Trip Coach: July 11, 2006

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Dan Washburn, founding editor of the blog Shanghaiist.com, answered your questions about China

Dan Washburn: Hey, everybody. Good afternoon (or good early morning, as the case may be). Dan Washburn from Shanghaiist.com here to attempt to answer all your questions about Shanghai and beyond. Let's get started ...

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NY: Are there any good marine academies (sailing) in China?

Dan Washburn: The Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club has been around since the 1800s. The Shanghai Boat and Yacht Club, on the other hand, just got its start in 2001. I am unfamiliar with both clubs, so I can't speak to whether they are "good" or not, but those would be two good places to start. I haven't met anyone who sails here. And China's most famous sailor is still explorer Zheng He -- he's been dead since 1433. But as China's ballooning crop of millionaires look for more ways to flaunt their status, it's only natural that pursuits like sailing will gain in popularity. The China International Boat Show in Shanghai earlier this year reportedly attracted some 20,000 attendees. China's got an entry in the ongoing America's Cup, too -- but it doesn't look like things are going very well.

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Rockaway Beach, OR: We plan to go to Hainan Island, China and Southeast Asia in November for six months. Because we want to make the island our base, we need to know if we can get a tourist visa that allows us more than two entries into China. We understand that we can likely get one extension on the number of entries, but don't feel we want to take the chance of not being able to get back into China. Thank you, Marilyn

Dan Washburn: Six months? Lucky you. Visas can be endlessly confusing here and a real headache to deal with by yourself. Luckily there are people here who will handle the paper work for you. I forwarded your query to Magic Cheng, my visa agent, and this is what he said:

The L (tourist) visa commonly is only 30 days or 60 days when you apply it. It can be renewed twice in China, and each time 30 days. So, it's not good to hold an L visa if you plan to stay for six months. The best way is pay some money to an agency and get an F (business) visa. They can usually get a two-entry, 90 day F visa. They can stay 90 days, and leave for Hong Kong and come back again. Then another 90 days -- so total 180 days.
If their age is between 26 to 55 years old, then they can easily apply for a 30-day F visa (if they can not get longer one) to enter China, and we can renew it in Shanghai for another six months.


Magic said the above advice pertains to current Shanghai rules. I would suggest finding a visa agent (in advance, ideally) wherever your first point of entry in China may be. If you are traveling through Shanghai, I suggest talking to Magic. His website visainchina.com lists prices for various services. If there is not a special reason tying you to Hainan, however, other locations in Southeast Asia would likely be cheaper and more hassle free.

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Mt. Pleasant, MI: My husband and I (ages 28-29) are looking to take a trip to somewhere warm in Asia in early March 2007 (date range between March 4 - 18th). We don't have a specific location in mind, but are looking for inexpensive, cultural experiences and have a budget of approx. $3000 to work with. We have previously traveled to both Thailand and India - we enjoy smaller, rural areas that are off the beaten tourist path, and we enjoy interacting with locals. We would also be interested in volunteering, but I would like a few days to lounge pool-side or shop. Any suggestions on where we can go to have it all? Our departing airport would be DTW. Thanks!

Dan Washburn: I will be predictable and suggest a place in China. I absolutely love Yunnan Province, which borders Tibet, Burma, Laos and Vietnam. Yunnan is home to dozens of ethnic minority groups and features spectacular scenery, from snow-capped mountains in the northwest to tropical rain forests in the south. You can travel in Yunnan cheaply, as well.
 
With only two extended trips there under my belt, I have barely scratched the surface of what this region has to offer. But I can offer some advice. I would make the capital city of Kunming your base. It's known as the "Spring City" for its year-round mild climate. Kunming is a very comfortable place to relax, stroll and shop. From Kunming you can head west toward the mountains and the tastefully touristy town of Lijiang. It might be a little chilly in March, but the area is beautiful. Slightly farther north of Lijiang is Lugu Lake -- a gorgeous village home to some of of the happiest people I have ever met (could it be because they live in a matriarchal society?). I suggest visiting the half of Lugu Lake that is in Sichuan Province -- less touristy.
 
For a warmer climate and a decidedly Southeast Asian feel, head to Xishuangbanna, the rain forest region in the south. Laid back Jinghong is the main city there, and the perfect place to arrange trips into the countryside for hikes or bike rides through the minority villages and pineapple farms.
Both Jinghong and Lijiang are accessible from Kunming via bus or plane (you can also take the train to Lijiang). Although train and bus rides in China are often, um, memorable, I flew last time because I was pressed for time. About a year ago, you could buy pretty cheap one way flights ($40 or less) right at the Kunming airport.
 
