08/1/14

Planning a trip to Hangzhou and Suzhou

Map of China

After I graduated in December 2013 I have been doing a little freelance copy-writing, some teaching and wedding planning of course. But staying at home for these past months have been very hard for me. I don’t have classmates to talk to, I don’t have to leave my house in order to do my job. Then finally last night I had a talk with my husband and he encouraged me to make this one week trip before my graduate studies start.

It’s been four years since I traveled alone and I had almost forgotten the freedom and the excitement on being on the road. From the map above you can see all the provinces I’ve visited before, this time I will be doing short trips to both Zhejiang and Jiangsu.

If everything goes according to the plan, I will be staying in Hangzhou from 8th to 11th August, then I will head to my second destination Suzhou, where I will be staying until it’s time to take the train back on the 14th.

Now it’s time to ask for your recommendations of what are the must see places in Hangzhou and Suzhou. Where would you go if you had about three days in each of the cities? Which water villages or gardens would you explore?

Please leave a comment with your tips, recommendations or wishes for a good journey, thank you!

 

03/24/14

Visiting Chaozhou

IMG_5304

Chaozhou is located in the easternmost part of Guangdong province and it has a population of 2.6 million people. It’s easy to reach from Guangzhou or Shenzhen by 高铁 (high-speed rail). The local language, Chaozhou dialect (or Teochew) is very different from Mandarin Chinese and I found it difficult to understand what older people were saying even when they used Mandarin Chinese. According to friends and readers online, eating is the main event when visiting Chaozhou. Especially seafood, meatballs made of beef and different kinds of snacks.

IMG_5289

As are pretty much all smaller cities in China, Chaozhou is a chaotic place with motorcycles everywhere. It seemed like all traffic regulations and laws were unheard of no matter if you took a rickshaw (洋车), taxi or bus. You also never know what you can see on the streets, for example I saw three live goats and their owner selling fresh goat milk right outside the hotel I was staying.

IMG_5312

One of Chaozhou’s tourist destinations is the Guangji Bridge (广济桥). The bridge was originally built as a pontoon bridge in AD 1170 and was built to the current form 200 years later. Tourists have to buy a ticket (50-60RMB) to walk on the bridge, but locals can cross it for free (or 5RMB). It’s closed during the night, but the lights make it a great view after the sun goes down.

IMG_5362

Taking a taxi in Chaozhou wasn’t as easy as in Guangzhou. Taxis were hard to find, especially later hours, and they always refused to use the meter. That’s why I took a rickshaw ride quite a many times during the weekend, which was both fast and cheap. Most of the rickshaws were electric, but I did saw one that required real man power to move.

IMG_5376

When you are a foreigner, that looks like a foreigner, traveling in China, people will always come up to you for a chat. This time I met a group of students working on their Earth Hour project and got to sign my name on their red banner. I was very impressed that these young students were aware of the Earth Hour and interested in environment protection. I was more than happy to take a group photo with them.

IMG_5406

Chaozhou is a city for eating and the best place in town is the 牌坊街 (Paifang street). This memorial archway street can be a bit touristy, but at least no other foreigners in sight. The gates are beautiful and along with the 骑楼 (terrace) building on both sides, is a great place for lunch, dinner or evening tea.

IMG_5389

The man in the photo above creates and sells 糖画 sugar paintings. These sugar painting combine a form of folk art and eatable treat. I saw that his beautiful sugar paintings attracted a lot of people gathering around him and watching the process.

IMG_5423

Chaozhou is one of the cities in China that still has a piece of the old city walls left for us to admire. Used for protection back during the emperors times, the ancient city walls are nowadays used as tourists spots in cities like Xi’an. Luckily no tickets were needed to step up the stairs on top of this old city wall originally from the Ming dynasty.

IMG_5434

Hangzhou’s West lake is well-known in China, but Chaozhou has its West lake as well. Ticket to this historical park from the Tang dynasty cost only 8RMB and it has paths and pavilions to explore for an hour or two.

Visiting Chaozhou reminded me how long it’s been since my last trip which was in August to Jiangxi province with classmates and teachers. Me and my husband have a plan that once our financial situation is better after the renovation and wedding, we want to travel at least twice a year. For our next destination I have proposed hiking in Xishuangbanna, but I have lots of others destinations in mind as well.

If you want to learn more about my travels in China, check all of my travel stories here.

12/11/13

Train travel in China

In four years I’ve traveled in China by train at least for 165 hours. I’ve tried soft sleeper, hard sleeper, standing ticket changed to hard seat and comfortable soft seat in a bullet train. I’ve traveled alone, with my boyfriend, with a friend and with twenty classmates. So what is train travel in China actually like?

trainticket

Buying tickets

 

The first hurdle will be buying the tickets and it’s best to buy them in advance if you want to avoid waiting at the railway station for hours (days) or settle for a standing ticket. Especially during holidays, Chinese New Year being the worst, you have to buy the tickets in advance.

