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After 2 long years in China, we had the pleasure of hosting our first family visitors, my parents. Since they traveled halfway around the world to come and see us, I took a week off of work, so we could travel slowly and experience China.
Originally, my parents wanted to visit places all over China. They just didn’t realize that China is nearly the same size as the US and places are not at all close to each other. After much discussion about slow travel, we settled on traveling to Gansu, since Mrs. Atypical and I had not been there yet.
Gansu offered another out of this world experience that only China can. Gansu is located in the Northwest of China, not really close to anything, and that was the whole point. We wanted to escape the crowds, escape the smog, escape the dreary weather, and enjoy China for what it can really offer.
Gansu on a Budget
Our trip started out in Jiayuguan after arriving by plane. Because my parents traveled around the world to come and see us, Mrs. Atypical and I decided to treat them to the plane tickets. The rest of the cost of the trip was split 50/50, so let’s see how we did.
Plane tickets to and from Jiayuguan went for $985 for 4, which is not too bad of a deal. We even traveled over a holiday weekend in China and the ticket price didn’t reflect a holiday price. For less than $250 each, we were able to get round-trip, one-stop tickets.
To purchase tickets in China is a slightly different process than in the US. The general advice to buy early to get good deals does not apply to China. If you buy more than 6 weeks out, the prices are higher. The prices start to come down at 6 weeks out and stay about the same price all the way up to one week out from the date of departure.
We use Ctrip to book our flights in China because it is a Chinese company and gets the best prices available for China. Their site is even in English, so it is easily usable for those of us that cannot speak Chinese. Because the on time departure and cancellation rate is pretty high in China, Ctrip also will call or message you about flight cancellations or delays. One time they called me over 4 hours in advance to tell me that the flight had been cancelled.
Our trip to and from Gansu went off without a hitch. All of our flights were on time and the flights were smooth. We did not have much for a view, and we were spread out throughout the cabin, but it got us there and back on a reasonable budget.
On our trip in Gansu, we traveled by van with a private driver, by taxi, and by train. The private driver really is just a taxi driver that charges you a fixed rate for the day based upon how far away you plan to go. We found our private drivers when we took a taxi from the airport.
Every driver was very excited to get to drive the foreigners!
This was both good and bad. The drivers obviously thought they could rip us off because we were foreign. The first driver of the trip, took us to see the Jiayuguan fort of the great wall, the first pier of the great wall, and a restored section of the wall that goes up into the mountains. It was a beautiful day of exploring and he charged us a measly 120 RMB for the privilege.
Not all of the drivers were so kind and genuinely happy to see us though. The next driver, in Zhangye, took us an hour away to see Mati Si, a Buddhist temple carved into a cliff face. He charged 300 RMB for the trip, but when we said we wanted to hang out longer and hike some in the beautiful park, he told us, that the 300 RMB was only for a half day and we would need to fork over 200 RMB more for him to sit there and do nothing. So we did not get to hike. We headed back to town because our driver was ripping us off and we were not going to deal with him anymore. He wanted to drive for us the following day, but we found a different driver through networking with the driver from Jiayuguan.
The next driver was the most pleasant and easy going driver I have ever seen in China! They are generally super aggressive, but our new driver drove safely. He drove us out to the beautiful Danxia Rainbow Mountains of Zhangye and sat around for however long we wanted for a flat day rate of 200 RMB. He was so nice and easy going that we used him for the rest of our time in Zhangye, which would be 3 more days. He drove us to the “Grand Canyon” of China, and to another Danxia location past the rainbow mountains.
Our last driver was back in Jiayuguan where we would fly home from. He really stuck it to us in the end with pricing, but I bargained him down. He was very happy to take us around all day to see various sights, and even took us to a wonderful Buddhist temple that we hadn’t seen in our research of the area. We didn’t bargain the price ahead of time, so in the end he had the upper hand when it came to leave at the airport. Because we did not bargain up front, we ended up paying 300 RMB for him driving us around town. The other 3 locations that we paid 300 RMB for the day (~$45), were much farther away from town, so I felt it should have been 200 RMB.
Lesson learned. Always negotiate flat-rate driver/taxis up front where you have the bargaining power and can choose someone else. If they do not want to negotiate and will not run the meter, someone else will. Just choose someone else.
We took the train from Jiayuguan to Zhangye and back. The train was pretty nice and ran on a very regular schedule, so we could just show up to the train station and book our train for an hour later. Trains in China are very regular between towns and are on a set schedule. Unlike China’s airline system which always runs late, China’s train network is always prompt.
