Live Talk Transcript: China and Hong Kong

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Writer Ron Gluckman answered your questions on traveling to China and Hong Kong

China is the world's fastest-growing travel destination; but few go beyond the main cities and major tourist attractions. Those that do are rewarded by engaging views of a vast land of unrivaled terrain, tribes and travel experiences.

Hong Kong has traditionally been one of the world's favorite destinations in Asia, and the usual gateway to China. But few would think of Hong Kong as a bargain getaway, or scenic retreat.

Ron Gluckman, a longtime resident of both Hong Kong and China, reveals the remarkable secret of taking a low-cost holiday to Hong Kong, by visiting many of the charming outlying islands of one of the world's busiest cities. Instead of high-rises, these charming islands harbor picturesque coves, great beaches and bargain lodging, all within an hour of the world's favorite shopping city.

Meanwhile, China continues to modernize and open up to the outside world. A reporter who has lived in and covered Greater China for over a dozen years, Ron Gluckman reveals some of the most exciting travel destinations and intriguing contrasts in the world's fastest growing country.

Ron answered your questions Tuesday, September 7, at 12 p.m. EST. Read the transcript below.

Ron Gluckman is an American journalist who has been covering Hong Kong and China for more than a dozen years. He has been based for the past four years in Beijing. Previously, he spent nine years in Hong Kong, living upon Lamma Island, one of the many idyllic Outlying Islands that he writes about in Budget Travel. Mr. Gluckman contributes to Newsweek, Time, Fortune, Discovery, MSNBC, Popular Science, the Wall Street Journal and Travel & Leisure.


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Ron Gluckman: Hello. Ron Gluckman here; thanks for joining me on line. While my new story on this site describes the exciting and surprisingly-little known islands of Hong Kong, for today's talk, I will be taking your questions about both Hong Kong, where I lived for nine years in the 1990s, and China, where I have been living for the past four years. But seeing as I happen to right now be on the road, roaming around China's spicy Sichuan Province, I'll start with some of the questions about this area.

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Tucson, AZ: Is the Yangtze River still something to see?

Ron Gluckman: Greetings to you in Tucson. Well, this is a short question, but a potentially big topic. It's sort of like asking, "Should I drive Route 66; is there still anything to see?"

Like the old highway of Americana, China's long Yangtze stretches 4,000 miles, through a wide variety of scenery, people and cultures. Right now, I'm in Chengdu, where flooding along the Yangtze has been in the news this month. Here, it's a wide, muddy Mississippi-like river that sustains massive cities of millions of people, rice farmers and boatmen. A few months ago, I was high in the Himalayas, near where the Yangtze tumbles down from Tibet. There, the river is a gorgeous creature that snakes through breathtaking canyons, fed by pristine snow-packs, and shaggy yaks graze by its side.

Most of the time when I hear from readers about the Yangtze, they are considering a trip through the Three Gorges, so I assume that's your interest. Much has been made of the controversy surrounding the construction of the Three Gorges Dam. The world's largest construction project did force the relocation of a huge number of people along the river as well as the flooding of numerous towns, including many that were popular stops on the Three Gorges cruises. Before the dam was completed, we were treated to all kinds of stories about the end of these cruises, and a kind of hysteria to see the sights before they were supposedly gone. My feeling is that, for most visitors, the consequences have been greatly exaggerated. True, the river did rise (and is still rising; the full depth of about 175 meters won't be reached until 2009), and many sights are now gone. But after the dam was completed and cruises resumed, we saw a whole new industry selling the "new sights" of the Three Gorges, including the dam itself, which cannot be discounted. When your enormous six-story cruise ship is swallowed up inside one of the locks (each longer than a football field), that's an incredible experience.

Many no doubt are coming largely just to see the dam and pass through this massive engineering achievement.

Far more, though, come for the scenery, more than 20 million visitors a year in fact. I think the overall impression is very positive. It's all personal taste. If you want to take a break from the pressures of traveling in China, and just sit on a dock and watch scenery scroll by, the cruises won't disappoint. A minority of visitors say the trips take up too much time, and don't like all the programmed entertainment. In both cases, the pluses and the minuses remain unaltered. The canyons and gorges are just as magnificent -- or monotonous -- as they have been for eons.

