Spending our whole summer holiday in China was never the plan. I laugh now when I think back to February when we were ‘stuck’ in Vietnam and I started to research Bali thinking Covid would all be over and we would maybe get a bargain break!! As lockdown ended in China, we returned to work and slowly things started to return to a new normal it became evident we would not be leaving the country for the summer. Our school did not stop us from going overseas but we knew that it would be highly unlikely we would get back for the start of the new academic year in August and that could potentially effect our salary and benefits – but we still wanted to travel. We like Shenzhen but the thought of spending 8 weeks here was not ideal due to the humidity and heat, plus we thought it would be a great opportunity to see more of this diverse country. There were long conversations with friends and colleagues about where people were going to visit and a WeChat group was set up where we could post information, share ideas and recommendations. It was a bit of an uncertain time as we were still required to show our green health code to get into the majority of places and there were reports of hotels and some attractions requiring a nucleic acid test result. We had been tested for Covid 19 as part of the process of us going back to school so that wasn’t too much of a problem because we had copies of our test results but we had also heard that some places were refusing foreigners so there was still a bit of uncertainty about what to expect. After a lot of discussion, reading blog posts and consulting guide books we eventually decided on 3 destinations. Firstly we would go to Xiamen, a seaside town about 4hrs away by train then return back to Shenzhen, then we would head off to Zhangjiajie, a place I had wanted to visit for the last 5 years. Our final trip would be to Sanya, a resort on Hainan Island which is considered to be the ‘Hawaii of China’. We planned a few days after in Shenzhen after each trip so if anything did happen and there was another lockdown or restrictions put in place we wouldn’t be too far from home, it would also give us the chance to enjoy this city too. So after returning back to school at the start of May and starting face to face lessons, invigilating weeks of exams, exam marking and packing up our campus to move sites, it was suddenly the end of our first year in China! Unlike the normal end of term dash to the airport as the last bell sounds, it was quite nice to have a few days to just relax before we headed off on the first (of what turned out to be 4) trips.
This seaside town, a 4hr train ride from Shenzhen, was our first trip and I think it would be fair to say we were fairly hesitant about going away. As we arrived at Shenzhen North train station we were immediately taken out of the queue by the police and had our passports inspected for our entry stamps, had our health codes and temperature checked and had to show our test results. As usual several different people took photos of all of this ‘evidence’ plus photos of us with our train tickets and passports. It didn’t take too long though and we were soon boarding the train. Everyone on the train wore a mask and during the journey we had our temperatures taken a couple of times along with everyone else in our carriage and the floor was also disinfected twice during the journey which was reassuring. The scenery along the coast was beautiful and it was a relaxing ride.
On arrival in Xiamen we had to scan a province QR code as we were now in Fujian, however this wouldn’t work for us so we were whisked away to fill in paperwork. They collected our green health code, ticket and passport information, temperature and hotel details. It was fairly time consuming as we had to have our photos taken with our passports and read our names out loud, which was just weird. On arrival at the the hotel it was the same – test results, passport details, temperature and heath codes taken. The Hilton was a really nice hotel but the service was pretty disappointing throughout our stay and it is not a hotel I would go back to. We did manage to see quite a lot of attractions when we were there and it was very quiet, places like walking street and Gulangyu Island, which are normally packed were almost deserted. The ‘foreigner ferry’ to Gulangyu Island was not running and we were the only non Chinese people on the ferry. In fact during our 4 day stay we didn’t see any other non Chinese. You can imagine the impact this lack of international tourism is having on businesses and the travel industry. On the island the QR code that needed to be scanned apparently had not been set up for ‘foreigners’ as you needed a Chinese ID card number so on a few occasions we were just allowed into places by leaving a phone number! We were also travelling while Chinese schools were still open so there were very few people around, we did definitely benefit from travelling at this time. Places like the temple had a limited number of tickets available each day so that social distancing could be observed and some attractions like the university were closed to visitors.
On leaving Xiamen we had probably the most frustrating experience of the summer as the officials would not let us board the train because we didn’t have a quarantine certificate. Luckily for us the train we were booked on was cancelled and we were moved onto a later train, if this had not happened we would have missed our original train as it took us almost 90 minutes for them to let us through security. In retrospect I think the issue was that they were looking at our renewed work visa issued in June 2020 and therefore assumed we had been quarantined and they wanted to see our certificate. We actually arrived back into China in March 2020 before quarantine was required but they didn’t understand this. Eventually they let us through as we could show all other documentation but it was a stressful, frustrating experience and it was pretty evident that requirements differed from province to province! Overall, we enjoyed our stay in Xiamen and it is a place we would definitely go back to for a long weekend in the future.
A few years ago when we went to China on holiday I saw an advert for Zhangjiajie and I have had my heart set on going there ever since. Located in Hunan province a 1hr 30min flight from Shenzhen it is famous for being the inspiration for the movie Avatar. Our trip there coincided with our friends so we flew together leaving Shenzhen at 10.30pm and arrived just after midnight. On the flight any non Chinese were given paperwork to fill in with travel history and hotel details for Zhangjiajie. When we landed – as usual -everyone grabbed their bags and ran for the door pretty much before we had even come to a stop but then an announcement was made and it felt like every pair of eyes turned in our direction. The flight attendant came forward and said any foreigners had to disembark first for enhanced checking. It was so funny as everyone had to sit back down we were escorted to the front of the plane and taken to an area where all our details were checked just as they had been in Xiamen. It was actually very well organised and the 8 of us who had been taken off first were soon joining the queue to collect our bags. We stayed at the Pullman in Zhangjiajie which was ok, nothing amazing but the location was good as it was just a 15min walk to the main entrance of the national park forest. It rained persistently on 3 out of the 4 days of our stay, reminding me of summers spent in the Lake District! Once again the whole area was very, very quiet, I had seen so many photos showing it absolutely packed and people waiting in queues for hours at a time it was a surprise. In fact on the first day when we bought our park tickets I thought we were in the wrong place as there were only a handful of people there!
