If you'd have taken a China vacation 20 years ago there would have been no noticeable sign of Christmas at all. Fast forward a couple of decades and a China tour over Christmas would have a hard time missing the rapid adoption of the festival on the mainland. However, a trip round China soon reveals that this acceptance of Christmas doesn't always mean that Christmas is particularly well understood by everyone.
Christmas in Hong Kong
Christmas in Hong Kong is a well-established tradition. The former English colony received a healthy dose of Christianity alongside things such as a health service and a legal system. In Hong Kong it is Lan Khoong/Dun Che Lao Ren (Cantonese/Mandarin) who visits little children to bring presents. If you take a trip to any of the many churches in Hong Kong you'll find plenty of carol services and a warm welcome.
If you're looking for a Christmas dinner during a China vacation there's probably no better place to find it than in Hong Kong with 5 star hotels gearing up to deliver massive feasts and most restaurants offering at least a hint of Christmas cheer. The only thing missing on a trip to the island at Christmas is snow... it really never gets that cold in Hong Kong.
Christmas in Macao
Alternatively if you're taking in Macao on a China vacation over Christmas you'll also find plenty of festive joy to go round. Forget the casinos and big hotels – they're very much focused on mainland China's tourists and specifically in relieving them of as much cash as possible. There are occasional concessions made but they're often fairly half-hearted.
It's in the old town that you'll find the spirit of Christmas as it should be celebrated. The churches share the message of Bible and the restaurants and houses are abuzz with traditional food and drink. It's not quite as “in your face” as Hong Kong but Macao's one of the nicest places to take in Christmas on a China tour.
Christmas in Mainland China
There was a point when talking about Christmas might have been considered a little subversive. However, a China vacation now offers plenty of Christmas festivity. It's not a holiday (unlike in Hong Kong or Macao) but the Chinese enjoy taking part in the feel of things. A trip down any street in China is likely to reveal confused looking Santas stood in front of Christmas trees decorated with tinsel, bright lights and possibly Chinese zodiac symbols.
If you need an authentic Christmas meal in China it's best to take a trip to an international 5 star hotel as Western cuisine is still not really all that well understood elsewhere. You might be lucky and find an expat owned establishment that's offering a Christmas dinner but you can't really count on it and many of these places are booked up months in advance by the expatriate community.
However, despite the lack of real understanding of what Christmas really means – there are a few churches in almost every city where the Christian faith is practiced and these will all be joining in the festivities with glee. You'll be warmly welcomed in all these places of worship but you might find it hard to sing along to carols in Mandarin.
If you're looking for signs at how China is changing in the modern world during your vacation then the change in how Christmas is viewed is one of the most striking. A China tour at Christmas is guaranteed to put a lot of merriment in your life.
This week Wal-Mart has announced a further expansion into China with 100 new stores on the cards. Hopefully, you won't be spending your China vacation on a tour of the local supermarkets but we know that many visitors are curious about the impact of Western brands in China. So we're going to take a quick trip round some of the biggest success stories (and failures) for you.
Wal-Mart was one of the early entrants into the China market. It has also been one of the most successful Western companies in the country. This might have something to do with lessons learned from their Japanese experience. In Japan, Wal-Mart's market entry was a disaster. The company learned that business practices don't always travel well (their reputation has yet to recover from firing family members from newly acquired stores).
Their China business has been much more successful. A Wal-Mart in Shenzhen, for example, is much different from one in New York. The aisles are narrow, the produce is local and so are the staff. In fact, for long-term expats hoping for a “hint of home” a trip to Wal-Mart is always a bit of a disappointment.
Best Buy's tour of China was always doomed to failure. The company couldn't differentiate between a Western consumer and a Chinese one. There's a reason that most Chinese take their vacations in their own country and it's not a lack of desire to travel – it's primarily because most Chinese people aren't rich enough (yet) to go abroad.
