Thursday, June 30, 2011

Looking for Advice on China


I'm planning to go to China in the spring, to research the next Darger & Surplus novel.

(As an aside . . .  You have no idea how cool writing that made me feel.  That is exactly the sort of thing that, when I was young, I hoped I'd be doing some day.)

So now I'm looking for advice.  Where should I go?  Beijing and Xi'an, of course.  But where else?  Whenever I hit the guidebooks, I end up being overcome by how large China is and how much of it sounds very, very interesting.  So I could really use your input.

Ideas?  Suggestions?  If it helps, the book will begin in Chengdu and most likely end in Beijing.



Andrew said...

Hangzhou is an interesting place: a mid-tier Chinese city with a population of "only" a few million; it's urban on one side but the adjoining West Lake area is relatively natural, very beautiful, and not overly touristified.

It's also the end point of the 2500-year-old Grand canal, and there's a communist era bunker which can be toured. The villa portion is now a resort hotel, but it seems like a possibly interesting location for novel events...

David Stone said...

My favorite places that I visited, in no particular order (I tend to like historical urban areas):

1) The Longmen Grottoes near Luoyang: There are huge stone carvings of Buddhas here, really amazing stuff. It's pretty close to Luoyang and it might even be doable as a day trip from Xi'an, but that might be pushing it... not sure.

2) The Henan Provincial Museum in Zhengzhou: Zhengzhou was sort of rough around the edges when I traveled there 10 years ago, but I am sure that an archaeologist would love the place. THere is a neolithic city wall (with newer layers on top) that you can visit; they have a cut-away viewing area that shows the different layers and so on. Also the Henan provincial museum is amazing, easily my favorite museum in China. They have artifacts dating from the stone age all the way through imperial Chinese history. I don't know if it's worth making a special trip out here, but if you find yourself in the area, consider visiting.

3) The city of Pingyao in Shanxi province. The "old town" and its city wall are a UNESCO heritage site. This was once a very wealthy center of banking in the Ming dynasty, and it was never "modernized" during the early PRC era, so there are lots of old stone buildings, stone streets, etc. You can ride a bike around the city wall, which is largely intact. 10 years ago you can stay at inexpensive guest houses right in the middle of "old town" but they may have already relocated residents from that area in the interest of preservation. It is doable as an overnight trip from Beijing I think.

4) Hangzhou: It is a city built on a very beautiful scenic lake. There are lots of old structures and historical sites to visit as well. I remember it being a fun place to shop at dine as well.

5) Suzhou: A very beautiful city famous for its canals and gardens. It has a very distinctive architectural style and is probably what a lot of people who have not visited China imagine when they think of China. There are lots of nice gardens and historical sites where, and it's another place that is also fun to shop and dine around from what I recall. It might be kind of packed with tourists during the main season though. THere are lots of historic towns (and some that might have been fixed up for tourists) near Hangzhou and Suzhou, maybe a local and point you to the better ones. These might be a bit packed in the tourist season as well. (This area was were Zhang Dai spent most of his salad days.)

6) The Yungang grottoes near Datong, Shanxi province. These are also very nice grottoes on a similar scale (but totally different historical origins) to the ones at Longmen. I liked the ones at Longmen better, but the area around this site is pretty interesting. The government tourist office in Datong was pretty professional and competent (this was notable back then) and they brought our bus to see a local village with traditional earthen hillside dwellings when we visited. I think there are lots of other interesting things to see in the countryside in this area.

7) Kaifeng in Henan province: I remember this being another small town with lots of local character and historical sites packed into a very small area. It seem pretty laid back when I visited. Among other things, they have the "Iron Pagoda" and a pretty nice museum there if my memory serves me well.

Anyway, my memories are at least 9 years old, and I often traveled in the off season, so do your homework before you go! :)

Bruce said...

Hi Michael,

More S&D, eh? Splendid!

I'm surprised Guilin wasn't mentioned. Think limestone karst and misty paintings. Shanghai and some form of Hong Kong are high on the list as is Lhasa (not that I consider it Han, strictly speaking).

I've been to Beijing, Guangzhou and Taiyuan on business so the remarks above are based on travel-shows, picture books and the adventures of other travelers. Beijing has several places that are absolute must sees: The Temple of Heavenly Peace, the Summer Palace (faithfully reconstructed after being torched in 1860's), and the Forbidden City (which was just robbed, interestingly enough...quite a story). My guide had us walk to the Forbidden City via the full length of Tianenamen Square. There were hundreds of people flying kites and staying carefully away from the single soldier standing on a small platform in the dead center. He may as well have been a mile high. Unsettling.