My adventures in China began at a conservation project an hour outside of the city Xi’An (She-Ann), which is where we spent our weekends. This post begins with some of those highlights.
As I have mentioned before, I opted to go on group tours – yes, you do pay more and sometimes it turns out that you could have easily done it yourself, however, after reading about how challenging China can be to negotiate, I took a tour and you know what? I don’t regret it one bit. I met some amazing like-minded people, saw a great deal of China and learnt a lot about the culture.
Although the trip was supposed to begin in Hong Kong, unfortunately for Jon (my travel bud) and I, I was only granted a single entry visa, even though I had applied for double entry. There wasn’t enough time to get a new one in Hong Kong and I was advised that re-applying at the embassy before leaving the UK would not guarantee the visa I applied for… This was my first experience of the infamous red tape in China.
Xi’An has loads to offer, including; the Drum Tower and the Bell Tower, (where we were lucky enough to watch a traditional performance – top left corner), which are both located near to the ancient city walls. Then we took a bus to the Wild Goose Pagoda which provided great views of the city. We ended the day by watching the fountain show which was just beginning – we’d highly recommend seeing it.
From Xi’An, we flew to Guilin, where we completed the journey to Yangshuo on a coach and river boat.
I was really looking forward to Guilin and Yangshuo after reading Undress me in the temple of heaven by Susan Jane Gilman – one of my absolute favourite authors and books. It’s interesting to see these places compared to the way they used to be, as described in the book.
Arguably the best way to get around Yangshuo is to hire bikes, so we cycled to Moon Hill (aptly named because of a hole in the rock after years of erosion) and the Water Buddha Cave (a mud cave with hot springs – a definite must!), in addition to this we bamboo rafted down the Lijiang river. While in Yangshuo, we ate at a traditional clay pot restaurant, which is something of a specialty for the region, and turned out to be some of the best food I ate while in China.
From Yangshuo we caught a 26 hour train (it’s supposed to be 24 hours) to Chengdu – while train travel is definitely not the most time-efficient mode of transportation, it’s relatively cheap and we saw a lot of China. While Chengdu reminded me of Xi’An, (both modern cities with lots of shops that appeal to the new consumerist Chinese citizen), it’s important in its’ own right, as the capital of the Sichuan province. It is aptly famed for its’ spicy Sichuan Hot Pot – which lived up to its’ reputation – and of course, the national symbol of China itself… Pandas.
We travelled by train from Chengdu to Xi’An, the weather was miserable! It reminded me of winter in Wales. Once we arrived, we visited the street food market in the Muslim Quarter. Later, we gave out dumplings from a local soup kitchen, to homeless people around the city. I don’t know how I feel about this experience, some people welcomed our offer and were happy to accept it, but others declined.
We didn’t visit the Terracotta Warriors when we were first in Xi’An because we knew we’d be visiting as a group. We learnt that the Warriors were discovered by accident in 1974 by rural farmers who believed the first clay head uncovered was actually the devil.
Xi’An is an important city as it is one of four ancient capitals. Aside from the Terracotta Warriors, it is famed for its’ ancient city walls, which we cycled around on tandems and looked out across the whole of the city, noticing the distinct lack of skyscrapers.
While China is developing at a phenomenal rate, it is still relatively easy to get out of the big cities. We left the city to stay at a farm in the Qingling Mountains to appreciate how remote some parts of China still are.
We headed back to Xi’An to catch a 6 hour bus to Shaolin, the home of Kung Fu. We headed to Song Shan, the central mountain of ‘the five holy Daoist Mountains’. From there we visited a Kung Fu School Orphanage, where we learnt some basic moves, and later saw a Kung Fu performance at the famous Shaolin Temple.
We left Shaolin to get an overnight train to Beijing. The train experience in China is not too dissimilar to that of sleeper trains in Vietnam, however, I think the culture is slightly different. Chinese passengers are often with friends or family (although this could have been due to the time of year we were travelling – it was around the time of a national holiday), typically the lights were switched off early (around 9pm) and people generally woke up early (5am).
Once we arrived in Beijing we had to get ready to drive out to somewhere near a section of the Great Wall as we were going to be camping alongside it. I think the memories of trekking to the wall, walking along it and watching the sunset are some of my travel highlights from my entire trip. It was breathtaking.
We got up at 5am to watch the sunrise, which was well worth it, but, I still think the sunset is my favourite memory. After this we headed back to Beijing for a couple of days to explore and visit; the Forbidden Palace, watch an acrobatics show, visit a fake goods markets, see the Olympic park, eat Beijing Peking Duck and get up at 5am to see the flag rising in Tienanmen Square.
Hangzhou & Moganshan
We left Beijing with our heavy backpacks to get the metro to the train station. It was super busy because it was around the time of the May Day holiday, but we arrived in Hangzhou, known as the most beautiful city in China.
We actually didn’t spend long in Hangzhou, it was more like a pit stop before we headed to Moganshan, a bamboo nature reserve 2 hours away. To get there we took a metro and our first bullet train of the trip. It is a little out the way but worth a visit, as while we were there we trekked to a nearby lagoon, hiked to Moganshan peak and visited Mao’s summer house.
We travelled from Moganshan to Shanghai by train and metro, arriving May 1st, which marks the start of a three day public holiday called Labor Day. The weekend was busy, especially at the park we headed to for a picnic. In the evening we joined the infamous ‘Drunken Dragon Pub Crawl’ where we learnt that alcohol in China, particularly Baijiu, is pretty strong. The next day we visited the Shanghai Museum and the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Centre, which included a huge model of the city. In the evening we walked along The Bund which was stunning. I felt that I could have spent more time in Shanghai, especially after talking to a group of expats from the Ningbo Campus of Nottingham University.
Xiamen, Gulangyu Island and Fujian Tulou
From Shanghai we got a 9 hour bullet train to Xiamen and drove to the coast to Gulangyu Island where we spent a night sleeping in a Round House or ‘Tulou’. These are classed as UNESCO world heritage sites as the majority were built between the 12th – 20th century. Many of them are situated near to tea planations, which we spent time walking around before cycling around the village.
From Yongding station, we caught our last ever night train to Guangzhou, where we got a coach to Macau, which was our last stop before heading to Hong Kong for a night. Macau is a former Portuguese colony and looked how I expect parts of Latin America to look, however it is arguably most famous for its’ casinos and gambling – which is illegal on mainland China. I was surprised by the contrast between the town and the casino area, which was a short drive out. For anyone who has been to Las Vegas, the similarities are uncanny. There’s more to Macau though, for those brave enough in the group, they jumped from the world highest bungee jump and we walked around the Old Portuguese town and the ruins of Saint Paul’s Cathedral.
From Macau, we headed to Hong Kong which was in the midst of a torrential storm and where our journey as a group ended, with Jon and I leaving for the last leg of our adventure… Japan.
Thank you to the group for allowing me to use some of their photos and for the great memories!