A service based model may work well with Western consumers who can (and will) pay a premium for great service but it was a disaster with Chinese consumers who can't. Best Buy stores were enormously popular with the Chinese people, in fact they would be the first stop on any electronics buying trip. Sadly for Best Buy they came only to load up on information – once they were well informed about what they wanted the Chinese consumer would continue their tour of other local electronics retailers searching out the lowest possible price.
Best Buy's own brand stores in China are now gone. The company hasn't quit the market entirely – it's gone into partnership with a local brand but there's no doubt that they're doing things the Chinese way now.
If Best Buy didn't travel well, then Barbie's tour of China was an absolute disaster. No expense was spared as Mattel launched their flagship children's brand in Shanghai. The store had six floors of all the best clothes and models of Barbie you can buy. The only trouble was – nobody came.
China is a manufacturing hub. Take a trip down any high-street in the country and you can find thousands of different dolls at a much lower price. Worse for Mattel, these dolls actually resemble their audience. That's right, while in the West little girls might aspire to blonde hair and blue eyes – Chinese girls (for fairly obvious reasons) don't.
The final nail in the coffin was a lack of brand cachet for Barbie in China. No-one had ever heard of Barbie and thus there was no social motivating factor to buy a doll for roughly the same price as someone's rent for a month. Western retailers aren't doomed to fail in China. In fact, on your China vacation you'll see dozens of brands that have powered to success here. Coca-cola can be found in almost every refrigerator, Rolex watches are all too common on the wrists of the wealthy, BMWs and Mercedes abound in the parking lots and so on... However, there's no doubt at all that successful brands have learned to work locally – they send executives on tours of China to evaluate local working practices. The take baby steps into the market so they don't trip and fall on their faces. Most importantly of all they do their research and work hard to understand the local consumer.
Hong Kong is a major highlight for most people's China vacation. The city offers a unique contrast to the mainland. The unbridled capitalist success story has survived the departure of the British and now offers a hint of what a China tour might be like everywhere in a few decades. A trip to Hong Kong delivers an amazing juxtaposition of the modern and the ancient. However, Hong Kong's a place that takes a little getting-to-know to make the most of a visit so we've put together a brief reading list to help you get familiar with the island before you travel.
The Last Governor (Jonathan Dimbleby)
This isn't a travel book. It's a story of Chris Patten who was the last British governor of the colony before the handover of Hong Kong to China. What some people find strange is the high-esteem the governor was held in by the local people. Particularly if you consider the local enthusiasm at the time for reunification. However, Chris Patten is remembered for digging his heels in to protect the unique identity of the island and its' people. It's an interesting story of a politician trying to do what's right without a mandate. His brief tour of duty in the colony makes for a very interesting read. It also set the scene for China's relationship with the West for a long while afterwards.
Kowloong Tong (Paul Theroux)
Theroux is often a straight travel writer and his China trip is on one of our other reading lists. However, this isn't a factual work but a thriller set in the dying days of British rule. There's plenty of insight into the special administrative region and you'll enjoy the descriptions of the sights and power plays as much as the plot. Don't worry, Hong Kong's not quite the mess of intrigue that it makes out, but this is an excellent way to find out a little more without taking things too seriously.
Gweilo: Memories of a Hong Kong Childhood (Martin Booth)
If you prefer to take a trip back in time to the days of empire this fantastic memoir might just be for you. Told almost exclusively through the eyes of a child you'll be able to glimpse the fascinating world of China and Britain coming together in the 1950's. There are tours of the island on rickshaws, interesting glimpses of British naval history and of course the occasional drunken expats antics to marvel at. It's one of the most enjoyable reads about this part of China's history around.
Myself a Mandarin (Austin Coates)
If you want to understand the Chinese way of thinking then this might be the best book of them all. It's a little dated as it's the autobiography of an English magistrate serving out his time in 1950's Hong Kong but his insights into the local character are near timeless. It's an honest travel story that focuses on the conflict between the Cantonese (from Southern China) people and his mission to bring them British justice. His (and their) confusion is written large on every entertaining page. It's a unique tour of China from a colonial perspective.
