Besides the basic stuff (passport, photo, fee, application), we needed a round-trip plane ticket, at least one hotel reservation, and an itinerary. We're traveling over land, via Laos, so we presented a detailed itinerary instead of plane tickets. For the hotel reservation, I emailed hotels where we plan to stay. The hotels confirmed right back, no deposit or credit card required. See more visa details here.Vicki and I like Yunnan province in southwest China. I've written about the area before, suggesting that the capital city Kunming or old Dali would make fine retirement choices. "Start with weather," I wrote. "Central Yunnan comes close to eternal spring. The area suffers none of the hot and sticky farther south or the cold and icy farther north."Move on to cost of living. Central Yunnan offers real bargains. Vicki and I routinely eat a Chinese breakfast for a buck or two, and a full splurge dinner for two with beer in a family-run restaurant is US$4 to US$7. A cab across town costs a dollar or two."You can spend less if you work at it. You can also spend more, as the boom here offers more and more high-end choice."If you choose to spend time in the area you face, or faced, two problems: visa and language. Now the visa problem has largely disappeared, at least for Americans. Just pop over to Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, Mongolia, or even Hong Kong or Macao for a week or two. Every now and again you might fly to Europe or the United States for longer stays. Return to China and you're good to go for another two months. China offers competitive airfares, including low-cost Air Asia flights to many cities in the region. The second problem, language, remained a challenge last time we were in Yunnan. Desk clerks in Chinese hotels (as opposed to international hotels), cab drivers, bus drivers, waiters, and sales clerks spoke no English at all. But, increasingly, students approached us to chat. And big wigs around town often spoke English perfectly. We met them at construction sites—engineers, I'd guess, or the developers themselves—or in the international hotels or on airplanes.Do more Chinese speak English today? I'll let you know. We plan to be there by the end of the month. Paul TerhorstEditor's Note: This is the best time in our lifetimes to consider Asia. This beautiful and exotic region is more open today than ever, and it's possible for Westerners to travel almost anywhere they'd want to go. Our newDiscover Asia Kit is 12 components in total, including audio recordings and illustrated country guides, as well as an over-100-page full-color guide to the region in general. Click here to learn more about some of the world's most exotic and affordable places.
Contine Reading: Illegally Built Homes Razed In Spain
My imagination is a vivid one, but, now that I've had the opportunity to spend several weeks here, I have learned that Kashgar isn't really too far removed from my daydreams. Nomadic herders do tend to their camels in the sand dunes less than 100 miles from the city, many women do wear beautiful jeweled head-scarves and flowing gowns, cooking some of the finest mutton stew available in the world, as men in embroidered Muslim hats cook tasty kebabs and hawk intricately designed hand-woven carpets.
Coming here from Beijing was an experience in its own right. We had arrived in Datong, China, after leaving Mongolia. However, the trains had been booked up weeks in advance, and our only option was to return to Beijing, fly to Urumqi, then take the train due west for another 30 hours. The journey ended up taking us a full three days.
We were about an hour west of Beijing, in the air, when the desert first began. From that point until moments before we arrived in Kashgar on the train, we saw the harshest desert we had ever imagined. Across the Gobi and across the Taklamakan Desert, it's more than five times larger than the Sonora Desert in the United States. It seemed to go on forever. There were sand dunes, huge flat expanses, mountains, and badlands, yet for thousands of miles, we saw barely a bush or tree of any kind. We saw a sandstorm to the south that lasted for a couple of hundred miles. Apparently a small one, as we passed many miles of sand fences (similar to snow fences) that gave us a hint of how severe the weather here can get. In the summer, temperatures above 120 degrees Fahrenheit are common. In the winter, the mercury can dip below zero. As we got much closer to Kashgar, we at last saw signs of water--cotton, grapes, figs, and corn were planted, first in small plots, then in real fields. We started seeing a few trees and soon, rising out of the sand, we entered Kashgar.
