Prepaid GSM
Getting around

Part 4: Dunhuang, Chongqing, Yangze river and Three Gorges, Yichang, Shanghai

29.9-30.9: Munich -> Bangkok -> Guangzhou
1.10: Guangzhou -> Shenzhen
2.10: Shenzhen -> Urumqi
3.10: Urumqi -> Turpan -> Xiaohe -> Urumqi
4.10: Urumqi -> Kashgar
5.10: Kashgar
6.10: Kashgar -> Karakul lake -> Tashkurgan
7.10: Tashkurgan -> Khunjerab pass -> Kashgar
8.10: Kashgar -> Urumqi
9.10: Urumqi -> Dunhuang

10.10: Dunhuang
11.10: Dunhuang -> Chongqing
12.10: Chongqing -> Wanzhou
13.10: Wanzhou -> Yichang

14.10: Yichang -> Shanghai

15.10: Shanghai -> Hangzhou
16.10: Hangzhou
17.10: Hangzhou -> Qingdao
18.10: Qingdao -> Dalian
19.10: Dalian -> Beijing
20.10: Beijing
21.10: Beijing -> Bangkok
22.10: Bangkok -> Munich

9.10:  Urumqi -> Dunhuang
Hotel Dunhuang Yangguan, 3 stars. 300 yuan for a decent room with A/C, everything except a fridge and a fast Internet connection. The furniture in the room is actually a bit oldish. The room is overpriced if compared to where I've stayed before, but I'm arriving without a reservation, so I dont have much of a choice
Weather: fresh in the morning in Urumqi; fresh in Dunhuang too. Spotless blue sky, clean air and sunshine for the whole day in Dunhuang.

The wake up call at 6am and the alarm of the alarm clock happen almost at the same time, within a few seconds of each other. After that I check my emails. The customer support of all-inkl.com has replied to my error report and is requesting more information. After that everything goes quite fast. I finish taking the shower at 6:30am, then pack my things. Despite all the stuff I carry with me (and I have to check everything twice to make sure that I don't forget anything), the packing time is down to about 15 minutes. Seems that a week after I left Germany there is now some routine in my packing procedure.

I leave the room at 6:48am. I the lobby the lady days "zhengzai cha fang" which initially I don't understand, but after checking the dictionary I do (zhengzai cha fang = while check room). Actually these are simple words which we have learned some time ago in the Chinese class in Munich, but when used in a "real time" situation, it may be difficult to pick up the meaning.

The fact is that our Chinese book contains stories about Hans and Anna, two Germans studying Chinese at the university and who later go to China for studying. So it's full of terms relative to student life in China, but very little about tourist life in China. The situations I'm typically confronted with while travelling in China are booking a hotel room, ordering something in the restaurant, getting a taxi, buying a plane or train ticket etc. I haven't still figured out for instance what "domestic terminal" means in Chinese. It's a question any taxi driver always puts me when I ask to go to the airport (feijichang).

I might add that study method we use in the Munich evening school is bad, because we just go through a text book at high speed, adding new words and characters all the time, but don't do any conversation - and this is actually the most important thing. My Chinese language skills have progressed since my first trip to China two years ago, but they are still not what they should be after four years of studying the language

Anyway, it's 6:55am when I take the taxi and it's still dark outside. We reach the airport at 7:20am and I check in. This time the weight of the luggage apparently is 22.5 Kg, and the lady at the China Southern check-in counter does not complain about excess weight. Then I proceed to the gate.

The plane takes off a bit early at 8:15am, shortly after the sunrise at 8am and is half empty. It even arrives in Dunhuang 10 minutes early, at 9:30am. So far I'm impressed with the punctuality of the Chinese planes. I also get very quickly the luggage, walk out and take a taxi. The taxi is not metered and the driver insists on 50 yuan, which very likely is too much. But I'm not in the mood to start a discussion about the price, so I accept it. Since the airport in Dunhuang has no hotel booking counter I ask the driver to bring me to a hotel.

In the lobby of the hotel I have a discussion because the room has no fast Internet connection. The receptionist says I should use the phone line. But I have no ISP in China, so what to do? The receptionist tells me to dial the Internet by call number 16300 using the ID and password "16300". As I later find out, this works and gives you a dial-up Internet connection with a speed of approx. 32Kbit/s sustained. Slowish, but ok. The cost is 5.40 yuan/hour.

At 10:40am I'm settled in the room and at 11:20am I get out of the hotel and start exploring Dunhuang. Dunhuang is incredibly clean for a Chinese city, in fact it's one of the cleanest Chinese cities I've seen so far. All buildings I see are also in a good state and the whole city makes a fresh and comfortable impression. I decide to relax here one more day, before plunging into the second phase of my trip across China (the big cities).

