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FROM: MSNBC/Budget Travel LiveTalk

Transcript of Steve Friess' live chat on May 11, 2004 with Budget Travel who saw his piece "The New, New China"

China is modernizing at a dizzying pace. Today, I'll be discussing how to get the most out of your trip to this nation in flux, from the traditional tourist sites to ways to truly engage with and experience the "New" China.

Steve answered your questions Tuesday, May 11, at noon EST.

Steve Friess is a Las Vegas-based freelance journalist whose work appears regularly in Newsweek, the Boston Globe, the Chicago Tribune and USA Today. Beijing seemed like a different planet in January 2001 when he arrived for a one-year editing gig at the state-run English-language China Daily, but he quickly realized when he spotted local children writing the words "I love the NBA" in the snow that Americans and Chinese have more in common than different. During that year he traveled throughout the country, witnessing the pandas of Sichuan, the shocking desert landscape of Xinjiang, the crammed casinos of Macau, the skyscapers of Shanghai and Hong Kong, the mammoth naked statues in Changchun, the remnants of an old Chinese Jews population in Kaifeng, the hanging temples of Datong, six different sections of the Great Wall and the now-submerged Three Gorges of the Yangzhi River.

Steve Friess: Ni hao, everybody. I just got back from an amazing 10-day reporting trip to Hong Kong which has me very much in the Middle Kingdom mindset. The jet lag's a killer - the only two hours I was able to sleep on the flight happened to be the two hours when they decided to show a *good* movie, too -- but lucky for me you can't see my bleary eyes and how badly I need a haircut. So let's give this a whirl.

Blue Bell, PA: Steve, we like to travel very light, but I've noticed that quite a lot of China seems to involve walking or hiking up and down to really enjoy the attraction (Great Wall and lots of others). Is this sneaker kind of "hiking" or are they going to be too slippery? Should we pack hiking boots? We aren't serious hikers but we do like to get the feel for a place.

Steve Friess: You don't need hiking boots. Decent sneakers with some traction will do for the most difficult parts of the Great Wall, if you're really that adventurous. Unless you're doing some of the more exotic backpacking in Tibet, you're fine. In fact, when you're at the Great Wall, poor women from the countryside sometimes attach themselves to foreigners and guide them in hopes you'll tip them or buy postcards or water from them later. (Getting them to leave you alone is very difficult, so save the stress and take advantage of their knowledge of the area.) What you'll notice is that while you're gripping the walls and proceeding carefully up and down some very steep steps, they're flopping around in smooth plastic slippers as if it's nothing!

Riverdale, NY: What is the danger of SARS for tourists?

Steve Friess: Of course there's a remote chance of anything, but I live in Las Vegas and I've got to say that even at the height of the SARS crisis, there were much, much better odds of choking on oatmeal. What was most alarming last spring in China was that there was little understood about how SARS spread and how to treat it that travel was unwise for average tourists. Now the Chinese authorities realize their economy can collapse if even one case spreads abroad. And the numbers are staggering - in a city like Beijing of 13 million people, they only even had a couple thousand cases. Right now, they've got seven or eight? This should not be a concern anymore.

Cincinnati, OH: I'm afraid to eat or drink anything: BT says don't buy bottled water on the street, my doctor says only eat things hot and steaming and no fruit except bananas. We are going on a tour and staying in 3-4 star hotels...am I worrying needlessly? Thanks.

Steve Friess: I really think you are. I had a friend who visited with me who was so concerned she would carry straws in a ziplock baggie everywhere we went. At a restaurant once, I ordered a 1-liter bottle of Coke for us to share and she had me return it for cans so she could use a straw. There is such a thing as going too far. If you're staying and three or four star hotels, I wouldn't hesitate to eat ANYTHING I could get at a shop there or in the restaurants. In fact, I have a weak stomach and I brought along a year's supply of Imodium for my year in China in 2001. I used it about once -- after a McDonald's hamburger. Go figure. Be careful with the water, sure. But otherwise, just make sure food seems clean and look around to see if anyone is puking. Just kidding. But enjoy. The food is the best part of being in China, and I worry people miss out because of their fears.