This is China's far western frontier, the first city that you would arrive in if you were entering China from Pakistan, Afghanistan, or Kyrgyzstan and one of the major stops along the fabled Silk Road. Kashgar is a cultural melting pot. The old town is filled with Uighurs, Chinese Muslims strongly influenced from Central Asia. Modern Muslim women, dressed in Western wear, walk alongside women in burkas, women in black gowns, women in brightly colored flowing robes, and the men are similarly disparate. Vendors selling sizzling-hot lamb kebabs, bagels, and mutton noodle soup compete for sidewalk space with carpet dealers, haberdashers, tea shops, musical instrument stores, and money changers.
Although Kashgar, China is popular with European tourists traveling the Silk Road, it's far enough off the tourist trail so that we feel quite conspicuous in our Western clothing. In Kashgar, our shoulders are covered and shorts are off-limits. Fortunately, the profound heat of mid-summer has passed, and the temperatures now are tolerable.
The Id Kah Mosque is in the center of Old Town in the hub of Islamic Kashgar. The grounds surrounding the mosque are expansive and kept perfectly clean. There are a few tourists here, and vendors set up to accommodate them. To one side of the mosque, there are horses, donkeys, and camels, with photographers happy to take your picture alongside them for a few Chinese yuan.
People seem to be remarkably friendly here, which is good because we know nothing of their language and most of them know little or none of ours (other than a few children who are happy to boisterously shout "Hello!" when they see us). Fortunately, most people understand Mandarin, so that's a small help for us.
We went to a wonderful little Uighur restaurant, and I asked for an English menu, which seemed to put everyone into a state of near-panic. At last, we reverted to a phrasebook that we were given at our hotel and managed to place our order--but not before every person working at this busy place had crowded around our table to hear us speak. They all nodded approvingly when we managed finally to successfully communicate with them. We learned that the thumbs-up sign is understood and very appreciated in this city.
The Uighur people have their own unique style of dress and don't even speak Chinese except as second language. They even have their own unofficial time zone, two hours earlier than Beijing time, constantly confusing, as "Beijing time" and local time are used interchangeably.
The spectacular Karakoram Pass, separating China from Pakistan, lies directly west of Kashgar and is said to be the highest border crossing in the world. The summit of the pass, at 15,840 feet, is certainly breathtaking. Barely visible from the city, you can see the foothills of the mountains that rise to altitudes above 25,000 feet. We went about halfway up this pass to Karakul Lake, past sand dunes as tall as mountains, active glaciers, and stunning glacial canyons.
Far from the China populated by the Han, it's a part of this country that few foreigners see. It's a long way to travel, but for intrepid, the journey to Kashgar is well worth the effort.
Wendy JusticeContinue Reading:
Image source: Anthony Maw
When Beijing hosted the 2008 Olympics, we read about massive improvements that the government had initiated in preparation for the Games. The subway system was being revamped, and the hutongs were reportedly being demolished, to be replaced with sleek, modern structures in an effort toward "urban renewal." When we planned our recent return visit, we had no idea how this new modern Beijing would measure up.
I'm happy to report that the changes we've seen are mostly for the better. The hutongs are still the heart and soul of Beijing. These are active neighborhoods with crowded little shops overflowing with sundries, sizzling meats being cooked on outdoor grills, children playing in the streets, and elders carting their daily vegetables back to their homes. You can look down countless alleys and find medieval mysteries surviving in the heart of the modern city. Not all of the hutongs from a decade ago still exist, but there are enough of them to provide Beijing plenty of charm.
The subway system is remarkable. For a mere 2 yuan (about 30 U.S. cents), you can ride the subway almost anywhere in the city. There are 13 different underground lines with clean and modern cars, easy-to-understand bilingual signs and announcements. This system has helped to alleviate some of the city's traffic problems, and, even now, more lines are being built. Most major streets seem less congested than we remember and most now have bicycle lanes, another improvement. Most motorcycles we saw run on electricity and so are nearly silent and less polluting than motorcycles with gasoline engines. Many Beijing city buses also are powered by electricity.