Hong Kong: The City of Dreams (Nury Vittachi)
If your China vacation produces photos like this you'll be revered among your friends forever. Nury takes a tour of the city with his camera and produces some of the most stunning images. In particular his panoramic shots are simply breathtaking. If you're unsure as to whether to take in Hong Kong on your travels this should help you make up your mind.
We think Hong Kong's one of the most exciting places on earth. Millions travel to this outpost of China each year just to get a feel for how two completely different cultures could integrate so successfully. If you're thinking of including a trip to Hong Kong on your China tour then the books above should help you get a much better understanding for how complex one small island can be.
While Christianity isn't a major factor in most of a China tour, there's one place that you can find some great historic churches to enjoy on a China vacation. That place is Macao. Macao was a Portuguese “enclave” (or colony for those less concerned with political correctness). That means there are some seriously wonderful historic Catholic Churches on the island. We've put together a small list of some of the best that you might want to see on an optional trip to Macao.
This church was built back in 1587 and was actually constructed by Spanish (rather than Portuguese) monks. It is part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site “The Historic Center of Macau”. Visitors are greeted by a striking yellow fronted building which shows clear European influences; it's a warm and welcoming start to a trip to Macao's most celebrated church. It was once the center of Portuguese journalism in China, too, and the newspaper “A Abelha da China” began life here in 1822.
The Ruins of St Paul's
Not far from St. Dominic's you'll find the ruins of the 17th century Cathedral of St. Paul. They are amongst the most recognized landmarks in Macao. If you're taking in the UNESCO route on your China vacation then you'll almost certainly spend some time here. Built between 1582 and 1602 by Jesuit monks; St. Paul's was intended as a glamorous gift to the people of Macao as European Royalty tried to win the souls of a new congregation. Sadly, when a typhoon came calling in 1835 the church caught fire and the dwindling importance of Macao to the Europeans meant that it was never repaired.
However, there's still plenty to see on your China tour and your trip to St. Paul's won't be in vain. You'll enjoy the spectacular facade of the church which was one of the few items to remain undamaged as well as the crypts that lie beneath the hill. If you'd like a little extra luck on your China vacation you might want to throw a few coins from the stairs through the top window of the facade – it's a local tradition.
St. Lazarus' Church
Often overlooked because it's not part of the UNESCO tour, this quaint old church is well preserved and still operating today. You might want to take a trip down the Rua de Joao de Almeida to check it out and get away from the crowds.
It's not just Catholicism that you'll find in Macao though, and there are a couple of protestant churches you might want to take in as you travel around China's special administrative area.
Macao Protestant Chapel
This tiny, but exquisite chapel, hides out of sight on a short trip from Camoes Square. It was originally tasked with supporting workers from the British East India Company, but rapidly began to represent all local Protestants. The original building was completed in the 19th century, but sadly no-one knows what happened to it except for the fact that it required completely rebuilding in 1921. Given that it flies a little in the face of Catholic nature of the island it was required to be invisible from the street and was thus built behind a high wall and the church was not permitted to have a bell. If you'd like to attend a service on your China travels – you'll be most welcome if you arrive on a Sunday at either 9 a.m. or 11 a.m.
Ji Dou Church
If you'd like to spend some time seeing Christianity China style then Ji Dou Church is the oldest Chinese Protestant Church here. You can expect to find quite a few local worshipers during sermons, but the church is in decline and had to close the doors on the school that it had provided for nearly a century in 2004.
We know that many people want to find out more about Christianity in China on their vacation. While on the mainland these enquiries are not always welcome, there's nothing to stop you from asking as many questions as you'd like to on a trip to Macao. There are nearly 70 churches on the island and while congregations tend to be smaller than you'd expect back home, you'll find that they are very welcoming. A China tour that takes in Macao gives you an opportunity to see the Christian faith at its best in China.