Orlando, FL: I'll be going on a trip with with my graduate program in June to Shanghai. Afterwords, a few of us will go to Beijing for three days. What is the biggest thing we should look out for both as a group and as individuals? And what is the main "can't miss" of the two cities? Thanks. Happy travels!

Steve Friess: If you live in Orlando, then you know that in any tourist destination, there are scam artists out there. In Beijing and Shanghai, the most common one is the young "students" who prey upon the good will of Westerners who come over by insisting they wish to "practice their English" with you. You fall for it because it seems so quaint and internationally friendly, plus you figure you'll have a neat story to tell when you get home about the "real" Chinese people you met.

I'll never forget when my American boyfriend at the time came over for a visit when I worked at the China Daily newspaper in 2001 and fell into a lengthy conversation with a pair of 20-something Chinese girls at the Summer Palace. He was so annoyed with me when I seemingly rudely wanted to just move us along. I whispered to him that they would eventually tell him they were art students and try to entice him to go somewhere with them to look at their paintings. Then I walked away and left them to chat while I sat by the big lake. Ten minutes later, he came to me and said, 'How did you know that?" Maybe because it's as common a scam in China as those e-mails you get about the Nigeria prince and the fortune you can buy into.

I'm not saying not to be friendly or engaging with the local Chinese. Of course, many of them want to get to know foreigners and show off their country and their English skills. But pick up a copy of the expat magazine City Weekend in some of the bars and restaurants in the Sanlitun area and you'll find advertisements for "English corners" with dates and times where people will meet at cafes to have language exchange. Or enjoy the small talk with those who approach you, but be dubious because their entire biography may be fabricated to entice and entrap you.

Now, as for can't misses in Shanghai and Beijing… Well, Shanghai is a really neat, modernizing city. There's the Bund, the riverfront row of architecturally fascinating European buildings that represent various stages of Chinese occupation. The Rough Guide guidebook actually offers an outstanding building-by-building self-guided tour. The other thing I urge people to do in Shanghai is go to the Museum of Urban Planning. I know, I know - how dull does that sound? But it's NOT! It's actually an engaging history of the city and its people and on the third floor, I think, there's a mammoth scale model replica of the city - complete with bridges you can walk over to look at different sections from above.

Beijing. As you can tell if you saw my story, I adore this city. This answer's getting a little long, but if you miss the Great Wall, you've missed China altogether. It is sensationally beautiful from any section, although some are more daring and less crowded than others. You can't help but gasp and wonder how they built this thing. And if you like Peking duck, do NOT miss Liqun, which is also written about in the story. There simply isn't a better duck anywhere I've been.

June Lake, CA: I visited China in 1981. I was there just after the first Gulf War. The Chinese I met were very interested in talking with me about America and seemed to know more about the war than I did, it turns out. They were very idealistic about forming a hybrid version of socialistic capitalism. Would they be as open-minded about Americans now? How would a trip to China now be compared to a trip in 1981?

Steve Friess: I'm assuming you meant 1991 being post-Gulf War I since China was JUST opening up in 1981. Either way, though, I have to say that Communist China is hardly "Communist" at all anymore. Rather, it's more akin to unrestrained capitalism -- the sort of capitalism we had in the late 19th century when there was no government regulation, not labor laws, none of that. Are the Chinese "open-minded" about Americans? Oh, absolutely. They're not terribly keen on being lectured to about democracy necessarily, but most dream of attending our universities, touring in America. They love our products. There are 64 Starbucks in Beijing alone! And they love the money we spend when we're there. I don't think they've got a socialistic capitalism, though - I think they've got a capitalism operated by the Communist Party which essentially acts as the Board of Directors for PRC Inc., the largest corporation on the planet. The board has no plans to relinquish its control, but they'll loosen things up enough to keep the money rolling in.

Vancouver, WA: Steve, my wife and I are going to China for the first time in October. We have decided to go with China-Focus travel on a 2l-day tour. Are you familiar with the company? They are frequently mentioned in Budget Travel magazine. Do you think this is a good way to go for first time travelers in our early 60s with no skills in Mandarin?

