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China - Experience of Xining, Yinchuan, Bautou?

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Ni hao!

I am travelling to Beijing and Shenzhen with work in March. I'll have a few days at the beginning of my trip where I'd like to relax and have a look around Beijing, then work, at the end I'll have time to stay in Shenzhen and visit Hong Kong, possibly Macau and Guangzhou time dependent. I visited China about ten years ago with my parents to Beijing, Shanghai, Xi'an and Guilin. We were in a private tour but they were always keen for us to have a guide with us - would I encounter any issues? My mother passed away last year and I'd be travelling myself, I am a Western female in my twenties with limited Mandarin. I'd also probably be on a business visa. I'd like to use this opportunity to see some of the 'real' China.

I have acquaintances in Yinchuan, Ningxia; Baotou, Inner Mongolia, Taiyuan, Shanxi; Xining, Qinghai, Changsha, Hunan; and Sanya, Hainan. I am into experiencing culture and packing sights in (although I remember the pace on our holiday to China was too extreme!) I am not the kind of person who could spend a holiday on the beach! I was thinking perhaps Baotou and Ningxia would be the most interesting - I'd love to see Inner Mongolia but i have heard very mixed reviews about industrial Baotou which I'd use Baotou as a base as I'd like to see the Genghis Khan mausoleum at Ordos and possibly Xilamuren or similar grassland although it wont be green.

For Xining, I am not so sure as I;d like to see a little bit of Tibetan culture and go to Qinghai lake but the friend I have there will be working so not sure how easy it is to do myself although she will look for a tour. She was going to find me a private apartment to stay in but then I heard about having to register with the authorities as a foreigner, etc. But the province itself looks interesting plus the fact you could get to Zhangye in 2 hours.

So basically I am now thinking of flying from Shenzhen direct to Xining then taking the train or plane to Yinchuan. This puts me off as it is either a 12 hour train ride (can you bring a large case on the train) or an infrequent flight. Then a 6 hour train to Baotou and I'd fly back to Beijing where I'll get my flight home. Alternatively I can fly back from Shenzhen to Beijing and travel from there.

Sorry for the long post but any experience in these regions or if I am packing too much in or tips would be appreciated.

  • Report Abuse

    While I can’t comment on any of the specific areas you hope to visit, you should be able to visit them without a tour and shouldn’t need a guide unless that is your preference.

    Although it won’t shed any light on the destinations that interest you, you might find some inspiration in the trip report I wrote after visiting northern China independently as a solo woman back in 2010:
    http://www.fodors.com/community/asia/thanks-for-helping-make-my-trip-to-china-amazing.cfm

  • Report Abuse

    I've visited all of the destinations you name, with the exception of Sanya, although many of them not for some years. Bāotóu has very little to offer, but there are sights outside the town. Yīnchuán, however, is my favourite provincial capital, with a large number of unusual sights in and around the city. It sees very few foreign visitors indeed. Following the loop of the Yellow River from the city brings you to a number of other curious destinations, such as lesser-known cave temple sites, and Zhongwei, with its bizarre and dramatic Gao Miao temple.
    Xining is also an unattractive destination, but the substantial Tibetan Buddhist monastery just outside makes it worth the effort.

    There is no problem travelling China by yourself, and none in taking luggage on trains.

    Here are notes on all three cities from some years ago, which perhaps may nevertheless by of help.

    Bāotóu is the home of China’s largest industrial enterprise, the Bāotóu Iron and Steel Company, and is surrounded by factories belching smoke from tall chimneys. During the Great Leap Forward campaign of the late 1950s, Máo announced that China would catch up with the West in steel production in 15 or 20 years, the output coming from backyard furnaces. In the end all that was produced was lumps of useless metal and a shortage both of cooking pots (which were melted down to make the lumps), and doors and furniture (which were used for fuel). 40 years later in 1996, plants such as those at Bāotóu contributed to a total production of 100 million tons, making China the world’s number one steel producer. A modern city with any history of Silk Route and Yellow River trade completely obliterated, it has good, cheap hotels to serve the businessmen visiting its smokey production lines, and what buys you a bed in a dormitory in Hohhot, will buy you a bed in a double with bath in Bāotóu.
    There’s nothing whatsoever to see in Bāotóu itself, but outside to the north is a fine temple (yet another claiming be the largest in China), and the city is a convenient starting point for Dōngshèng and Genghis Khan’s mausoleum. Those who have travelled from Hohhot directly to Dōngshèng will almost certainly need to spend at least a night here before proceeding to Yínchuān. Sprawled across 20km or so and with two railway stations, the only part that you will probably need to deal with is the east section, called Dōng Hé (East River), which has hotels, shops, a long-distance bus station, and post office, all within walking distance of Bāotóu East railway station (the first you come to when arriving from the direction of Bêijïng).

    Around Bāotóu
    Chéngjísīhán Líng Genghis Khan Mausoleum

    The Mausoleum is reached by taking a bus to the small industrial town of Dōngshèng. The road crosses the Yellow River and heads south, and is full of lorries bringing huge loads of coal coming to feed the iron and steel furnaces, and empty lorries speeding back again. Wrecks litter the sides of the road, and this is one occasion when sitting further back in the bus might be a good idea. Local people who ask visitors why they aren’t frightened of the occasional earthquake here don’t seem to have done their sums, since the annual slaughter on this road alone must be considerably greater than the earthquake-related deaths for the entire region. The road also lined with almost continuous black strips created by spillage from the overloaded vehicles, enough to provide some local people with substantial amounts of free fuel. The scenery is a mixture of open water and sand dunes, cultivated land and tundra, and, nearer the Mausoleum itself, of open grassland.

    Just before entering Dōngshèng you pass an image of the revival of traditional architecture, in the form of a very detailed concrete version of a Chinese gate, which marks the entrance to the premises of the construction company that built it. Fellow passengers gape in awe and say it cost ¥3 million to build, forming an effective advertisement both for the company’s construction skills and its financial strength.

    Genghis Khan was born the son of the chieftain of the Kiyat tribe in the early 1160s somewhere on the Mongolian plateau, and named Temüjen. His tribe disintegrated while he was still a boy, after enemies poisoned his father. Brought up by his mother alone, he reestablished his clan, only to have his wife stolen in a raid by a tribe called the Merkit. Forming an alliance with a third tribe he defeated the Merkit, marking the beginning of a rise to power that saw him elected leader of the reformed Kiyat in 1189. In 1206 he called a khuriltai, or meeting of tribal leaders, at which he was given the title of Genghis Khan—Emperor of Emperors. In 1209 his forces attacked the Xī Xià state, extracting submission, tribute, and a princess in marriage. The next to receive attention were the Jïn, who had been the Mongols’ overlords for nearly 100 years.

