I have roughly 2 weeks to travel around China
Q: Here is my intended itinerary, though I have no idea if it's OK, because I have never been to China. I would really appreciate any comments:
Day 1-4: Shanghai (no choice here, for work). Take overnight train on night of Day 4 to Xian.
Day 5-6: Xian. Take overnight train on night of Day 6 to Beijing.
Day 7-10: Beijing. Take overnight train on night of Day 10 to Nanjing
Day 11: Visit Nanjing, take bus to Mount Huangshan
Day 12: Mount Huangshan
Day 13: Take bus to Hangzhou.
Day 14: Back in Shanghai to go home.
Also, since my itinerary is filled with train trips - I was wondering if it would be possible for me to purchase fast train tickets when I get there - or should I go ahead and pay a lot of money for the travel agency to get it beforehand for me?
Thanks so much!
A: Your itinerary looks good generally, with particular regard to the destinations chosen and time allocated to each place.
One thing you may want to consider is whether it would be better to skip Nanjing and spend a little more time at Huangshan and vicinity. Given that you will visit a number of cities, whether you visit Nanjing or not does not seem to make much of a difference. In contrast, if you have a little more time, you may take a better look at Hangshan. You may also be able to take a look at a couple of villages in the region around Huangshan that are known for traditional residences (villages such as Xidi and Hongcu or Wuyuan County). That will be an opportunity for you to take a look at the rural area of China, in addition to the urban regions you visit.
There is a direct train from Beijing to Huangshan. The train departs at 11:30 am and arrives at Huangshan station about 7:00 am. It's a rather long train ride, so you have to decide if that's what you want to do. One can also fly from Beijing to Huangshan (Tunxi Airport). A hard sleeping berth on a train from Beijing to Huangshan costs about ¥300; a soft sleeping berth, ¥500. A plane ticket for a trip from Beijing to Huangshan costs ¥800-1000 (busy tourist route). Flight time, however, is just one hour and forty minutes.
So, generally, you may want to check to see if you need to travel by train on every leg of your trip. For example, a soft sleeping berth on a train from Shanghai to Xian costs about ¥500. On the other hand, you may be able to find a plane ticket for you to fly from Shanghai to Xian for about ¥500. The train ride from Shanghai to Xian lasts anywhere from 14 to 20 hours. Flight time between the two cities is about 2 hours (sure, you need figure in the time needed for the transportation to and from an airport, which on average is about an hour or so for each bus or cab ride).
In addition to the time issue, it is also easier to purchase plane tickets than train tickets to travel in China. One difference is that plane tickets are sold far more in advance than train tickets. Whereas mostly train tickets are sold 7 to 10 days before departure, plane tickets can be obtained a couple of months in advance. Another difference is that whereas plane tickets can purchased nation-wide and online, train tickets are mostly sold locally, off internet. "Sold locally" meaning that (for example) you need to purchase your Xian-departing train in Xian. Since you have only a couple of days in Xian, by the time you show up in Xian to buy your train tickets, you may find them already sold out. This is not to mention that you really do not want to spend half a day so lining up at a train station to buy your tickets.
If you have to travel by train, you probably need to find a company that can buy train tickets for you. There are a few companies that offer this service; you can probably find them on the internet, but what happens is that you make your request for tickets you need online and they'll purchase the tickets for you off line. That's different from buying plane tickets, which, again, are sold nation-wide and online.
In any event, given the time you have, you do not want to get stranded at some place, waiting for a train or plane ticket that is not coming along. You can try to get these tickets for yourself beforehand, one way or another; you can also try to find travel agencies that will agree to provide the specific services you need. For example, you can ask them to book your train or plane or hotel or all these without you getting on one of their guided tours. Make sure you know normally how much people charge to buy you a train ticket (¥30-50?).
Additionally, you may want to give your trip plan at a given destination some more thought. For example, some people say it is nice to rent a bicycle and ride around the West Lake in Hangzhou. Do you think that's a good experience? If you want to do that, do you need more time than the one day that you currently allocate to Hangzhou?
Hope this helps.