Prepaid GSM
Getting around

Part 1: Beijing, Xian

09.10: Seoul -> Beijing
10.10: Beijing
11.10: Beijing
12.10: Beijing -> Xian
13.10: Xian
14.10: Xian
15.10: Xian->Chengdu
16.10: Chengdu->Lhasa
17.10: Lhasa
18.10:  Lhasa
19.10:  Lhasa
20.10:  Lhasa (LXA)
21.10: LXA->Guangzhou
22.10:  Guangzhou - > Bangkok
23.10: BKK -> Munich

Overview and overall impression

This is was my second trip to China, after the one in November/December 2004. This time I flew to Beijing from Seoul and joined my wife (who came from Malaysia). We spent one week together in Beijing, Xian and Chengdu. From Chengdu my wife flew back to Malaysia, while I continued my trip to Lhasa (Tibet) and Guangzhou. From Guangzhou I flew to Bangkok, and from where back to Munich together with my wife. All the time we left our baby daughter with the in-laws in Malaysia.
We didn't like Beijing - huge and polluted, but most of all huge, with 12-lane streets and huge buildings. Long times to walk from one place to the next and long times to get from A to B by taxi. So we left Beijing earlier than planned and instead spent more time in Xian, a more pleasant town. We only stayed one day in Chengdu, visiting the Giant Panda breeding centre.
I had great plans for Tibet, but ended up spending most of these five days in the hotel room, because of mountain sickness problems. Once in Guangzhou however I recovered immediately. Guangzhou itself is a relatively pleasing town (I was positively impressed).

Pre-departure plan
This is the pre-departure plan for the overall  trip:

Sep 30
Oct 1
BKK-Taipei Arrive at Taipei airport 21:55
Oct 2
Oct 3
Oct 4
Taipei-Busan Fly 17:50-21:10 with GE702
Oct 5
Busan-Gyeongju Visit Busan; Busan->Gyeongju with bus in the evening
Oct 6
Gyeongju Gyeongju
Oct 7
Gyeongju - Seoul Gyeongju until afternoon; Seoul in the evening
Oct 8
Oct 9
Meet Shirley in the evening in Beijing
Oct 10
Oct 11
Oct 12
Oct 13
Oct 14
Oct 15
Oct 16
Chengdu-KL Chengdu-Lhasa Shirley flies Chengdu-Kunming-Kuala Lumpur; Alfred flies Chengdu-Lhasa
Oct 17
Do the Gyantse-Shigatse- Yam Tso lake loop

Oct 18
Oct 19
Oct 20
Oct 21
LXA-CAN Arrive in the evening in Guanzhou
Oct 22
CAN-BKK Afternoon flight Guangzhou-Bangkok
Oct 23

The overall trip is a bit ambitious, but doable. I don't have the tickets for the flights within Asia when I leave Munich (will have to buy them while I'm in Asia). Shirley already left for Malaysia on September 23rd. She'll leave the baby with the in-laws and meet me in Beijing on October 10th. We'll travel for one week across China, then we'll split and meet in Bangkok for the return flight. I'm planning to do a three-days circuit (Gyantse-Shigatse-Yam Tso) in Tibet.

The hotel expense averaged 400 yuan/night (this time I stayed in more upmarket places). The biggest cost block were the transportation costs, as we used a lot of internal flights to cover the huge distances and local taxis (which are cheap, but we used them for longer distances and half-day trips). Food is relatively cheap in China.

Money  / Exchange rate (October 2005)
1 Euro = 9.78 yuan

For current exchange rates check the Universal Currency Converter.

Mobile phones and prepaid cards
I used a prepaid card of China Mobile with my mobile phone (GSM). The price was 100 yuan for the card and telephone number. You could purchase airtime in 50 or 100 yuan increments. The price of phone calls was around 1 yuan / minute for national calls and you had to pay for incoming calls.

Internet access
In all hotels except the one in Guangzhou I had a fast Internet access in the hotel room (through an Ethernet cable). Not as fast as in South Korea however.

Sunny, dry and fresh most of the time (some overcast skies every now and then). It was possible to walk around in a T-shirt in most places. In Guangzhou it was not too hot.