Hong Kong's pricing can be a bit of a shock after a vacation in China. In fact, it can seem that no matter where you travel to on the island that it's always substantially more expensive than China. We've found that it doesn't have to be that way and you can get a great meal for a more “China-friendly” price if you know where to look. So we've taken a tour of some of the local restaurants to give you an idea of where to enjoy the best budget eats in Hong Kong.
Tsui Wah (Branches across Hong Kong)
Not so much a chain as a small restaurant trying to cater for unbeatable demand. They started life as a single tea cafe in the 1960's, but there are now a dozen or so scattered across Hong Kong. A trip to Tsui Wah is an exercise in great value with enormous choice. We recommend the toast with condensed milk (which is a huge favorite) across Asia. If you'd like another taste of China, then grab a plate of Hainan Chicken Rice which is steaming hot and extremely tasty.
Tung Po (99 Java Road)
This place is quite simply mad. It's full of noisy merry making. The owner is famous for trying to involve all of the clientele in sing-alongs to classic rock songs. Watch for the highlight of this part of your tour when he attempts to do the moonwalk. However, the food is fantastic and this is one of the most memorable venues on a China vacation. It's focused on sea food and the pasta (made with squid ink) along with cuttlefish balls is highly sought after. You might also want to check out the deep-fried pig's trotters if you'd like something you won't get outside of China.
Underbridge Spicy Crab (Wanchai and Causeway Bay)
There are a fair few of these places, but they're all within a couple of minutes’ walk of each other. They serve an old China seafaring favorite – spicy crab. The crab is fried with lashings of garlic, chili, spring onion and beans. It's accompanied with congee (a rich porridge that you'll probably encounter a lot of your China tour) and beer. The table will be covered in bits of crab when you're done as it's not the most delicate of meals, but don't worry – they cover them in plastic sheets so they can clean up easily when you're finished.
Tim Ho Wan (Kwong Wa Street, Mong Kok)
You may be under the mistaken belief that you can't get great food for less than $10. Tim Ho Wan proves you wrong. Take a little side tour on your China vacation and find the world's cheapest restaurant to have a Michelin Star. That's right, you might have to wait a couple of hours to get in but it's worthwhile. The buns with sweet pork are to die for, the spare ribs are out of this world and there's not a single disappointment on the menu.
Lin Heung Tea House (Wellington Street, Central)
If you'd like to take a trip to somewhere a little more traditional in its approach then you can't go wrong with the Lin Heung Tea House. They've been operating since the 1920's making them one of the oldest established eateries in Hong Kong. Call in advance and ask them to rustle you up an eight-treasures duck (braised and stuffed with goodies) or just turn up and feast on the dim sum. Your trip will be better for it. However, you may need to summon up your inner China-person if you're seated at a distance from the kitchen as the dim sum truck might never make it to your table if you don't get a little pushy....
What can we say? Hong Kong might be an expensive place to visit on your China vacation, but it doesn't mean you can't eat like a King (or Queen for that matter). We recommend you take a break from your China tour in one of these rather wonderful budget eateries. Michelin starred food for less than $10? You can't really go wrong there can you?
Rail travel in China is a subject that arouses passions all over the globe. China is the world leader in high-speed train development. In fact, the Chinese are so keen that people take a trip on their trains that they're subsidizing rail growth in the entire region. New railways in Vietnam, Burma and Thailand will all be beneficiaries of this policy. While you might not see China by train during your vacation, there's still plenty of fascinating development in this area to look forward to over the next decade.
Hong Kong to Shanghai
This line isn't complete yet. There's a lot of work going on to finalize the Wuhan to Shanghai stretch and also the high-speed link up between Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Hong Kong itself. When it's finished (in 2015) this will be a fantastic way to travel between two of China's most exciting cities. The whole journey will take approximately 9 hours – not much longer than it takes to fly from Hong Kong to Shanghai now. The maglev trains will be based on the Japanese bullet train and it'll be one of the classiest ways to travel in the whole country. China will flick past the windows at over 300 kph.