According to the official website, tickets for Chinese New Year 2014 will be on sale on 28th December (for 16th January’s tickets). According to my knowledge you can only buy tickets maximum of 18 or 20 days before the trip.

You can buy tickets at railway stations, from ticket sellers or online if  your travel companion has a Chinese ID card. Many hotels and hostels also have a ticket service that will help you buy the tickets you need with a small service fee. You will need your foreign passport to buy the tickets as the passport number will be printed on the ticket.

Timetables and prices can be found easily in English at Travel China Guide.

 

guangzhourailwaystationPhoto by Ken Marshall

Boarding the train

 

In big cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou the railway stations can look like airports. When you get to the station, first check the big screen for your train number and which waiting room you should go. It can be bit hard to figure out the screen if you can’t read Chinese, but don’t worry, just ask any worker by showing your ticket to them and they will point you to the right direction.

I always arrive too early at the railway station, but I think it’s better to be early than late! Arrive at least half an hour before the train leaves and wait for your turn at the waiting room. On the screens you can see your train number again and possibly how long until it departs. The screen will also show you when it’s the time to board the train and an announcement is also made through the loudspeakers in Chinese.

If you don’t understand Chinese, keep an eye on the screen and ask the workers. Every time it’s time to board a train (it might be yours or some other train) massive amount of people will stand up and rush to the gates. If you are unsure, always ask the staff.

Only when the train arrives will they open the gate and let you to the platform. It’s pretty much impossible to wander to a wrong platform. Check the correct car number on your ticket and head to the right door. The train staff will check your ticket before you board so you can’t accidentally board the wrong train.

Once you have found your seat or your berth, hold tight on your ticket. The tickets might be checked again when you get off the train or during the journey.

IMG_2587

If you have a berth (hard or soft sleeper) the staff will change your ticket to a plastic card (picture above) for the time of the train ride. Before you arrive to your destination, the staff will wake you up if necessary and give back your paper ticket.

Different seats and berths

 

In general there are five types of tickets from the most to the least comfortable: soft sleeper, hard sleeper, soft seat, hard seat and a standing ticket.

The soft sleeper isn’t really that soft, but it’s a cabin with four beds and a door that can be closed. This is ideal if you are traveling with friends in a group of four as you can have your own privacy. Soft sleeper tickets are the most expensive ones.

hardsleeper

Hard sleeper ticket is the one I’ve traveled the most with (picture above). It has six beds in one slot and it’s open to the aisle. The price is cheaper the higher you go, but it can be bit uncomfortable on the top berth. I personally prefer the lower berth, but the middle one is ok too.  The lights will be closed at 10pm and opened at 7pm if I remember correctly.

Hard sleeper is great alone, with friends or with 20+ classmates as we did last August. It’s easy to make friends on a train, especially if you look foreign, people will come and talk to you if you can find a common language. But you can also concentrate on reading your book too if you want to.

Keep your valuables on your bed when you sleep, but put your luggage under the lower berth or on to the luggage rack above the aisle. As a foreign woman traveling alone in 2010, there was always at least one gentleman helping me with my backpack.

Soft seat is a normal common and quite comfy seat great for a few hours train trip. Bullet trains only have soft seats which reminds me of seats in Finnish trains.

Hard seat on the other hand is a wooden bench where you sit with two other travelers on one bench. It’s like sitting in a metro for hours and hours. I had the opportunity to try it out once in 2010 when I was coming back to Guangzhou from Shanghai. I bought the ticket the same morning I was coming back, a big mistake, and got a standing ticket! Yes, that’s right, no seat available, but I could at least board the train.

After sitting on my luggage for 15 minutes, one Chinese guy with passable English offered his seat to me. He had paid more for his ticket of course, but he was willing to help a foreign girl in need. I refused first, but he insisted on giving his seat to me. He ended up sleeping on the floor for the 15 hours.

The lights may stay on the whole journey and as the food cart comes and goes, everyone on the floor has to stand up once a hour or so.

As I wrote, standing ticket allows you to board the train and find a spot in the hard seat car. It’s up to you if you choose to stand near the toilets or lay on the floor.

Toilets in a train

 

Soft sleeper cars have western toilet on one end and Chinese squat toilet on the other end of the car. Other cars have only squat toilets, which is actually a good things as you don’t have to touch anything.

It’s entirely up to your luck how clean the toilets will be after hours or a day of train traveling. Bring your own toilet paper and wet towels.

There is a separate area for washing your hands, face and brushing your teeth. It will be crowded in the morning so you might want to get up early so you don’t have to queue up.

 

food cart chinese train

Snacks, food cart and the dining car

 

I have never eaten in a dining car on a Chinese train, but there is one available for the longer journeys. You can also buy snacks or even dishes from the food cart that comes and goes at least every hour. Prices are of course more expensive then normal shops, but still tolerable.

