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February 29, 2008

How to Do China in 12 Days

China_itinerary_2 by Wendy Perrin

A question came in from Conde Nast Traveler reader Phyllis Nova:

"I enjoyed your China Iconic Itinerary in the March issue. Lots of good info.  I'm interested in your bonus trip to Xi'an but can't seem to access it online. Please inform how to get it. Thank you."

So sorry about the delay in getting my Xi'an recommendations onto (I've been busy!) They're there now.

Yes, folks, my hard-won China advice, based on that backbreaking Operation China recon mission you may remember from October/November, is now on the newsstands. The article is a step-by-step 12-day itinerary for travelers who want a smart combo of China's highlights as well as its off-the-beaten-path gems. Should you opt to read it online, BE SURE to read the PDF version, since this contains all manner of vital advice and cautions that are NOT in the non-PDF version!

By the way, Conde Nast Traveler has also designed and test-driven step-by-step Iconic Itineraries for Russia (I wrote that one too), Machu Picchu and the Amazon (which Brook wrote), Southeast Asia, India, and Egypt. To read the PDF versions, click on "Print the Whole Story + Maps" (which you'll find inside the box entitled "Online Extras"). Enjoy!

December 05, 2007

So Where WAS Wendy?

A few weeks ago when I was in China I posted this photo, inviting all of you to guess where I was standing when I shot it.

by Wendy Perrin

Looks like I've finally stumped the "Where's Wendy?" crew. Remember a month ago when I challenged you to guess which section of the Great Wall this is? Nobody -- not even "Where's Wendy?" contest winners like Tracker1312 and LoriB -- got it. It's the Shuiguan section of the Wall that sits about a 20-minute hike above the hotel known as the Commune by the Great Wall. The hotel, about an hour and a half from downtown, is actually a group of villas, each different than the next, designed by 12 contemporary Asian architects.

One of the villas, Cantilever House, sits about a 20-minute hike below the spot where I shot the photo. See the Great Wall up there on the mountain ridge?
Photo: Commune by the Great Wall

It's nice to have a private section of the Great Wall all to yourself, but it's also an accident waiting to happen.

Just look at all the loose rocks where the Wall meets the hotel path.

During the Beijing Olympics next year, some of the athletes will be staying at the Commune so they can breathe air much fresher than what they'll find in the city.  I hope they bring the right trail shoes.

November 14, 2007

OPERATION CHINA: Finding Shangri-La

At the top of Shangri-La sits Songzanlin Monastery, nicknamed "the Little Potala Palace" after its sacred big sister in Lhasa, Tibet. Nov. 8, 2007.

by Wendy Perrin

The last and by far the best stop on my 17 day China trip (the memory of which lingers as I lie here bedridden, coughing and congested, trying to shake some nasty bug I picked up just before flying home four days ago) was the city that is called either Gyalthang, Zhongdian, or Shangri-La, depending on whether you're Tibetan, Chinese, or working for the local tourist board. I guess I'd better refer to it as Shangri-La, since that's what the Chinese government officially renamed it in 2003, arguing that it's the fictional paradise described in James Hilton's 1933 novel Lost Horizon.

Shangri-La's Old Town, Nov. 8, 2007.

Called "the gateway to Tibet," Shangri-La may be located in China, but it's culturally Tibetan. See it before it suffers the fate of so many of China's tourist draws and gets overbuilt and overrun by hundreds of thousands of domestic-Chinese tour groups. As I lamented in my last post, in Lijiang's Old Town you can barely find any of the indigenous Naxi people anymore.  In Shangri-La's Old Town, though, you can still find plenty of the local Khampa Tibetans.

Tibetans in Shangri-La's Old Town. A blue apron means you're married, a white apron means you're not. Nov. 8, 2007.

Thankfully, the landscape around Shangri-La remains untouched for now:

I snapped this about a 15-minute drive outside of town, on the road to Tibet, Nov. 8, 2007.

Here are three things in and around Shangri-La that you mustn't miss:

Continue reading "OPERATION CHINA: Finding Shangri-La" »

November 12, 2007

OPERATION CHINA: The Naxi People of Lijiang

Black Dragon Pool is one of the few spots left in Lijiang where, in the late afternoons, you can escape the tourist hordes. Nov. 6, 2007.

by Wendy Perrin

Yunnan Province in China's southwest -- land of traditional ethnic-minority people who wear colorful headdresses and have water-splashing festivals -- was the highlight of my last trip to China nine years ago. Even though the village of Lijiang has been overrun by the rampant commercialism that has infected so many heretofore charming spots in China, it remains worth visiting because of the ancient and incredibly friendly Naxi people whom you can still find in the villages nearby . . . if you know where to look.