This trip isn't for the budget conscious as the nearly 3 week journey from Beijing to St. Petersburg costs an arm and a leg; though thankfully not literally. It's not really a China tour as the train pulls out of Beijing and heads straight out of China for Mongolia. However, it is an ultra-luxury journey and the train wanders gently through the countryside allowing you to take day trips to appreciate the land of Genghis Khan fully before heading across the bleak wastes of Siberia and finally into Russia via Moscow. The train itself is on a par with the Orient Express and there's a chance to rub shoulders with all cultures along the way.
Beijing to Tashkent
No less epic than the Trans-Mongolian route, but substantially less comfortable. This train follows the old silk road on its tour of Northern China and on into central Asia. The area is only just opening up to tourism so this might not be the perfect spot for a China vacation just yet. There's a shortage of facilities of a high standard along this line and it's a hard route to successfully navigate the visa requirements for two.
Qinghai to Lhasa
On our China tour you'll be flying into Tibet and that's probably the best way to do it. The journey's a lot more comfortable (and considerably cheaper) than the rail alternative. It might be nice to take a trip on this line at some point in the future, but when you realize that you won't get any change from $5,000 for a second class ticket – you probably won't bother. It's one of those aspects of China travel that's really only open to the mega rich for the foreseeable future. However, there's no denying the innate charm of rising up into the Himalayas by train either.
Train travel in China is in its infancy at the moment. The technology is developing rapidly and there's no doubt that hundreds of millions of Chinese rely on the train for their Spring Festival vacations back to their home towns. Journeys are often crowded and you'll find that many carriages are packed with smokers (something you don't get in America at all these days). However, if you're willing to put up with that then you can have a little fun.
We think by the end of the next decade that China will have gotten things more organized. A China vacation then will enjoy super-fast travel in luxury conditions and without all the smoke. The good news is that the people won't have changed too much in the interim so it might be better to wait before conducting a rail tour of China.
Last week we took a look at one of the most popular books about Tibet. Sadly, it's also complete fiction – so what should you read before you take your Tibet tour? We've come up with a list that you might want to consider before you travel to China. We think that a China vacation is always better if you have an idea of what to expect when you arrive:
Running a Hotel on the Roof of the World (5 Years in Tibet) – Alec Le Sueur
This is one of our all time favorite travel books. Alec is sent to Tibet to make other traveler's vacations go perfectly – his job? To run the first Holiday Inn in Lhasa. His account will make you laugh from start to finish from the tiny cramped plane journey, to dealing with the local authorities, to finally getting his hotel ship-shape. It's clear throughout that Alec's journey is unique and it's wonderful to see the first attempt to shape tourism for Westerners in Lhasa through his eyes. China travel has rarely been so vividly described.
Seven Years in Tibet – Heinrich Harrer
This may well be the best selling real book about Tibet. Heinrich, a German, was traveling in India when the 2nd World War broke out. India being a British colony at the time meant that Heinrich was quickly arrested and imprisoned by the local authorities. He escaped and fled the country across the Himalayas (that's no easy trip) and ended up in Tibet. He fell in love with the country and would stay until it was reunited with China 7 years later and became closed to foreigners. It's very much worth a read.
Tibet, Tibet: A Personal History of a Lost Land – Patrick French
Some people discover Tibet and China as part of a vacation. Others develop a certain obsession from a young age and are willing to do anything to travel to Tibet. Patrick French is one of the latter. His tour of Tibet is unique as he was willing to risk everything to see all of the country he fell in love with when reading books as a child. He travels to every part of the small nation and brings his wit and intelligence to bear on all of it. This is a travel book for serious travelers. Evocative, poignant and delivered with absolute compassion and care for the nation it portrays. Unmissable.