I can't say whether Beijing's new law prohibiting more than two flies from occupying a public restroom has been successful, although I did not see more than two flies in any restroom that I used, so perhaps they are having success with that ambitious scheme. We did notice, though, that there are many more public restrooms now than seven years ago, another improvement.
One of our errands while in Beijing was to go to the China International Travel Service to pick up some train tickets we had reserved over the internet while still in the United States. We arrived around lunchtime, so we asked the agent of this very official government travel agency if she could recommend a good Chinese restaurant in the neighborhood, one where the locals ate. She thought hard for a few moments, then said that hygiene and sanitation in many restaurants is "not good for Westerners" and gave us directions to McDonalds. We had a good laugh after we left (and ate elsewhere), though we couldn't help noticing how many Western chain restaurants have found their footing in Beijing as compared with 2005. We ate at several local Chinese restaurants that had either English menus or at least picture menus. Sometimes the staff seemed a bit terrified that we were there and that they would have to communicate with us, but it always worked out.
One thing we really enjoyed this trip was not being the center of attention. It seems that, in the past seven years, Beijingites have become more accustomed to seeing Westerners. We saw lots of friendly faces and a number of indifferent faces, but we experienced almost no open-mouthed gawking and no one asked to take our picture this time.
One other interesting change is how popular coffee has become since our last visit here. Back in 2005, we had either to search for powdered instant coffee or drink tea. This time, we found good coffee shops throughout the city.
We had a good feeling about Beijing this trip. The people seemed more welcoming, the neighborhoods more social, and the quality of life better. We saw fewer bicycles and more automobiles (though there are still plenty of bicycles and small motorbikes). As with any large city, Beijing still faces challenges, but we had the sense that the can-do attitude of the Chinese people will continue to make this city a better place to be.
There I was, on the ground, a bit stunned, with blood gushing out of my mouth and nose. A crowd gathered. Someone handed me a Kleenex, then another and another. I heard a voice say to Paul, in English, that I must go to the hospital.
Hospital? We don't speak Chinese. We knew very little about medical care in China. The U.S. Consulate warns that "Western-style medical facilities with international staffs are not widely available in southwest China."
But the young woman who suggested the hospital more or less insisted. She turned out to be a lovely, gracious, practical sort. She took charge with a let's-go-just-do-it attitude.
She and Paul helped me up. I found I could walk without painâ€¦whew. She put us in a taxi and rode with us to a neighborhood clinic-hospital with Western-style medical services. She even paid for the cab, refusing Paul's attempts to reimburse her.
She provided bilingual help at the hospital. We signed up at the front desk, paid a small fee, and the three of us filed into an examination room. Paul and I travel without travel/medical insurance. We prefer to pay cash for what we need in the moment we need medical help. In China, it turns out, hospitals don't accept U.S. insurance. All comers pay cash for treatment.
A young doctor looked me over and then chatted with the young woman, by now our guiding angel. I needed a scan of my nose. We went back to the lobby and paid cash for the scan. After paying, a technician ushered us into the scanning room...no waiting.
During the scan, our angel asked where we were staying. Paul gave her the hotel's business card. (We always grab a card when checking into a hotel.) Apparently hotels in China assume responsibility beyond sheets and towels, TV and internet, and beds and air-con. Soon an English-speaking young woman on the hotel's staff showed up. Now she took charge, again with a let's-go-just-do-it attitude. Great. And greatly appreciated.
After the scan, Doc, for Paul's and my sake, used his hands to vividly tell us my nose was broken. The doctor thought I might need surgery and insisted that I go to a major hospital to see an expert.
At first I balked. I needed time to think. The young woman from our hotel suggested we walk over to our hotel, two blocks away, and eat something. Once at the hotel we thanked the first angel who had helped us, and sent her home. I finally decided to adopt the Chinese just-do-it attitude and go to the university hospital. Paul got our passports, credit cards, and all the cash we had on hand. The young woman from our hotel arranged some food. And we were off.
