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Independent Travel versus Touring in Shanghai, Suzhou, Hangzhou and Taipei

Updated on April 25, 2012


View from hotel window; typical Taipei street.
View from hotel window; typical Taipei street.
Our hotel room door
Our hotel room door

A Trip to Shanghai and Near by Cities

This trip was partly on our own, and partly with a tour group. Both modes of travel have their advantages and disadvantages, which I will discuss at the end.

Going to Asia still seem more foreign to me than traveling within Europe, or the Americas. If you fly by an American carrier a cocoon of Americaness will encase you until you emerge from the airplane. This time we flew Cathay Pacific. The stewardesses speak with a British sounding accent, but are clearly native Cantonese speakers when they interact with Cantonese customers. They are younger and prettier than their American carrier counter parts, and the food is better. Although, I am probably not supposed to notice the prettier part . There is probably a not so pleasant back story about them having to find other work after they get a few years older.

Cathay Pacific's video system is better at letting me select language options than Netflix is. I can pick the soundtrack I want and the subtitles; not, if it is not English, you must want English subtitles and whatever soundtrack we happen to pick. Americans, and American companies, by and large, are language snobs.

Headwinds were strong today. So, our flight was an hour delayed into Hong Kong, and our connection was tight, but we made it. At Hong Kong we transferred to a flight to Taipei. On that flight, Mandarin got sandwiched between the English and Cantonese flight announcements.

When I've traveled to Taipei on business, my company, at the time, hired a driver for maybe 2500 NTD to stand outside of customs with my name on a sign, and he would take me straight to my hotel. You can grab a taxi at the airport taxi stand for maybe 1700 NTD, but you'll have to be prepared to explain where you want to go either in Mandarin, or via a printed address. English names of hotels here seldom bear much resemblance to the Mandarin names. My wife has lost much of her Chinese cultural heritage, but thrift as a virtue, has been successfully passed on. She had us take a bus to the city center for 150NTD, each.

In downtown Taipei, cabs are ubiquitous and inexpensive. I grabbed a cab once we were downtown. Somewhat to my embarrassment, when I gave the name of our hotel to our driver, he didn't' recognize it, and when I gave the address, it is not a famous enough locale to keep him from pointing out that with my accent, he could take it to be several different roads. I clarified by hand writing the characters in the road's name, and for another 100NTD, we were there.

The hotel doesn't look much like its picture on the web; a grand building towering over its neighbors. It is a medium tall and narrow building, built with walls adjoining its neighbors. It has its dumpy aspects, but the room is sufficient for me and my wife. When we get Internet access to work we'll be satisfied customers.

The slight grittiness of Taipei, the roar of schools of motor-scooters, the seemingly incredibly close tolerances with which cars pass each other, all seems pleasantly familiar. I tend to view Taiwan, especially Taipei, as kind of "China-lite". Things function here much as they do in the west, only the signage is different. My wife finds it more intimidating, I suspect because she has neither written or verbal clues to help her navigate. It was like that for me the first time I traveled to Japan, before I studied any Chinese.

I got the front desk guy to reset the router on our floor. Now, we happily are connected to world through the Internet, again.

We met my son for the next day. He happened to be working in Taipei this month.
Most sites in Taipei can be accessed the the subway, MRT. Since we were going a lot of different places, I bought a couple day passes. You buy them from the attendants at the information booth rather than the vending machines that dispense normal tickets. They cost 150NTD, plus a 50NTD deposit on the card; about the cost of five rides on the MRT.

Most stores and attractions don't open until 10 or 11AM. So, we killed some time chatting at a coffee shop. Overall, we mostly went to a few stores and restaurants, and did a lot of walking around, and riding the MRT from station to station. We walked through the Chang Kai Sheck Memorial Hall, otherwise, skipped the major sites. It had rained over night, but during the day, it was just overcast and not raining. One thing I dislike about Taipei is the humidity. Even in April, it is oppressive. In August it is withering. I carried a jacket in case of rain, but quickly discovered that wearing it was insufferable. An umberella is better rain avoidance technology here.

When I am with my family, I am usually local people's last choice to try to talk to. People assume my white face means, English only. The irony is that I am the only one of us who speaks Chinese.

Tomorrow we will leave for Shanghai, from Taipei's downtown airport. We will have to be at the airport before much of anything opens. So, any site seeing, we do, will probably be in Shanghai.