    By 1214 the Mongols were knocking at the gates of the Jīn capital near modern-day Běijīng, again receiving tribute and princesses. In 1217 expansion began to the west, and by 1220 Bukhara, Samarkand, and many other Central Asia city-states had fallen, each being given the opportunity to surrender unconditionally or face complete obliteration. Genghis’s forces continued through Georgia and Azerbaijan to the west end of the Black Sea. Before dying in 1226 on his way to pulverise the newly rebellious Xī Xià, Genghis divided his vast empire into three khanates, under the control of his first three sons. He was was buried at a secret location in the Ordos grasslands of Mongolia, but he subsequently moved around nearly as much in death as in life, ending up at a site slightly south of the modern one. He was moved again to escape the Japanese occupation of China in 1939, visiting points in Gānsù and Qīnghǎi (including the Kumbum Lamasery or Tǎ’ěr Sì) before settling back here.

    The domes of the Mausoleum are visible from the road, and several paths lead across from it. The bus can also drop you at the beginning of the road to the site just on the other side of the village. The ticket office is near a concrete arch at the bottom of the slope leading up to the halls, which are three connected, domed, modern pavilions tiled in blue and yellow and topped with yellow knobs. These only date from the 1956, and had to be substantially repaired following damage in the Cultural Revolution. The central hall, its roof supported by dragon-wrapped pillars, holds a statue of the great man, behind which are roughly yurt-shaped tents, holding the remains of Genghis, wives, and brothers. On altars in front of them stand offerings of brick tea, butter, and alcohol. Halls to left and right contain the remains of Genghis’ fourth son and his wife, who were Khubilai Khan’s parents, as well as a saddle decorated with silver, a silver (and supposedly miraculous) milk pail and other ware, weapons, and Mongolian coins which either belonged to Genghis or are contemporary with him. The walls are painted with idealised images of Mongol court life (even the camels seem to be smiling). In summer the halls offer cool relief from the sun, and the silence is only broken by the buzzing of flies.

    If you haven’t yet met Mongolians, here you will, either working at the Mausoleum, or coming to pay their respects, some from Outer Mongolia. Looking back from the halls down the slope, to your left are obo—sacred cairns made from stones brought by visitors. In the distance a small dagoba marks an earlier location of the shrine, and back down the slope a small exhibition hall is really just an excuse for a shop.

    Your ticket also includes a visit to the ‘Temporary Imperial Palace of Genghis Khan’. Turn left out of the gate and walk for ten minutes down a sandy track, to find three film-set style pavilions, where you can dress up as the Khan and be photographed sitting on a throne, with one or two camels look on in a suitably cynical way. Large carts and a reviewing stand are used in festivals held here.
    Possibly most pleasant part of the trip is sitting at the side of the road waiting for a bus to pass to return either directly to Dōngshèng or Ejin Horo Qi where you can change. It’s very quiet indeed, with hardly any traffic, just swallows and the voices of cuckoos (in season). There is a limited choice of accommodation for those who want to stay here.

    If you decide to spend the night in Dōngshèng, there is a reasonable choice of accommodation.

    Wǔdāng Zhào

    The lamasery is about 70km north-east, in the footshills of mountains with some remnants of their covering of pine and cypress, and was built during the reign of Qïng emperor Qiánlōng in 1749. There are still more than 50 active monks here, but they seem less well-informed than their colleagues in monasteries nearer Tibet.

    The lamasery is a set of Tibetan-style buildings with slab-like frontages, narrow window, and beautifully and elaborately painted exteriors rising one behind the other up a hillside. A route around the site is marked and the buildings open for viewing are numbered in order. Climbing stairs up the narrow passages between buildings you might momentarily fool yourself that you are in Tibet. The second hall can be entered and is in active use for prayer, with a dimly lit finely painted interior, Buddhist texts wrapped up in yellow cloth on rows of shelves, dragon carpet wrapped square pillars, and uneven stone floor. Allow time for your eyes to adjust. The fourth hall has wonderfully detailed gruesome statuary of monstrous multi-eyed, multi-headed, and multi-armed statuary, garlanded with human skulls. Here the dragons around the pillars are in striking relief, with added three-dimensional heads. The altars are adorned with lumps of rock sugar and other eatables. Similar imiages are painted on the walls, and the entrance doors are painted with pictures of hanging blood-spattered naked corpses. The fifth hall is on two levels, with endless small Buddha statues in glass cases, each individually wrapped in fabric and wearing a yellow hat. A large statue is adorned with scarves to scale. The following small temple contains beautifully worked reliquaries in the shape of miniature dagobas, containing the ashes of previous incarnations of the temple’s reincarnating ‘living Buddhas’. Hall no.8, (which may have a crimson-clad doorkeeper monk playing tetris on a Nintendo machine) has a finely carved exterior.

    Altogether there are six main halls, three living Buddha mansions, two white stupas, and various residences and other administrative buildings, mostly in a reasonable state of repair, and some new, although the exteriors of halls 4 and 5 need attention. The main sounds when tour groups have passed is the whirring of the wings of the pigeons that live in the eaves. It’s also possible to walk up into the surrounding hills to take good photos of the site, although the smashed glass and other unsightly litter left by Chinese visitors is distressing to see. The liveliest time here is during the Mani Fair which begins on the 24th day of the 7th lunar month.

    Měidài Zhào

    The temple is just off the road from Hohhot, and can be visited from there, or as a stopover on the way to or from Bäotóu if your luggage is light enough. The entrance way is marked by a modern arch at the roadside, from where it’s a 10min walk to the lamasery. A new expressway under construction might make reaching the monastery more difficult in future insofar as vehicles taking it may not be able to stop to drop you off.

    Unlike its larger counterpart and contemporary, Měidài Zhào is inactive, and maintained for tourists and the benefit of those employed to look after it. There are no monks and it is inactive for worship. The whole site is impressively walled, and you can climb up from the interior of the gate house to walk around and get an aerial view of the somewhat overgrown site. The gate of main temple must be unlocked by the guardian. The emptiness is eloquent, but the beautifully painted interior has been reasonably well-preserved, and the high roof is supported by particularly slender pillars, which seem guarded by the statues which stand in front of them. The guardian will follow you about spitting melon seeds on the floor. You may be followed about the rest of the compound by the guardian’s particularly obnoxious ‘little emperor’, who in between screaming ‘lǎo waì’ may at least be useful in waking up the other keepers to open the doors of the remaining halls, some of which have particularly psychedelic modern statuary. One small pavilion has an esoteric buddha which for once is not wrapped up, and right at the rear there’s a three storey temple with three Buddhas. From the top of the walls you can also see that the compound has been invaded by modern residence buildings, a concrete yurt, a hideous pieces of modern statuary and other junk. The peace is disturbed by the continuous broadcast of distorted music from the main entrance.