Steve Friess: I'm sorry I don't know this company, but I do think that tourists without any Mandarin may feel much more comfortable with a guided program. I would suggest, however, that you find one that allows some flexibility in the itinerary. Can you ask for a different part of the Great Wall? Can you skip the dullsville Ming Tombs? Will they be parading you through various tourist-trap shops? One idea: If you're Jewish, for instance, see if you can attend a Shabbat service in Beijing or Shanghai. It's a great, great way to meet Westerners who really live in China -- and you'll get a very different perspective. Anything like that that you can do to shake it up a little is good, but it's China -- you'll be amazed any way you go. Unless the service is lousy on the tour, you've got three weeks and that's a good amount of time to get many slices of the country.

Belmont, CA: Since you've done a bit of writing for the gay media as well, I'm wondering what cities in China are good for gays and lesbians and maybe which ones are bad? What is the Chinese opinion of homosexuality?

Steve Friess: Outside of Beijing, Shanghai, certainly Hong Kong and to a lesser extent Guangzhou or Shenzhen, the notion of gay nightlife in China for Western travelers is very limited. All of those cities, though, have bars you can find listings for through Google. Otherwise, much of Chinese gay life occurs through Internet chat rooms and that kind of thing.

I've recently been doing some research on this for a gay travel piece I'm writing on Hong Kong for another magazine, and what I've learned is that there are homosexual and homoerotic themes that turn up in old Chinese art and literature all the time. One euphemism for gay sex, in fact, is "breaking the sleeves," which comes from a 2,200-year-old tale of Han Dynasty emperor Dong Xian who notoriously and openly had a gay lover. He woke one time to find himself laying atop his lover's sleeve. Rather than wake his lover, Dong thoughtfully cut the sleeve so he could get up. The Chinese indifference to same-sex relations was so obvious that Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci complained about it during a 1583 visit.

But Confucian and Buddhist teachings do oppose same-sex relations probably more than condemning same-sex relations (although Buddhism is decidedly anti-sex in many instances) and the deeply patriarchal society keeps almost all Chinese gays closeted. The Brits brought modern Western Judeo-Christian homophobia along with them to Hong Kong in the 19th century, too, and only in 1991 was gay sex decriminalized there. There aren't statutes against it per se on the mainland, but police have been known to blackmail gays by threatening exposure or to arrest them on the pretense of keeping societal order. I've never heard a Westerner caught up in such a problem.

Taiwan, incidentally, recently flirted with recognizing gay marriages, although it went nowhere in the legislature there.

Lawrenceville, NJ: If you had 4 days in Hong Kong at the end of a trip, would you recommend spending one overnight in Macau? Or is a day trip going to be enough to take in the local flavor? We are not interested in casinos, more the local color. If so, do you have a hotel recommendation that would be great for what we are looking for, and how do we reserve it? I understand Macau can be crowded. Thanks much!

Steve Friess: Funny you should ask. Part of the HK swing I just took to file a piece for US News & World Report about Macau and how it's ABOUT to become a major, major tourism hotspot in coming years after American casino companies complete their plans over the next decade to build 20 Vegas-caliber casino-resorts with more than 50,000 rooms. There'll even be a half-sized replica of the Venetian in Vegas. After that happens you're going to want to spend a night over there because they'll have Vegas-like entertainment complexes with Chinese touches - and most likely at really reasonable prices. Vegas isn't cheap anymore. The 99 cent shrimp cocktail is dead there. But this will be like early Vegas for a while - can you say 99 cent dim sum?

So, my answer for the moment is that Macau is a just a day trip because there is SO much you have to do in Hong Kong - Victoria Peak, Stanley Market, Nathan Road shopping, high tea at the Peninsula Hotel, Wanchai and so on. For the moment, Macau is a bit less exciting…but certainly worthwhile. The former Portuguese colony has an absolutely charming shopping quarter of cobblestone streets and GREAT Portuguese-Macanese restaurants. The ruins of the Church of St Paul is also pretty interesting; you walk up a hill to the front of a 17th century Jesuit church. One of the cool things is you can take pictures of it and then challenge your friends to guess which country you're in and they'll never guess it's China. The ferry ride over is lovely and so easy and cheap, too. Plus, another stamp in the ole passport, since it's another "special administrative region" - China treats it like a different country for immigration purposes, as it does Hong Kong. No visa required, though, unlike mainland China.