After we checked out of our hotel, I flagged a taxi to take us to Taipei's downtown airport. The taxi driver established that we were going to the international terminal, and then was silent. The downtown airport is mostly used for short haul flights, and is not used that much by foreigners. The staff at the ticket counter and in the shops spoke limited English, and what announcements there were in English were poorly pronounced. It was a lot easier to get clear and timely information by listening to the announcements in Chinese.

Our flight was delayed by half an hour. It was on Shanghai Air, an airline I hadn't heard of before, but evidently is a subsidiary of China Eastern. The safety announcements have English subtitles, but no English soundtrack.

In Shanghai we are supposed to join our tour group, but since our arrival wasn't at the same time as the rest of our group members, there was no greeter for us, at the airport, to whisk us of to our hotel in a bus. We took the Maglev train to the city center instead. From there we took the subway to our hotel, by then it was late afternoon.

After resting a bit we went out to look for a restaurant. My wife had picked one out, and wanted to walk there. We walked across a bridge and through a number of small, cluttered alleys. The people in the alleys all spoke Shanghanese, which sounds different to me than Cantonese, but I still don't understand it, at all.

In the end, my wife's map was wrong about where the restaurant was, and we ended up eating at a restaurant that we happened on. The waiters could speak Mandarin. So, I was able to get by with the ordering, and such. My wife was grumpy that it wasn't the one she wanted, but I thought it was ok. We went back to our hotel on the subway, and once there, I got an earful about my poor restaurant selection capabilities.

The next day we still won't meet up with our tour group. It was our day to explore Shanghai on our own. The first stop was to visit Chinesepod. Chinesepod is a small company that provides a Web site to help people study Chinese. I use them extensively. They received us quite warmly, gave us a tour of their office, and introduced my to the voice actors that I have been studying Chinese from for many years.

My mission fulfilled, we next went off to shop for things that my wife wanted, yarn, a tailored jacket for me. She found her yarn, but the reputable taylors either would only make a complete suite, or wanted too much money to make a jacket. We ate lunch at a Hunan place, which was pretty good, and later went to a less reputable market, where I ordered a Jacket, We'll see how that turns out. For dinner, we found an ex-pat place, where the wait staff made me feel funny when I tried to speak Chinese to them. By the end of the day, we were feeling like accomplished Shanghai subway rats, having zipped all over the place from station to station and line to line. When the trains are crowded, it is helpful to know the Chinese for, "excuse me" (rang wo). Otherwise, you are very likely to miss your stop.

We will join our tour group this morning. My job as translator, seems to be over, for now. We will see how we like being herded in a group. It seems to me that we have done all of the "scary" things that tours are helpful with: get here, find our hotel, order meals, go to the sites we want to see. My guess is we may be sneaking off from our tour, sometimes.

The tour group took us to the Shanghai Museum and a supposed Jade Museum, which was more of a Jade store than a museum, in the morning. After a banquet style lunch, we went on to Suzhou, where we first toured a garden, and then went on a canal boat ride. I now know that the music video for a song I like was filmed on the Suzhou canals. They looked oddly familiar to me, until that occurred to me.

While waiting for the canal boat a couple of Chinese tourists came up to me to get their picture taken with a westerner, at a famous location. I felt a little bit like one of the people dressed up as cartoon characters at Disneyland. This has happened to me before, at major sites in China, like the Great Wall and the Forbidden Palace.

Our guide is a good conversationalist and a native of Suzhou. He is quite willing to give his opinion on political and social issues, interspersed with his descriptions of our itinerary.
The tour group is large, two bus loads. There is no particular theme to who joined; probably just Internet users, because we booked the trip from an Internet ad.

The second day of our tour brought us to the Lingering Gardens, a silk factory, an embroidery institute and the preserved village of Tongli. At the silk factory, our guide turned into silk comforter salesman, but still gave an interesting explanation of the process of producing silk fabric. The embroidery institute was also part explanation, and part, sales preparation. The really beautiful embroideries cost tens of thousands of dollars, while the less expensive ones have obvious flaws. So, it was easier not to spend money there, though. The Lingering Garden is considered one of the four great gardens of China. We learned a few details of how to appreciate a Chinese garden, and milled amongst the croud that was there for a couple hours.

At the silk factory, my wife decided she wanted a comforter, but when we tried to negotiate with the salesladies, I found they didn't speak Mandarin, just Shanganese. I've heard that only about a quarter of China's population speaks Mandarin as their first language, and most people have a different local dialect that is their first language. Most the people I've met speak fluent Mandarin, none-the-less, but it is not universal, especially among older and poorer people.

