A short stay in Beijing decades ago had left me with hazy memories of a chaotic mass of humanity, a sea of concrete blocks and bicycles; of feeling utterly disoriented in an unfriendly city. So when I began planning a trip to China, it seemed logical to go with an organised tour. However, I soon realised I wasn’t cut out for the determined sightseeing on offer. So it turned into a personal challenge–to plan it independently and to do it better and cheaper.
The first thing I noticed as we drove into Beijing was that the seething rivers of bikes and accompanying din of ringing bells that I remembered were gone. Instead, there were sleek cars, a pleasant big-city buzz and glossy high-rises everywhere. We stayed at the Double Happiness Courtyard Hotel in a hutong.
These narrow lanes are remnants of the old city, tucked away between the wide avenues of downtown Beijing. Trendy shops and restaurants, and highly rated boutique hotels coexist with traditional businesses, some hundreds of years old. Our hotel had been the home of a Qing dynasty scholar 500 years ago. The room in which we stayed, down a long outdoor corridor and up a flight of wooden stairs, overlooked an open courtyard and featured an ornate canopied bed with a stool to climb into it. It was like being in a time capsule, just a short stroll from the modern streets of Wangfujing.
I wanted to revisit the Great Wall, but this time away from the overcrowded areas. We settled on a trek from the less-visited Jiankou section of the wall to Mutianyu. Though very photogenic, this part of the wall, built in the 14th century during the time of the Ming dynasty, is dangerously dilapidated in parts.
The starting point was at a village about 70 km from Beijing. It took nearly an hour to climb to the wall itself, from where it was about 10 km to the finish at Mutianyu. The path ahead was a thin ribbon spooling over the mountain ridges, about six feet across in places, with sheer drops on either side, covered in rubble where it had collapsed. Vast empty vistas stretched out in every direction. The sun was relentless and the walk far from easy. As we approached Mutianyu, there were stairs, but some so steep and high that we had to use our hands and feet. The guide and the offspring skipped ahead like sprightly goats. I followed sulkily, telling myself that I’d be glad I had done it afterwards. Eventually, we finished and slid down the mountainside on a giant outdoor slide. The large man who attended to it kept up a nonstop flow of what sounded like furious cussing, which cheered me up immensely.
Over the next few days, we explored several other hutongs, including Nanluoguxiang, with its quirky shops and eateries. We walked through Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. We ate lots of Peking duck–the Da Dong restaurant in Dongsi was a highlight–and Beijing dumplings. We watched the Legend of Kung Fu, one of several shows recommended by the hotels. We went shopping in Sanlitun, loitering at a cafe and watching the young and wealthy of Beijing.
One evening, I asked our hotel to recommend somewhere “non-touristy” for dinner. They sent us off in a taxi to a cheerful street lined with restaurants and weekend revellers spilling out on the pavements. All the restaurant names were in Mandarin. I tried to ask our driver which one we were meant to go to, but he smiled and nodded, and drove off. We asked a few people and they just smiled and nodded too. Realising that we must be mispronouncing the name, we picked a restaurant at random. I never learned the name of the street or the restaurant, but dinner was delicious. Afterwards, we held out the hotel card to some friendly-looking people on the street who called us an Uber. They smiled and nodded as we pulled away.
Our next stop was Yangshuo. It is reminiscent of the Chinese countryside of old Hollywood films: villages with sloping grey-tiled roofs turned up at the corners, grazing buffalo with their herdsmen and people cycling by in wide-brimmed bamboo hats. The distinctive karst hills rise dramatically out of the gentle green landscape and a river winds placidly through it. There are many resident Europeans here, making for a not unpleasant juxtaposition of East and West.
We stayed at the Moondance, a small boutique hotel in Fenglou village on the banks of the river Li, about 8km from Yangshuo. Armed with a hand-drawn map, we would set off in a different direction each day on the hotel’s ancient bicycles. We cycled to the Moon Water Cave–a natural cave formation with eerily lit stalactites and stalagmites, hot springs and delightful mud baths where we made a spectacle of ourselves. We hiked up to the hole at the top of Moon Hill and dined at Luna, an Italian-run restaurant. We went rafting on the Yulong river on curious contraptions that were like water-borne bamboo palanquins with a bench and a jolly beach umbrella strapped on top.
We cycled along the river Li, ate, swam and read on our wooden balcony overlooking the river, and even tried a tai chi class. One evening, we went into Yangshuo town, which has a busy tourist area with lots of interesting things to buy and look at on handcarts and in shops. There were also restaurants offering ‘surf and turf’ meals, an incongruous Americanism in this small Chinese town. We wandered away from the main strip and found ourselves in the local markets, with trays of scorpions, crabs and other such lined up outside the local eateries. It was fun, but I am glad we stayed in the countryside.
We almost never got to our next destination, the Zhangjiajie National Park, which inspired the landscape in Avatar. I just couldn’t figure out a way to get there from Yangshuo. Then I found Chris Tan, an English-speaking guide, who solved the mystery–there is a flight operated by the oddly secretive Okay Airlines. It flies once a day, that too only in summer. Chris offered to pick us up at the airport and arrange everything.
Zhangjiajie was a tiny village nobody had heard of till the 1980s. The Chinese government woke up to its potential one day and has since gone about developing it on a mind-boggling scale. On our hour-long drive from the airport to the park, we saw massive, new-looking malls and hotels, all gleaming chrome and glass. Our hotel was in another huge tourist complex, most of it empty. Avatar has put Zhangjiajie on the international map and the tourists are starting to come, but in nowhere close to numbers proportionate to the mammoth infrastructure available. Chris was unruffled when I asked him about this. Apparently, this is just how things are done.
