China's Southern Delight

"Not for all the tea in China."

You'd be surprised how often I heard that comment when I said I was headed to south China. Americans have traveled to China for decades, but mainly to cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong or maybe Guilin in the south. But not here, not in Nanning. As far as America is concerned, this is "undiscovered" territory. From my perspective, this area is China's best-kept secret.

Nanning, known as the Green City, is the capital of the Guangxi province (population 1 million), with the look of a big sprawling city, but with a remarkably undeveloped and pristine feel to it. It isn't a city that has any historical significance or any unique natural beauty, though beautiful landscapes are just a few hours away. Thousands of people come to the Green City in October for the world famous China-Asian Expo when the city is overrun with tourists from all over Asia (but very few from the West).

So, why travel halfway across the globe to visit this big city in the south of China?

First, because Nanning, unlike most other big cities in China, is relatively untarnished by the West. It is a city still in its infancy. You will appreciate the openness and warmth of the people. They will greet you and welcome you everywhere you go. You achieve instant celebrity status just because you are different from them; if you are Caucasian, being American (Meiguo) is secondary. This is a rare experience, and one to savor.

As of my fourth trip to Nanning, I have seen very few Caucasians -- and only men, no women. I met a guy from England last year and a couple of Canadians. This year, I bumped into a guy from Germany (and his Chinese wife), met a fellow from Scotland at my hotel. I finally spoke to an American from Chicago when I was changing my return ticket.

Second, the food is unbelievable, and most things are cheap -- real cheap (pianyi). Goods and services that you might routinely pay $20 for in the U.S., you may find in Nanning for $1 to $2. Not everything goes for 10 cents on the dollar, but lots of things do.

Food and hotels, for example, are very cheap. A nice room in a three-star hotel with two beds, broadband cable and a view of the city is just $20 a night. I have been very happy with the accommodations at the Huaxing Hotel, where I have developed a friendship with one of the managers (mention my name and they may give you a discounted rate). The Fu Man Di is another reasonably priced hotel -- but because it gets a four-star rating, it is a little more expensive ($30 a night).

Dinner at most restaurants is $3 to $5. Eating open-flame grilled food at sidewalk open-air cafes is more fun and much less expensive. Generally, it costs $2 to $3 for several-course dinners. And it's the best food I have ever had at any price: fresh fish and clams grilled to perfection, fresh vegetables, chicken and beef.

My favorite for this kind of informal dining is first and foremost Zhong Shan Lu; this is actually an entire street. It is a well-known and very busy street ("Zhong Shan Road"), which is about a mile long of nothing but little outdoor grills and cafes. Among these little cafes, one of the most popular and probably the best is "A Li Ma Ma." Their grilled chicken and clams are unparalleled.

These sidewalk cafes open for business at about 7 p.m. and remain open until about 3 a.m. It is a night culture here. Because of the hot weather, people eat late, stay out late and sleep late. There is also a great spot directly across the street from the Huaxing Hotel on Qixing Road. It doesn't get started until 10 p.m., and they are still cooking away at 4 a.m. Their grilled fresh fish is the best I have ever had, and a full serving for two costs less than $4. There are also a couple of exceptional indoor restaurants in the Huaxing Hotel. The Yu Xhi Ge Restaurant on the second floor is known for its very spicy food.

As for shopping, you will find that prices vary dramatically from the big department stores to the small street vendors. Of course, you can negotiate with the vendors, and it is expected -- although not for food.

How to Avoid Looking Like a Tourist
Do Don't
Practice using chopsticks before coming. Waste your time trying to tip. They won't take your money.
Watch out for bones in the food. They are everywhere! Be surprised if someone wants you to pose with them in a photo.
Carry toilet paper with you everywhere. Drink the tap water.
Learn a few basic Chinese words and phrases. Knowing how to greet someone and ask for things is a big plus. Ask for a fork.
Take a weekend to travel to Guilin (just five hours by train). From there, the boat ride to Yangshuo is unforgettable (see photo below). Assume that green lights mean it's safe to cross.
Negotiate a better price on most products you want to buy. A good starting point is 50% of the asked price. Try to negotiate prices on food.
Purchase several I.P. phone cards. Pay full face value on the I.P. cards, as you can get them for at least a 50% discount.
Carry with you a small Chinese-English phrase book. Panic when crossing the street amid a flurry of traffic in all four directions.
Always wash uncooked fruit and vegetables -- preferably using boiled or bottled water.
Source: Harry Schiller

As for local tourist spots, there is the very scenic QingXiu Mountain Park inside of Nanning. Also worth visiting is the Wind Rain Bridge. But the real beauty in the area is about five hours north by train: Guilin and Yongshuo. It is truly an unforgettable experience and well worth a weekend trip.

