on my bunk. I had to repeatedly show him that it’s my leg he’s sitting on and he needs to get up because he was hurting me. I had to resort to literally kicking him before he finally got up, and even then, it took a few kicks before he finally got the message.
ALL PLANES FROM HERE ON OUT
After my less than ideal experience on the train to Xi’an, we stopped trying to get train tickets to Beijing and decided to fly instead, same with the Beijing to Shanghai leg of our trip. We learned early on that it’s very hard, almost impossible, to book plane tickets through the airlines if you use a non-Chinese credit or bank card. To get around this issue, we used one of the many China-based travel agencies you can find online. The company we ended up using was China Travel Depot. Their prices were competitive, the issued e-tickets were sent to you within an hour of your booking, and we didn’t run into any problems on the 5 flights we booked with them. You just need to make sure before booking that you call your credit card issuer or bank ahead of time, otherwise they will decline the charges. From what I understand, American credit cards are technically not accepted in China so your bank will initially refuse the transaction. With us, our Visa cards issued by Chase were the only ones that worked with the site. I also honestly cannot remember if we tried to pay for anything while in China with a credit card, however, we were able to withdraw money from most ATMs, and exchange hard currency at the banks with little problem.
Chinese airports are an adventure on their own. They are massive and are seem to be built to double as shopping malls. The most obvious difference I noticed is how they screened the checked in baggage compared to other countries I’ve been to. You need to wait until your bags have cleared screening before you can proceed to security. In Chengdu, they run your bag through the x-ray while they’re checking you in. Depending on how heavy the volume is, you may need to step aside and wait for your bag to be screened. You will not get your boarding pass and passport back until your bags have been given the green light. In Beijing, they hand you your boarding pass and passport after you’ve checked in, but right before security there is a massive electronic board listing the passengers whose bags have been flagged for additional inspection. If you see your name on the board, you need to go back to the check in counter you got your boarding pass from. Off to its side is a small office where the bags that have been pulled are waiting for their owners. The security screeners won’t actually open your bags, you do it in front of them.
Unfortunately, both times we were flagged. I had my bags searched in Chengdu, and Nick saw his name on the board in Beijing. We were guilty of the same thing; we forgot to take out our rechargeable battery packs from our checked backpacks. China is very strict about not checking in lithium batteries. Those need to be on you, and they will check the voltage when you’re at security screening. If the voltage doesn’t meet their standards, they will confiscate it and throw it away. Nick had two of his battery packs taken from him. My iPad also presented a problem at one of the airports. When my bag went through the x-ray flat on its back, the iPad was showing as something else. They made me open my bag and show them what that “weird thing” was. They scanned it again knowing that it is an iPad but it still registered as something else. They eventually tried sending my backpack through the scanner while it’s on its side, and they were finally satisfied that there was nothing amiss in my bag. After that incident, I would always place my bag on its side whenever it had to be screened.
China is an amazing country and I’m very happy we went. We’ve had some pretty insane, once in a life time adventures and experiences that we wouldn’t trade for anything in the world. Admittedly, getting around China proved way more challenging and more expensive than we expected, but it was honestly worth the hassle, whatever those might be. Looking back after we got home, I was wondering why I had mixed emotions about China even though I had some of the incredible experiences there. I eventually realized that it was me who needed to adapt to how the Chinese do things. China is unlike any country I’ve ever been to, and for one to enjoy it, you need to shed your preconceived notions of how things are supposed to be. The conveniences we enjoy back home are sometimes lacking in China or different from what we’re used to, but the locals don’t feel that way because you don’t miss something you never had anyway. I found that the best thing to pack for a trip to China is an attitude adjustment and zero expectations. If you’re a hyper Type A, obsessive compulsive, control freak like me, best to dial down the crazy before going.
I’m not a religious person by any stretch of the imagination, never have been, but I found the Serenity Prayer to be the perfect attitude or mindset one needs to have when visiting China.
“God, grant me the Serenity, to accept the things I can not change, Courage to change the things I can, and Wisdom to know the difference.”