Documenting my journey into China. I thought it would be a good idea to visit some historic sites on my way to the Pingyao International Photography Festival 2017, which is the largest photography festival in China and set within the ancient city walls of Pingyao in the Shanxi province. Hopefully my exploits will help some of you if you happen be in similar situation(s). I will put my visit to each tourist site in separate posts with links in this post. It was quite a privilege for me to participate as part of the Photographic Society of Singapore’s curated contingent. Here’s me with my entries:
NOTE: Yuan and Renmenbi are used interchangeably as the name for China’s currency. Yuan is the official name, I think.
My daughter and I flew out of Singapore on China Eastern Airlines into Shanghai’s Pudong Airport and had a few hours layover before our flight to Datong so we got some breakfast and ate it at the gate lobby. Although the flight was on time and we were sitting outside the gate, we almost missed the flight!!! Between my daughter and myself we heard only one call to board roughly 30 minutes before the printed boarding time on our boarding pass. As we got to the counter, we noticed that we were at last call with roughly 10 minutes left and being rushed and a bunch of people were starting to stir behind us. Apparently, there were 2 flights leaving from this gate and the attendants were sifting through the passengers. So we got through with a bunch of other people and had to get on a bus, there was enough of us stragglers to fill the bus! Then it took us roughly 25 minutes to get to the plane. We all boarded the plane, no hassles, plenty of overhead cabin space and the flight went by smooth. No horror stories, no bad service, zip. Three hours later we land in Datong
Datong airport has a tourist transportation kiosk that you can see as soon as you step past security after collecting your bags, it’s a big red sign in English. The lady we spoke to didn’t speak English though but we managed to ascertain that the free bus that goes into the city had just left and that a taxi would cost 50 yuan. So instead of wait 30 min. for the next free bus (which would have stopped in front of our hotel) we chose to take the taxi she walked us out to get the cab and made sure the driver knew that the fare would be 50 yuan. The ride by (speeding) taxi was roughly 30 min. I imagine the bus would take twice as long.
NOTE: I was told prior to leaving for this trip that everything was negotiable and that it is imperative that you ask for the price BEFORE you get into the taxi. This lady dictating/reinforcing the fare really set this process in my mind.
Our Itinerary (will link to reviews when I write them):
First Day: Yungang Grottoes.
Second Day: Wooden Pagoda, Hanging Temple, Hengshan mountain
Third Day: Datong Great Wall and inner city walk around.
My full review of Datong Hotel
So we got to the hotel, Datong Hotel, roughly 20 minutes later and was able to check in early. There was a guy (tall with glasses) that could speak a bit of English that helped us check in. He took my Booking.com details and was quite pleasant. He informed me that I had to use my credit card for security deposit and I understood a charge of 1/3 the quoted price would be charged. He actually charged 1/3 over the quoted price and said the difference would be “returned”. I didn’t really think I’d get ripped off and if I did I can dispute, right? Not really. Anyways, got the keys and went to the room to drop off our suitcases. We were excited and wanted to go see stuff already. We spent roughly 3 days and 3 nights in Datong. There are many eateries around but none looked like they would have English menus so we just picked a joint that had pictures on the wall and pointed out our order. Here’s a picture of the hotel front yard:
The hotel is old, but not dirty. A bit dark in places but overall, ok. It’s kind of close to many of Datong’s attraction. Only ran into 3 staff that could converse, kind of, in English. All were front desk staff. Although the hotel’s rates are relatively inexpensive beware of this scheme:
My quote from Booking.com was in the amount of 684 Yuan for 3 nights. Upon checkout, they did not reverse the security deposit charge and charge the subsequent correct amount of 812 yuan (we room charged dinner one night in the amount of 128 yuan). When questioned, they punched a bunch of stuff into the machine it spit out a long paper that had the correct amounts on it but was difficult to read. Now going on at the same time, the taxi we had arranged, had not shown up yet (20 min late) and I was worried we would miss our train to Pingyao. So I figured I would give them the benefit of the doubt and deal with this through my credit card if necessary. Also the converted potential loss would be around $38 dollars (my currency) which would be cheaper than missing my train.
UPDATE: As of 9/30/17 The security deposit is gone from my credit card statement and the proper charge is reflected.
So we got the hotel to get us a taxi to the train station. It cost 15 yuan and took roughly 20 min. We got to the train station, went through security, bought some drinks and took a toilet break, 10 min later it was boarding time. Here’s the train station:
TIP: get your tickets early and try not to get the standing or hard seats (standing literally means standing in the aisle of the hard seat section). I used Ctrip.com (their website’s in English and you can pay via Mastercard or Visa) and collected the tickets the day before the train ride (again 15 yuan from Hotel). Take a picture of your ticket(s) before you board.
Although the sign says pick up tickets here (where the lady in yellow is in the above picture), behind all those doors is the security line of bag x-ray machines and security personnel with metal detectors. To pick up tickets, go through security and walk down the corridor on the right (as if you had walk straight through the doors where the lady in yellow is in the photo above). The corridor opens up and you’ll see ticket counters from which you can get your tickets. If you’re catching your train, after security check, show your ticket to the last security personnel and they’ll point you in the direction you need to go. Well at least that worked for us, the lady security guard even spoke the directions in English.
We booked the Hard Sleeper seats which are bunk beds three high on either side of a cubicle. One train car has like 4 or 5 cubicles. I couldn’t pick seats so we got one way at the top and one on the opposite side bottom (at least we were in the same cubicle. Don’t be surprised if someone is on your bunk, they will move when you get there if not show your picture of your ticket. The person who took your ticket when you boarded the train will give you a plastic card when the train starts moving. This card is what you will need to show if you get questioned when/if you walk around. There is a dining car, but was locked when we tried to get food. You give back the plastic card when the train personnel comes by presumably to tell you your stop is coming up.
