Friday, March 23, 2012

Holiday in China

China is a scenic place to visit. There are so many places to see-- you will probably need many trips. But one thing that puts people off a China tour is numerous "shopping" trips in the itinerary. Some people might be wondering what is wrong with shopping? For those who have been on China tours will understand why I say that we detest going on these shopping trips.
Another horror story about visiting China is the toilet story. I'm surprised people still talk about it because during the trips that I went,  I have never encountered any problems with dirty toilets or door-less latrines.
So, for this China trip, as usual we did it DIY style. We decide on the itinerary, we decide what time we want to start, we decide where, when and what to eat and we don't have to wait for others or rush so as not to let others wait for us. Like what people and easy. And best of all the shopping is our kind of shopping not the tour group type of shopping. In this post I'll share the overall trip, the planning, the cost and some experiences. Later I'll post the various legs of the tour separately.
Planning the Itinerary
China is so vast. You have to decide which area you want to go and then start planning. How to decide where to go? Maybe you've heard it from friends, read about it somewhere. If you have no idea, then check out the various China tourism websites or blogs. I have already visited Beijing, Guangzhou, Xiamen and Shenzhen. From a friend's blog I was fascinated by the tulous, the earthen Hakka dwellings which are now UN declared world heritage sites. Being a Taipu Hakka, I was also curious to see the Dabu County because my father and grandparents migrated to Malaya from this place. At first I wanted to go through Guangzhou since Dabu is in the Guangdong Province. After doing much web research, I decided to go through Xiamen so that I can also visit Longyan in Fujian Province because my wife's ancestors are from there.
To find out which are the interesting places to see, first I visited local travel agents and pretended to be interested in their tours. You collect all their itinerary, their cost and then you check it out on the internet. Besides the official tourism sites of the various places, there are other private local tour websites providing information. Popular websites like virtual tourist, trip advisor or lonely planet are good sources of information. Through the forums, you can post enquiries and there will always be people willing to share the information. However, some information might be outdated. After some planning this is what I came out with:

Day 1 : Penang to Guangzhou to Xiamen, stay in Xiamen

Day 2: Depart Xiamen for Longyan, visit Longkong Caves
Inside the Longkong Caves

 and Peitian Ancient Hakka Village
Scenic Peitian Ancient Hakka Village

Day 3: Visit Yunlong Bridge in Luofang, 
View from Yunlong Bridge

Guanzhai Mountain in Liancheng
Beautiful scenery at Guanzhai Mountain

Day 4: Visit Hongkeng tulou cluster 

and Gaobei tulou cluster 

and stay in Hotspring Resort
Capital of Hakka Hotspring Resort
Day 5: Visit Chuxi Tulou cluster and depart for Dabu
Dabu Gourmet Street

Day 6: Visit Dabu
Dabu Street Market

Day 7: Go back to Xiamen
Day 8: Xiamen to Guangzhou to Penang.

One thing good about travelling on our own is that we can make adjustments to the planned itinerary to suit ourselves. Because of some dispute between the villagers and the authorities, we couldn't visit Chuxi Tulou so we had more time to visit Dabu. We cut short the Dabu stay and left for Xiamen earlier to do shopping.

The Cost.
To cover such a wide area which is mainly the mountainous regions, it would not be possible and practical to go by public transport. You can either join the local tours or hire a car plus driver to take you round. Of course don't expect this DIY trip to be cheap. But you have to work out a budget for the trip before you go. Unlike following a tour where you pay in advance and just bring money for shopping, here you have to break down the details. A quick check with some Malaysian Tour companies told me an 8-day trip costs around RM3900. Someone quoted me RM3600 but I'll have to fly to KL to meet the rest, which means it'll be also around RM4000. Coincidently, my Taipu Association also organised a trip during the same time, for RM3920 but there are certain days they let you go free and easy to visit relatives and you have to pay for your own food. I don't know whether the trip materialised or not. Anyway in total,despite hiring a private car and driver for 5 days, I only spent RM3100 per person and that includes the hotels, food and all the entrance tickets and other transport, which means DIY is still cheaper.
The car we hired for 5 days.
The usual rate for car rental plus driver is CNY400 (RM200) per day but you have to clarify the details because there might be extra charges. The fare is inclusive of car rental, petrol and drivers fees. Originally I asked for 4 day rental so the total came out to CNY1600. The man asked for CNY200 petrol surcharge because my trip covers a large area and I agreed to pay. Then he told me the trip starts in Longyan on the Mainland and we would have to find our way to Longyan. In order not to waste time travelling I paid an extra day's rental for the driver to come to pick us from Xiamen in the morning. Halfway along the road he asked me whether I want to pay the toll to use the highway. Since it will save me time and it's safer, I agreed. Otherwise he'll use the old road. On the last day, we decided to cut short the Dabu stay and leave for Xiamen a day earlier. I wanted to go by public bus CNY100 per person but the bus leaves at 6.40am..too early. So I booked another day's car rental. All in (plus toll and surcharges) I paid CNY2800 for 5 days car and driver fees.

Food is cheap in China especially in the rural areas. Its more expensive in the big cities and even worse at the airport.  But one thing you might want to know is that even though the driver doesn't request for it, out of courtesy you'll invite him to join you for lunch or dinner when you are travelling. It didn't really cost me much because usually my wife and I couldn't finish the food when we ate so we didn't have to order more. The drivers were from the tulous so they didn't join us for the meals in the tulous. But one good thing about having a local around when you eat is that the restaurant dare not cheat you. The driver reminded me ask the price of each dish before ordering, and he helped by telling them not to cook too much.He does  the complaining for me about the food. In Malaysia, we might be shy to ask the price but in China (especially the rural areas) we go the kitchen, they show us the ingredients and we discuss the price first. Meals are usually around CNY50-80 for 3 persons . When we go jalan-jalan trying the street food, it is much cheaper.
Entrance tickets

The two of us spent about CNY700 for entrance tickets for the whole tour.If you follow a tour group it is supposed to be inclusive but sometimes they will ask whether you want to pay extra for optional tours, boat rides and so on.

Jinfan Hotel, Dabu


Spacious modern rooms, including breakfast and hotspring facilities for only CNY198nett at Xiayang
Nice clean bathrooms
Hotels are quite cheap. Just check out the location and reviews. Most China hotels don't require you to pay in advance. I booked all my hotels without paying. If you don't show up, they will just ask you by email why you didn't show up. Just say change of plans and they'll thank you for responding. If you stay, they'll ask you to give comments about the hotel and you don't have to if you don't want to.
In my next few posts I'll go through some details of each leg of the trip.

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