At the university hospital the hotel staff worked the system. First we paid, again, a minor fee to get started. Then I saw a nose expert. She gave me a thorough exam and said I'd heal without any need for an operation. Again, whew! Next I went to the lab for a shot of antibiotics, and, finally, we headed back to the hotel.
Total charges for treatment, in the two different hospitals, amounted to pocket change--a dollar here, 50 cents there. The hospitals charged for materials--medicine, for example, and the scan and shots and so on. These charges amounted to about US$25 in total, very little. Doctors, treatment, and emergency room cost nothing at all.
All taken care of. I love the Chinese let's-go-just-do-it attitude. And I'm doing fine.
Vicki TerhorstContinue Reading:
Besides, I wanted to see Red Cliff Village.
Most of us think the war against Japan started on Dec. 7, 1941, at Pearl Harbor. But the Japanese attacked Shanghai in 1937. Japanese forces quickly took major ports on China's eastern seaboard and moved inland to Nanjing, Wuhan, Beijing, and other large cities. Chiang Kai-shek's government retreated to the west, out of harm's way, and finally settled the wartime capital here in Chongqing. (Chongqing is pronounced Chong-ching. The old name was Chungking, as in the awful, canned, hard-noodle chow mein of my youth, now mercifully long gone.)
The U.S. embassy also moved to Chongqing, and eventually the U.S. army set up shop here, too. General Vinegar Joe Stillwell arrived in 1942 and took charge of the U.S. army's India Burma China theatre. He became Chiang Kai-shek's chief of staff.
But I wanted to see the headquarters of the Red Army, not the U.S. army. And the Red Army, under the command of Zhou Enlai, was set up in Red Cliff Village.
These days modern Chongqing has a light-rail Metro system. I figured there must be a stop near Red Cliff Village. So I took the Metro map to the desk at the hotel and asked what was the stop for Red Cliff Village.
The woman I asked starting talking to the other woman at the desk. After discussion, the first woman checked the computer. She then made a phone call and then again talked to the other woman. On and on. I intervened and said I would ask at the Metro station. They ignored me, continued talking, debating, checking the computer. Another phone call.
Finally they called a bilingual guide, handed me the phone, and said, "She will explain to you how to get there."
I got on the phone and the guide said, "Take a taxi."
I did. I found Red Cliff Village tucked away on top of a rock, extremely easy to defend, provided the Japanese could find it. I doubt the Japanese had much interest in Red Cliff Village, or even Chongqing, for that matter. The Japanese already controlled the heart and soul of China--Shanghai, Beijing, Wuhan. I suspect they bombed Chongqing only to keep the Chinese government on edge. Whatever, Chongqing remained under Chinese control until the end of the war.
In Red Cliff Village I saw where Zhou lived, saw his office and meeting rooms. Zhou managed the Red Army's propaganda operation during the war, and I saw his printing presses.
In 1945 Mao came to live in Red Cliff Village, too. Americans, desperate to end the quarrel between Chiang and Mao, had arranged a meeting between the two here in Chongqing. That meeting lasted 40 days and turned out to be the only face-to-face meeting Chiang and Mao ever had. In Red Cliff Village I saw where Mao and Zhou walked to discuss their meeting strategy.
Vicki and I spent a week in Chongqing. Besides Red Cliff Village, I saw General Stillwell's home and office, the Flying Tigers museum, and Chongqing itself, with parts of the city barely changed from when the Japanese bombed it.
We also watched the Olympics on TV. We understood very little of the Chinese commentary. But China TV covered the Olympics straight, with very few up-close-and-personal views, ads, or background talk. Instead we saw all sports all the time, sometimes on three or four channels simultaneously: hundreds of hours of whatever we wanted to enjoy.
Paul TerhorstContinue Reading:
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