We visited the Zhangjiajie Grand Canyon and Golden Whip Stream one day, Yuanjiajie and Tianzi mountain the next, and the Tianmen mountain on the last day. Chris shepherded us everywhere, organising tickets, dodging the hordes and generally leaving us free to wander awestruck in his wake. The landscape was surreal, the views constantly changing as the clouds and mist shifted. It rained non-stop. We bought plastic ponchos on the first day and never took them off. Despite that, we walked for hours every day, up mountains, down into a gorge and over glass walkways suspended over mountains. When I suggested to Chris that we take it easy one day, he reminded me that “you’re only here for three days, you won’t get another chance”. In retrospect, I am grateful that his faint air of reproach kept us going. Zhangjiajie was one of the most unusual and memorable landscapes I have seen.
We stayed at the Pullman Hotel, a comfortable retreat from the relentless weather. No one at the hotel spoke English and we had to get Chris to translate for us. He also drove us to restaurants and ordered for us– unlike in Yangshuo and Beijing, English was simply not spoken and people didn't smile nearly as much.
On our last day, our flight to Shanghai was cancelled due to bad weather. Of course, no one at the airport spoke any English. Our options, Chris told us, were to wait for the next available flight that may or may not come, cancel and book for another day, or take a 20-hour train ride to Shanghai. And no, the airline took no responsibility for any of this and wasn’t going to help. We finally managed to get a flight late that night. Chris stayed with us at the airport, getting updates, interpreting and dealing with the indifferent airline staff. Without him, we wouldn’t have been able to get around–or out of–Zhangjiajie.
After our mixed experiences in Zhangjiajie, Shanghai was the perfect last stop. We checked in for a few days of first-world comfort at the Radisson Blu in Nanjing. The helpful English-speaking concierge at the hotel would mark the places we wanted to visit on a map and write their Chinese names on little cards we could show when we needed directions. We walked to many places and managed to use the metro, getting only slightly lost. As in Beijing, few people we met spoke English, but most were friendly, especially the younger ones, who were happy to whip out their phones and do clever things with translation apps.
We shopped at the international stores in Nanjing and strolled along the Bund. In Xintiandi, we gorged on soup dumplings at Din Tai Fung and browsed in the boutiques. I was as taken by their wares as by the stylish Shanghai ladies and their elegant cats curled up among the window displays. We visited Tianzifang, younger and edgier, and lingered in the roadside cafes. On our last night, we watched the spectacular circus ERA, then wound up at the revolving bar atop our hotel for a final chance to soak in the view before we said goodbye.
Round-trip fare on China Eastern from Delhi to Beijing (via Shanghai) with return from Shanghai to Delhi, upwards of â‚¹33,000 per person (economy). For domestic flights, Ctrip is a good bet. Beijing—Guilin (for Yangshuo) on Air China CNY 1,050; Guilin—Zhangjiajie (seasonal, one flight per day in peak summer months only) on Okay Airlines CNY 790; Zhangjiajie—Shanghai on Shanghai Airlines CNY 530.
Where to Stay
Hotels can be booked through their websites, but it is worth contacting them directly as they offer deals that include airport transfers and discounted tickets.
Beijing: The Beijing Double Happiness Courtyard Hotel (from â‚¹11,000; hotel37.com).
Yangshuo: Yangshuo Moondance Hotel (fromâ‚¹4,500; moondanceyangshuo. com). The town can be crowded and noisy. I recommend staying in the countryside at one of the boutique hotels. It is a good idea to make arrangements with your hotel for pick-up from Guilin Airport, which is a 75min drive from Yangshuo town (one-way approx. CNY 300).
Zhangjiajie: The Pullman Hotel (from â‚¹5,500; pullmanhotels.com).
Shanghai: The Radisson Blu Hotel Shanghai New World, Nanjing (from â‚¹7,500; radissonblu.com).
What to See & Do
The Great Wall Adventure Club (greatwalladventure. com) offers a variety of Great Wall treks and tours. A private tour at $ 119 pp includes an Englishspeaking guide, driver and lunch. The Legend of Kung Fu show at the Beijing Red Theatre, tickets (rates vary, `3,000 average) can be booked online or through your hotel.
From the Moondance hotel, a taxi into town is approximately CNY 40 and Yangshuo town is easily negotiated on foot. Many day trips and activities can be arranged through the hotel. ZHANGJIAJIE: Independent tour guide Chris Tan can be reached at tanjunxi@126. com or email@example.com. His rates are upwards of CNY 400 per day, not inclusive of park entry tickets and meals, and he will arrange your hotel stay on request. Shanghai:
Tickets for ERA-Intersection of Time at the Shanghai Circus World can be pre-booked at sale.era-shanghai.com. Rates vary, â‚¹3,200 average.
*Give yourself plenty of time to sort out paperwork for your Chinese visa. Requirements include bank statements and a day-by-day itinerary. You need an entire set of documents for each person travelling, including minors. More information is available at visaforchina.org/DEL_EN.
*Google, Gmail and Facebook are blocked in China (you need a VPN to access them) so make sure you have alternative access to important documents. WhatsApp works fine for messaging but you cannot use it to make calls.