I walk around for about 40 minutes, then fetch a taxi to the sand dunes near the Crescent lake. I then spend the next five hours trekking across the dunes, climbing on the top of the highest one from which there is a nice view, making a big round and finally getting back across the farms bordering the desert. Quite tiring indeed, as the sand in several spots is very soft and fine. Also, I should have done the trek later in the afternoon, because the sun is quite strong.

Anyway, the trek is very interesting. The sand contains actually a lot of humidity, if you dig a few cm in the ground. This is probably one of the northernmost deserts in the world. The main dune is very, very big, towering a few hundred meters above the base.

After that I take a bus back into town, getting off somewhere downtown. I walk a bit around, discovering a road with many hotels and tourist shops. In this road there is a John's cafe, where I meet John himself, the Chinese guy who founded the John's cafes 20 years ago. Short chat about what trips can be done and I continue my walk. At 6:20pm I have some dinner in a "Charlie's cafe", sort of a copy of a John's cafe. Then I get back to the hotel and stay there until I sleep.

10.10:  Dunhuang
Hotel Dunhuang Yangguan. The shower is not good, because only little water comes out of it.
Weather: fresh,  but sunny with a spotless blue sky.

I wake up at 8am, then continue sleeping until 9am when somebody very persistently knocks at the door and keeps knocking at the door for the next half an hour. Unlikely that it's the room service, so it must be a taxi driver who wants to get some business.

Anyway, I spend the first part of the morning surfing the net and updating my travel plan. I'm now three days behind the original schedule, which means that I need to adjust the plan. I check what flights are available (due to the limited time I'm flying from place to place), how much time I need in each place and which places are more interesting than others.

At 11:50am I finally get out of the room and head to John's cafe where I purchase a flight to Chongqing (actually two flights, one Dunhuang-Lanzhou and one Lanzhou-Chongqing). As I realise later in the evening when checking the tickets, John cheats a bit, because the total cost of the flights is 1480 yuan, while John is charging me 1550 yuan.

I also ask John how much a camel trip to the desert for this evening is. John quotes 200 yuan (20 for the car and 60 yuan/hour for the camels, three hours with the camel). This seems expensive, because at the Karakul lake we paid 20 yuan for a camel ride lasting for over an hour. But John insists that here in Dunhuang camels cost 60 yuan/hour.

By the way, as I learn from John, the ticket price for the Crescent Moon lake area has now been increased from 50 yuan to 80 yuan, while the ticket for the Mogao caves has been increased from 80 to 120 yuan. Good that I skipped both places (am skipping the Mogao caves because photography there is not allowed). 120 yuan is a significant amount even for a developed country like Germany (= 12 Euro), so it must be even more significant for a developing country like China. Looks like Dunhuang is pricing itself out of the market.

After some lunch at John's cafe I do some shopping in Dunhuang, mainly some suntan lotion and some hydratating cream for the skin, as I got quite sunburnt yesterday and my skin is quite dry. I also look for a place where they sell recharges for the China Mobile prepaid card, but can't find such a shop.

Around 2pm I take a taxi to Mingshashan (the sand mountain), which is supposed to be something else from the area around the Crescent Moon lake (entrance should be free), but the taxi driver brings me again to the same place as yesterday. So I ask the driver to drop me off at a Chinese temple which I saw along the way. This temple is under construction or reconstruction, but is already very nice. I notice some Chinese monks working on the construction. Opposite the temple there is a four star hotel, in the design of something like an ancient Chinese desert fortress. After that, at 2:25pm, I take a bus back to town (buses between the dunes and the city cost only 1 yuan and run quite frequently) where I relax until about 5pm.

At 5pm I walk to John's cafe and fetch the plane tickets. Again these are e-tickets, meaning that I show up with these slips and the passport at the airport and check in. Looks like the Chinese here are more advanced than we are in Europe, because e-tickets in Europe are still not that widely used. I ask John if I can take the camel ride but reduce it to two hours, thereby reducing the price to 140 yuan (20 for the car + 2 x 60 yuan/hour for the camel). John initially suggests that I should pay 170 yuan, which is not consistent with what he told me at noon. John then says that actually the price is not 200 yuan, it's more than that etc. In the end we settle on 150 yuan for a two hours camel trip.

