What we did: 29 days in China split up as follows: 8 days in Beijing, 2 days in Datong, 3 days in Hohhot; 3 more days in Beijing hanging out with friends; 4 days in Xi'an; 5 days in Shanghai; 4 days in Huang Shan; and, then, 3 final days in Hong Kong.
Would we do it the same way? Yes. And, we liked the amount of time in each city because spending more time in fewer places makes sense in China because of the long distances and travel times.
Our advice to future Chinese tourists: We recommend planning all transportation and hotels before you arrive in China, rather than trying to book hotels while in China, especially if you are traveling in the summer. At times, it can seem like all 1.3 billion people are vacationing at the same time, leading to a dearth of train tickets and hotel accomodations. In addition, Internet access is often poor in China so it is significantly easier to book hotels using ELong and train tickets using Travel China Guide when you are outside of the country.
Runner-up for best food: For Patrick, Peking duck. For Akila, mock Peking duck at Behai restaurant in Beijing.
Worst food: Mock tuna sashimi but ONLY because it actually tastes like real very low-grade tuna sashimi.
Our favorite part of China: The unexpectedness. Everything we thought we knew, we didn't know; everything we hated, we were surprised that it happened to us; everything we loved, we couldn't believe it existed.
The worst part of China: Communication barrier + masses of people = the most difficult country we have ever traveled in and our worst day of travel ever.
Forbidden City lion
Indispensable item/gear: Deodorant. There are 1.3 billion people in the country and toiletries are expensive. Bring an extra. You'll need it.
Second indispensable item/gear: The Lonely Planet Mandarin Phrasebook. (Do not buy the useless Immersion Guides Mandarin Phrasebook.)
The best deal: We purchased last minute first-class tickets from Tunxi to Hong Kong because they were the last seats left on the plane. The flight was delayed by four hours and we were so happy that we were able to luxuriate and sleep in the comfy couches in the first class lounge.
The biggest rip off: Less of a rip off and more of price gouging, expect to pay over-the-top prices for lodging, food, and pretty much everything else on top of the mountain in Huang Shan. Granted, every single thing brought to the top of the mountain is carried up by hand, but the prices are well outside the range of the average backpacker budget in China.
Best new experience: Chinese food in China.
Worst new experience: The complete inability to communicate with other human beings despite the use of translation books, hand signals, and context clues.
The must see attraction that everyone sees: The Great Wall of China.
The must see attraction that few foreigners see: Huang Shan. Possibly the most awe-inspiring place on our trip, so far.
Most overhyped attraction: The Forbidden City in Beijing. Huge, open cement and stone courtyards leads to not all that much beauty. (Plus, as with most things in China, expect crowds.)
Best city: Beijing. So much to do, so much to see, and the food. Yum! We definitely want to go back.
Apple cylinder in Shanghai
Worst city: Shanghai. We loved the World Expo and those gorgeous pavilions, but Shanghai was not quite our speed. We weren't enamored by any of the major sights---the Bund Tunnel, for example, is one of the weirdest things we have ever seen---and the crowds suffocated us.
Biggest surprise: How un-Communist China seemed. We had these expectations of baby girls orphaned, censorship, poverty, and general discontent, based on what we have seen in the American and international media. Instead, we were surprised that everyone wears the same brands of jeans, t-shirts, and shoes, eats at the same fast food chains, and listens to the same iPods and cell phones that we do in the United States. Of course, as we moved out of the major cities, rural practices became more evident and poverty more common, but, in comparison to many of the other Asian countries we have visited, China's economy is booming and capitalism is hard at work.
Biggest disappointment: Hong Kong. It wasn't so much that Hong Kong was bad but, rather, that it rained the ENTIRE time that we were in Hong Kong, resulting in us mostly hanging out in our friends' awesome apartment with their very cute dog and super-fast high-speed Internet (hallelujah!). Actually, we had a great time in Hong Kong but need to make another trip to see the city.
Language lesson: Normally, we include important words that we think you should know but, as we have mentioned, our Mandarin skills sucked. We stuck to ni hao (hello) and xie xie (thank you), and hoped fervently that people weren't laughing at us (though I am fairly certain that they were).
The big test, would we go back? Yes, absolutely 100% yes. Despite our difficulties traveling in China, the country wowed us. The people are warm and inviting, the food is fantastic, and the sights blew our mind. We want to spend time in Sichuan, Tibet, and the Yangtze region next time around.
And, now we're off to: South Africa for 5 weeks, basking in the lack of people and abundance of animals, especially after the last 3 months in heavily populated Japan, South Korea, and China. Before I write about South Africa, though, I am going to jump ahead to our awesome 3 week overland excursion through Namibia, Botswana, and Zambia with Africa-in-Focus, and then go back to our South Africa leg.
Many, many thanks to our wonderful friends for making our stay in China exceptional: Brynna, Richard, and Forest, your hospitality in Beijing overwhelmed us - we hope you are planning a trip to Europe so we can hang out there; Susie and Justin, we were so happy to see y'all again and can't wait to meet up elsewhere in the world; and Vidya, Ajay, and Snickers, thank you for helping us make the most of our stay in rainy Hong Kong - we hope all three of you make it out to London next year.