Tongli looked like it might have been the background for a Shaw Brother's movie, except for the kind of objects that were in the local vendor's carts. Those all looked like twenty first century souvenirs. We ate dinner at a restaurant in Tongli, that overlooked one of its canals. It seems the ice is broken in our group. The conversation over dinner was fairly animated. I also got another chance to play translator, because one of the people at our table is allergic to shrimp. I managed to explain that to one of the waiters and get her to tell us which of the dishes contained shrimp. This performance surprised the rest of the people at our table for a couple minutes, because, except for my wife, they didn't have any idea I could speak any Mandarin, but conversation returned to normal after a couple minutes.

Today we will decamp to a hotel in another city, Wuxi. Suzhou is called a small city, but it has a population of about twelve million. I don't know the statistics on Wuxi, but it is another "small town".

In this case, "small" is six million. We went to a lake park, a pearl farm and a Buddha theme park. The lake is Tai lake, a large, shallow fresh water lake, actually pretty scenic. Cultured pearls are one of the lake based industries. The pearl farm was another of the now familiar introductions to a topic, followed by an over-priced gift shop, in which we are left to linger until someone on the trip spends enough that we can move on, or it is evident that that is not happening.

The Buddha theme park is styled to look like a temple compound. It has a three hundred foot tall brass Buddha on a hill at one end, a giant anametronic lotus flower in the middle of a fountain square. At various times during the day. Buddha emerges from the lotus flower, rotates and is sprayed with water to loud music and presumably inspiring words that blare from the loud speakers all around. There is a large temple on the compound that we walked through. It seemed gaudy, like some particularly successful evangelical group's construction, but the imagery was Buddhist. The exterior styling mimics ancient temples, but the stone carvings that decorate the facade are crisp, and the guide told us the whole compound was built over the last fifteen years.

Wuxi means "no tin". Supposedly, during the bronze age tin was coveted war material. When the local tin mine was exhausted, the town named itself that, in the hope that it would bring peace.

Today we move on to Hangzhou, imperial capital during the Southern Song Dynasty, capital of Zhezhang Province, is a small city of seven million. After a three hour bus ride from Wuxi, we visited a temple by the shore of its West Lake, road a boat across the lake, and hung out with seemingly all of those seven million at the lake's shore.

The lake is famous for several things, but most famous for hairy crabs. Whatever fresh water lake a hairy crab grew up in, by the time it goes to market, it must be from West Lake.

Long haul roads in China have reststops, spaced about an hour and a half apart. There are gas stations, a few shops and restrooms at these stops. Regular bus lines, tour buses, and private cars all stop at these. This was the first time our tour bus dropped us off at a shop that had prices normal Chinese people would pay.

Hangzhou itself, has a prosperous, scenic feel; a bit of a college town atmosphere.
In the morning, we went to a tea plantation, were given a lesson in how to appreciate fine tea, and, of course, an opportunity to buy some.

The "three hour" return trip to Shanghai was turned into a four and a half hour trip by weekend traffic. As a result, we skipped one of our intended site-seeing stops, ate dinner and went on a river cruise. Cruising on the Huang Pu river, at night, is definitely a good way to take in Shanghai's skyline. One just has to brave pressing through an undisciplined crowd to get to the boarding gate.

All public transportation in China has security checks. Subway, busses, ferries all x-ray bags and have a couple of guards eye you, at some point in the boarding process.

We are parting ways with our tour group a day early. Shanghai is easy enough to negotiate on our own, surface traffic and parading through crowds like ducks following their mother, has grown tiresome.

We went to the Pearl Tower, bought tickets to go to the observation deck and see the Shanghai history museum that was there. We got there first thing in the morning. So, there weren't many people, but the setup is clearly designed to control the flow of traffic. Lots of rails for storing lines of people, first go to one floor, then there is no choice of where to go next, and so on. The final stop was the museum, which left me with two impressions. Shanghai is a major city today, because European powers and the US made settlements here. A point which still rankles Chinese nationalist sentiment. The other impression is that European humiliation of the Qing Dynasty was the proximate cause of the 1911 and 1949 revolutions, and consequent modernization of China.

Afterwards, my wife lead me on a tour of all of the yarn stores in Shanghai, which lead us through the famous shopping districts, Nanjing road and Taikanglu. Shanghai is not necessarily a cheap place. One can easily spend similar amount as one would for lunch or dinner at a nice restaurant in the US, as we found out.