    Returning to the road it’s easy to flag down buses in either direction.


    Yínchuān

    Yínchuān is the capital of one of the poorest regions of China, the Níngxià Huí Autonomous Region. Unlike Ürümqi and Hohhot, the city still has a majority of the ‘autonomous’ people—Yínchuān is approximately 60 per cent Huí, 30 per cent Hàn, and 10 per cent Mongolian. Mandarin spoken locally seems to have absorbed interesting buzzes apparent even to the untrained ear. Neither crowded nor particularly polluted, and enjoying a warm, sunny and dry climate, Yínchuān is one of China’s more pleasant cities, and it’s a good choice for a few days’ relaxation between bus and train jouneys, if you have the time. The hotels have relatively friendly and helpful staff, and charge the same price for foreigners as for Chinese. The main sights in town are all but one in easy walking distance of each other, and there are several easy and pleasant day trips available using either taxis or public transport. Eating out is also cheap, and there is considerable variety. There’s more neon than in comparable cities—even the post office has a flashing neon sign. There are karoke bars and night clubs everywhere, and people seem to know how to enjoy themselves. The summer days are scorchingly hot, but the evenings are cool, and pavement tables appear at which you can sit and drink beer or yoghourt, and watch an air traffic controller’s nightmare of swallows swooping around the ornate Drum Tower.

    Yínchuān is thought to date from around the 5th century, and stood on one of several trade routes passing through different parts of the province. New discoveries of Roman porcelain and glassware were made south of the city in 1996, in the tomb of a Sogdian migrant who became a Táng dynasty official. Several unusual monuments in and near the city date from its importance during the long-forgotten Xï Xià (Western Xià) dynasty of c. ad 990–1227.

    Much of Níngxià is extremely arid, and there is a relocation programme underway to move 746,000 people to lusher areas of the province, although so far it has taken more than ten years to move a quarter of that number. Other projects designed to alleviate the region’s backwardness and poverty include the construction of a major canel to transport Níngxià’s coal to the east coast, and others to tame and divert the Yellow River, the obsession of thousands of years, in order to convert desert areas to fertile farmland.

    Yínchuān has a new and an old town, but everything of interest except the railway station and airport are in the old town a few kilometres east of the station.

    Drum Tower Gǔ Lóu

    Yínchuān has perhaps a slightly over-practical approach to the management of its city centre sights. The plinth of the Drum Tower is hung with advertising for banks, and that of the Nán Mén Lóu is used by local shops for storage, while the rooms in the Yùhuáng Gé are used as offices.

    The Drum Tower has three storeys on a high, square brick base, surrounded by four smaller towers in the by now familiar format. The plinth can be climbed from the east side, although the central tower itself, with particularly curly upturned eaves, cannot. It is occasionally used as an art gallery, and this, for once, is not a euphemism for ‘shop’.

    Yùhuáng Gé

    Just to the east, the gé (pavilion) is a larger rectangular version of the Drum Tower, entered from the north up a stairway which winds round to the west. In recent years it has been used to house a small exhibition of bodies exhumed from nearby tombs, now removed. A central two story tower sits amidst a cluster of smaller towers, bizarrely housing offices full of computers. There are views over the town similar to those from the Drum Tower, but for free.

    Nán Mén Lóu

    The South Gate tower sits in a square outside the bus station, and is Běijīng’s Tiān'ān Mén in miniature, complete with flanking reviewing stands, ‘Long live the People’s Republic’ signs, and Mao portrait.

    Chéngtiān Sì and Níngxià Bówùguǎn

    The temple, in Jìnníng Nánjiē, contains a tall pagoda and the Níngxià Bówùguân, which is mostly dedicated to Xī Xià dynasty artefacts.

    The brick, bell-hung pagoda (which can be seen by itself for ¥6 before the temple opens or during the afternoon break) was originally built during the Xī Xià dynasty in 1050, and restored in 1738 and 1820. Its plain brick surfaces are punctuated by green ventilation bricks which now provide nesting space for martins. It’s a steep climb up the narrow stairways of its 11 stories to the top, rewarded by clear views across the city’s roofscape of shoddy apartment buildings to the countryside beyond, punctuated by more ancient buildings. There’s a surprise in the sight of the twin towers of a Catholic Church, built in 1983 as an early example of bathroom tile Gothic, and usually hidden from view by surrounding buildings.

    The pagoda stands in a courtyard of more modern buildings, some of which contain the museum of Xī Xià artefacts, although one old gatehouse remains with some fine stone relief.

    The Xī Xià (Western Xià, c. ad 990–1227) were of a stock related to the Tibetans known as Tanguts, but who adopted numerous institutions of the Táng, while forming the junior partners in an alliance with the Liáo to keep the Sòng at bay, for several decades receiving bribes from the Sòng to keep the peace. Having once submitted to the Mongols, they later rebelled, and in 1226 Genghis Khan is said personally to have led the attacks that extinguished the dynasty which had lasted for 12 emperors (although he fell ill and died before the final assault).

    The resulting destruction and slaughter contributed to the omission of the dynasty from historical records until the 20th century, when Russian archaeologists rediscovered a dynasty forgotten (or ignored as barbarian) by the Chinese, and did most of the work at various sites. Two buildings on the south side of the courtyard house an exhibition of Xī Xià items discovered in various sites around Yínchuän and elsewhere in Xī Xià territory, which once included almost all of modern day Gānsù and Níngxià, much of Inner Mongolia, and parts of Xïnjiäng and Shänxi. Items on display include ceramics, statuary, architectural fragments, and documents in Xī Xià script, with a good explanation in English of its relation to Chinese script and how it works. The general introduction to the museum ties itself in knots wanting to tell you both that this was a Chinese dynasty, that it was blessed by the Táng, and yet that it was founded by people who survive as Dōngxiāng (Santa) minority today. The end of the exhibition has a small collection of Buddhist items, and a map of Xī Xià sites, with some photographs, including a black and white one of Kharakhoto (Hēichéng), visited by both Aurel Stein and Langdon Warner. The Buddhist relics include various finely made heads, paintings, and miniature pagodas.