Health / Vaccinations
I didn't do any additional vaccinations, relying on the immunity gained from the vaccinations in the past years. Lots of people on the streets wearing breathing masks, which indicates either a fear from the polluted air or fear to catch bird flu.

VISA / Entry requirements
A valid VISA is required for nationals of most countries. For Tibet a permit is required - I obtained mine through a travel agency in Chengdu (see the Chengdu section).

Was ok. I never felt unsecure when walking in the streets. We were not cheated and nothing was stolen while we were in China.

Getting around
We relied on flights to rapidly cover the huge internal distances and used mostly taxis for local transportation, even for half-day trips due to the convenience and their relatively low cost. We didn't try out buses or trains.

9.10:  Seoul -> Beijing
Hotel Hilton, Beijing. We get the employee rate of USD 50 per night. Nice five star hotel, with free Internet in the lobby (the access speed in the lobby is too slow for VoIP phone calls). For that you have to use the DSL line in the room (3 yuan/minute).
Weather: In Seoul sunny, but with a cloud layer, more or less thin. The weather improves in the afternoon. Warm enough to walk around with a T-Shirt. No rain. Dry and fresh in Beijing in the evening.

We arrive in Beijing on time at 7:20pm local time. It takes 25 minutes to get through immigration, get the luggage and leave the airport. David, my wife's brother is there waiting for me. I try to change the remaining Korean won into yuan, but no the airport bank won't take them.

Then what happens is that David brings us to his place, we fetch Shirley who arrived earlier, and David spends the next three hours driving us around Beijing. Thanks a lot David, but we are just too tired...

10.10:  Beijing
Hotel Hilton, Beijing.
Weather: Sunny, no clouds, no rain the whole day. Warm enough to walk around with a T-shirt. The air is not clear (either dust or fog).

We get up just in time to have breakfast (breakfast closes at 10am). Then we sort of lose time discussing the plan for the day, and finally fetch a taxi to the forbidden city, arriving at 12:15pm. The taxi driver "forgot" to switch on the meter and charges us 40 yuan for the trip, which is more than the 20 yuan the trip would have normally cost. We settle on 30 yuan.

Everything in Beijing is HUGE and actually Beijing is a huge, ugly town. There is a lack of comfortable areas with shops, restaurants, tourist attractions etc. within walking distance. Everything is huge and far apart, streets have 12 lanes and it takes a lot of time to get from one place to the next. Beijing is not like Shanghai, where around the Bund there is an area with interesting sights, shops, shopping complexes, restaurants etc. From a tourist point of view Beijing is messy - you lose a lot of time for getting from one place to the next.

We need two and a half hours for instance to visit the Forbidden City (entry ticket is 60 yuan) and we don't visit everything. All buildings and structures inside the Forbidden City look similar and after a while we get bored - very nice, but too much stuff which looks the same.

Around 2:40pm we finally get out of the Forbidden City and get a taxi to a shopping area (Wangfujing Dajie). The idea is to have some lunch, then do some shopping. 10 minutes later we are there, but it is kind of difficult to find a restaurant. Lots of shops, but no restaurants anywhere. So we walk into a shopping complex. Even there it's not so easy to find a restaurant. We end up on the fifth floor, where we have something in sort of a Chinese fast food. The food is tasty, but I'm sure you can find better food in Beijing.

While in the shopping complex, I end up buying some walking shoes for 298 yuan. Quite nice and good quality. At 4:15pm we leave the shopping complex and walk along the Wangfujing Dajie street. Wangfujing Dajie is a pedestrian area with lots of shops and malls. An interesting place, where you can do some shopping.

Around 4:40pm we reach the end of Wangfujing Dajie and fetch a taxi to the Beijing World Trade Centre, which we reach at 5pm. We spend some time there, doing some shopping, then get back to the hotel by taxi.

In the evening we don't do much. At 7:30pm we have a dinner in the hotel with David, Shirley's brother, who is executive chef at the Hilton hotel in Beijing.

Tomorrow we'll visit the Temple of Heaven in the morning, then we'll take a taxi to the Great Wall in Jinshanling. Jinshanling is further away from Beijing (110 km), but the wall there is more "natural" and less touristy than in Badaling (should be less crowded).