I know you said you don't gamble, but I strongly urge you to stroll through the Casino Lisboa anyway for one of the most colorful - and, to be honest, somewhat scary - images of real local Chinese life. These are unlike any casinos you've ever seen…they're dark, cramped labyrinths where at any time of any day there are gamblers standing three, four, five deep around baccarat tables watching or shouting out bets. How they keep track of everyone's wagers is another ancient Chinese mystery. Watch your wallet in there but definitely take a glimpse. You'll be telling your friends about THAT when you get home, I promise you.

Dallas, TX: Hi there. I have heard that some of the best places to buy designer knock-offs is in a small town in China. Not sure you may have expertise in this "field", but do you know where you can get a great deal on clothing, accessories, etc.?

Steve Friess: As I sit here listening to a CD I'm betting Norah Jones didn't get a royalty from, I can say that the big cities certainly have lots of knock-off markets. In fact, the only town I can speak of is Beijing, where the sale of pirated goods goes on unabated and unabashed within a block of the US embassy at the Silk Alley (Xishui Market) a couple blocks east of the major Friendship store on Jianguomenwai. Of course, you get what you paid for...My copy of the classic episode in season three of "Friends" when Ross and Rachel break up has the audio about 30 second before it's supposed to come on and the subtitles to my copy of "Wonder Boys" repeatedly uses the term "denatured woman" to refer to the transvestite character played by Robert Downey Jr.!

Denver, CO: I've heard a lot about the food in Macau. What's so great about it? Where would you recommend?

Steve Friess: Hmm…why don't I answer all the Macau questions at once since it's my favorite topic at the moment? Macau is celebrated for its food. What's fun about it is that it's a strange cross between Portuguese and Chinese - an early example of fusion, if you will. And the Portuguese brought ingredients from their Brazilian and African colonies, too, so you end up with some of the most unusual combinations. You may never find such a blend of global influences again. Typical examples include caldo verde, which basically is potato soup with green vegetables and spicy sausage, chourico assado, which is roast Portuguese sausage, Macanese chicken curry, grilled squid (chocos guilhados tinta) and a stew with red beans and pork. Also, lots of codfish dishes, not something anyone eats on mainland China. My two Macanese picks are A Lorcha at Rua do Almirante Sergio 289AA and Solmar at Av da Praia Grande 8-10.

Madrid, Spain: Hello Steve, could you tell me what kind of roulette is used at Macau casinos? I mean, are they the double zero kind or the single zero? Thanks.

Steve Friess: And our last Macau question...They only have single zeros. Also, since we're on the subject, there's no poker or craps. Baccarat rules. Poker I understand because it's a Vegas phenom, mostly, but craps perplexed me until I realized it's based on the premise that the number 7 is lucky. For Chinese, it's not a special number. Eights and nines are lucky. The Las Vegas Sands Inc., which owns the Venetian in Las Vegas, had some new slot machines made for the Sands Macau, the first American casino in Macau, in which you line up lucky 8s instead of 7s. In fact, they supposed to open on May 18 and not the 17th specifically to capitalize on the lucky 8!

Prior Lake, MN: I see that you have been to Changchun. My 2 little girls are from there and I was wondering about the statues mentioned in the article. I did not see those when I was there. Do you have a link to any photos of them? Thanks.

Steve Friess: I do have some photos of the statues in the middle of the public square, but I'm not sure if anyone has posted them online. There's a shockingly detailed giant of a man standing with his arms raised at the center of the square, which is actually the second-largest public square in the world behind Tian'anmen, actually. Nearby there's one of a naked reclining woman, but much of her lower half is washed out. They used different sculptors. The statues went up in the late 1990s. I only heard about it because some nudist website heralded it as proof that Americans are prudes and everyone else is so liberated. They pointed to a survey that showed some huge majority of Changchun residents approved of it. But be very, very wary of statistics the Chinese put out. They're almost always dubious, designed to have a certain effect. In this case, some government ministry dude who decided these statues were a good idea got a "survey" done to prove his point.

Grand Rapids, MI: Mine question is rather a comment: My wife and I have been to China three times in the last five or six years on tours. The country is changing very fast. The people are great. I would recommend tours, even to the Hutong Village portion of Beijing, but do not go alone; it is very difficult to find your way out of that area.