    Běi Tǎ or Hǎibǎo Tǎ Sì

    A 20min bicycle ride or brief taxi journey to the north of town, a temple undergoing substantial restoration with somewhat strident paint houses a highly unusual brick pagoda with a cross-shaped ground plan. 11 storeys and 54m high, it was originally erected around ad 407–424, and restored several times in the 18th century. It’s a stiff climb to stand below the green knob which tops it, although with pleasant views around the green fields in which it stands. One of the rear temple buildings contains a 7m sleeping Buddha.

    Around Yínchuān

    The countryside around Yínchuān is nearly as littered with tombs, pagodas, and temples as that around Xï'ān, but much less well known and less frequently visited. Many are spectacular and in good condition, and make easy and pleasant day trips from Yínchuān.

    Xī Xià Wáng Ling

    Promoted by China’s tourism agencies as the nation’s answer to the pyramids, these tombs of the Xī Xià emperors are not nearly as impressive, but certainly unique. A dusty area of 40sqkm on the edge of low mountains is dotted with mounds of various sizes including substantial pyramidal tombs with their own surrounding mud fortifications, some with corner watchtowers inhabited by owls. The plain is scattered with the remnants of tiles, layers of which can be seen like sandwich filling in the tombs, and which once were probably eaves on an outer casing of some kind. The tapering shape of the remains is probably just a matter of wind erosion, but they remain squat and massive, some as much as 15m high. Nine larger tombs are thought to be those of the emperors, and a further 200 or so of other worthies. The site is eerie and quiet, with just the odd shepherd and his flock, the singing of larks, and the chiding of smaller birds whose nests you may be disturbing. If your driver takes the first small turning to the site on an unmade road, then it’s possible to complete an anti-clockwise circuit leaving the largest tomb until last.

    Qīngtóngxiá Yïbāilíngbātā 108 Dagobas

    These are at Qīngtóngxiá Zhèn, 76km south of Yínchuän, and can be seen in a single trip with the Nàjiāhù Qīngzhēnsì, an active mosque at Yǒngníng, 20km south of Yínchuān on the same road.

    The bus will drop you at a juction in the centre of town. The walk from here is part of the pleasure of visiting the dagobas. Take the turning to the right. Reaching the gates of the hydro-electric plant after five minutes, turn left walking slightly uphill, then right, reaching a major dam after another five minutes. A ferry crosses the Yellow River from below you to the left when there are enough people,and there are smaller craft with outboard motors, too.

    If the guard on the dam is in a good mood you may be allowed to cross it on foot, which takes a further five minutes. At the far end turn left, walk round smaller sluice gates, and then take any sheep track leading up the hill to find paths that lead down again to fields on the banks of the river. Follow the track through the fields, altogether about 25 minutes, but a pleasant walk.

    An alternative is to get off the bus as it reaches a single-track girder bridge two or three minutes after the cement plant, and before Qīngtóngxiá Zhèn. Walk back and take paths leading to two footbridges, one of which also carries large pipes, and having crossed, turn left following a cement road round to the same sluice gates mentioned above. This takes about 20 minutes.

    The 108 small squat dagobas resembling inverted goblets are arranged in 12 ever decreasing rows rising up the hillside, including a single larger dagoba at the top behind which is a small temple with modern Buddhist clay figures. Having undergone substantial repairs the brick dagobas are in excellent condition, and topped with metal caps. The date of their original construction is unknown, but they are the only ones of their kind in China. The views from the top across the fields and the river valley are pretty. Bring a picnic. Returning either to the town centre or the bridge, flag down any passing bus, and change at Qīngtóngxiá Shì.

    Nàjiāhù Qīngzhēnsì

    There are frequent buses to Yóngníng or you can stop of on your way back from the 108 Dagobas, about 1hr 20mins after leaving Qīngtóngxiá Shì. The mosque is a signposted 10mins walk west of the main road. It has an impressive triple arched three storeyed entrance gate flanked by twin towers. The keepers are friendly and if asked politely will show you the quiet and pleasant interior, as long as it’s not Friday, when demand for space far exceeds capacity. Originally built in 1525 during the Míng, this is one of the oldest mosques in Ningxia. The village in which it stands has 5000 inhabitants, 97 per cent Huí, and 60 per cent from the same Nà family after which both mosque and village are named.

    Píngluó Yùhuánggé

    Emerging from the Píngluó bus station turn left, towards small but elegant drum tower and go straight on until you see what appears to be a collection of temples on your left, but which is in fact one mass on three levels. Unfortunately this is inside a public park and its inadvisable to visit at weekends unless you want to be one of the exhibits, and be followed around the complex like the Pied Piper of Hamlyn by groups of people who are pretending not to follow you.

    This is a smaller but still impressive version of Zhōngwèi’s Gāo Miào. Double and triple layered pavilions and halls are connected by aerial walkways making an impressive assembly of interlocking and overlapping roofs. The upper levels of the rearmost hall and connected walkways to other pavilions can be reached by climbing the left hand stairs at the very rear. The halls have modern or recently repainted statuary, and feature figures from Buddhism, Taoism, and Confuscianism. Probably Míng.

    There are two other brick pagodas similar in scale to those in Yīnchuán to be seen en route. One is immediately outside Píngluó, and the other at the 1197km marker about 37km from Yínchuän, both on east side of the road.


    Xīníng

    Earlier this century, almost unpopulated Qīnghǎi’s high grasslands were the home of nomadic Tibetans, Mongolians, and others, with few permanent settlements of any variety. A village one day’s march west of Xïníng was regarded as the ‘last village in China’, according to Peter Fleming who came this way from Lánzhōu in 1935 by mule. Of the people east of Xīníng he remarked:
    They were indeed so poor that, when we were buying eggs and one egg dropped, there was a race—won by the most respectable-looking person present—to salvage the unbroken yolk. All along this road the standard of living is pitiably low, and a substantial proportion of the population lives for (and largely on) opium.

    Peter Fleming, News from Tartary, 1936

    It’s still one of the three poorest areas of China. Despite rapid industrialisation in the Tsaidam Basin, nothing can alter the fact that ‘basin’ or not, most of the province is plateau, with an average height of 4000m, long winters, and minimal rainfall. The vast Qīnghǎi Hú (lake) is salt. Farming is limited to small areas, and those who have benefitted from the new industrialisation are mostly the more than a quarter of a million recent Hàn immigrants, not the local minority peoples.
    Fleming and his companion traveller Kini Maillart were held up in Xīníng awaiting clearance to proceed westwards which they were far from confident of getting. Daytime entertainment consisted of reading detective fiction and hanging around a photographer’s shop, with the occasional visit to the Catholic and Protestant Missions, and the evening entertainment was to ‘patch the fresh holes made in our paper windows by the fore-fingers of the curious’.

