Our journey into China took us on a 24 hour bus from Almaty to Urumqi. Upon boarding the Chinese owned bus, we were greeted by quite a surprise. The bus contained no seats, only beds. Once the initial shock had worn off we realised that in a country where distances are long and people are short, it makes perfect sense. Fortunately, we are sufficiently diminutive to be comfortable and managed to pass the journey by sleeping and gazing out of the window at the passing mountain scenery.
In Urumqi we took a couple of days to acclimatise to being in China, which will, somewhat predictably, go down as the hardest country we have ever travelled in. We never expected it to be an easy ride. However, we were surprised, especially given the country’s ascendancy on the world stage, that we encountered almost no one who even spoke a word of English. Unfortunately, Chinese (be it Mandarin, Cantonese or any other dialect) is far too complex and alien an approach to communication, for it to be worthwhile even attempting to learn a little while on a brief visit. Therefore, we had to resort to couple of badly pronounced pleasantries, lots
of grinning, pointing and of course charades. Restaurants proved particularly interesting, with China being one country when taking pot luck with a menu would be fool-hardy in the extreme. Therefore, our tactic was to wander the restaurant inspecting other diners’ dishes until we found something identifiable and then make it known to the waiting staff that we wanted the same.
One thing that struck us throughout our stay in China, was quite how accurate a representation of a Chinese town, China Towns in the West are. They are generally clad with neon lights and almost entirely devoted to restaurants and small supermarkets (admittedly there are slightly fewer decorative arches in your average Chinese town). Food truly is a way of life in China, more so than anywhere else we have visited. We soon learnt that wherever there are Chinese people, there will be approximately twice as many Chinese people trying to sell them Chinese food. We were also surprised to discover how similar the Chinese fayre served up in the West is to genuine Chinese food (although we didn’t come across a single sweet and sour pork ball).
Other than a fairly gentle introduction to China,
Urumqi provided little more than a pleasant place to wander and plan the rest of our time in the country. From here we took a sleeper train to Chengdu, an epic 49 hours away. The train itself was fantastic and we whiled away the time drinking green tea and eating instant noodles. When in Rome….
Chengdu is a large city, but has the reputation of being one of the more charming of China’s metropolises. We certainly found it to be an agreeable place with many parks and gardens and nowhere near as crowded as we’d expected. The highlight of our stay in Chengdu was a trip to the nearby Panda Breeding Research Base.
From Chengdu we visited the (comparatively) small city of Leshan, home to the world’s largest statue of the Buddha. Given that we’re talking a 75m high cross-legged depiction of one of the world’s most instantly recognisable figures, you’d be amazed how much trouble we had finding it!
Our next stop, was one of four Buddhist mountains in China, Emei Shan. The centuries old pilgrimage site is reached by an almost incredible number of steps. Due to a lack time (honestly!) we
opted to take a bus and cable car to the top and then walk down. Although it sounds lazy it was still an energy sapping 40km walk, descending some 2500m and took us nine hours of continuously walking down steps. We reckon there to have been in excess of 20,000 steps, although we lost count! We confess to slight feelings of guilt as we passed pilgrims easily fifty years our senior making the long haul up the mountain.
One memorable feature of the mountain is the population of monkeys. Over many years they have become accustomed to the heavy human traffic and have learnt to take full advantage. Somewhat akin to highwaymen, they block the paths and in return for safe passage, demand payment in the form of food . Until we encountered our first “Toll Gate” we took little heed of the warnings and assumed that in face of confidence these seemingly cute creatures would back down. How wrong we were. We quickly learned our lesson and invested 50p on large bamboo sticks, sold to us by an enterprising local. Despite these precautions, a momentary lapse in concentration led to us losing a bottle of coke to
a marauding macaque.
Many of the sights we have seen on this trip have been around for millennia and are likely to be around for a good deal longer. However, in the case of the famed Three Gorges on the Yangtze river, it was imperative to ensure it was included on our itinerary. This being due to the recent completion of the world’s largest hydroelectric project and the impending flooding of the gorges.
The only way to really see the gorges is to take a cruise down the Yangtze. We travelled from Chongqing (by some methods of accounting, the world’s largest city, with a population of 31 million) to Yichang. As usual, we opted for the cheapest option, that being a Chinese, rather than internationally owned, boat. Therefore, things certainly weren’t luxurious and very much aimed at Chinese tourists. In fact its worth noting that the whole country appears to be incredibly well geared up for tourists, but exclusively the domestic market.
Our cruise lasted three days and nights and we were accompanied by several hundred Chinese people, a Canadian and an American. The scenery was stunning and considerably more impressive than the various
attractions we stopped at along the way. It was pleasing to see that although the river level will rise considerably when it reaches its full height, the gorges are sufficiently deep that they will still form a dramatic sight. For the Chinese tourists onboard as well as marvelling at the beauty of the landscape, the main attraction on the cruise proved to be us. At times long queues formed of those who couldn’t pass up the opportunity to have their picture taken with Westerners. It was at this point that realised how infrequently the majority of Chinese people must encounter anyone ethnically different from themselves.
From Yichang, we took a bus to Wuhan, followed by an overnight train to Guangzhou, a stone’s throw from Hong Kong. Given that we’ve had some trouble this trip getting tickets for trains, we were impressed to find that we could get a ticket for a sleeper berth, leaving in 30 minutes.
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