Our train ride to Zhangye cost a total of 150 RMB (~$22). We got 4 seats all together. Seats together don’t really matter. Everyone just gets on the correct car and then shuffles around. It is a little cramped in regular class seats, definitely not how we would travel cross-country like many of the Chinese do. The trip was pretty nice and took about 2.5 hours. During that time, the train staff took the opportunity on a captured audience to try and sell a bunch of garbage to us.
I don’t know about you, but I am extremely opposed to marketing like that. Whatever they sell is always priced high and I simply do not want to listen to their incessant jabbering. The problem truly lies with the consumers, though. If no one would buy any of the garbage they sell on the train, then they would not try to sell anything, knowing it is a waste of time. Capitalism has taken over, even in a communist country!
The return train ride from Zhangye was a bit more eventful. Because we traveled over Qing Ming, China’s Tomb Sweeping Holiday, the train was full and the only tickets they had left were standing tickets. I really didn’t want to stand on a train for 2.5 hours. Seeing no other options, we purchased 4 standing tickets for the same price as coming to Zhangye. Upon boarding, several young Chinese guys got up from their seats and offered them to us. They had been on the train since Beijing and were headed all the way to Urumqi. That is a 3-day train ride! Suffice it to say, they were tired of sitting and took the chance to walk around and go smoke in the smoking area of the train.
All in all, the trains worked out very well for us and were very cheap. If you can travel by train reasonably, it is the way to go in China. They run on time and are cheap. Two of my favorite things.
Gansu Province is off the beaten path of most people touring around China, but it has tons to offer. We saw 6 distinctly different beautiful locations while staying in only 2 cities.
The Great Wall
The first destination was the Great Wall. No trip to China is complete without seeing the great wall. Seeing as Mrs. Atypical and I have been here for 2+ years and have not seen it, it was a good opportunity with my parents’ arrival to go and see it. The Great Wall is a very impressive work, though the parts that you see in pictures nowadays that look beautiful are all restored. The actual wall looks like a mounded pile of dirt running off into the distance after centuries of erosion.
We toured the Jiayuguan Fort of the Great Wall on the first day in town, which set us back 400 RMB. I thought the price was kind of high for just seeing the fort, but on the drive back to the hotel, we were informed by the driver that the ticket is also to see the first pier of the great wall and the restored section that runs up into the mountains, and it is good for 2 days! All of these locations were spectacular and very unique.
Mati Si, Horse Hoof Buddhist Temple
After seeing the Great Wall, it was time to head to Zhangye to see the more natural scenery. The first stop on that leg of the trip was to see Mati Si, a very cool Buddhist temple carved into the side of the mountain. It is unbelievable the amount of excavation it took to build such an intricate network of tunnels. The craziest part was the statues that were inside and trying to figure out how they got there without cranes and modern construction techniques. I guess the ancients were smarter than we realize.
Mati Si set us back another 300 RMB for the 4 of us.
The Rainbow Mountains
The highlight of the trip and the primary driver of going to Gansu was the rainbow mountains. The full name of the park is Zhangye Danxia Landform Geological Park. Mrs. Atypical found pictures of the out-of-this-world scenery while in the US and knew that we needed to see it before finishing our time in China. The park lived up to the hype with beautiful hues of red, yellow, grayish, and white that look like they are painted on the rocks.
It is not unreasonable to think that while in China, this is faked and actually painted on the rocks to make it a larger tourist attraction. However, we also saw the same coloring, albeit, less pronounced outside the park in untouched areas so we know the rock formations are real.
The rainbow mountains park cost 300 RMB for the 4 of us as well, and was worth every penny for the experience. To make the most of it, we stayed there for as long as possible, since the park is not too big.
Pingshanhu Grand Canyon
We found the Pingshanhu Grand Canyon gem while riding in a cab. I saw a picture of it in a brochure and figured it would be a cool place to go and visit. The rocks have formed pillars and a canyon snakes between them, even though there is no water in it now. Maybe the area was left behind by glaciers receding from the past ice age. Nevertheless, the canyon is there and we were able to hike down into the bottom and experience the natural maze of passageways through the canyon.
Again, we tried to spend as much time there as possible by bringing lunch with us and following all of the paths around. The drive to get here was 1.5 hours, so I wanted to stay at least 3 hours to make it worth the drive time. We ended up touring the park for 5 hours before heading home.