    Although Qīnghǎi is now viewed as rich in ores and minerals, oil and natural gas, and has become a major generator of hydro-electric power, its few towns and villages still seem backward, and Xïníng, although the provincial capital and its largest city, is not of any great size, or much more entertaining than in Fleming’s day.

    He missed the most exciting period in Xīníng's history by 40 years. In 1895 one of several Dungan revolts spilled over from Gānsù, and the city was occupied by Muslim troops, but by the end of the year they were surrounded and confined there by troops from Bêijïng. In January 1896 they sued for peace but were refused. Shortly afterwards Xīníng fell and there was a massacre which provoked a general uprising of Dungans throughout Gansu, spreading as far as Lop Nor on the edge of Kashgaria.

    Around Xīníng

    Kumbum Tǎ’ěr Sì

    The main reason for coming to Xīníng is to see one of the two great monasteries of the ‘Yellow Hat’ sect of Tibetan Buddhism to be found outside Tibet—Kumbum. Both Kumbum and Labrang in Xiàhé, Gānsù Shěng are in the top six, as any monk with whom you can communicate will enthusiastically tell you.
    The Lamasery is at Huángzhōng, reached by catching a bus or minibus from the road just to the east of the Xīníng's sports centre. It’s a 26km, 45min journey. At Huángzhōng turn left out of the bus station and at the T–junction turn left and keep walking on the left until you find two left turns together, either of which will take you to the monastery. Taking lower one, climb the stairs on the left hand side up to the bridge you see ahead of you and cross the road. The higher one slopes steadily uphill to reach the same point. There are also minibuses running from the bus station to the Lamasery for 5 máo. The monks have a particular enthusiasm for taking the film of those who photograph inside the lamasery buildings, so do not attempt this. At the Hall of Butter Sculptures in particular, rolls of confiscated film are nailed up for all to see.

    The Times correspondent Peter Fleming visited Kumbum in 1935:

    Here, in the greatest temple, looking down from a high gallery upon the huddled chanting figures, I caught for a moment, and for the first time, something of that dark and powerful glamour with which Western superstition endows the sacred places of the East. I had been, as every traveller has, in many kinds of temples; never before in one where I had that tight, chill, tingling feeling which I suppose is something between spiritual awe and physical fear.

    Peter Fleming, News from Tartary, 1936.

    Kumbum, being close to a major city and a railway line, now has more of a commercial atmosphere than its counterpart Labrang, although it is still a functioning monastery, should not be missed. One benefit of its larger number of visitors is that there is no compulsory guided tour, and another is that for once there are explanatory signs in English. Chinese tourists spin the prayer wheels just for fun. Your ticket entitles you to enter ten or so of the temples and halls, which sprawl over the hillside with residences, administrative buildings, and stupas. These are thoughtfully numbered for you.

    The importance of Kumbum lies in its connection to Tsongkhapa (1357-1419), the founder of the Gelugpa ‘Yellow Hat’ sect of Tibetan Buddhism or Lamaism, and known to the Chinese as Zōngkābā. According to legend he was born near here (although other authorities give his birthplace as Amdo in Tibet, hundreds of kilometres away). Legend also has it that after his head was shaved at age seven in preparation for a religious career, the scattered hair grew into a sandlewood tree, whose leaves carried his image. Born at a time when a fairly definitive edition of key Buddhist writings had been established, he went on to produce 18 volumes of commentary, plus instructions on meditation and other works. He was a reformer and responsible for the founding of several great monasteries in Tibet. Since the adoption of civil as well as religious authority by the Dalai Lama in the 17th century, his Gelugpa (‘school of the virtuous’) sect has been pre-eminent. Tsongkhapa’s image can easily be recognised at Yellow Hat temples by his pointed hat with long ear flaps. According to legend, in 1379 Tsongkhapa’s mother built a small dagoba to mark his birthplace. A small lamasery was built not far away in 1560, which was joined by a hall to house a Maitreya statue after a visit by the third Dalai Lama in 1583. Enlarged and rebuilt many times, the monastery’s dozens buildings now cover a hillside, and include residences, temples, institutes, and a terrace for ‘sunning the Buddha’—displaying a large image painted on cloth known as a thangka at certain festivals.

    The ticket office is on your left if you have walked up, and on your right if you have been dropped by the minibus at the car park further up. With your back to the ticket office go up a path between the buildings to the left of and beyond the row of eight stupas to find the first stop. In addition to their function as storehouses for Buddhist texts and relics, stupas can also act as symbols of events in the life of the Sakyamuni Buddha, which is the role of these particular ones.

    The Lesser Temple of the Golden Roof, originally constructed in 1692, was roofed in gold plated bronze tiles after 1899. An interior balcony sports grotesquely distorted stuffed animals, including a yak and a bear which look down on tourists in a startled manner. A certain amount of percussion from monks with cymbals accompanies your visit. There is a fine incense burner topped with a lion which belches the smoke from the interior. The building has been well-restored and is hung with traditional blue and white awnings.
    Go round the large stupa opposite the entrance to the Lesser Temple (known as the Time Wheel Dagoba), and on uphill to find the Flower Temple or Longevity Hall of 1717, with a small shady courtyard and finely decorated interior.
    Across a small bridge and up to the left, is the Holy Land of Mandela. It contains giant three dimensional version of one of these visual representations of cosmic forces used as an aid to meditation.

    The remaining halls are all on your right as you continue uphill. What is open varies from time to time, so simply try to enter anything that looks as if it might be, and certainly anything with a numbered sign. One hall is currently undergoing a complete reconstruction and will re-open as a museum.

    The Nine Roomed Hall of 1592 is just one around a central courtyard, and contains statues of Dalai Lamas, Tsongkhapa, and bodhisattvas, and a courtyard for religious dances. The central space features three large seated figures and glass cases with hundreds of miniature ones. On the left a small temple with a stupa contains the ashes of the third Dalai Lama. Most of the halls have great tubs of waxy yak butter. At the right hand corner is a doorway leading to the Grand Hall of the Golden Roof, built in 1379, and containing an 11m high silver pagoda which is well worth paying the extra ¥3 to enter for its brooding atmosphere, sumptuous interior decorations. Its exterior walls are tiled in green with elaborate brass ties and to its right and left are the smaller halls of Sakyamuni and Maitreya.

    Higher up, the Astronomy College has racked texts, small statues, and coins and notes glued to the pillars using yak butter.

