Traveling in China may not be as difficult as you imagine, even if you don't speak Mandarin Chinese. Modern day China is much more welcoming to foreign guests and many Chinese are especially considerate and accommodating to western visitors.
Airline travel within the country is particularly easy as announcements in most airports are in Chinese and English and getting through security is not as much of hassle as it is here at home.
Train travel can be challenging but is still very doable and very affordable. The biggest challenge lies in what you carry. Many stations require going up and down stairways to and from trains which can be difficult with heavy bags. Trains can be crowded especially in major cities like Shanghai. Be forewarned the Chinese are all in a hurry to get on the train and courtesy is not at its best in this environment.
Regardless to your load or destination I suggest always booking train travel in advance. Most good hotels have ticketing services and schedules can be easily found online. Select "soft" seats or cars depending on what is available and the length of your trip. Soft seats are the equivalent of first class. In some cases you must choose between "first class" or "regular" soft seats. Soft cars are semi-private sleeping cars with a total of 4 bunks a small table and a shared bathroom, in the hall. Soft car is the best choice and considered first class even if it is not by western standards.
When possible choose bullet trains with their new cars and fast service!
Hotels may not be as reliable as travel and trust me you definitely get what you pay for! Top hotel chains which may be a safe bet in the states are not necessarily the way to go in China. If available and you like clean accommodations always select 5 or 4 stars, anything less and you are going to be disappointed. Even 4 stars can be sketchy at times and I suggest that you request a look at your room before making a final decision.
Having said that there are really nice hotels in China as well. The Sofitel in Suzhou and the Hangzhou Hyatt are marvelous! The Sofitel in Hangzhou on the other hand is not! A perfect example of why you cannot rely on a name.
When booking a room ask if breakfast is included in the price, pretty standard all over the country. Also be sure to ask whether you will be charged for an internet connection. Many times it is included but if not prices range from flat daily fees to per minute charges.
With the 2008 summer Olympics in store China is anxious to show the world the China of today with its booming economy, wealthy neighborhoods and technological advances. A great example of "modern" China is the new Beijing airport a masterpiece of function and design.
If you do visit China I recommend adding Hangzhou to your list of stops for a visit to the beautiful West Lake area. West Lake is easily going to take one day to walk the perimeter and spring is a lovely time to do that. One of my personal favorites not only because of the natural beauty of the gardens surrounding the lake but also because of the terrific spa at the Hangzhou Hyatt! This full service spa has a variety of treatments and I will be back to take advantage of the great spa values! Try the 4 1/2 package of services for under $200 that includes non stop massage, exfoliation and pampering. It was a great time out for me especially after traveling so much.
Until next time, Beth