Since my time is tight here, I will suggest a couple links of mine that have some more detailed info. Also, my photos from Yunnan can be found here and here.

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Kalamazoo, MI: We are arriving in Shanghai on October 1 and I read this is National Day in China. Is this a major holiday that will make it difficult for us to get around, get meals, etc? We will stay at either the Peace Hotel or Equatorial (where our tour, which we will join 4 days later, will stay). The Peace Hotel sounds much more interesting; is it still a 3 star or so place to stay? Can we assume 2 beds for 2 people or do we have to specify this? (Do they have queen sizes usually?) Lastly, and you can really help here: we would like to visit the old hutong areas, if there are any left. Where would you suggest, to get off the beaten "tourist" path? (We know NO Mandarin) I am very interested in the "Old China" which I hear they are doing away with as fast as possible. Thanks!

Dan Washburn: National Day is indeed a major holiday and it is a time of year when many of us try to escape China and go somewhere else (I'm getting married in Thailand during the holiday this year). The city will be crowded, some parts more than others, but I am assuming you expected crowds in China anyway. Last year, an estimated 83.48 million people visited Shanghai during the holiday week, and some major roads were turned into pedestrian streets for certain periods of time. One of those roads was The Bund, which is where the Peace Hotel is. This photo shows what The Bund looked like on the evening of October 1 last year. You'll see that you better be a people person if you plan on staying in that part of town, although after the first of the month the crowds aren't quite as bad.
 
The Peace Hotel is interesting from a historical perspective, but it is also dusty and dowdy and overpriced. The owners know this, too, and recently announced plans for a $50 million renovation. I am not sure when that is going to start, but in my mind The Bund would be better to visit than to stay at during that time of year. The Equatorial would be very comfortable and it's in a good location, but completely lacking in character. If you aren't limited to those two choices, I would suggest an affordable and historic boutique hotel called the Old House Inn -- I mentioned it in my Budget Travel story about Shanghai. And wherever you go, specify how many beds you will need.
 
As far as "hutongs" -- that is more of a Beijing thing. We call our old brick and stone lane neighborhoods longtangs here. While it is true they are being torn down at an alarming rate, there are still plenty to explore. Sometimes they are where you least expect them ... like right behind major roads. For example, I live in an old neighborhood that contains longtangs and we are right off Nanjing Xi Lu, one of Shanghai main drags, about a one minute walk from a Louis Vuitton store. Explore the areas behind Nanjing Xi Lu and Huaihai Lu and around Xintiandi for old neighborhoods. Also worth exploring is the strip between Nanjing Lu and Suzhou Creek between The Bund and People's Square. But really, if you wander most parts of downtown Puxi (the west side of the Huangpu River) you are going to come across a fair number of old neighborhoods. If you see an interesting alleyway or lane, take it and explore. Shanghai is generally a very safe city.

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Billings, MT: My husband and I are planning our first trip to China, leaving sometime this fall. While it would be easier to just go with a tour, we really prefer independent travel. Is it reasonable to think we might be able to get around China on our own, without a tour guide? If a tour is the way to go, which tour companies do you recommend?

Dan Washburn: Well, this really depends on what kind of travelers you are and where you want to go. It's definitely possible to explore China on your own. I have done it, and I know several other people who have done it, too. But it can be confusing, frustrating and tiresome at times. Some people thrive on that -- some people don't. Thankfully there are some tour groups around that feel a little less suffocating than others. I haven't used them personally, but I have heard good things about Shanghai-based Yana and Beijing-based Wild China, both of which organize outings that are a little more rural and rugged than normal.

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Burnaby BC: Greetings, A few years ago I visited Hong Kong and was lent an Octopus card for public transportation. Where can I buy my own next trip and what is the cost? Thanks. Tracy

Dan Washburn: I have only been to Hong Kong once and that was when I first arrived in China. Foggy memories. Luckily, I have friends in Hong Kong, and I posed your question to them.
Steven writes:

You can buy an Octopus card at most MTR (subway) and KCR (commuter rail) stations as well as at the airport (arrival level). For visitors, you probably want to get the Adult On-Loan version for HKD 150 ($100 stored value plus $50 deposit). You get the deposit back when you return the card -- but they charge you $7 if it's returned within three months.
Octopus is actually more than just a transportation card. Besides using it for subway/train/bus/tram/ferry fares, you can use it at many retailers throughout the city (including grocery shops and convenience stores). A must-have indeed. More info can be found here and here.