There is a large temple compound near the center of the city. We went there, but it is not a working temple. Rather, it has been converted to a market where one can get every kind of soviegner.

Our flight today is in the early evening. First we went to the fabric market to pick up a jacket I had ordered early in our trip. It seemed to fit, ok. So, I paid the rest of its cost, besides the deposit, and we went to the department stores at Xujiahui, had some dumplings there, were shocked by the prices of name brand goods, and headed back to our hotel to pick up our luggage and head to the airport. When we checked in, we were offered an earlier flight to Hong Kong. So, we ended up with a six hour stop-over in Hong Kong, took the train into the city, looked at the skyline and waterfront, then came back to the airport.

When traveling on a tour, you don't have to plan your activities, you have a built-in set of companions who speak your native language, and very little interaction with locals. Tour groups are efficient at taking in lots of sites in a short period. Conversely, you can't decide your own schedule, your are rather isolated from local people, and you are not encouraged to develop coping skills on your own.

I know of people who have independently traveled in China without knowing a word of Chinese. So, it is possible, but it is not easy, and and rather limiting in what you can do.


Maglev train
Maglev train
view from hotel
view from hotel
shopping street
shopping street
shopping street with Chinese characteristics
shopping street with Chinese characteristics
Pudong night skyline
Pudong night skyline
The Bund (外滩 - foreign shore)
The Bund (外滩 - foreign shore)
Pearl Tower
Pearl Tower


shopping street
shopping street
view from hotel
view from hotel
Lingering Garden
Lingering Garden


Tai Lake
Tai Lake
Buddha theme park (Lingshanshengqing)
Buddha theme park (Lingshanshengqing)
View from the hotel
View from the hotel


West Lake
West Lake
view from hotel
view from hotel
longjing tea plantation
longjing tea plantation

Hong Kong

From the waterfront
From the waterfront


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    • Ari Lamstein profile image

      Ari Lamstein 

      6 years ago from San Francisco, CA

      Wonderful photos Mark. It looks like you had a great trip.

    • oldhorse profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago

      Wesley, I have a few thoughts in response to your comment.

      First, I think your understanding of Chinese characters is flawed. Radicals aren't like an alphabet, they are elements of characters that are used to index dictionaries, and such. One has to know about 2000-3000 characters to read a newspaper, and there are maybe 6000 characters that are commonly used.

      The relation to spoken language is different than that of an alphabet, but that is not the same as no relationship. In Mandarin, the written character is often very helpful in distinguishing homophones in the spoken language. Also, I can read signs in Japan, even though I have no idea how to pronounce the characters in Japanese.

      The Chinese government has done a pretty good job of making Mandarin the "common language". So, China isn't as linguistically chaotic as you describe. Even leaving out the Chinese who speak Mandarin as a second language, there are probably more Mandarin native speakers than there are English native speakers. So, you won't lack for people to talk to, if you speak Mandarin.

    • Wesley Meacham profile image

      Wesley Meacham 

      6 years ago from Wuhan, China

      OH let me see...

      26 letters vs. Roughly 250 radicals that are only used in maybe 90% of the written language and have no perceptible relation to the spoken language.


      English speaking people being able to understand most other English speaking people vs. Chinese people having no idea what other Chinese people are saying because they're speaking in different dialects.

      Yeah, I'm gonna have to say that I'm a bit of a language snob too.

      I totally agree with your comments at the end about traveling alone. It does limit you in many ways but at the same time you don't have to go on silly tours of factories just so you can get to the Great Wall. I generally prefer to travel alone in China. For me it is more fun trying to figure things out, communicate with people, getting lost and figuring out where I am and then having a great story for when I return.

    • Paul Kuehn profile image

      Paul Richard Kuehn 

      6 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand

      Oldhorse, this is a great, interesting hub! In my travels to China and Taiwan I have always done sightseeing without the benefits of a tour. By doing that, I can see exactly what I want, and spend as much time at an attraction. It helps to speak Mandarin, and also the Taiwanese dialect. The next time you go to Taiwan, you should consider taking the maglev from CCK Taoyuan Airport into downtown Taipei. The airport has shuttle buses to the Taoyuan manglev station, and the trip is quick and easy to do. At the downtown train station you have connections to the MRT. The airport that you took out of Northern Taipei to Shanghai is called Sungshan Airport. It used to be the international airport until CCK opened around 1976 or 1977. I am sharing with my followers.


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