Best thing would be to buy your own snacks before you board the train. Bigger railway stations have shops and restaurants where you can buy food to take away and eat in the train. Remember to buy enough water as well and bring a thermos if you want to drink tea. Hot water is available in every car.

If it’s a long journey, you might want to consider bringing some snacks you can share with other friendly passengers.

 

IMG_3794

Things to remember

 

* Charge your mobile phone and other gadgets before the trip. Buying a portable mobile charger is also a good idea as in most cases you can’t charge in the train.

* Bring you own toilet paper and wet  towels for basic hygiene. Also bring a small hand towel for washing your face in the morning.

* Put your valuables in a small bag you can carry around with you even when you go to the toilet. This is important especially when you travel alone and can’t have anyone to watch your stuff. Your bigger luggage should be safe under the lower berth or on top of the luggage rack, but don’t leave anything valuable inside it.

* When you get off the train and walk out of the station, always find the official taxis or use bus or metro. There will be numerous black taxi drivers shouting at you and trying to find a customer, but those are always much more expensive than the real taxis.

So here we are, my all 165 hours of wisdom in one blog post! I will continue to update this post according to your comments and my future adventures in Chinese trains.

Have you traveled in a train in China? Please share your exprience in the comments!

09/7/13

Traveling in China: Mount Sanqing in Jiangxi Province

IMG_4030

San Qing Shan, read from right to left

Last week I took part in my university’s compulsory study trip to Jiangxi Province. We traveled 11+ hours in a train to the north and spent just three days in “West of the River” as the name of the province is translated. The best destination our tour guides took us was the Mount Sanqing.

jiangximap

If you want easy climbing (in China that means climbing the stairs to the top) but amazing views, then Mount Shanqing is great for you. You can take the cable car to the top and do an easy three-hour walk on top before coming down with the same cable car. Of course the are other routes as well, if you want to see more and stretch your legs.

I’ll let photos speak for them selves, but you can find more information at Travel China Guide.

IMG_4067

IMG_4096

IMG_4099

IMG_4135

IMG_4146

These locks with carvings were on the love road that had 299 steps. 299 means love forever and according to the sign if you walk it from start to finish, you will be together forever. But the love road wasn’t easy, it has some pretty steep steps!

IMG_4163

IMG_4166

IMG_4169

IMG_4180

IMG_4182

IMG_4188

 

IMG_4208

08/28/13

Reader’s Question: Hong Kong Travel Tips

Today it’s time to answer some Hong Kong related questions from my reader Alysa. If you have questions about living in Guangzhou/China, feel free to send me an email: sara(a)sarajaaksola.com.

Hi Sara!

Its me, Alysa, I’ve been following your blog for a while, commented on some articles, and asked you all the questions about your school and the student visas :) Well, I have to go to HK to try to renew my visa, but I had such a great visa before I didn’t have to go back for…I don’t know, 5 years? Anyways, I was wondering if you knew any good budget places to stay there, and are there any shopping centers you recommend I check out? I’m not interested in souvenirs…anyone who’s lived in China this long isn’t. Where do you usually go shopping while you’re there, for good deals or western products that are hard to find in GZ?

Thanks for taking the time to read this. :) A short reply would be great, but maybe some others would also like your thoughts on this?
– Alysa

 

Dear Alysa,

Glad you asked!

Cheap Accommodation

Recently I’ve always stayed at the same place when I visit Hong Kong and that’s Cosmic Guest House. They have excellent location at Mirador Mansion in TST and their rooms are cheap. Of course these cheap rooms are super tiny, but that’s what you get in Hong Kong. Prices start from 180HSK per room.

Don’t believe the photos on their website though, the rooms aren’t as big or clean as they might seem. Check out reviews and photos from tripadvisor before booking.

Shopping

I personally don’t do that much shopping when visiting Hong Kong, but where I always go is the Swindon Book at 13-15 Lock Road, Tsim Sha Tsui. Of course books in Hong Kong are expensive, but you can get many books there that are impossible to find in the mainland.

As I’m far from expert at shopping, you better check this site for shopping areas, malls and street markets.

Eating

What if you could eat and drink as much as you like for 50HKD? That’s possible when you head to Mr. Wong’s in Mong Kok. Get a group of friends and let the cook prepare “some food” for your. No need to look at the menu! This place is famous among the exchange students as it’s cheap and even includes beer. It’s the only must restaurant I recommend in Hong Kong and you can read more about the place with photos on The Adventures of Abby.

Outdoors

I personally think that the best Hong Kong can offer us visitors are the great outdoors. Clean air, blue sky and excellent hiking trails. There are so many islands and routes to discover, like Tai O Village, Family Trail on Lamma Island and the Dragon’s Back Hike.

If you have other tips for Alysa, please leave a comment!