    The Hall of Butter Sculpture now offers a permanent display of butter sculptures (in anything so friable can be said to be permanent—an airconditioning unit is used when the weather gets hot). These kaleidoscopic painted sculptures include myriad miniature figures of waxy delicacy and colossal psychedelic flowers. The rear has scenes of miniature monks, yellow hats and all, going about their daily business.

    Key religious festivals at Kumbum, which, like those at Labrang attract large numbers of Tibetan visitors, include 8–15 of the 1st and 4th lunar month, 3–8 of the 6th lunar month, and 20-26 of the ninth lunar month. If you can establish when these dates are by the solar calendar you are likely to see ‘sunning the Buddha’, elaborate religious dances, and mass chanting, accompanied by colourful fairs.

    Qútán Sì

    This is a splendidly quiet Lamaist temple complex in Chinese style about 20km outside Lèdū, a small town about 65km east of Xīníng, altogether about 2.5 hours by miándì. Built in 1420 on the site of earlier buildings (main hall 1391), these plain stone buildings in a good solid state of repair have ten active monks. Beams are pleasingly weathered but their paintings and those on the walls are clear despite being unrestored, a rarity in China. The main attraction is a splendid mural gallery running around the best part of three sides of the compound, mostly in good condition and also untouched by the heavy hand of restoration, depicting scenes from the life of Buddha. Start left and go clockwise.

    Lèdū can be reached by bus from Xīníng. Minibuses wait where the bus drops you to take you up to Qútán Sì, departing when full.

    Báimǎ Sì

    This is a temple clearly visible on cliff side 20 mins walk north of Píng'ān, a small town halfway between Xīníng and Lèdū, and the point where the road to Tóngrén turns south. It is supposed to mark the spot where a blind foal, having unknowingly kicked its mother over the cliff regains its sight in time to see her fall, and jumps over after her. Báimǎ Sì translates as White Horse Temple, and it’s small 8th century temple of three storeys, with a good cliff-side location overlooking a Tibetan village immediately below, and Tǔ villages round about (most of the staff are Tû including the single monk). The temple is reached by a short climb up the red cliffs on not particularly steep paths. Píng'ān was the birthplace of the current Dalai Lama.

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    Wow, thanks for all that info! You almost convince me I need to go back.

    I have a 1936 US edition of "News From Tartary", with photos, maybe time to reread it. (I also have Fleming's "Bayonets to Lhasa", and "Brazilian Adventure" but in modern paperbacks.)

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    Wow thanks for the information. I know no one I have spoke to recommends Baotou even with using it as a base to see Inner Mongolia but the Genghis Khan mausoleum sounds really interesting. I am still tempted by Xining and its relative proximity to Zhangye and the rainbow mountains but with limited time I don't know how practical this is. Great that it sounds like Ningxia is a good pick!!

    Kja your report is interesting (and heartening you explored all that on your own!) as Shanxi was recommended to me and my friend there has been very welcoming. She lives in Tianyuan and we could visit Pingyao, although I was not overly sure about that but it seems you enjoyed your stay in Shanxi!?

    Still not sure about the logistics of whether I do Xining, Inner Mongolia and Shanxi as I can fly back to Beijing from Shenzhen but think this is a bit of a waste. Would rather fly directly from Shenzhen to one of my destinations keeping in mind I have to get back to Beijing by 6th April. My friend in Ningxia will be off for Qingming weekend which will be my last few days to travel (2nd, 3rd, 4th) although Ningxia would be better located for the middle of my trip rather than the end. Will need to have a think!

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    The Rainbow Mountains weren't being promoted when I was in Zhangye, but it's another Silk Route town of manageable size with a few interesting historic bits and pieces. Wuwei, en route, is another the same.

    You may find there are buses directly from Xining to Zhangye, probably taking seven to eight hours, but rail and indeed most land transport will go east to Lanzhou (a large dump) before heading northwest up the corridor. You should be able to pick up a train in Zhangye that heads down to Lanzhou and then up around the Yellow River loop, but you may have to change again. This sort of thing may be looked up on-line (although best not booked on-line, but only once you get in China).

    Remember to allow a lot of time for actually getting from A to B.

    Don't micro-plan your time: China doesn't work like that and all sorts of things go wrong. It also rather undoes the key benefit of independent travel: flexibility.

    As for Beijing, more than you could ever want to know here:

    http://bit.ly/2jldqHZ

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    Hi temp

    There is now a high speed train between Xining and Zhangye which takes 2 hours but I agree I only really have a week free time which is why I wanted to visit some less visited destinations but perhaps I am better picking Shanxi and Yinchuan.

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    Taiyuan has very little to recommend it (except, presumably, your friend).

    I'd take Xining and the chance to see Kumbum Si.

    Xining, Zhangye, Yinchuan doesn't seem an impossible combination for a week, assuming a reasonably efficient arrival in Xining, although it might be a bit of a rush.

    Some further, rather old, notes on Zhangye:

    The road to Zhāngyè passes through areas long used for breeding the ‘heavenly horses’ which, after considerable military expediture, were finally acquired by the Chinese from the petty kingdoms of Central Asia during the Hàn dynasty. At this point the corridor is wide enough and lush enough to continue to support horse breeding to this day.

    Another military outpost established at the time of the Hàn emperor Wǔdì, its position near the upper end of the Héxī corridor ensured that it prospered and declined along with the Silk Routes, and saw many famous visitors: Zhāng Qián passed this way going to investigate the Western Regions for Wǔdì, and Bān Chāo came through later on his way to regain control of them. Buddhist monks Fǎxiǎn and Xuánzàng passed through on their way to look for Buddhist texts in India, and hosts of others passed by on their way to Cháng’ān (Xī'ān) with merchandise, especially during the Táng. Master merchant (or, at any rate, the son of one) Marco Polo is supposed to have spent a year here:

    ...the Idolators have many minsters and abbeys after their fashion. In these they have an enormous number of idols, both small and great, certain of the latter being a good ten paces in stature; some of them being of wood, others of clay, and others yet of stone. They are all highly polished, and then covered with gold. The great idols of which I speak lie at length. And round about them there are other figures of considerable size, as if adoring and paying homage before them.

    Marco Polo, The Travels, 13th cent.(Yule-Cordier edition)

    Polo called Zhāngyè Campichu, his version of its ancient name of Gānzhōu. His description of the behaviour of the monks identified them as being the clergy of Tibetan Buddhism, from their observation of certain fasts. As at Wǔwēi, the people are described as Christian and Saracen, as well as Buddhist. In Polo’s day the city was again part of a unified China under Mongol rule, but prior to that it had belonged to the Tangut Xīxià dynasty which had wrested it away from the Uighurs in 1031. The Mongols almost completely eliminated the Tanguts in around 1226. There are still Huí, Mǎn (Manchu), Tibetan and Yugur (Yùgù—‘Yellow Uighur’) minorities in the region today, as there are in most of the cities on this route, although the overwhelming majority is now Hàn. As for the idols ‘both small and great’, the largest recumbant Buddha in China can still be found here.