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Utica, NY: I know that the large coastal cities are benefiting enormously from the new economic policies, but what about the rural areas? Is there any change in the standard of living and opportunities for the rural poor, and if not, how long will it take until those areas are able to catch up economically?

Ron Gluckman: This is a matter of constant study and regular reporting, and I have done my share. I think it's fair to say that the lion's share of the benefit of the reforms has remained in urban areas of China, as anywhere else. Aid groups warn of growing disparity between the haves and have-nots, and this is something I've seen myself. This year, I went on a tour with representatives of the World Bank, to the poorest parts of China, in southern Guangxi. The poverty is suffocating, but even there, as everywhere I've been in China in 15 years, I'd have to say the opening up and reforms of the economy have brought visible improvement and greater living condition to all. Not equally, by any means. And not satisfying, which Beijing is properly concerned about. But I'd have to say the entire country, everywhere I've been, has improved and is still improving, at least in materialistic terms.

Will the rural areas ever catch up? No chance, in my mind. Some areas, like Chongqing, just down the road from me and the launching pad for those Three Gorge trips, have been targeted for special programs that have helped lift millions from poverty. But the government cannot finance a path to prosperity for all 1.3 billion people. Just like in rural America or Europe, lifestyles will lag behind the cities. You only need to look up the road from yourself towards the Canadian border, and you see similar disparity of wealth right there in New York.

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Shakopee, MN: Is it true that if you are staying in Hong Kong, you will need to get a visa before leaving Hong Kong to travel to mainland China? Where are the best places to get jewelry, tailored clothing and other personal specialty items while in Hong Kong?

Ron Gluckman: While visitors to Hong Kong from most countries including the US can travel to Hong Kong visa free, everyone needs a visa for China. If this seems a contradiction since everyone knows the former British colony of Hong Kong has been a part China since 1997, one can only imagine the absurdity of having to check in hours early for the flight from Shanghai or Beijing to Hong Kong, and then pay the "international departure tax" and have to check through customs; more so if you happen to be a resident of both places in the same country and carry independent travel documents for each!

China, to its credit, has maintained much of the quality of life in Hong Kong (and the former Portuguese colony of Macau) through stringent border controls. These are being increasingly relaxed. Tourists from China now for the top category of visitors (and are the biggest spenders) in Hong Kong, which I think is a positive and logical development.

For shopping in Hong Kong, I cannot say enough about getting good information and Hong Kong is probably the world's best place for free information. Start with the user-friendly Hong Kong Tourism Board, which dispenses free maps, brochures, bus routes and timetables, and all manner of useful advice from a variety of locations -- at Star Ferry and the lobby of the airport. They also have a great website: discoverhongkong.com. Wonderful shopping advice can be found here.

My main advice is to stay away from Nathan Road and the surrounding area of Kowloon. This is where most tourists stay, and unfortunately, where most get fleeced. A huge proportion of complaints -- and the bad image of Hong Kong shops -- comes from this area, where a large numbers of scam artists and cheats operate. For cameras, I'd recommend the shops on Stanley Road in Central. The prices won't be quite as cheap, but you tend to get what you pay for. For computers and similar gear, stick to the big computer malls, like Star House in Kowloon or Windsor House in Causeway Bay. The clothing markets around Causeway Bay are fantastic for clothing, purses and shoes. Granville Road in Kowloon also has good outlets for clothing, makeup and jewelry. Tailors are everywhere, but again, stick to established shops recommended by friends who have used them.

For souvenirs and trinkets, I'm a huge fans of the outdoor markets, in Wan Chai and Mongkok, and the colorful Temple Street night market.

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Saratoga Springs, NY: My husband and I traveled to Hong Kong last September and we loved it. However, we were worried that to travel to inland China would be hard since we don't speak Mandarin or Cantonese. Is it much different in mainland China as concerns speaking to the locals?

Ron Gluckman: English has increased considerably in China, where everybody seems to be studying it. But aside from the major cities, you will not find much English spoken outside of the top hotels and tourist areas and even in cities like Shanghai, you really cannot expect to have conversations with people in English. It will happen, but more the rare exception.