By the way, today I haven't managed to buy a prepaid telephone card. Was planning to do so, but couldn't find a mobile phone reseller. We also have to buy the plane tickets and I still have to get Chinese cash from an ATM. I wonder where the Citibank outlets are.

11.10:  Beijing
Hotel Hilton, Beijing.
Weather: Sunny with a clouds layer and sort of a fog (bad visibility). The "sunnyness" improves when we reach the Great Wall. Fresh, but not cold (we can walk around with a T-shirt). No rain, but rain has been forecast for tomorrow.

As usual we get up at 9am to have a breakfast before 10am. Around 10:30am we jump into a taxi to visit the Temple of Heaven. The taxi driver tells us that the temple of Heaven is undergoing restauration and is closed. Never mind, we still decide to go there.

It takes almost one hour to get to the Temple of Heaven (northern entry) - an unbelievably long time, it seems we will never arrive. Beijing sucks, if you need one hour by taxi to reach a downtown place starting from another downtown place. On the map the temple of Heaven and the Hilton hotel don't look so far away.

Anyway, we walk through the park of the temple of Heaven, from North to South, in about one hour. The park is quite nice and so are the things inside it.

While in the taxi on the way to the temple of Heaven we have negotiated with the taxi driver that he will bring us to the Great Wall at Jinshanling and back for 550 yuan. After exiting the park, we walk into a nearby restaurant and have some food. While eating, at 1pm Shirley calls the taxi driver and tells him to pick us up in about half an hour.

After lunch we walk to a grocery where I buy a GSM prepaid card for 100 yuan (for the telephone number) + 100 yuan (available calls).

At 1:20pm the taxi driver arrives and we leave for the Great Wall. What follows is a very long trip to the Great Wall - it take us three hours to get there, longer than we expected. We lose one hour just to get past the airport (28km from Beijing and on the way) due to the huge traffic. When we finally get out of the taxi it's 4:20pm, and the sun is about to set.

From the parking to the Great Wall it's 24 minutes of fast walk. A local very stubborn (female) seller of souvenir stuff follows us all the way from the parking to the wall, despite us continually telling her that we are not going to buy anything (later Shirley admits she gave her a "donation" of 15 yuan).

The good thing about being so late at the Great Wall (and in a section so far away from Beijing) is that the wall is completely empty - it's only Shirley and me who are up there (and the stubborn seller).

At 5:30pm we're done and walk back to the taxi. It is getting rapidly dark. Around 6pm the drive back to Beijing starts.

We reach the Hilton hotel at 8:20pm - this time the drive took less time. Both the driver, Shirley and me are exhausted. We have spent a total of 6 hours and 20 minutes in a taxi today. No fun being in a place where you have to spend hours in a taxi to reach a tourist attraction. We'll leave Beijing tomorrow, one day earlier than planned.

12.10:  Beijing -> Xian
Hotel Dynasty, Xian. 55 Huang Cheng Xi road, north. Tel.: 88626262. 400 yuan for a room not as luxurious as the one in the Beijing Hilton hotel, but with everything (nice bath), including a free high speed Internet connection in the room (bring your notebook computer) with 56 KByte/s download speed (sustained - compare that to the Internet line for 3 yuan/minute of the Beijing Hilton hotel with just 8 KByte/s). Breakfast not included (38 yuan).
Weather: Beijing: dark, heavilly overcast day, with poor visibility (kind of foggish). It rains a little bit in the afternoon. More fresh than yesterday.

After breakfast we pack our stuff and book the flight to Xian (price is 720 yuan per person). At 12:15pm we check out, leaving the bags in the hotel.

We take a taxi to the Citibank, where I withdraw a larger cash amount from the ATM. It comes all out in notes of 100 yuan (corresponding to 10 Euro each). When I try to change part of it to notes of higher denomination, the guy at the teller tells me that 100 yuan is the largest denomination they have in China. I only believe this, after David confirms that this is indeed the case. 100 yuan - so what do people do when the want to buy a car ? Carry a wheel barrow full of cash with them ?

