With visa in hand, my next step is to actually get to China.
In June I booked flights through a discounter, www.cfares.com. You can join for free and search for and book domestic and international flights, as well as hotels. There are three main choices for arriving airports in China: Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong. As it turns out, the HK prices were somewhat lower and placed me somewhat closer to my final destination. Besides, I figured that landing in HK would ease my transition, since they speak English in HK.
My ticket cost $663 one-way to Hong Kong. I fly out of Louisville Wednesday morning and cool my heels in Chicago-O’Hare for a couple of hours, before boarding a 15-hour nonstop to HK. Crossing the International Date Line means I arrive Friday afternoon (local time).
Originally, I was all gung-ho about immediately boarding a plane or train bound for Hunan. After some reflection, it seemed wiser to stay at a hotel after so long a journey. So, returning to the wonders of the Internet, I went to www.hotels.com and www.lonelyplanet.com to scope out a reasonable compromise between cost and amenities. (In other words, I didn’t want a hostel or the Ritz, but something in-between.) The best choice seemed to be the YMCA International House in Kowloon, for several reasons. Despite its association with the YMCA, it is not at all like the YMCA’s here in the states. It’s really a hotel, which might explain why the hotel will be renamed The Citylights in September. Cost: about US$80. It’s near two major metro stations, one of which I need to get to the mainland. And finally, there is a cheap shuttle service by coach from HK International Airport right to the hotel. While I could also take the metro or bus, lugging my bags in either did not seem that appealing.
Since the re-acquisition of Hong Kong from the British Empire in 1999, China has made rail travel between HK and the mainland much easier. There are now regular trains to Guangzhou (Canton) leaving practically on the hour, and direct express trains to Beijing and Shanghai. Guangzhou is a major rail hub, where I will have to changes trains (and train stations) to board an overnight train to Jishou, Hunan. The HK-Guangzhou trains leave from Hung Hom station, not far from the hotel, and take about 1.5 to 2 hours to reach Guangzhou East train station, where foreigners can go through passport clearance. (From what I have read, the East station was built both to accommodate foreign nationals and to solve some security issues in the larger main train depot.) The cost of the ride is about US$25.
About 7 km away is the main train station. There is a regular bus connection between the two train stations on the No. 272 line, costing RMB 2 (or about 25 cents). From Guangzhou station, I plan to board the N596/N597 train which heads north toward Xiangtan, just south of Changsha, Hunan, then veers west toward Huaihua and then north to Jishou (and further to Zhangjiajie). This train is air conditioned, leaving Guangzhou at 10:18 pm, arriving in Jishou 2:22 pm. (An earlier train, while cheaper, is not air conditioned. It would arrive in Jishou at 5:33 in the morning.)
Chinese trains typically have four “classes” — in order of increasing cost, they are hard seat, soft seat, hard sleeper and soft sleeper. The seats do not recline, so overnight travelers either have to be exceptionally tough or insomniacs. Hard sleepers are stacked three to a side and six to a berth; while bedding is provided, the quarters are a tight fit. Soft sleepers are more comfortable and somewhat more private. There are four soft berths in each compartment.
For the train I plan to take, the ticket for a soft sleeper is US$62. Why can’t Amtrak be like this?
One concern I have, which I have not yet had answered, is whether I can buy the Guangzhou-Jishou ticket the day of the departure or whether I need to buy it in advance. If the latter is the case, I may either stay in HK another day or find lodging in Guangzhou.