The Naxi people have the world's only complete pictographic language. The sentence you see above, written by this Naxi shaman, translates as "Happy birthday." Nov. 7, 2007.

Continue reading "OPERATION CHINA: The Naxi People of Lijiang" »

November 07, 2007

OPERATION CHINA: Hanging Out In Hangzhou

Hangzhou's hidden gem is the Former Residence of HuXueYan, who was one of Hangzhou's wealthiest businessmen in the late 19th century. Nov. 5, 2007

by Wendy Perrin

Now that there's a bullet train that can get you between Shanghai and Hangzhou in about an hour and twenty minutes, I decided to make a day trip to the city that was voted China's best place to live, thanks mainly to all its verdant parks, gardens, and tea plantations.  The highlight for me was, actually, not the greenery but the Former Residence of HuXueYuan. It may be a bit hard to find -- for some baffling reason it's not in any of my three China guidebooks -- but it's a must-see.

Continue reading "OPERATION CHINA: Hanging Out In Hangzhou" »

November 06, 2007

OPERATION CHINA: Traditional Water Town

Sampans in Zhujiaojiao, less than an hour's drive from Shanghai. Nov. 4, 2007

by Wendy Perrin

Need a respite from the concrete jungle of Shanghai?  The ancient water town of Zhujiaojiao makes a nice little half-day trip.  Unlike so many places in China that have been overbuilt and overrun by tourism, Zhujiaojiao has managed to avoid commercialism and retain its charm. And it's only 45 minutes from town -- on a Sunday, at least (not during Monday morning rush hour).

At the City God Temple, locals who want good luck -- say, students prepping for exams -- buy red ribbons to hang on one of the Wishing Trees. Nov. 4, 2007

Continue reading "OPERATION CHINA: Traditional Water Town" »

November 04, 2007

OPERATION CHINA: The Dragon's Spine Rice Terraces

The haze that hangs over much of China followed me to the Dragon's Spine Rice Terraces in the southeast. Nov. 2, 2007

by Wendy Perrin

Remember that one day of blue sky I raved about in Beijing?  That's now but a distant memory.  Since then I've seen only haze, caused either by pollution -- as in Xian -- or simply misty weather -- as in Ping An, a village that sits atop the Dragon's Spine Rice Terraces.

Ping An starts here and ends 1,000 steps up, at the top of the rice terraces. Nov. 2, 2007

In Ping An I was told that the number of steps to the top is 1,000. I don't know if that's true -- I didn't count -- but I can tell you that the steps are quite shallow and hiking up them was no harder than a 20-minute low-level workout on the StairMaster.

The farmers who live in the ancient villages that dot the rice terraces belong to two of China's traditional "ethnic minority" groups: the Yao and the Zhuang. These people still wear traditional colorful clothing and headdresses.

The Yao people who live on the rice terraces are super-friendly. Nov. 2, 2007.

Yao women grow Rapunzel-length hair and will take off their headscarves and unwrap their elaborate hairdos for you.


To see how the Yao wrap their hair back up again, read on.

Continue reading "OPERATION CHINA: The Dragon's Spine Rice Terraces" »

October 31, 2007

OPERATION CHINA, Day 3: Secrets of Beijing

There I am at the Mutianyu section of The Great Wall, October 30, 2007.
Photo: Kathryn Maier

by Wendy Perrin

Sorry I couldn't post yesterday as promised: I was having tech snafus.  Now that I've got WiFi again, I can make good on my promise of the three secrets that every smart traveler to Beijing should know:

(1) The Beijing Children's Palace
This isn't in the guidebooks. It's a school where some of Beijing's most gifted children, ages 4 through 18, take extracurricular classes in art, music, and sports.  You need an appointment to get inside and watch the kids in action. See my last post for photos of the Palace's buildings, which were built as part of the Forbidden City.  Here's what was happening when I visited this past Sunday:

Kids were learning calligraphy  . . .

. . . girls practiced gymnastics while boys learned martial arts . . .

. . .and these kids were learning how to play the two-stringed Chinese violin.

And where do you think this was? Learn secret #2 after the jump.