After the cash withdrawal we go to a shopping complex on the opposite side of the street and shop around for a while. At 1:15pm we have a lunch in a Chinese restaurant in the basement of the shopping complex. One hour later we take a taxi back to the hotel. At 3:20pm we jump into a taxi to the home of David, where we briefly visit Lisa (David's wife), her mother and the baby. At 4:15pm we take a taxi back to the hotel, and from there drive to the domestic airport at 4:30pm. The drive to the airport lasts only half an hour. Surprisingly the meter of the taxi breaks (or was broken from the beginning), but the trip to the airport ends up costing 70 yuan, which is in line with what we've been told.

The domestic airport is very crowded, especially the waiting area for the gates 41-44. The security freaks at the security check feel the need to check every single bottle of mineral water Shirley is carrying in her backpack. They even open (breaking the aluminum wrap) a bottle of soia milk. The domestic airport itself is a modern and clean terminal.

At 6:48pm, since our flight to Xian is still not boarding, I briefly check the information monitors. It appears that they changed the departure gates from 43 to 31, without announcing this. Some moments of panic, I ask the airport staff to check again, they know nothing, so at 6:50pm we rush to gate 31. Yes, that's the correct gate and the flight is delayed a bit.

At 7:15pm there is an announcement - the new gate is Nr. 42 - at least this time they announced the gate change. The flight leaves with a delay of half an hour.

The plane lands in Xian after 9pm - over half an hour late. Everybody rushes out and within a couple of minutes the plane is empty, as if there was a fire on board. Overall the exit and luggage retrieval procedure is very fast. By the way, the Xian airport looks quite modern. We walk to the hotel reservation counter, where after a long discussion (the five star hotel they have is fully booked and also the Bell Tower four star hotel) we book a room in the four star Dynasty hotel for 400 yuan/night (not including breakfast).

After, since the airport bus to Xian (25 yuan/person) is full and we'd have to wait for the next one, we take a taxi to Xian (130 yuan, approx. 40km distance) and are in the hotel around 10:30pm. I briefly check the emails in the business centre (30 yuan per hour). After I hear that the rooms have free high-speed Internet access.

13.10:  Xian
Hotel Dynasty, Xian. There is a travel agency in the lobby of the hotel, which can issue flight tickets immediately.
Weather: Overcast and some rain in the morning, less overcast and no rain in the afternoon. Cold and windy for the whole day - we have to wear jackets.

We have an à la carte breakfast in the restaurant of the hotel at 10am. Not bad, but not cheap either (100 yuan for the two of us). After we book the flight to Chengdu at the travel agency in the lobby of the hotel (we get the tickets immediately, price is 640 yuan per person).

At 12pm we leave the hotel and get adopted by a taxi driver who is waiting in front of the hotel. For 200 yuan he will drive us the remaining part of the day to the Terracotta army and two more places (the tomb of Qin Shihuang and the hot springs).

It takes one hour and 15 minutes to arrive at the site of the Terracotta army. By the time we buy the tickets (90 yuan per person) and reach the main site it's 1:30pm (you have the option of walking 1km or taking a minibus for 5 yuan). We initially visit the museums, then start visiting the halls with the statues. The halls are very crowded.

We are in the halls until 3:15pm (I would have stayed longer, but Shirley has had enough of terracotta statues), then leave. On the way back Shirley buys some jade bracelets at the market outside the site.

Then we drive to the tomb of Qin Shihuang (entry ticket is 25 yuan/person) and climb up the stairs. At 4:10pm we are on top of the hill... and there is nothing to see. Apparently this hill is the tomb.

After that we drive to the hot springs, but since the ticket is 40 yuan/person and we are not going to take a bath, we simply skip the springs and drive back into town, where we get off the taxi at the Parkson department store around 6pm.

We spend the evening having dinner in a restaurant and shopping around a bit.

14.10:  Xian
Hotel Dynasty, Xian.
Weather: Overcast and cold in the morning. After 4pm the sky opens up and the sun shines through. In the evening almost no clouds in the sky.