Steve Friess: Fair enough. I don't want anyone to go into a place like China thinking it is EASY to navigate alone. It can be done and I believe there is great benefit to doing so. But the language is a huge, huge barrier. I cannot imagine how Beijing is going to manage to receive millions for the Olympics with the poor English fluency -- and personal hygiene, too, frankly -- of its taxi drivers.

That said, if you ARE going to try on your own, surely you can figure out how to wander a hutong area without getting lost.

Yardley, PA: Will we really be able to figure out where to go to catch our transportation: bus, train, and airports in China if we are doing it independently?

Steve Friess: As I just said, this is one thing always worry about as I give people advice about mainland China. (Not Hong Kong, Macau or Taiwan, where things are more modern and people speak a lot of English.) For the magazine, I tried my best to keep my recommendations accessible to the subway as much as possible.

The subway is actually really easy to use once you get the hang of it. All you have to remember is to look at see where people are handing in their money at the cage. Give them 3 yuan and they'll give you a little piece of paper. Go to the top of the steps and hand it to the woman sitting there. Then go down and the maps are very easy to follow from there.

So can you get around Beijing without a guide? Absolutely, with a little help from the concierge at your hotel and some decent maps.

Now, let's take this question apart. Trains, first.

Taking trains across the country or from city to city is a sensational way to see the countryside - I spent more than 200 hours on the train in 2001 and Paul Thereoux's memoir "Riding the Iron Rooster" about his year riding the train around China is one of the very best American-in-China memoirs around. That said, it's really hard to do without speaking Mandarin and it's a rugged way to go that most Westerners won't tolerate well. The public smoking in some cars alone will drive most Californians wild.

If you REALLY want to give it a whirl, practice asking for tickets for your destination and learn the numbers or get a mobile phone and get a Chinese speaker willing to wait for your call and hand the phone to whoever you're trying to communicate with. Don't laugh. I did this often when I was in a jam in various nooks, but I also had lots of friends in Beijing because I was working there. Annoyingly, you also can only buy one-way tickets, so as soon as you arrive in a city you need to go to the ticket counter and buy your return and you're at the mercy of what's available if you can't be very flexible. It's a challenge.

Buses. Do NOT take city buses in China - particularly Beijing -- unless you really, really know where you're going. I lived there for a full year and the only buses I ever took were ones whose paths someone had told me. There are some buses that are OK; the Lonely Planet offers some clear instructions on where to go and how to catch one of the cheaper buses to the Great Wall. With guidance like that, it's OK - but really an uncomfortable mode of transportation that lacks the scenic payoff (you see the same thing you would in a private car or taxi) that makes braving a train ride so enjoyable.

Airports: Getting to the airports are easy enough with help of a concierge telling the taxi driver where to go (and remember, Shanghai has two airports that are both heavily used, so it would be like hopping in a cab in Chicago and saying, "Airport, please.") Pay attention, even if the concierge or some other Chinese speaker instructs the driver; he'll inevitably want to take you to the international terminal because he assumes you're going home. If you're going domestic and he takes you international, here's my trick that anyone can do: Say "Shanghai" - it's easy to say in Chinese and he'll understand. If you're in Shanghai, then say "Beijing." Once you're at the airport, the signage is reasonably good in English and what you need to do - check in, buy the airport tax ticket, proceed to gate - is self-explanatory.

Getting FROM the airport is another story. You'll be assaulted by toots trying to get you into their overpriced, illegal cabs. Go to the legitimate taxi line. If you can, print out something from the Internet that says your destination - your hotel name and/or address - in Chinese characters. The hotel's site should have it. Show it to them. They won't usually be able to read the pinyin - the Romanized version of Chinese - but they'll all know the characters.

One last little navigational tip: The most useful thing I owned when I was in China was a keychain that had a small compass on it. They cost a few bucks, they're easy to carry and when you emerge from a subway or get out of a taxi, they're invaluable because everything will look the same all the time.

San Jose, CA: What is the best "secret" place to visit in China? "Secret" being less well known than, say, Guilin.

Steve Friess: You know, you think of China and you just don't think about the vast northwest province of Xinjiang which is so, so cool. It's like going to the Middle East, and for good reason -- the province borders Pakistan and Afghanistan and is steeped in Turkic influence thanks to those who trekked through here on what became known as the Silk Road. Sipping wine in Turafan and sleeping in a Uygur family's yurt in Tian Chi had to be one of those experiences I would never have bargained for. Closer to Beijing, take the train to Shanhaiguan and see where the Great Wall meets the sea.