At 5:30pm the car arrives (it's a metered taxi, the first I see in Dunhuang - in Dunhuang the taxis are not metered, trips usually cost 10 yuan). We drive to the dunes, where a guy with two camels is waiting. Around 5:40pm the camel trip starts. The place where I got on the camels is a few hundred metres to the east of the main gate to the dunes, so that we can enter the dune area without purchasing a ticket. We then continue walking eastwards for about half an hour in parallel to the dunes.

I keep telling the guy a couple of times that I need to get on the dunes in order to be in a suitable position to take photos, but this guy keeps heading eastwards, always parallel to the dunes, never actually going on them. Around 6:15pm I lose my patience and tell the guy to stop and that I will walk myself on top of the dunes. I don't need a camel to walk in the plane area in front of the dunes (can walk myself) and I would have needed one to bring on top of the dunes, because that is very tiring, as the sand is very soft and you sink deeply into it. I walk to a high position from which I shoot some photos of the dunes at sunset.

At 7pm the sun sets and I head back to the camel. We walk back, then I go to the taxi and around 8pm am back in town. I have some dinner in Charlie's cafe (food is good and relatively cheap), then I get back to the hotel around 9pm. Tomorrow I'll have to wake up early, as my flight is leaving at 7:35am.

11.10:  Dunhuang -> Chongqing
Hotel Tianyou, Chongqing, Nr. 121, Zhongshan 3 road. 198 yuan for a very nice room, four stars but high class, excellent value, slow Internet connection in the room.
Weather: cold in the morning in Dunhuang (but we leave before sunrise). Warm (24°C) in Chongqing, very heavy smog which limits the visibility.

The wake up call and the alarm clock go off at the same time at 5:20am. After that I rush to get ready and at 6:05am I'm down in the lobby and check out. Outside the street is empty, so I wonder how to get a taxi. But all of a sudden a taxi pops up and I waive it. At 6:15am I'm in the taxi on the way to the airport, where we arrive at 6:35am.

The check-in procedure is fast and there are no complaints despite the 3Kg excess weight. Is China Eastern less strict than China Southern? At 7:05am we board the plane and by 7:15am everybody is seated. Quite fast I would say. The plane is full, only the last few rows are empty. At 7:20am the plane starts rolling and at 7:22am the plane takes off - 13 minutes ahead of schedule. That's very efficient, especially if compared to the situation in Europe or other countries, where flights very often are delayed. The plane is an Airbus A320, much more modern, spacious and comfortable than the Boeing 757s of China Southern.

The sun finally rises at 7:35am. The plane lands in Lanzhou ahead of time at 8:45am. The Lanzhou airport is modern and clean; luggage retrieval is fast. Since it's too early to check in the luggage for the CA4224 flight to Chongqing, I have something in a cafe. By the way, the air in Lanzhou is still quite clean (and the sky is blue), although not as clean as in Dunhuang. The area surrounding Lanzhou is desertic.

At 9:45am I check in at the counter and proceed to the gate. Again we have the ultrafast boarding and take-off procedure. At 10:15am boarding opens, by 10:25am everybody is seated in the aircraft (a smallish Shandong airlines jet), at 10:27am the plane starts rolling and takes off at 10:30am, 15 minutes ahead of schedule.

The plane lands in Chongqing at 12pm. By 12:08pm I have retrieved my luggage and am looking for a hotel reservation counter. There is no such thing at the Chongqing airport, but some girls at a counter hand me over a card with a telephone number where you can reserve hotel rooms. After that, this lady shows up. Long discussion, I end up buying a two days/one night boat trip to Yichang for 1280 yuan (1st class), leaving tomorrow afternoon at 3:45pm, arriving in Yichang the day after at 9:30pm. Maybe I pay too much and should have shopped around a bit, but my time is limited anyway and I hopefully am not overpaying too much. The trip includes three stops along the way.

About Chongqing: it's the most heavily polluted city I have ever seen - not even Cairo is that polluted. There is a very heavy layer of smog over the city which limits visibility considerably. But the centre of the city is very nice and the area around the Liberation monument is a pedestrian area full of modern buildings and cool shops.

At 2pm I get out of the hotel and explore Chongqing until about 8:40pm. In the evening a guy calls twice my room telephone offering a prostitute (how did he get my room number?).

12.10:  Chongqing - Wanzhou (Wanxian)
Hotel: I sleep on the boat. Although they sold me a 1st class ticket, the room looks and feels like 3rd class. There are two small hard beds, very old furniture, a tiny, smelly and dirty toilet. And I'm sharing the room with a stranger. All this for 1280 yuan... The ship itself is very old and rusty. But at least the cabin has electricity.
Weather: confortable temperature in Chongqing, even a bit fresh, windy. Heavy smog in the city which limits the visibility to about 300m, less than yesterday. As we leave Chongqing and drive towards Wanzhou the situation improves and at one point the sky becomes even blueish, with only a light layer of clouds covering the sky.