We get up with no hurry, and after having breakfast in the hotel, get the ticket from Chengdu to Kunming for Shirley (630 yuan) in the travel agency in the hotel. We call again Sim's Cozy guesthouse in Chengdu and ask about the flight and permit for Tibet (this morning the Sim's Cozy guesthouse said that I should fly to Lhasa with the 7:40am flight, even if I asked for the 10:25am flight). Some confusion, they need to find the right people, we end up making several phone calls. They insist that I take the 7:40am flight, because that is the flight which eveybody takes. I explain that I need to company my wife to the airport and that her flight is at 9:50am. In the end they finally accept the 10:25am flight.

After some time, while we are still having breakfast, the guy who works there (let's call him "Peter" for simplicity) calls asking for a deposit. Well, now we are in Xian, so we can't leave a cash deposit. Peter insists and we ask if he accepts credit cards. No, no credit cards and we must make the deposit, otherwise he won't book the ticket for us. He suggests to go to a Bank of China branch, pay the money there and fax the receipt to him. Ok, so I aks him to email us the details of his bank account.

Back in the room I check the emails and there is an email from Sim's Cozy guesthouse, but the characters are in Chinese and don't display on my computer. So I call Peter and ask him to send an email with no Chinese characters.

Some time (and confusion later) Peter calls and tells us that the flight CA4112 at 10:25am is fully booked in the economy class. Very strange, because amadeus.net is showing availability in the economy class. We check with the travel agency of the hotel and they also get no availability in the economy class. Only the business class is available (2340 yuan, vs. about 1500 yuan for the economy - these flights to/from Tibet are not cheap).

So we call Peter, and tell him that I'll fly in the business class on October 16th at 10:25am to Lhasa. Some phone calls later (in the meantime the prepaid card of my mobile phone stops working, because the call balance is empty) and we finally agree on the 10:25am flight in business class. I also ask Peter to book me on the 1:10pm flight from Lhasa to Guangzhou on October 21st. Fine and the necessary deposit is now 1500 yuan.

In the meantime it is getting late - it is already 2pm. Because of this ticketing mess we haven't yet started our sightseeing of Xian. We jump into a taxi and ask the driver to bring us to the nearest branch of the Bank of China. Should take only a few minutes, as it's 20 minutes by walking according to the hotel staff. The driver starts making a huge detour, driving us far out of town. Obviously this guy is trying to cheat us and make us pay more for a trip. I understand that these guys don't make much money and have to make a living, but we just don't have time at the moment for such stupid jokes.

After about 15 minutes of driving around we tell the driver to stop the car immediately and let us out. We take another taxi to a Bank of China branch. There we try to make the cash transfer. Some confusion, we call Peter and put him in touch with the clerk at the teller. Bla bla bla, in the end it turns out that we cannot make the payment there, because Peter wants the money soon (a fax of the receipt as proof of payment won't suffice) and we need to go to the central branch of the Bank of China in Xian. I get Peter on the phone and tell him that I'm fed up. Strong feeling of swearing on the phone and insulting Peter, but my education prevents me from doing it.

So we take another taxi and after some time reach the main branch of the Bank of China. There we queue up and manage to do the payment after some time. By the way, the payment procedure is very complex and if you are not fluent in Chinese and can't write in Chinese characters, you won't be able to do it. Of course we have to call again the idiot in Chengdu for the account details.

Then we walk to a nearby hotel and fax the receipt to Peter of the Sim's Cozy guesthouse. We then call him to inform him of the fax and the paranoid guy says "oh but this is currency exchange form...". Sorry Peter that is what the competent lady at the Bank of China gave us. In the meantime it's 3pm - we have lost most of the day on this cash advance matter and I've lost most of my patience.

We spend the remaining few hours of the day walking to the nearby Bell and Drum towers (quite nice and nice view; drum performance in the drum tower), doing some shopping, visiting the great mosque. In the KFC restaurant I ask for a chicken burger and an orange juice. They serve us a hot orange juice - first time in my life somebody serves me a hot orange juice.

At 7pm we have a dinner in a restaurant (again the waitress doesn't bring what we ordered, even if my wife explained clearly what we wanted to have), then at 8pm get a taxi back to the hotel.

Copyright 2005 Alfred Molon