TIP: Know how many stops and keep count of the stops you’ve passed. There are either NO SIGNAGE or they are very hard to see/find or not in English. Arrival time may be off by 15 min (ours was and we almost didn’t get off the train, a fellow passenger my daughter befriended told us that we needed to get off the train). Some train stops seems really close together so it may not be obvious even though the train personnel came to take the plastic card. Here’s the Pingyao train station (slow train) the high speed train station is some where else.
The outside of the station had some construction going on so I couldn’t get a better frontal shot. But all you would need is the characters on top of the building to show anyone if you needed to get to Pingyao’s regular train station (as in not the high speed train station).
So we booked a hotel (Hong Changyu Inn, review here) within the ancient city walls and while it is technically possible to walk from the train station, I’m guessing 30 min walk. I wouldn’t. We tried and abandoned the task within 5 min. We both had wheeled carry on sized suitcases and the surface is not conducive to rolling them on. The way is a patchwork of nice brick surfaces, to cobblestone to dirt patches. Then the “sidewalk” would end and you’d have to walk on the street (that in itself is a harrowing experience). Better just to get one of those “tuk tuk” looking taxis for 20 yuan or better yet have the hotel go get you some hotels offer it for free mine didn’t.
Due to time constraints I had to limit our stay in Pingyao to 3 days and nights. The Pingyao International Photography Festival spans a week. Within the city there are 22 tourists spots which you can enter using one ticket. Which usually costs 130 Yuan. This ticket during the festival was on sale for 65 yuan and has a bar code on it that gets scanned at the entry of each tourist destination (sometimes scanning is self service). There are some attractions that aren’t included with the ticket (so look for the turnstyle gate thing). We allotted a whole day (our last day) for the attractions and only finished 11. We did see an additional 2 attractions (temples) from the outside because they were closed. The attractions close around 18:00 / 18:30. So keep that in mind. Pingyao Ancient city is way bigger than it seems especially if you plan to walk everything.
The people are friendly, most can tolerate the language barrier and we found more English practitioners in Pingyao than in Datong. Food prices can very widely and coffee is scarce and when I did find it it was 48 yuan a cup, beer was only 18 yuan and bottle drinks 5 yuan. Street food stall prices vary too. I had a sausage on a stick for 15 yuan at one stall and at a different stall I had two on a stick for 10 yuan.
Even being able to speak Cantonese didn’t help with the language barriers as everyone spoke Mandarin, but according to my daughter the Mandarin we encountered is different than what she learned in school. If you can speak another Chinese dialect I would encourage you to try if only to negate the crassness of some people who find it unreasonable that a Chinese person can’t speak “Chinese”.
The hotel we stayed in was the Hong Changyu Inn and it was exactly as advertised on Booking.com. Shaw, the inn keeper can converse in English and was extremely helpful. He also (at my request) arranged a cab to drive us to Taiyuan Airport for 380 yuan (the driver was conscientious and safe). Payment inclusive of security deposit was paid in full upon check in (just remember to get your receipt and you should be fine). Deposit was refunded with no issues. Actually I got 6 yuan extra because neither of us had small bills. Here’s a photo taken from within the courtyard:
From Taiyuan we flew to Shanghai’s Hongqiao Airport, and had 10 hours layover so we rode the subway into town (peoples square), it was raining so not much happening in the park so we walked around the malls, then took the subway to Pudong Airport for the flight back to Singapore. Food prices and trinket stuff in the malls were not so bad but the branded stuff, I found, were more expensive than Singapore. There is a distinct shift in friendliness too, Shanghai being way less friendly than Pingyao, Datong or Taiyuan (though we only spent time in the airport).
There are a lot of bad reviews for China Eastern Airlines but for us, the only thing to complain about was the age of the plane, it was readily apparent. Some planes had no screens for movies, broken tray tables, broken cup holders, torn seats, lumpy seats (I used the blanket as a cushion on one flight). Other than that it’s not bad (especially for the price). Every flight had a meal, AWESOME!. My daughter and I love airplane food! Oh conversing with the flight crew in English may be an issue at times, for example, we asked for apple juice they said yes and gave us orange juice.
I really wish I had more time in both Datong and Pingyao. I really loved both places. The air quality everywhere we went was noticeably bad, especially in the morning. It literally leaves a bad taste in your mouth but by noon most of it was gone, not the taste though. Maybe that’s why people spit so much in China.
1. Horns, bells, whistles and verbal sirens are all indicators that the person is coming through and will not give way (for the most part) so it’s best if you move, especially if you’re a pedestrian.
2. Spitting is loud and everyone does it, it seems. Chances are quite high you’ll step in a big wad of spit/mucous if you don’t watch where you’re going.
3. Children (boys and girls) will pull down their pants and pee wherever. In Pingyao we saw numerous toddlers with pants that had no back side to facilitate the easy of relieving themselves I guess.
4. If you leave even the slightest gap, someone will cut in and think nothing of it, it’s normal. People will get mad or shove you through if you don’t do it.
5. You’ll be lucky if you get a sitting toilet, expect to squat. ALWAYS bring your own tissue.
6. For this trip (since I have a very intolerant digestive system), I followed the pharmacist’s advice and used Duolac then when my stomach got a bit queasy (only 3 times) I took Imodium. My whole trip I had no problems and was even eating street food!!!
7. Smoking is allowed almost EVERYWHERE it seems.