Still, don't be put off. A simple phrase book and what is written in the guidebooks will go a long way. But I think most still find China quite adventurous off the beaten path, and language is one of the main reasons.

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Huntsville, AL: Ron, Loved your article on Budget Travel to outlying islands near Hong Kong. What about budget adventure travel to areas in Southern mainland China? Can you make some recommendations for 2-3 weeks of travel off the beaten path? About how much should I budget for daily costs? I don't speak Chinese. Is a phrase book necessary? If so, which? Thanks.

Ron Gluckman: Glad you enjoyed the story. China has lots of marvelous places that are little visited, off the path and delightful bargains. In fact, I'll be writing about one of my favorites, Lijiang, in an upcoming issue of Budget Travel.

Lijiang in Yunan Province, is a fairytale town of ancient wooden and tile houses set in mazes of walkways around a series of rivers, framed by gorgeous mountains. You walk everywhere on tiny paths or old cobbled paths, with bridges of all kinds, from huge arched ones to mere planks, connecting all the cafes, tea houses and charming shops.

A decade ago, Lijiang was a backpacker-only destination, difficult to get to and only the basics for food and lodging. Now, it's gone the path of every other discovered destination. The group tours can put one off, but I think it still retains a magnificent charm as an authentic mountain village of a diverse group of colorful tribes.

Yangshou (near Guilin) in southern China falls into the same category. A decade ago, it was like some fantasy creation, all these sheer, conical rock formations stretching out across an immense valley, rising along the riverbed and the rice fields. With the tropical vegetation and regular swirling mists, Yangshuo was a mesmerizing place to park and stay for weeks at a time. Cafes and cheap guesthouses sprung up, and soon the town was chock-a-block with Mickey Mao cafes and pizza parlors. It still is, and still is a fabulous place to visit, but definitely not off track anymore.

Western China has loads of places that would qualify. Dali in central Yunan, has been a popular hang-out for years, and shows no sign of fading. Zhongdian, in northern Yunan by the Tibet border, was recently re-branded by the Chinese government as Shangri-la, the official model for the Himalayan Utopia of Hilton's "Lost Horizon." It's a serene town in a stunning alpine setting, with a small group of travelers making the long trek to the town, so it seems to still have plenty of mileage.

This circuit in Yunan would be a great 2-3 weeks excursion. You could fly from Beijing (or most big cities in China) to Kunming, capital of Yunnan Province, and then travel overland from there, or fly again to Lijiang; Zhongdian is a few hours further north by road.

For places like these, you can easily get by on $30-40 per day; some spend lots less. Food in restaurants across China is shamefully cheap if you eat in even decent local places. Costs are generally more expensive in places like Zhongdian/Shangri-la, which don't have as well developed a budget traveler scene.

English is surprisingly well spoken in all the places that I mention above; credit the tourist boom and the dollars that come with it. But that really only applies to those in the tourist trade. In the countryside, little English will be spoken. Phrase books are handy, but unless you really plan to get off track, I think the basic language you get in good guidebooks is sufficient when one is counting the pounds in the luggage on a long trip.

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Saratoga, CA: Hi Ron: We will be visiting Guilin and Shanghai in December for 13 days. We are planning a 7-day tour in the Guilin area. What do you recommend as must-see's in the Guilin/Yangshuo areas? What about Hangzhou in December -- is it worth a sidetrip?

Ron Gluckman: Guilin is easily one of China's most beautiful areas. The scenery there, stunning conical mountains rising above brilliant green rice fields, makes for the trip of a lifetime. Be sure and get down the Li River to Yangshuo. This used to be a charming backwater, then the only oasis for backpackers in China. It's still a haven for young travelers, but it's an undiscovered town no more. Still, even with all the tourists, it's a wonderful place to take a break, bike ride into the countryside and hike in the stunning hills.

My recommendation is to try and get away from the tour groups. They offer the same trips, which become a bit artificial. I've had fantastic luck simply hopping a boat down river or hiring a motorcycle to go off into the hills. The point is to get away from the crowds. Village people are genuinely welcoming and it's great opportunity to see a bit of rural life in southern China.