This was the most expensive location of the trip at 520 RMB for 4 people. This price, I thought, was too expensive. The park is new, so price should be low to attract visitors. It is not easy to get to either, so they are not going to get too many tourists just passing by. Part of the ticket entrance was a mandatory 30 RMB bus fee charged per person. I tend to disagree with “mandatory add-ons” because I could walk in if I wanted to. This park the bus fee was probably needed because it was 10 km from the entrance to the actual grand canyon location.
Nevertheless, the Pingshanhu Grand Canyon was a cool destination and I would recommend it if you have extra time.
The 2nd danxia location we went to was Binggou Danxia Scenic Area. This was another very cool location just 10 km farther down the road from the rainbow mountains area. The topography here looks like sandstone pillars. We headed there in the morning of our last day in Zhangye and it did not disappoint. The scenery was out-of-this-world again! The only downside to the park was that several of the paths were closed to traffic for now.
Binggou Danxia Scenic Area was a good deal with the entrance fee only 240 RMB for the 4 of us. It again included a mandatory bus fee despite being able to walk, but it was cheaper than everything previously, so I can’t complain. Most people combine the rainbow mountains danxia and the Binggou Danxia in a single day, which would be 540 RMB for 4 people, but you would save the transportation cost to the rainbow mountains. Since we had the time, we just went to one location per day and enjoyed it.
Slow travel allows you to actually get to experience the places you go to. Too many people rush from place to place trying to “see it all” and end up missing the real experience.
The last day of our trip was spent touring around Jiayuguan. We headed to the Weijin Tombs early in the morning, only to be disappointed by how small the place was. There are ~1000 tombs scattered around the area of ancient warriors and noblemen, but there was only one tomb that was open to the public. We paid 124 RMB for the 4 of us to spend less than 30 minutes looking around.
After the tombs, we really didn’t have an idea of where to go, but our driver for the day ended up taking us to Wenshu Grottoes which was another Buddhist temple complex built on the side and into the side of a mountain. The place was extremely ornate and we had it mostly to ourselves for exploring.
The coolest thing here was getting to walk through an area where they were building new statues and seeing how they are constructed. The statues start off as a scarecrow of hay and then are molded with mud/clay to the correct shape before painting.
The Wenshu Temple cost 168 RMB to tour which was steep considering Buddhist temples are generally free to tour. However, the price was worth it for the beauty of the area and the kindness of the monks that lived there.
We stayed in hotels for this trip with a budget of $20 per room per night. We stayed within this with no problem. The only problem we had was booking with Qunar. Qunar is another Chinese booking site like Ctrip, however, they recently removed their English version making it much less useful. Our issue with Qunar was that we booked a hotel that told us upon arrival that they do not take foreigners. All foreigners in China have to register with the local police wherever they stay and many hotels do not understand the process, so they just say the don’t take foreigners. After calling the manager and having them come in, we were shown up to our rooms, in the hotel that “did not take foreigners.” Our rooms were massive suites for ~$20 per night.
After our room confusion in Jiayuguan, we booked using Agoda, which specifically states whether the hotel takes foreigners or not. We stayed for 4 nights in a hotel in Zhangye for ~$11.50 per night per room. This hotel was certainly not a high standard hotel, but it did the job since we weren’t spending much time in it anyways.
The last hotel in Jiayuguan was again $20 per night and was the worst of the trip. Our room did not have a window, nor did it have AC or fan mode. The room was roasting hot and Mrs. Atypical and I slept poorly. At least it was the last night.
Overall, we learned that booking with Agoda is the way to go in China. They have a wonderful selection of hotels in China and the pricing is about the same as on Chinese booking sites while being much easier to use for English speakers.
Last, but certainly not least, we ate very well in Gansu. If for no other reason, everyone should travel to China to experience the food culture. The food in China is amazing and is as diverse as the country is big. The selection is so much more than we see at Chinese restaurants in the US.
We ate wonderful noodles and fresh bread one day, and lamb stew and lamb ribs the next. The variety was endless! My only word of caution: most food in China is spicy. Be ready for intense flavors that are nothing like you have tried before.
Total Cost Breakdown
We spent a total of $1,956 on a week long trip for 4 to Gansu including flights. After subtracting my parent’s half of the cost, the Atypical family’s travel cost was $1,471 because we paid for all of the flights as a gift for them coming to see us.
We had a spectacular trip to Gansu province with my parents in tow. We got to see lots of cool places and traveled slow enough to get to experience Gansu. If we had more time, we would have loved to bring the bikes and ride from place to place, which would have saved more money, but travel has to be designed around everyone.
Have you ever traveled in China? Let us know, we may be able to help.