    Several of the late 19th- and early 20th-century archaeologists and explorers passed through, too; Stein in 1907 and 1914, Langdon Warner in 1926, and Hedin on more than one occasion, including in 1933 and 1934 while surveying the feasibility of building a proper motor road along the old Silk Route for the Nationalist government in Nánjīng, and which led to the building of the modern route.

    Today’s Zhāngyè, having been industrialized, can no longer be admired as the pretty, green oasis that it once was (although the land around it is fertile), but the city is of a digestible size, its sights in easy walking distance of one another, and are worth the attention of the modern traveller who wants less-visited destinations without too much inconvenience.

    Dàfó Sì Big Buddha Temple

    The building of this extensive temple with its multi-eaved buildings, and which claims somewhat dubiously to be the largest in Gānsù, was begun in 1098 under the Xīxià, and expanded further under the Míng and the Qīng. The main central building contains the largest reclining Buddha in China. Although its eyes are wide open, this 34.5m-long colossus, 7.5m wide at the shoulders, is for some reason often referred to as a sleeping Buddha. But the statue is no stranger to distortion, neither in one traveller’s description of its length as 50 paces, nor in the lack of proportion of its arms to the rest of its body. It is attended by upright statues of disciples and Buddhist saints (luóhàn, or, in Sanskrit, Arhat).

    Legends about the temple say that it was Yuán emperor Kublai Khan’s birthplace, and that his mother was brought here to lie in state after her death. Both stories are mentioned (in Chinese—you will find nothing in English) in one hall to the left containing a small exhibition of archaeological finds from the area. There are also various stelae in the shadows of the temples. The buildings themselves have undergone heavy-handed restoration, and the site has been artifically disconnected from the stupa and other buildings in what is now the Wénhuà Guǎn.

    To gain access turn right out of the temple and right along Nán Dàjiē. The buildings here, including several small pavilions, gates and halls, have been left unrestored in modern times, the finely detailed paintings on their panels and beams now flaking. Not used as a source of tourist revenue (and with no entrance fee at all) instead the halls function as a social centre, and the ornate entrance gatehouse is used for showing martial arts videos. Old men play màjiáng and Chinese chess (xiàngqí) at tables in shady corners.

    Wànshòu Sì, Mùtâ

    Although the Longevity Temple has a main gate on Xiànfǔ Jiē it can only be reached through the yard of a school on its south side in Mínzhǔ Xījiē. Get the attention of the gatekeeper on the left as you enter, although as an object of unavoidable interest to swarms of children you’ll probably already have it, and point at the pagoda which can be seen peering over the top of the school buildings, and which is the main point of interest. The wood and brick pagoda is an octagonal nine-storey tower, originally erected in AD 582, and each corner decorated with dragon heads biting pearls. Both the pagoda and the adjacent temple buildings are decayed without being decrepit, and all are locked. The decay is somehow pleasing, and the lack of other visitors, guides, souvenir sellers and entrance fees delightful.

    Around Zhāngyè

    Mǎtí Sì Horse’s Hoof Temple

    The village of Mǎtí is about 1.75 hours and 62km by bus from the South bus station. Aliens’ Travel Permits (wàiguórèn lǚxíngzhèng) must be bought from the same PSB office as that handling visa extensions (likely no longer necessary). You will need to charter a taxi, use the services of CITS or similar, or stay two nights, since the bus back to Zhāngyè leaves at around 7am. Make sure your permit is made out for the right dates.

    The temple is once again active, with visiting teachers from the Labrang Monastery at Xiàhé, and between 30 and 40 Buddhist lamas of the Tibetan Yellow Hat sect, who estimate that they receive fewer than 400 visitors per annum. The temple stands above the now mostly Hàn Mǎtí village, which is at the base of the Qílián Shān and considerably cooler than Zhāngyè. The road to the village runs beneath sandstone cliffs riddled with caves and mostly statueless niches, reached by narrow paths that resemble sheep tracks.

    Although the main entrance is lower down, the main temple and its attendant buildings can be reached from a signed footpath leading from the centre of the village, winding around the cliff past one two-storey temple building and a sizeable stupa. The Mǎtí Sì itself is hewn from the cliff and features a glass covered horseshoe-shaped mark in the stone of the floor, supposed to be the imprint of a supernatural steed indicating the place where a lamasery should be built. Aurel Stein visited here in 1914, as did the missionaries Mildred Cable and two sisters named French who passed up and down this route five times between 1923 and 1936. They commented on various treasures including a jewelled saddle and royal robe presented by the Qiánlōng emperor (1711–99), and a secret grotto containing the fantastic costumes used in Buddhist ceremonial dances. Most of the interior statuary is modern but faint traces of original fresco work from the Míng period survive on either side of the entrance. (Free, but a donation is welcomed.) Other adjacent caves have only smashed remnants of their original statuary, or modern reproductions. Most interesting are the Sānshísān Tiān Shíkū (33 Heaven Caves), which resemble the Hanging Monastery near Dàtóng, except that connection between the temples is by steep tubular passages and stairwells cut through the rock itself, and for the nimble only. From below the tiny balconies appear to have been glued to the cliff-face.

    Despite the wrecking by Cultural Revolution vandals, this site is easy to reach and worth visiting, having an air of sincerity lacking at many more popular temples and cave sights. There are easy walks around the hillside to look at the almost endless niches in the cliff, and further temples and caves a short way back down the road towards Zhāngyè.

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    While I admit some challenges, I was surprised that traveling in China was as easy for a solo woman as it was, and am very glad that people like temppeternh and thursdaysd (who has also traveled in China on her own) encouraged me to do so. :-)

    Yes, I enjoyed my time in Shanxi very much – Pingyao (despite its increasing commercialization even when I was there; I wonder how much is left?); and especially Datong and its ancient nearby treasures, Wutai Shan, Nanchan Si and Foguang Si; and even Taiyuan for Jin Ci and a few excellent regional meals.

    That said, I’d give very serious consideration to any place that temppeternh recommends!

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    I have not been to this area, but I suspect getting to some of these remote sites which see very few Western tourists will involve needing some sort of help to decipher public transportation schedules. I don't foresee it being a snap.

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    Thanks for the tips. Shelemm, I agree, and I was planning on asking temppeternh, the ease, given the language barrier, of for example would I be able to get to the Genghis Khan mausoleum at Ordos myself from Baotou or to the Danxia mountains from Xining via Zhangye?