I wake up initially at 8am, then stay in bed until after 9am. After that I check my mails, browse a bit the Internet and get ready. At 10:50am I check out, leaving the bags in the hotel. I walk out of the hotel and have some late breakfast. At 11:20am I take a taxi to the international convention and conference centre of Chongqing. While queueing up for the taxi, two Chinese guys simply walk in front of me and get into the taxi, thereby skipping the queue. I complain, but nothing happens, the guy does not even apologise. Some people have no manners.

The international convention and conference centre is a newly built building across the Yangtze river. Nearby is a shopping zone with several malls. Would be a nice setting if the sky were blue and the air clean. But today the air is smelly and there is heavy smog over the city. Chongqing could be a nice city, if only they managed to control the pollution.

At 12:40pm I get into a taxi to the Liberation Monument area. There I look for a while for a non-Western restaurant, but can't find anything - only western fast food chains (for instance three KFC restaurants and a Macdonalds in a small area). So I give up and have some food in a KFC.

I withdraw some cash from the bank of China ATM. It's 2500 yuan and the transaction is accepted, which makes me wonder if I could have withdrawn more. Previously an ATM from another bank refused to hand out 2000 yuan, stating it was too much, so I guess that the Bank of China ATMs are special and allow you to withdraw more.

After some shopping I take a taxi and by 2:55pm I'm back in the hotel. Some traffic jam on the streets but not too much. In the hotel the guy from the travel agency organising the boat trip picks me up by car and brings me to the place where the bus is waiting. Along the way, they sell me a hotel room in Yichang - three stars for 210 yuan. When I tell them that here in Chongqing I paid 198 yuan for a four stars hotel, they say that the hotels in Yichang are more expensive.

The bus leaves at 3:30pm for Wanzhou. It's a smelly bus and the old guy next to me sleeps all the time and keeps on falling on me. Around 6:30pm we reach Wanzhou and after a drive through the town we finally reach the pier. There we get out of the bus and walk to the boat. By 7:30pm I'm settled and explore a bit the boat and the surroundings. At 7:55pm the boat leaves for Yichang.

At 8:30pm I'm back in the cabin and shortly after the passenger with whom I share the cabin arrives. It's a Chinese guy, who at some point starts crying while he lies on the bed.

At 9:55pm the tour leader (a lady) shows up. It's time for the first stop of the tour - the Yunyang Zhang Fei Chinese temple. While she is here she asks if I would like to have a single room for a surcharge of 100 yuan. Ok with me and now, for a total of 1380 yuan I have a single cabin on this smelly ship.

The Yunyang Zhang Fei temple is kind of cute, but without knowing anything about it, it's difficult to judge its significance. The stop at the temple lasts one hour until 11pm. According to the tour leader the next stop is at 5am (!).

13.10:  Wanzhou -> Yichang
Hotel Li Yuan, Yichang. 210 yuan for a comfortable, but not so "shiny" room (three stars only) with everything except a cable Internet connection.
Weather: fresh in the early morning in Wanzhou. It gets warmer over the day. Blue sky with a very thin clouds layer. Poor visibility from noon onwards.

The tour leader wakes me up initially at 5:30am, I continue sleeping and skip the first gorge, then the tour leader wakes me up again at 6:45am,and this time I get up. At 7am we move to another boat for the tour of the Lesser Three Gorges. Very spectacular views, with vertical cliffs falling straight into the river. We are back by 11:30am in the main boat and the cruise continues.

At 6:10pm we finally reach the Three Gorges dam and move into a bus with our luggage. The bus drives us to the Three Gorges dam. The first stop takes place at 6:55pm, then there is another stop and finally at 8:10pm we reach a stage where there is a colourful dance performance about the dam. Very impressive colours, music and setting.

At 9:15pm we are back in the bus and head towards Yichang. By 10:30pm I'm in the hotel, having been picked up by the tour operator at the bus stand. Then I process the ton of photos I shot during the day, process the ton of emails in my inbox and write the travelogue. I end up sleeping after 2am.