The park itself is absolutely breathtakingly stunning. It is quite confusing to work your way around as many changes were in place due to the virus and therefore the blog posts etc were not up to date. However, because it was so quiet it was fairly relaxing even when we did get a bit lost. Even at the Bailong Elevator which takes you up to the top of the ‘Avatar Mountains’ and is well known for its queues (it is not uncommon to wait 3hrs to take the very short ride to the top) we were able to get on straight away with only 6 other people in the lift with us, so we all got a spectacular view. At the top there was plenty of space for photos and to take the majestic sights in without being pushed and shoved out of the way. Once again we had to provide all the necessary documentation at the hotel and each day when we got to the park but it was fairly quick and hassle free unlike the train station experience!
We had booked our visit to Tianmenshan Mountain ahead of time as we had been told tickets for the cable car run out quickly and again queues are very long. However, when we arrived there was nobody else in our cable car and the whole place was very quiet…..almost eerily so in the mist at the top of the mountain! I was absolutely stunned by how quiet it was in the whole of the Zhangjiajie scenic area, it is a huge tourist destination for domestic tourism as well as international visitors but we saw barely any other non Chinese when we were there. Even the normal coach loads of large groups were noticeably absent.
Obviously for us this was fantastic, less queues, less noise and so much more relaxing but it is hard on the people who rely on this industry. Our flight back to Shenzhen was pretty bumpy due to the storm that was over central China but on arrival at the airport we didn’t have any checks at all. This was a bit weird as we expected to have all our paperwork checked again but this time there was absolutely nothing! For us this was a sign that things were starting to change again. When we got back to our apartment there were no green health code checks we only had to have our temperature taken.
Sanya is resort on Hainan Island and is establishing itself as the Hawaii of China. Just an hour flight from Shenzhen the flight was very straightforward – no enhanced checks at the airport on departure, just the normal passport and ticket security. Sanya was very much a relaxing holiday and we did pretty much nothing other than lay by the pool, swim, walk along the beach and eat. The weather was absolutely beautiful, the sun shone every day and it was significantly less humid than Shenzhen.
We stayed at the Shangri La which was nice but when we go back I would choose a less family friendly hotel. On check in we had to do the usual temperature checks, health code scan and passport copies but nothing like what we had experienced in Xiamen or Zhangjiajie. It was a sign to us that things were definitely changing as less and less cases of Covid were happening. I think most noticeably was the lack of mask wearing. In the resort people were not wearing masks other than at check in / check out and to enter restaurants. It was a very strange feeling, after 6 months of wearing a mask outside without fail it was quite liberating but it also felt like we were breaking the rules – strange how quickly you become conditioned! On return to Shenzhen though we noticed 95% of people still wearing masks and we soon became used to it again! Sanya is a tax free haven and many people travel here to take advantaged of this. With HK and Macau hard to get to and no travel to South Korea or Taiwan it was clear by the long line at the tax free office in the airport than Sanya is very popular this summer.
Going to Chendgu was never part of our summer plan. Greg had to be back at work at the start of August and we were also moving so we had to pack up our apartment. However, I was envious of people going to Chengdu and their experience with the pandas so I convinced Greg that we should take advantage of the great hotel rates and lower tourist numbers and book a 3 day stay. I also wanted to go by train as I love train travel and looking the scenery and it just so happened that a direct line between Shenzhen and Chengdu opened as we were discussing it, so that was sign we had to go. We booked the Ritz as there were some amazing offers on the BonVoy app and it was incredible, I would go back to Chengdu just to stay there again! The train ride was a long 8hrs but again we saw a relaxation in requirements – just temperature checks this time. The first day we spent wandering around the city, to the peoples park and the ‘alleys’ which is a regenerated area of shops and restaurants.
It was significantly busier in Chengdu than it had been in the other places we had visited but almost all of this was from domestic travel as the school holidays had started. Still, it was not as busy as I had expected and it was still possible to walk around and enjoy the city. Without doubt the best part of Chengdu was our visit to the pandas. Here we did have to join a separate queue to enter the park as we didn’t have Chinese ID but this worked in our favour as we were the only foreigners and our queue was not a queue, we just walked straight through. Honestly, seeing these beauties was such an incredible experience and we feel so lucky that they were still pretty active despite the heat. We managed to get fairly close to them because it wasn’t very crowded and we spent the morning with the different age groups seeing the new borns in incubators, the babies in the nursery and the adults munching on bamboo, falling over and dozing in the trees.
It was a very short visit to Chengdu and we didn’t get time to go on to Leshan to see the giant buddha but I think we will get chance in the future to go back.
Amongst all this travel we did get time to explore more of Shenzhen, mostly the parks and outdoor spaces, it is just too hot and humid at this time of year to be out for too long though. Once we arrived back in Shenzhen we had 3 days to pack up our apartment and move to a different part of the city, then we started back at work.
It has been an amazing summer and we feel so lucky we were able to travel and experience so much of this fantastic country, we have been in a much better position than so many people. It was really interesting actually as I shared parts of our summer trip on social media how many people got in touch to say they didn’t really expect China to be like ‘that’. I have to agree, before we moved here I didn’t think that places like Sanya existed in China, so it has been an eye opener for me too!
I very much doubt that we will be travelling overseas soon so I have a few places lined up for Golden Week in October and Christmas / New Year. Fingers crossed we can get away for Chinese New Year in February 2021 as Japan is firmly on the list and I can’t let all my Bali research go to waste………
Facebook: Eat Sleep Repeat Blog