Chinese have an enormous sentimentality about Hangzhou, which they consider one of the world's most beautiful places. It's hard to argue with that assessment, in any season. You can boat, hike around and take tea on islands in the West Lake, and lose yourself for days in nearby villages. In recent years, a number of smaller river towns near Hangzhou, Suzhou and Shanghai have begun gaining popularity with tourists.

Zhouzhuang and Tongli are the most famous and developed -- some would say overdeveloped. Granted, the crowds dampen the atmosphere, but there is real reason to visit these charming old backwaters, with wooden houses and cobbled stone paths, seemingly little changed from the time of Marco Polo. The other river towns are Luzhi, Nanxun, Xitang and Wuzhen. Bus tours take in Zhouzhuang and Tongli, but your hotel can also arrange a car to these two or any of the others. One or two make a great day trip from any of the nearby tourist cities.

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Fort Worth, TX: We will be traveling to China next week for a 3-week vacation. I've heard that tipping a small amount for services rendered in Hong Kong is acceptable, but that tipping taxi drivers, bellhops, etc. is not allowed in mainland China, and is even considered insulting. Could you give me some hints on tipping etiquette? Thank you!

Ron Gluckman: A great question. Some people, Americans in particular, have a hard time getting used to the notion of not tipping, but to others, like the Australians, it's simply the normal state of affairs. And trust me, one you will quickly learn to appreciate.

Much of Asia has little notion of tipping. In Japan, waiters have chased me out the door for leaving behind change. China is not so strict, but there is a genuine tradition of service, in which nobody expects anything extra for, say serving you food. Taxi drivers may take tips; some don't, but they won't find it an insult. And guides used to working with foreigners generally have come to expect a token of appreciation for service.

Hong Kong's service industry has gradually woken up to the virtues of tipping, but it's more a token show of appreciation than a grand gesture. At restaurants, it's common to tip up, say if the bill is HK$382 (about $50), it would be customary to leave HK$400. Likewise, in taxis, they will usually round up the bill slightly to the nearest dollar, say if it is HK$19.20, just consider it HK$20. But you aren't expected to tip hotel staff.

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Little Rock, AR: You live in and around Hong Kong. Are you lucky or what? How much is gasoline or is public transportation the better mode of travel? Also, is the Playboy Club still in business? Is capitalism alive and well in Hong Kong since the turnover? What side of the road do you drive on? P.S What is the conversion rate? And finally can you speak without fear of censorship? Thanks.

Ron Gluckman: Well, I certainly feel lucky (and that, after all, is the origin of my German surname). I passed through Hong Kong in 1990 on an around-the-world trip and never went any further. To me, it was simply the most electrifying, magical place of infinite possibility.

Taxis in Hong Kong are plentiful, but on the expensive side for Asia (anywhere from $2-5 for trips in the main areas of the island), as is practically everything else from food to lodging. However, Hong Kong enjoys easily the best public transit system anywhere, with an amazing matrix of trams, buses, mini-vans and a magnificent subways system that reaches practically anywhere in the sprawling territory, and for a pittance. And just as amazing, the transit system is well utilized and profitable.

Capitalism is raging as usual in Hong Kong. You drive on the left, just like in the UK. One US dollar is about HK7.75-7.8; it stays within that band since it's pegged to the US dollar. And no, there really isn't much censorship, but a definite growing self-censorship in the media. That is very worrying.

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Tucson, AZ: Is a Yangtze River cruise still worth going on even though the river is becoming a gigantic lake?

Ron Gluckman: Is everyone in Tucson headed to the Three Gorges this year? I've already discussed the river and the dam, but let me just add that the cruises get a wide variety of response. I know some people who feel a few days on the river is wasted time away from another dozen temples or ancient alleyways. But I took my father and his new bride on a cruise soon after they were married (both in their 70s), and they felt it was a highlight of the trip. I also did some stories, so I talked to enough people on board to get the feeling that the satisfaction level was well over 90 percent.

One key word of advice: when you book your cruise or tour, ask a lot of questions about accommodation and food. These are the major complaints of those on cruises and invariably people say they wish they had spent a little more to upgrade in these areas.