And no, Steven doesn't get paid by Octopus for those nice words, either.
 Hong Kong blogger Simon added:

You can also buy an Octopus card at any 7-Eleven. You can also "add value" to the card at these places and plenty of other "add value" machines in shopping centres, McDonalds, supermarkets and more. Typically you pay a deposit of HK$50 and that gets you a card with HK$30 of value on it (although this varies by card), but you can also go and buy the Octopus watch etc. You can also use the card for more than transport, including buying things at Coke machines, supermarkets, food outlets etc. You can store up to HK$1,000 at a time.

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San Francisco, CA: Hiya, I'm a huge sports fan and now that I'm back in school studying Chinese full-time I've been fantasizing about practicing my new skills in Beijing at the 2008 Olympics. I know that the Olympics require a huge number of volunteers with language skills to run smoothly. How do I go about signing up as a volunteer for the upcoming Games? Seems like a great combination of travel, sports and language. Any ideas? Thanks, Christy

Dan Washburn: Sounds like a good idea. I tried to do some digging on the official website of the Beijing Games, but didn't turn up much information on how to, for a lack of a better word, volunteer to volunteer. There is a page dedicated to volunteering, but all I could find is an old story saying they planned to start recruiting volunteers in August. I would try emailing some people on this page. They might know the answer. Also, the U.S. Embassy in Beijing could be of some help.

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Annville, PA: A friend and I will be on a business trip to Shanghai (1 free day) and Beijing (3 free days). We are two single women and want to see the sites and feel safe. Are there are any reputable small tour companies which take people to the main sites. We want to see the Great Wall but don't want to go to a high traffic area...any suggestions?

Dan Washburn: Greetings, Annville -- I went to college in Elizabethtown. I think in Shanghai, you should be OK without a tour guide. Shanghai doesn't have many "must see" attractions compared with Beijing -- and you shouldn't feel rushed on your only day here. Recently on Shanghaiist we had a post entitled "One Night in Shanghai" that might be worth reading for you. And, of course, check out my story in Budget Travel.
 
For my most recent trip to the Great Wall, I stayed at the Beijing Downtown Backpackers Accommodation, a simple and clean (and cheap -- beds start at around $6) place in an old hutong neighborhood. Your tastes may be a little more refined than mine, but it was good enough for me. The best part is that they run tours to some of the more remote sections of the Great Wall right from the hotel, so there is no early morning scrambling trying to catch a bus across town. We hiked the Jinshanling to Simatai section in February and it was gorgeous -- we basically had the whole wall to ourselves.
 
You can find some of my Beijing photos here and here.
While in Beijing you may also want to check out The Underground City, an interesting and bizarre attraction downtown. I mention it here.

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Allen, TX: I am currently in Shanghai teaching English. Where can I go to view historic buildings and landmarks? Are there tours/tour guides? Thanks

Dan Washburn: Depending on where you are located in Shanghai, all you may need to do it walk a few blocks from your apartment. One of the things I love about Shanghai is its unique blend of old and new. I mentioned longtang neighborhoods in an earlier answer, and I would suggest the same to you. Other areas you should check out: The Bund, obviously, and its surroundings, Longhua Temple, Old City around Yu Yuan and the relatively new Shanghai Post Museum. You may also enjoy the Shanghai Urban Planning Center in People's Square.
 
As for tours, Yana operates tours through Old Shanghai and the Jewish Ghetto. If you'd like to tour Old Shanghai by bike, try Cycle China.

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New York, NY: Is it possible to live comfortably on a blogger/freelance writer's salary in Shanghai?

Dan Washburn: Ha. I like your use of the word "salary." There is no money in blogging -- it's just something I do for fun. I think a dedicated freelance writer with plenty of contacts can easily make things work here. Living in Shanghai can be as cheap or as expensive as you want it to be. Lately, however, every other expat you meet here is a "freelance writer." So the field could be getting more crowded, thus more competitive.
 
It's hard not to get the entrepreneurial bug living here, though. Some liken Shanghai to New York about 100 years ago. There is an excitement-- anything is possible. Many people I know here have many irons in the fire, lots of projects but no full-time job. I suppose I fit that category. In addition to freelance writing and running Shanghaiist, I just launched an online store, Mudan Boutique, which sells pearls, jade and handbags from local Shanghai designers. It's a bit of a departure for me -- OK, a huge one -- but it's been a lot of fun and I'm really excited about the possibilities.

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Columbus, OH: What is the best time to visit Shanghai?

Dan Washburn: The quick answer: Not now. Summers are brutal here. So hot. So humid. But, unlike my fiancee, I actually prefer the summers to the winters. Winter here is also humid, so the cold has a way of feeling even colder. The main problem with the winter is the utter lack of insulation in buildings here. The other problem: Because we are south of the Yellow River, by law we aren't allowed to have central heating. This means we need to rely on our rinky-dink wall air-con units to do the heating, and they they often don't do a great job. Everyone owns several pairs of long underwear here.
 