    This is why although I previously crossed off visiting Shanxi, I am now considering it, as if I at least have contacts in places who can point me in the right direction of where to go, it might be easier.

    Saying that Qinghai and Gansu sound fascinating.

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    If you decide it's going to be difficult, then of course it will be. But there isn't any other reason why. All that's required here is a bit of gumption.

    You get a local map. You (with the assistance of the English speaker at your hotel reception if necessary) identify on the map the characters for your destination (although any half-decent guide book should have them and they're easily found on the Internet. Indeed any half-decent guide book will be telling you the bus numbers on short-distance routes such as from Xining to Kumbum.) You ask which bus station (if there's more than one) and you go there (taxi, bus using the routes marked on local maps or told to you in your hotel). You show the characters to the ticket seller (and you can compare the characters with the departures board, too.) You show the ticket to any bus to get pointed at the right one. You show the ticket to the driver so he knows where you're going. On your way back you flag down any passing bus heading your way and show the characters for your destination. Once in town you either walk to your hotel, take a taxi (showing the driver the name card you've brought from the hotel), or get a bus.

    All of this is possible without a single word of a common language, and an absolute doddle for anyone with a little Mandarin. Vast numbers of independent travellers every single year do this sort of thing and more without any Mandarin at all, and were doing so long before large amounts of information (although admittedly a lot of it dodgy) became available on the Internet.

    To take one example, the position of the Genghis Khan Mausoleum and its relationship to Baotou is visible here:

    https://www.google.ca/maps/dir/Baotou,+Inner+Mongolia,+China/Genghis+Khan's+Mausoleum,+Bulage+Rd,+Yijinhuoluo+Qi,+Eerduosi+Shi,+Neimenggu+Zizhiqu,+China/@40.0851094,109.5442138,9.52z/data=!4m14!4m13!1m5!1m1!1s0x36045822173019db:0x9a11183c3fd75d7c!2m2!1d109.840349!2d40.657378!1m5!1m1!1s0x360defb0986e36f5:0xbe724546b8bbcfb9!2m2!1d109.790466!2d39.369609!3e3

    There's a complete description of how to do the trip by both train (apparently there's now a line) or bus here:

    http://www.topchinatravel.com/ordos/how-to-get-to-ordos-from-baotou.htm

    and many more sources available on line, not all of which will be wrong, and all of which will at least give you the basics before you even arrive, so you only have to check them.

    The characters for your the mausoleum to print out and show are easily found on-line. They're:

    成吉思汗陵

    and with a bit of Mandarin you can easily look up how to say them, too, if you wish: Chéngjísī Hán (Genghis Khan) Líng (tomb).

    In short, there's only a problem if you decide there's one. And then all the people who do do it by themselves without a word of Mandarin will disagree. There is no inherent difficulty.

    But it's your holiday, and you should do whatever pleases you.

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    What Peter said. I am never going to speak Mandarin, because I am tone deaf, but I managed to get around on my own without much difficulty - and without English speaking front desk staff in several places. I had a guidebook and a phrase book with Chinese characters (don't settle for one with just pinyin, I didn't find anyone in mainland China who could read that).

    I would copy out the characters for where I wanted to go, and I made sure to have a card for my hotel so I could get back. When it came to eating I learned the characters for a few things, but I found that pointing worked well. I went back into the kitchen a few times, and that always resulted in a delicious stir fry.

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    Zhangye is an interesting stop. Understand that MatiSi and the "Rainbow Mountains" are out of town and you'll need to get a driver.
    The Rainbow Mountains are better seen in late afternoon when the sun is shining on them. Colours won't quite be like the photos that you see online but that also depends on a number of factors like the weather. We were lucky that it rained on the day before our visit, apparently the first rain in over a month. It washed away the dust and made colours brighter.
    While one can manage to visit China without language skills and should never consider this as a deterrent, there are places where it is more challenging, Zhangye is one such place. Our driver did not speak a word of English. We found him through our hotel, the biggest hotel in town, where not a single employee spoke English either. Language was not an issue for us but it requires a very good preparation if you speak zero Mandarin.
    It's nothing like visiting Beijing or Shanghai. We did not see any other foreign tourists at that time.
    Language should never be an obstacle but some people don't want to try and just don't have the attitude. II have seen tourists even unable to order from a picture menu at KFC and couldn't pay as they could not figure out how much money they had in their hands. This is extreme but one can find all kinds out there.

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    Thanks for the helpful comments. I studied languages at university and have lived in 5 different countries so I am definitely not one of those tourists who doesn't want to try to travel and just wants Western food, in fact I don't eat fast food at home let alone in a foreign country!

    But on the other hand, China is of course a very different country and I have to be realistic in how much I can do and be prepared.

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    China is a country in which people go about doing the same things they do everywhere else. There's plenty of information and signage in English, and you've heard here from people without two words of Mandarin to rub together (in addition to the tens of thousands of others who travel independently in China without Mandarin every year) who've gone to destinations at a similar level. None of your choices are remote, and lesser-known destinations and more rural spots are often far more friendly and agreeable than larger high-traffic destinations.

    If you can conceive of travelling in Poland without Polish or even France without French (and who can't?) I'm at a loss as to why China without Mandarin should be thought difficult even before arriving. Eating Western fast food is, of course, entirely unnecessary. Picture menus are commonplace in restaurants, food and dish lists are commonplace in phrase books and guide books, apps like Google translate will give you live translations of characters you see, English (albeit badly translated) is also common on menus in the most surprisingly out-of-the-way places, and pointing to order is always a fall back.

    But some people do insist, without experience, that it's all going to be difficult. Again, it is if you decide it is so. But that's your decision. There's certainly nothing unrealistic about what you propose to do.

    一路平安

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    I guess here, over the pond (in Scotland), you can hop on a plane and be in France or Poland in about two hours so Europe isn't considered that foreign or exotic and of course the countries aren't so huge compared to China.

    But I take your point, it is a matter of attitude and it is great to know that everything I've plan to do is feasible :)

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    I admit that I find traveling in places that use Roman characters for written language easier than traveling in places that do not, but I've not found language difficulties to be insurmountable in Russia or Japan or China or South Korea, even when far enough off the beaten track to see little English signage. If anything, I've found the interactions with people in those areas to be among the most rewarding of my travel moments, as it is incredibly heartwarming to experience the lengths to which people have gone to welcome me and, when they thought it necessary, offer me their assistance.

    With the attitude that you've already shown, I'm sure your experience will be wonderful and memorable.

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