My Journey to Lhasa – Alexandra David-Neel
Billed as “The Classic Story of the Only Western Woman Who Succeeded in Entering the Forbidden City” you can be pretty certain of what you'll get from this great work. It's the story of a great adventure in the early 1920's. The French author disguises herself as a beggar after perfecting her Tibetan to sneak into Lhasa. It's a true story of an epic China journey and one that you'll savor for its boldness (and madness).
The Heart of the World – Ian Baker
Your China vacation will be calm and well-structured particularly if you book with us. Ian Baker's on the other hand, was a strange spiritual journey exploring Tibet for its' mythology. You know he's going to show you something new when you realize that one of the first items he packs for his trip is “magic tantra pills”. Despite this, his writing is fantastic and if you're looking for a truly unique insight into Tibet there's no better book to read before your trip.
Guilin is famous for its scenery and if your China tour takes you through the city you'll certainly work up a hunger as you take in all the sights. We've found that an important part of making a China vacation special is the food you can sample in each location. As with everywhere in China there are local specialties galore for you to try. So why not take a trip to some of the best restaurants in town? We've put together a list of some of our favorites:
Chunji Roast Goose Restaurant (Qixing, Seven Stars Road and Diecai, Guilin Hotel, Zhongshan North Road)
If you fancy taking in something a little different then crispy goose, this might be the way to go. There's no denying that goose is often a touch fatty for some tastes, but this place gets the approach right and while its' fatty the goose is never greasy. The goose liver in soy sauce is also excellent. There are also the stir-fried goose intestines, though they're very much a China classic. If you do take a trip to this place, save some room for desert – the custard buns and durian cake are fantastic.
Agan Restaurant (Xicheng Road)
Take a tour a little further out and you'll find this charming place packed with locals. It's extremely good value for the money. If you don't want things too spicy you can request that the dish be prepared on a “sour” rather than “spicy” basis. The roast duck is the big hit, but vegetarians might prefer the eggplant casserole. If you'd like to be authentic in your China eating take a chance on the duck tongues, they're really tasty.
Taste Made Restaurant (East Lianjing Road)
If you'd like to boost your China vacation photo collection then the Taste Made Restaurant is a good place to start. It's got a great view over the river and the good news is that it won't hurt your wallet to eat there either. We've always found that river restaurants are best for fish and the Lijiang River shrimp are superb. If your inner carnivore needs unleashing the baked beef (in a clay pot) is fantastic, it's delightfully tender and falls apart in the mouth.
Guilin Islamic Restaurant (Xicheng Buxingjie)
As the name suggests there won't be any pork on the menu. However, if you do decide to make a trip to the Muslim section of the city, you'll really enjoy the food here. The cuisine is all based on the Urumqi style of cookery rather than Arabic food and that means you can get a unique look at a completely different side of China's food culture. If in doubt, go for the lamb kebabs but everything on the menu is excellent.
Slim Jim Noodles (Yangshou West Street)
More of a street stall than a restaurant, but if you can squeeze in Slim Jim's on your tour of Guilin, you won't be disappointed. This is authentic China dining. Noodles and various accompaniments. It makes for the cheapest breakfast in the city and you'll see from the queues that the locals love to eat here. It's worth stopping by before you start your sightseeing for the day and filling up as you watch the world go by.
The Guilinese Good Luck Restaurant (Zhengyang Pedestrian Street)
This is a China vacation highlight. The food is fantastic Li River Fish in Beer and the Roast Port Belly are to die for. The best thing about this place is the folk music and dancing that takes place in the evening. It's the perfect place to end your sightseeing and while away the evening as Chinese life crescendos around you.
While Guilin isn't as notable for its' food internationally as Beijing, Shanghai and Sichuan there's still plenty of choice available. One of the most enjoyable parts of a China vacation is taking in the food and we think you'll enjoy the food on offer in this charming little city.