How to Be Mistaken for Fluent
Key words and phrases
English Nanning Mandarin
Hello Ni hao
Thank you Xie xie
Excuse me? (May I trouble you?) Mafan ni
Good bye Zaijian
How much is that? Duoshao qian
Ice Bing kuai
I would like a bowl of noodle soup Wo yao san liang
...and I would like an egg too. huh egu tzi dan
Tissue paper Weishengzhi (pronounced "wayshangtzu")
Crazy Funkuang
I don't understand. Wo bu mingbai
Source: Harry Schiller

Party Icons

Getting There

One of the great things about traveling to south China is how economical it is. But you shouldn't have to spend thousands just to get there. The first thing you need to do is get yourself a good wholesale travel agent. These are the no-frills agents who book for assorted groups and corporations and even for airlines. These are not the type who book you the three-day stay at the Ramada and a nice rental car -- they just want to know where, when and how much. Nothing else. And they often are 50% less than retail fares.

In my four trips to China, my round-trip fare from L.A. to Guangzhou has ranged from $520 to $720. Other passengers have told me that they have paid three or four times as much. The Chicagoan I recently met paid almost twice as much for his ticket as I paid for mine -- and he had gotten his via

The trip halfway across the world is usually pleasant enough, even on a no-frills airlines such as China Southern Airlines. This will usually be the least expensive carrier. If you prefer the more upscale treatment, then you take All Nippon Airlines, a truly delightful experience, replete with all the finest Japan has to offer. An interesting thing about flights from the U.S. to China is that most of them (from Los Angeles International Airport), leave around midnight. It's a 15-hour flight to Guangzhou, and the entire trip takes place in total darkness (outside).

Sidewalk Fruit Vendor

When you touch down in Guangzhou, a huge teeming city in the south of China with about 10 million people, you will think that China has gone all high-tech. But that's just the spectacular new airport, which is not representative of the city.

From Guangzhou to Nanning, the flight will cost about 400-500 yuan ($50-$60) if you book it at the airport, less as part of a preplanned package. As for language, there are usually enough people around who speak a little English (and you will find the Chinese very eager to help), so even if you don't know any Chinese, you can get by and ultimately get where you are going, which is Nanning.

Now some comments about the dollar-yuan rate. Though the buck has plunged in recent years against most major currencies, it hasn't lost any of its buying power in China. This is in part because the Chinese yuan had been, until recently, pegged to the dollar.

Li-Jiang River

So while the American in Europe finds that his dollar has less buying power now than in previous years (though the dollar has bounced back in recent months), the American in China finds his dollar buys as much as ever.

The relative value of the dollar in China can vary considerably, however, from one city or province to the next. In northern China, in the major cities such as Beijing, the dollar doesn't go nearly as far as it does in the smaller, undeveloped cities in the southern provinces. And if you go to the cities with the highest standards of living, such as Shanghai or Hong Kong, the dollar is worth even less.

Don't change money either coming or going at any U.S. airports. You will generally get burned. Similarly, be on the alert for scams when you get to China. Do not be taken in by strangers -- even strangers looking very official -- who offer to exchange your dollars for yuan or vice versa. Go to a currency-exchange window at one of the major Chinese airports or wait until you can get to a bank -- the most reliable for this purpose is the Bank of China.

Cuttlefish and ... Pabst Blue Ribbbon?

One other thing to be on the lookout for is counterfeit money. Lots of phony 50 yuan bills are floating around, and if you spend any time in Guangzhou, you will likely be targeted for some of it. There are ATMs everywhere, and so far I have found the best prices and quickest response from the ATMs at the Bank of China branches.

In addition to the currency caveats, there are other considerations to be aware of when traveling in south China, including problems (to varying degrees) with the food, lack of cleanliness and language problems. Clearly, this is not a trip for everyone. But as with trading stocks, sometimes those willing to take a little risk earn the greatest rewards.

P.S.: If you want more information or have questions about any of this, you can click here to send an email.

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