China on their own — they did it and so can you

When you want to see everything, the lure of heavily advertised China as a tourist destination is powerful.

For many, the temptation is strong to sign up for an all-inclusive tour: you don’t have to worry about anything, says the pitch, including not speaking Chinese. The good news, from Dennis Trudeau, the former CBC broadcaster and still active journalist and host, is that independent travel to China is not only possible, but with some research it can be an enlightening experience.

We spoke to Trudeau at his Outremont home, intrigued by his recent month-long visit to China to find out how he proceeded. In spite of some initial reluctance, after viewing a friend’s photos of a recent China trip and saying, “wow, this is different!” Trudeau and his spouse, the retired lawyer Suzanne Jobin, decided they had to go.

As Jobin says, after decades of travelling and sightseeing around the world, there was no question that they would map out their own trip.

The key is research, before the trip starts, and during their stay there Trudeau credits Jobin’s facility with Internet research as a key to navigating their way through the huge country, home to 1.39 billion people, or 18.5 per cent of the world’s population.

“Suzanne is just fabulous with wifi – she can find an airplane that is cheap, the next hotel and book most everything online,” he remarked.

Taking your time is essential for independent travel in China, says Trudeau: “You can’t be in a hurry. The way we did it was to have several days to just hang around and look at a town. You have to be ready for that and have the time.”

And whatever your intentions, says Jobin, you must accept the basic principle that, “You cannot see everything.”

Although they usually travel in winter for six weeks, Trudeau’s work commitments mean that the China trip would be for about a month.

The main flight, on Air Canada, from March 2 to April 3 was cheap – $820 return on the direct flight to Shanghai, remembered by Jobin as “an incredible flight, on the new Dreamliner, which takes only a little more than 13 hours. Very comfy!”

They spent months in reading the guides to get a general idea of what’s out there, but only booked their first four nights in a hotel, which is a Chinese visa requirement. That hotel was a friend’s recommendation, but they moved to another after deciding to extend their stay there.

“We walked around, looked at all the old European style architecture – and then across the river is this huge, modern city of skyscrapers, with the great Shanghai Museum – a tour of Chinese culture, from 5,000 years ago to the end of the empire.” And how did they manage with neither speaking Chinese?

“The subway is all bilingual – Chinese and English – and very well signed, and all the announcements are in English and Chinese,” Trudeau notes. Still, they did take “a couple of wrong trains, but people were very nice and helpful,” though they do not speak English.

The way to communicate is through pictures, Jobin says: “You have to find the Chinese name of the place you are going to, and take a screen shot of it on your phone, and show it to them, and they will help you. We were the only Caucasians in the metro one day trying to find our way, and it was just amazing how many people tried to help.”

Food can be difficult. Jobin is a vegetarian, and confesses, “it was very, very hard.”

“I took a picture of the phrase, ‘I am a vegetarian,’ and I would show this to them in a restaurant, and they would propose something. They were very nice,”Jobin adds.

“Just about everything is covered with dry fish powder,” Trudeau notes, and in general the food is completely different from what is offered elsewhere in Southeast Asia, and the ‘Chinese’ food we get here.

“It’s all noodles, and dumplings, and you never know what’s in it,” Trudeau says, with a smile, though often, for a carnivore the surprises can be happy ones.

A day-trip by fast train to Souzhou — a big tourist attraction with its canals and gardens — was easy. There is an English wicket for tickets, but you have to show your passport.

“The train network in China is just incredible,” says Jobin, and the bus network is organized and efficient and runs like an airline.

Weather was a big factor in deciding on their next move, which was north to Beijing, where they stayed for eight nights.

Heavy air pollution is ever-present in Beijing, but luckily for their first five days “the National People’s Congress was in session so they shut down all the air pollution!”

“The sky was blue for five days – incredible, no pollution at all,” Jobin recalls.

When the congress ended, the factories all resumed operation and “you had to wear a mask.”

“The particle count was over 250 micrograms per cubic meter, and healthy is under 20,” Trudeau notes. According to the U.S. embassy there, since 2008 the average particle reading is 100 micrograms per cubic meter. The only reprieve Beijing residents get, the data indicates, coincides with major events, when authorities close nearby plants and limit traffic to clean the air.

Among the attractions in Beijing, they visited the Palace Museum in the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace, Tiananmen Square (Gate of Heavenly Peace), and the Great Wall. They hired a driver to visit part of the wall about 160 kilometres away from the city, at a cost of about $200 Canadian, to avoid the tourist crush, and spent hours there walking around the countryside.

The city’s artists’ quarters, called District 798, had hundreds of galleries, cafés and artist’s workshops, with extraordinary works.

“We walked 15 kilometres a day, over six or seven hours, taking our time,” Jobin notes in describing the tone of their trip.

Next was the fast-train trip to Si’an to see the famous terra cotta soldiers. They left from Beijing West station – “the biggest train station I have ever seen, as big as the Olympic Stadium, with a river of people moving through it,” Trudeau says. The train travels at 300 kilometres an hour!

One day to visit the tombs where the terra cotta soldiers are buried and two more to see the city’s Muslim neighbourhood and walking around led to their next visit by plane to Guilin in southern China, known for its dramatic landscape karst hills.

They found a small hotel in the countryside run by Dutch expats, noted in the guides and mentioned by a friend. They took a cruise on the nearby river and went for long walks. Because of the rain, they decided to visit the Tiger Leaping Gorge on the Upper Yangtze River, in the mountains at the beginning of the Tibetan Plateau.

They flew to Li Jiang in the western part of Yunnan province – “ to get away from big polluted cities” – and stayed in an old-style hotel built around a courtyard. “You never know if it’s old or made to look old,” Trudeau notes.

They went on a “very hard hike” in the gorge – “one wrong step and you’re down, a few thousand feet,” says Jobin.

By bus, they next visited Dali on the shores of Erhai Lake, an old Chinese town with cobbled streets and open canals, recommended by Quebecers they met.

They then returned to Shanghai to wind up the trip.

The much-advertised boat trip to see the Three Gorges was not on their bucket list, because “we’d rather walk in the mountains than be on a boat and eat things we don’t want,” the couple agreed.

The highlight, says Trudeau, was “walking in the mountains in Yunnan.”

“People are different, the food is different, wonderful,” says Jobin.

“The best food we ate, in Shanghai and Beijing, was in a small chain of fancy restaurants serving Yunanese food, called Lost Heaven.”

In Beijing, in the morning, they loved to eat crêpes prepared and served at stalls in front of corner stores for about $2.

The cost of lunches and dinners varies from $15 to $30 Canadian a day, with prices higher in the bigger cities. Lost Heaven chain, a four-dish dinner with a few Export-quality Tsintao beers costs about $60 Canadian. At stalls, bargaining is
de rigeur.

Hotels range in price from $50 to $130 Canadian, before taxes, which can be up to 15 percent. Some include breakfast, and smaller places accept cash.

“We were very happy we went, it is fabulous, so monumental, both the ancient stuff and the new stuff. People were very nice to us — and they work hard,” Trudeau said.

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