14.10:  Yichang -> Shanghai
Hotel Kai En ("Kind), Xianggang road, Shanghai. Two stars, 278 yuan for a big room with a separate entry room with a sofa. TV, phone, internet connection in the room etc. This is the same place where I stayed two years ago. These 278 yuan become in reality 378 yuan, as the reception cheats and pays back 100 yuan less of the deposit (see the 15.10 section below).
Weather: warm in Yichang, it even gets hot in the car with all that sunshine hitting it. No rain the whole day, greyish-blue sky with limited visibility and thin clouds layer.

The day does not start well, as I initially wake up at 8am, then am woken up at 8:30am by the sound of hammers hitting some wall. At 9am I get up, briefly check my mails, then get ready. At 10:25am I leave the room and check out.

Some discussion in the lobby when I ask for a bill for the room. Have they never seen a hotel bill in their life or perhaps is my Chinese not clear enough? To explain what I need I take out the hotel bill of the hotel in Chongqing. Expression of astonishment and disbelief when they see the bill -  what is this? I lose over 20 minutes in the discussion. They say that because I booked through a travel agent, they cannot issue a bill for me. Fine, but yesterday I gave them the receipt of the travel agent, would it be possible to have that back? Nobody knows anything about that receipt. In the end I ask them to fill out a paper with handwriting in which they state what I paid for the room. They do this and I finally have a hotel bill.

The next thing to do is to organise a plane ticket to Shanghai, as I will be skipping Wuhan due to lack of time and go to Shanghai and from there take the bus to Hangzhou. An option would be the flight of 3:20pm, which would allow me to take the last bus from Shanghai airport to Hangzhou. The hotel receptionist accompanies me to the travel agency (there is one next to the hotel). Some discussion at the travel agency and I end up choosing the 4:40pm CA1836 flight (910 yuan), which will give me enough time to go to the Three Gorges dam to take some photos and get back.

After that, at 11:15am I head to the restaurant of the hotel for some food. I explain that I would like to have some rice with chicken and vegetables, not hot, and that I have about half an hour of time. But obviously they don't understand what I say, as they bring me a big pot of steamed rice and then after five minutes they ask if I would like to have a dish with Chinese cabbage, which I take. At 11:35am the main course is still not there, so I ask about the chicken. They know nothing about it. I then call my wife in Malaysia over the mobile phone and ask her to order the chicken for me.

At 11:50am the chicken is still not there, so I cancel the order, pay and walk out. After buying a drink in a shop I take a taxi to the dam, leaving at 12pm. The cost will be 300 yuan, coming back at 3pm + another 50 yuan to go to the airport.

Then everything goes wrong and I end up wasting half a day and some money. The driver needs longer than expected to reach the dam (1 hr vs. 40 minutes), because he keeps driving on tiny roads instead of taking the motorway. Then he does not actually drive to the dam, he stops instead outside of the compound and suggests that I walk inside. Fine, but the distances are huge and if I walk I simply don't have the time to reach the positions from which to shoot photos of the dam. And in any case I need a ticket to enter the compound.

The driver then brings to a place which is sort of a ticket office (but not really), where there is a lady. A discussion starts which lasts for almost half an hour. Chinese generally are very efficient, but sometimes they can also be very inefficient and lose a lot of time talking. It turns out that taxis are not allowed into the dam compound and only buses from tour companies are. So I should have booked a tour. But in any case why didn't the driver tell me in advance?

At 1:40pm, I've had enough of it and tell the taxi driver to bring me back to the hotel. Let's stop this negative sequence and move on to the next destination. And the taxi driver drives back over those tiny little roads in the mountains, instead of taking the motorway...

At 2:40pm we're back in the hotel. I pay the driver, get my bags and take another taxi to the airport. This time the trip to the airport costs 80 yuan (why so pricey)?

At 3:35pm we reach the airport. I check in, then proceed to the gate. No complaint of excess luggage weight. The comfortable Air China plan, an Airbus A320, is about 70% full and takes off on time at 4:40pm. Nice to be on a plane again after so much overland travelling.

I'll take the bus tomorrow to Hangzhou, although I'm tempted to stay longer in Shanghai, because I like the city. I wonder if I should skip Nanjing, because there is probably not that much to see there. An option would be to make a stop in Dalian, but you probably need more than one day there, because the attractions are out of town.

The plane lands punctually at 6:40pm in Shanghai's Pudong airport. By 7pm I have a hotel booking and am waiting for the maglev high speed train. Around 8am we arrive in Shanghai, and take a taxi. In the evening not much happens. I take a walk along the Bund in the evening. Full of people, because it's Saturday evening. It also seems that they enhanced the Pudong skyline with more lights, at least it looks more impressive now than when I first visited Shanghai two years ago. I'm back in the hotel by 10:30pm.

Copyright 2006 Alfred Molon