Sorry, you touched on a nerve there. The answer to your question: Spring and fall can be lovely here. That is your best bet for decent weather.

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Sagamore Hills, OH: We are currently in Shanghai. We want to go to Xian and Beijing for a total of 7 days. What's the best way to book the trip, best as far as price and value?

Dan Washburn: We have had very good luck with Ctrip in the past for booking flights and non-hostel-like hotels. They are pretty easy to deal with (good English) and their prices are always competitive. If you would like to do some comparison shopping, most English-language magazines in town (SH, Shanghai Talk, City Weekend and That's Shanghai) have listings for local travel agencies.

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Carlsbad, CA: Hi Dan. I enjoyed reading your article very much. I am presently 22 years old, and still a student. I was thinking about moving over to China (Shanghai or Beijing) and learning Mandarin. Since I am a business major, I though it would be a great experience. I have been to Shanghai before but not Beijing. What do you suggest? When you moved to Shanghai did you plan to stay as long as you have? Why or why not? Also, do you speak Mandarin? If so, what are the best schools and how long does it take to be proficient? Thanks so much for contributing your thoughts to Budget Travel. I look forward to hearing from you. Jeff

Dan Washburn: If at all possible, I would suggest you start studying Mandarin now. I have never been a full-time student of Mandarin, and that is what you really need to be to master the language in my opinion. I have private lessons three times a week, but it is still a slow process. I wish, prior to my arrival in China, I knew how long I would end up staying here, because I definitely would have made an effort to study Mandarin in the United States. I don't have any specific schools to recommend, but Shanghai is packed with them. Right now, you can also try ChinesePod, a podcast dedicated to teaching Mandarin.
 
Beijing or Shanghai would be both be useful to a business major for different reasons. Both cities are key to conducting business in China. Beijing is important as a government-relations and regulatory center, while Shanghai is the up and coming financial center of Asia. Another idea would be to move away from Shanghai or Beijing, to a more isolated area where you could totally immerse yourself in the language. In Shanghai, sometimes it is very easy to get by with English and mediocre Mandarin, and that holds people back.

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Wasilla, AK: My husband and I would like to take a trip in 2008 to China. We would like to go to see the Olympics for a day or 2, and then do some sightseeing and try to escape some of the crowds. What are some of the best resources for the Olympics, lodging, and tours that may be a little off the beaten track. We will be taking our 10 year old daughter, and we like to hike and explore, but we need to keep it a little kid friendly.

Dan Washburn: I fear that trying to escape the crowds near Beijing during the Olympics could be mission impossible, and I am not aware of a resource dedicated to Olympic lodging just yet. There is a map of Olympic venues, however, and you can search Ctrip by neighborhood to ensure your hotel is as close to or as far away from a particular venue as possible. But planning this far in advance could be problematic, because you are dealing with a country that notoriously waits until the last minute to do everything. Keep in mind that several Olympic events are being help outside of Beijing, as well.
 
As for getting off the beaten track, perhaps an outfit like Wild China could help. And by 2008 there could be dozens more agencies that have popped up looking to do the same thing -- things are changing fast leading up to 2008.

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Austin, TX: Is China still limiting visas to groups to Tibet or can a single person get a visa to travel to Tibet? If so, how does one make a reservation on the train from Beijing to Tibet? Thank You, Roger

Dan Washburn: I have never been to Tibet so I can't speak with much expertise on this topic ... yet (I really, really want to go). Check out the Beijing Tibet Tourism Office's website. Here is what they say:

Based on group tour or individual tour, both groups and individuals can apply for the permit and get it right here from Tibet Tourism Office Beijing. To apply for the permit for groups, group list with guests' full name, sex, birth date, nationality, occupation, passport number and Chinese visa valid date is required, while individuals should provide the copies of their passport details with the same items as above.


There is also a Tibet Tourism Office in Shanghai. A friend who recently went to Tibet said he saw several foreign tourists traveling alone in Tibet. But he also described the whole travel permit process as "shady." "There are the official rules and then there's how things are actually done," he said. As with most things in China, there is almost always a way -- you just need to talk to the right person. I would start by talking to the Beijing Tibet Tourism Bureau, and if you don't like the answer they give you, try someone else. People at the Lonely Planet forum may have some good insights, too.

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Dan Washburn: OK, everyone, that's all for me. It's late here in Shanghai and my dog is barking at me -- time for a walk. Thanks for all your questions! And you can always find me online at Shanghaiist.com. Good night.

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