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Las Vegas, NV: What are some places to go in Shenzhen, China? What do you think of Shenzhen?

Ron Gluckman: Shenzhen is perhaps the single most astonishing mark of China's rise in the past decade or so, from bare farmland to a soaring city of high-rises, malls and factories. With all the amusement parks and swank hotels, Shenzhen has lately acquired more of a kind of tourist appeal, although most visitors are still transiting to textile or electronics production centers, or day-trippers from Hong Kong after some shopping bargains.

For me, Shenzhen offers the worst of all worlds, sort of a sleazy second-rate Hong Kong combined with little of the mystique but all of the misery of China: tall, ugly buildings; massive shifts of migrant workers a long way from their families; and exploited factory workers. This isn't particular to China. I think it's common to border cities of this kind (think the Tijuana of South China). As always, I feel, rather than dip your toes in a country or a culture, like at a border town, why not plunge in?

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Las Vegas, NV: We visited Hong Kong, Shanghai and Beijing last month and loved it. The air pollution in Beijing was atrocious. Even though we saw plenty of bicycles in use, couldn't China learn from our dependence on oil and pollution?

Ron Gluckman: Actually, China has learned. It's now the second-largest consumer of oil and, given its growth rates and population, will someday overtake America for the dubious distinction of greatest guzzler of fossil fuels. But I guess that's not the lesson you meant.

Pollution in China is a major drawback to life here, even as some of my neighbors keep pointing out that it's not as bad as it used to be. It isn't, but that doesn't make the skies blue on a particularly gloomy Gray-jing day.

Yet, it's impossible not to notice that things are getting better. Factories have been closed inside and on the ring of the city and coal has been banned inside the city center, although that ban is rarely enforced. China is now one of the world's largest markets for pollution control equipment and everyday you hear about another ecological campaign or project.

Even without thinking of the human cost of the pollution, Beijing has to be concerned, and well aware of the American example. Beijing's leaders have watched as the country has gone from an energy exporter to one of the larger importers. These are all trends no leaders want to see continue. I do think China is learning from the green examples of other countries and trying to adapt the best technology it can afford.

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Atlanta, GA: Just wanted to make a comment -- returned from HK on Sunday after a weeks vacation there. It has to be said it was the best vacation ever. Such a diverse place -- eating seafood on Lamma vs. living it up at Felix in the Peninsular, shopping in the chaotic markets vs. the haute couture malls, staying in Central vs. partying in Wan Chai! Being a Brit, I felt remarkably at home there -- next challenge to get work there and an affordable apartment in Stanley!

Ron Gluckman: A wonderful report on Hong Kong! You could put me out of business. And a great point; Hong Kong retains a marvelous sense of its British-colonial past.

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Cleveland, OH: What are the best things about life in modern China? What are the worst?

Ron Gluckman: A fantastic question, Cleveland, and one that would take several sessions to even barely address. I first traveled through China in 1990, but have been back repeatedly every year since, and of course have lived in Beijing for the past four years. I've been through everything: awe, love, admiration, disillusionment, despair, and grudging praise once again.

China is a fascinating place, and changing so fast it boggles even those of us who live here. You go to a restaurant one night and go back a few days later and it's not only gone, so is the entire neighborhood. Watching all the change and the modernization has to be one of the most interesting things in life, if you happen to be a paid observer.

The good thing about modern China is much of what used to be a constant battle is easier. Getting supplies like coffee and cheese no longer means that friends of friends have to feel like pack animals whenever they pass through. And there are simply more nice places to shop, dine and entertain.

That said, the downside of modernization is that what attracted most of us to China in the first place was how different it was to the rest of the world, and all the odd discoveries of a largely ancient place that had been closed off for so long. As things get easier, the rough edges disappear, and so does some of the charm.

But the real sad things about modernization, anywhere, are not only the traditions that get lost, but the people, too. No question that many have fallen behind in modern China, as I mentioned already.

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Ron Gluckman: Well, that's all the time we have now. Sorry that I didn't have time to respond to all of you. Thanks for your questions, thanks for "tuning" in and my greatest thanks for reading and supporting the wonderful media that makes all my travels possible.

My pledge to you: Keep reading and I'll keep roaming around!

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