Am off to China in a few weeks and have been doing lots of research about "which lens, where to go, (besides the obvious i.e. Forbidden City, etc) I was following the thread about the "warriors", and have that covered with a 70-200 lens, but for general "travel trash" anything wider than a 50.
Modern zooms like my 1985 35mm-135mm f/4.5-4.5 AIS Zoom Nikkor are essentially as sharp as a prime and also allow macro focusing at the 135mm setting. This saves you the drudgery of carrying a bag of lenses.
The down side is the relatively dimmer viewfinder image and the fact that the front ring rotates as you focus. The rotating of a polarizeróif you use oneómeans that you must focus before fine-tuning the index of the polarizer.
Itís a good idea to buy a step-up ring and take filters for the larger size and the larger size lens cap. Otherwise, should you use a lens-protecting UV and add any other filter, the front-most filter ring will vignette the corners at the wide-angle setting.
By stepping up my lens from 62mm to 72mm, using 72mm filters and lens cap, itís impossible for stacked filters to vignette the corners.
A zoom like this should let you do just about anything and you only have to carry one lens. This is the very reason that zoom lenses became so popular with travelers. Once the major makers figured out how to make them as sharp as fixed focal length lenses, there was no reason not to use them.
Well, i have a zeiss 50, nikon 16-35 nikon 24-120, 35-70 and the 70-200. Usually i travel with a rolling bag, but only carry one when out shooting. The only reason I am taking the 70-200 is for Xi'an but it has crossed my mind as to the wisdom of this thought. I won't take all three of the mid range zooms.
Altho, i do have a set up set up rings, i rarely use filters so it is just something else to drag along
I never use a uv filter and on occassion a polarizer.
I am looking for areas to visit within the city. We have one day free in Beijing on our own , with the other days being the responsibililty of the Viking folks. I am planning on having the hotel get me a driver for part of if not all of the free day and of course avoid those areas that we will be seeing with the tour group.
I've been to Beijing more times than I can keep track of, though I've always had to squeeze my photography into the interstices between fits of working. As you'd expect, it's a great street-photography city; I also think the obvious tourist attractions (Forbidden City, Summer Palace, Great Wall...) are well worthwhile, even though I'm not usually a big fan of tourist attractions. In my opinion, the best photographic opportunities in the city, though, are in the residential back streets early in the morning while the city is waking up. There aren't a lot of the old "hutong" neighbourhoods left, and those that still exist are turning into tourist destinations in their own right, but if you can find one that isn't crowded with visitors they make great places for exploration.
Of the "standard" locales in the city, I think the Summer Palace has the nicest combination of scenery and architecture. You don't need a driver to get around in the city---the subway and the taxi systems are both excellent, although the taxis aren't as cheap as they used to be (before the Olympics, they forcibly retired the old generation of red taxis, which were tiny little rattletraps that smelled like they had 2-stroke motors---environmentally appalling but with a certain perverse charm). Beware of taxis *without* the official sticker, though---I've only taken one once, and it had the most creative meter I've ever seen (I think it was set to measure the distance in kilometres but compute the charge in miles, or something like that).
You need---ABSOLUTELY NEED---a card with the name of your hotel written in Chinese. The concierge desk will have them; if lost, you can show the card to a taxi driver and get taken home. Once you have that safety net, for heaven's sake go out and get lost!
Everyone goes to the Great Wall at Badaling and that's probably what your tour will do---be aware that (1) that section of the wall is a modern reconstruction, and (2) so what?---the wall has been built and demolished and rebuilt in sections all through its history. It's still a wall and it's still great. That said, the less "updated" sections have a good reputation, if you get a chance to go to one.
I loved Xi'an and spent a lot of time walking around the Muslim quarter and its associated night market. (I looked for interesting cameras but didn't find much; some junky old Seagull TLRs and Hongmei folders, but nothing good and not at bargain prices.) The wares are mostly tourist crud (near the Drum Tower) and everyday household goods (further away where the locals go), but the food is decent and the crowds very photographable. I ran into a few people who didn't want pictures taken, but it was always a civil interaction---obviously I avoided shots that seemed likely to give offence, though it broke my heart to miss the picture of the room full of old Hui men sitting down and singing together in what seemed to be a pre-evening-prayer ritual.
Personally, I'm not a big fan of zooms and would rather use a normal lens when possible, but everyone has their own taste in these things. (How fast is that 70-200? I had an f/4 lens at the terra cotta warriors, and it wasn't really fast enough.)
Find out where the local parks near your hotel, and go there early in the morning. They will have everything from ballroom dancing to exercise classes (Tai Chi) going on.
It's easy to get lost on your own (the street signs are not helpful), so always carry a book of matches or some stationery from the hotel with its address. Just show it to a cab driver and he'll take you back to your hotel.
All the back streets are interesting and safe to walk.
Also the Great Wall, Summer Palace, the Ming Tombs, Tienamin Square are not to be missed but I assume these will be on your tour.
Also markets like silk alley but you will need a wide angle for those as they are very crowded. The food markets early in the morning are also bustling and interesting.
The concierge at your hotel should be able to help you find parks and markets near your hotel.
I've never been to Xian.
great tips everyone, thanks.
When we were there last there was a well worth it Hutong off the corner of the Tiananmen Square, to the left if you are facing Mao's mauseleum. But I don't know if it ws demolished with the Olympics.
Speaking of which I was the only westerner in the lineup to see it. I dont think tours go there.
I an glad I saw it.
One more thing: Every westerner I know who's had the courage to eat the scorpions has said they were really good. Your call.
In general, don't miss the opportunity to eat *something* strange enough (by western lights) to give you some bragging rights. There will be plenty of opportunities. (The street food is generally safe in my experience.)
I put the scorpions in the same league as the whole deep fried frogs and the "five step snake" that they bring to your table live before cooking it. You can guess how it gets its name. I didn't have the stomach for any of these, but fortunately they're not often offered and the food is generally great.
There are quite a few Beijing pictures in the gallery.