Continue reading "OPERATION CHINA, Day 3: Secrets of Beijing" »

October 29, 2007

OPERATION CHINA, Day 2: Blue Skies in Beijing

Beijing's air seems much less polluted now than it did a few years ago. Get a load of how blue the sky was yesterday as I strolled through the Children's Palace, Oct. 28, 2007.

by Wendy Perrin

Boy, has Beijing changed in the nine years since I was last here. Not only are the air and streets much cleaner -- thanks to the city's effort to shape up in time for the 2008 Olympics -- but the city is also much more user-friendly for travelers. There is English signage everywhere, including in the subway. Chinese and foreigners now use the same ticket lines . . . and pay the same ticket prices. Those con-artist rickshaw drivers have been banished from the back gate of the Forbidden City. And if you want to bike -- a great way to sightsee -- it's much less harrowing than before: The number of bikers has dropped by at least half, there are safety fences preventing cars from veering into bike lanes, and black exhaust fumes aren't belched into your nasal passages all day (since few trucks are allowed into the city center and cars are burning natural gas instead of oil).

Autumn has hit the courtyards of the Beijing Children's Palace, Oct 28, 2007.

The only thing that's not user-friendly about Beijing's Olympics prep? The number of great places that are closed for renovation, including the Lao She Teahouse, the Sackler Museum of Art and Archaeology, and the Quanjude Roast Duck Restaurant at Qianmen (the oldest branch of the city's best Peking Duck joint). Oh well. Maybe next time.

Up tomorrow: Three secrets every smart traveler to Beijing should know.

October 27, 2007

OPERATION CHINA, Day 1: Flying Across The Pacific

When my Cathay Pacific flight from JFK to Hong Kong stopped in Vancouver
to refuel, we had to remain onboard while a cleaning crew prepped the
plane for the continuing leg to Hong Kong. 2:00 a.m. Vancouver time,
October 26, 2007

by Wendy Perrin

I should have done what Cranky did. The Cranky Flier is headed to Peru and has asked his blog readers to vote on which airline he should fly -- specifically, which will provide the best onboard experience in coach. I should have asked you guys to vote on which airline to fly to China in coach!  Instead I left it up to my travel agent.

My final destination?  Beijing. The travel agent put me on a 20-hour Cathay Pacific flight from JFK to Hong Kong via Vancouver, connecting to a flight from Hong Kong to Beijing -- a 26-hour trip in total.  (Why not fly one of Cathay's New York-Hong Kong nonstops?  Because Conde Nast Traveler is very budget-conscious in its travel spending, and I saved the company quite a sum by flying via Vancouver.)

Cathay's flight #889 sits on the ground in Vancouver for a full hour -- from 1:40 to 2:40 a.m. local time -- to refuel, let a few passengers off, and take on a few more.  If your destination is Hong Kong, though, you can't disembark. You can't sleep either -- not if you're in coach -- as there's way too much commotion, what with all the workers bringing new food supplies on board and cleaning the plane. (The folks in business class slept fine during the stop, as their cabin was kept dark and quiet.)

The view from my seat (45C) during the one-hour Vancouver stop, while
workers brought new blankets and pillows on board and cleaned the

Here are three important things I learned about the seats on Cathay's Boeing 747-400s:

Continue reading "OPERATION CHINA, Day 1: Flying Across The Pacific" »

October 25, 2007


What's in the portable pharmacy I'm taking on a 17-day trip to China?

by Wendy Perrin

Tonight I fly to China, and I thought you might get a kick out of seeing what I've stuffed into my bags. In addition to clothing, laptop, guidebooks (all ungodly heavy), and energy bars, I'm carrying three quart-sized Ziploc bags -- one for my tech gear and the other two for the drugstore I'm carrying.

As usual I got the vaccinations and prescription medications necessary for my itinerary -- which includes some remote and malarial locales -- from Dr. Bradley A. Connor, medical director of Travel Health Services in New York and a past president of the International Society of Travel Medicine. Ever since he came to the rescue when I was suffering from some bizarre rash picked up in Zimbabwe, Dr. Connor has been my hero.  I met him before my first trip to China nine years ago, and he said the same thing then that he says now:  When it comes to China, you need to be your own doctor.  He recommends taking along a couple of antibiotics and a selection of medicines and palliatives that could come in handy, whatever might ail you.

The last time I was in China I got strep throat, so I figure if I get sick this time it will most likely be  from a respiratory infection.  All those industrial particulates in the air and all that spitting in the streets!  I'm not worried about food poisoning, since last time I never once got sick to my stomach. I discovered, in fact, that it's pretty easy to eat safely and healthfully in China: The food typically arrives piping hot; there are always lots of safe rice, noodle, and steamed vegetable dishes to choose from; and there's bottled water everywhere. Thus my Ziploc bags are stocked with more cold medications than stomach ones. 

For a list of what's in my portable drugstore, read on.

Continue reading "OPERATION CHINA: Packing List" »