In no other country have I been most overwhelmed or has my senses been as confused and delighted as in China. China has been full of surprises, from the bright neon lights of its modern cities to its countryside dotted with farmers hand planting their rice fields., we were greeted with the kindest people, offered the strangest food (such as frog porridge, and nope I didn’t try it!) and let in on their quirky obsessions with pale skin, spitting to keep healthy and fascinating ingredients of Chinese medicine.
We began in Beijing, taking a comfortable sleeper train from humid Hong Kong. After watching the movie, ‘The Emperor’, we wandered the Forbidden City for hours. Like ants in the palace we tried to imagine what life must have been like for the young Emperor Puyi trapped amongst high wall after high wall.
Of course you can’t come to China without visiting the Great Wall of China. I know how lucky I am to have seen one of the Seven Wonders of the Medieval World. It was no easy climb in the heat and I am ashamed to say I was passed out by many older Chinese ladies climbing in flip flops… We finished off Beijing with a meal of aromatic peking duck.
Next it was onto Xi’an where we went to see the complexity of the Terracotta Army sculptures. Xi’an gave us our first proper taste for dumplings with the women watching as I used chopsticks. It was ‘Golden Week’ so we headed to Shanghai to meet our friends from Brighton. The journey to Shanghai was a sixteen hour train ride, there were no seats left so I sat on my backpack the ENTIRE way, outside a toilet resting my head on a filthy sink. By the end of this journey my hair was filled with a waft of noodles, urine and smoke… We arrived in Shanghai station taking endless tubes, taxis and walking for miles in search of our hostel. Three hours later, we still had no luck. Typically Chinese people don’t want to let you down so they will direct you some way, even if it’s the wrong way which in their eyes is better than saying they can’t help you. The directions all come in broken English adding to the confusion. Finally in some tube station I broke down, overtired and feeling sorry for myself I cried like the girl I am. On seeing me sitting and crying on the floor, an angel of a lady ran over to help. Originally from South Korea she spoke good English and hailed us a taxi, providing directions of the hostel to the driver. It is little incidents like this that makes me love the people of this country.
On our way to meet our friends in The Boxing Cat craft beer pub, we took our first Chinese bus. We went around the city in circles for a while to the amusement of the driver and passengers but we made it. The following day we went to the iconic view of ‘ The Bund’ by the waterfront. The Chinese took continuous pictures of Tim and I, asking if we are married, where are our children and do we love China. Not to disappoint, we lied telling them we have been married for years.
Next it was onwards to Zhangjiajie National Forest Park to see the floating peaks which inspired the Avatar movie. Again the torture began. This time it was a twenty two hour train journey but as there was no room for my backpack I sat on a plastic bag outside another loo (which I seemed to have become fond of). There was a LOT of staring at the two westerners sleeping on the floor outside the stinking toilet. Tim decided to do some drawing to pass the time. The other passengers nearly had a heart attack with excitement crowding around to watch discussing his every pencil move. The Chinese are not a shy bunch when they want to see something! I thought I’d put my own show on by making myself some noodles using the hot water on board. Every noodle I dropped or soup I spilled became of huge interest. The women giggled so I joined in laughing like a hyena further spilling soup everywhere.
We finally arrived at the park but again ‘location location’ is tricky in this country… after a one hour shuttle bus, three hundred steps with our backpacks in the forest, a discussion with a French couple, another bus and a strange car journey, we finally arrived at our Ethnic Wooden House situated up the hills of a pretty town. The park was worth the search, mystical and enchanting it was filled with rivers, beautiful trees and of course the mind-blowing misty Avatar peaks.
Soon we were on another twenty hour train journey, this time to Kunming. I’m relieved to say we had a seat. We needed some down time so we chilled out at Cloud International Hostel reading, drinking mint tea and hitting the night markets for the best meat skewers, vegetable dumplings and chili fried potatoes. I got my nails done down an alley enjoying the company of the chatting women.
We took a shorter train ride to the old town of Lijiang. We managed to get a hard sleeper train ticket, there wasn’t enough room to swing a cat but the scenery was stunning. Again on arrival, the search for our hostel began. We got in a taxi as the driver assured us he knew where he was going, ten minutes later he’s pulling over reading maps and speaking at us in Chinese. Some hours later thanks to a pot smoking Canadian paraglider and a French man who had spent the last five months cycling from France to Asia, we found our hostel amongst the twisting alleys. We spent our days wandering this beautiful town with the smell of flower tea in our clothes and spent our nights watching live music and drinking with a Welsh bartender. We sucked up spicy ramen, spied Snow Mountain and watched courtyard folk dancing as well as older people doing their daily Tai Chi. All over China people work out together in the cool of the evenings. My friend Louise back home had recommended seeing Tiger Leaping Gorge so off we went. We laughed non stop with a group of people we met along the hike and almost witnessed a murder between a young Chinese girl, a heavy brick and a chase as a westerner refused to pay the fee.
We ended our China trip in the south amongst the countryside of Yangshuo where time seems to have some to a stop. Here we spent our days scootering through the countryside waving back at friendly locals, walking through rice fields and looking at the old burial sites. One day our electric scooter died on us fifteen kilometres away from our guesthouse up a mountain. Tim rolled while I climbed. It was fairly exhausting. A kind village man let us use his electricity to charge the bike inviting us into his home to watch his friends play cards, carefully placing their bets. An elderly village lady popped in and insisted on bringing us to meet her neighbour. Up in the hills we communicated using Google Translate, showing pictures our family while eating monkey nuts.
Not wanting to leave China we travelled on our first ‘bullet train’ to Nanning to purchase a bus ticket to Hanoi Vietnam. Leaving China I felt exhausted, a bit like when I left India many years ago. The long travel journeys were hectic but provided such a good insight into the way poorer people travel in China. If you want to read more on travelling China by train, check out my blogs: How to use the long distance trains in China. and My experience of using a ‘standing ticket’ on China’s long distance trains. Holy cow….
China has me gripped. I admire the way the Chinese appear not to be easily embarrassed i.e. they stare if they find something interesting, they ask inappropriate questions if they want to know something, spit if they want to (they think us stuffing tissues up our sleeves is disgusting) and sing karaoke as if they are already famous. These people have courage! Most people smoke like a trooper yet on every corner you find Chinese medicine pharmacies. I love the way each child is truly treasured here and how there are so many rules, yet seemingly no rules at all. China is chaotic yet it finds it own system. People interact with one another, they play games on the street, work out together, work the rice fields together and eat together and in China nothing is off the menu!