Princeton, NJ: Steve, we are traveling to China for 3 weeks in July, just my teenage daughter and I alone, no tour. Despite reading a lot, I'm confused (and worried) about inter-China airline tickets, which we need (Beijing, Xian, Shanghai, Hong Kong).

1. Who do I buy them from in China exactly that will speak enough English and do I get all of them at once in the first city (Beijing)?

2. I understand that we can't use credit cards for airline tickets, but I have no idea how much money they will cost. How do I make sure I have enough in my ATM account or traveler's checks?

3. Am also concerned about relying on ATMs for lots of cash, I have had my card not work in developing countries in the past although it works fine in Europe. In addition to my regular ATM card, my bank recommended a check card (debit) that is a Visa and I got it too. Is this going to do the job reliably? Thanks so much for your help with this key issue!

Steve Friess: You can do all this in Beijing, but I'm not sure why you'd bother if you're so concerned. You can buy these tickets on Expedia right there in your own home and have it all lined up. You'll pay a $20 premium for having paper tickets, but it sounds like it's worth it to you to remove this question mark. And you don't really have to worry that you're being snookered or that you could get a better deal in China: One of the beauties of Chinese internal air travel is that airfares almost never change, there are no special deals but there's also no worries that buying them too close to departure will cost you more.

However, there is a state-run travel agency in Beijing that can do this for you, too, with English speakers. It's called CITS, or China International Travel Services. Your hotel concierge should be able to instruct the cabbie to take you there - the CITS building is at 1 Dongdan Beidajie in Beijing. Dongdan is a major subway stop on the No. 1 line (east-west), two stops east of Tian'anmen Dong (Tiananmen East.) The building should be right there on the north corner when you come up and it's probably listed on the signs telling you which exit to use to get to what. CITS is great and very helpful to buying air and train tickets.

You mentioned you can't use credit cards for this. I'm pretty sure CITS lets you do so; I'm sure I charged my flight to Urumqi on my Amex or Visa back then in 2001, although I paid a premium to do so.

I have NOT heard horror stories about using ATMS in China with mainstream US bank cards like Wells Fargo, BoA, Citibank, etc. What I *would* advise against is the use of travelers checks. I never found that to be of any use outside of at a major bank.

While credit cards aren't all the widely accepted in China except in tourist businesses and even then it's never clear, one clever trick is that American Express allows you to cash your own personal checks for free if you go to their office in major cities like Shanghai and Beijing. I think the limit is US$1,000. Kind of a pain, but a good backup plan. Call Amex and ask them about it.

Stillwater, OK: Where can I read about your travels? I just spent 5 1/2 years teaching in Shandong, did a lot of traveling in the summers, and would like to read of the places I never got to go to, such as Zhou Zai Gou in Sichuan and DunHuang in Qinghai.

Steve Friess: Some of the quirkier observations from my year in China - complete with a very funny photo of me with now-NBA star Yao Ming when I interviewed him for USA Today before anyone knew who he was - can be found on my professional website, www.stevefriess.com/chronicles. I also wrote a number of opinion pieces on Chinese issues from the 2008 Olympics to SARS that appeared in a number of newspapers. Since the Philadelphia Inquirer ran most of them, you can go to my site's Philadelphia Inquirer index and see those at http://www.stevefriess.com/archive/phillyinquirer/

New York, NY: Other than the language barrier, what do you find are the biggest obstacles you face in traveling in China?

Steve Friess: Well, you really have to lower your sanitation expectations, certainly, if you're going to really get a chance to see how real Chinese people live and eat "real" Chinese food, which is wonderful and so vastly different than what we get in the West. It can't bother you to sit in a restaurant and see a fish leap out of a tank, flop around on the floor, get scooped up by an attendant whenever they get to it and then tossed back into the tank.

Steve Friess: Well, geez...that went fast! Thanks so much for all your participation and I'm sorry I couldn't answer every single question. You are welcome to visit my site, www.stevefriess.com, and e-mail me a question. If I can answer it, I'll do my best. And enjoy! Zai jian!

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