China in a Walnut Shell


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October 28th 2012
Published: October 28th 2012
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China in 52 Days

This map and the distances are "as the crow flies" but you can see where we we've been in the last two months. Kind of crazy... China is huge! There is so much more to discover :)

Beijing – Pingyao – Xi'an – Chengdu – Kangding – Xiangcheng – Qiaotou – Naxi Village (Tiger Leaping Gorge) – Halfway Guesthouse (Tiger Leaping Gorge) – Qiaotou – Shangri-La – Shaxi Village – Dali Old Town – Caicun – Dali Old Town – Kunming – Xinjie – Pugaolao – Kunming – Yangshuo – Nanning

We spent just under two months in China. As part of the bigger picture, it was less than 1%!o(MISSING)f our entire lives. How can such a tiny fraction of our time on this planet have been so life-altering? Here is a brief summary of what the last two months looked like, if this only describes about 1%!o(MISSING)f our trip, imagine how truly amazing China really is:

Beijing was slightly hectic. We saw so much in our first few days in China that it's really hard to believe. The Great Wall will of course be something we remember for the rest of our lives but the Summer Palace, Forbidden City, hutongs and overall spirit of Beijing are as unforgettable. After running around Beijing we headed to Pingyao to chill out. This small “Old Town” turned out to be our least favourite of all the time we spent in China. We were happy to leave and make it to Xi'an which oddly enough tops our favourite city list. We ate lots of street food in Xi'an and saw the ancient wondrous terracotta warriors, a historical high for Tyler. From Xi'an we had an adventurous escape during the whole island controversy between Japan and China. By the time we got to Chengdu we felt safe again and the adorable pandas brightened our day. From Chengdu we headed west towards Tibet (but didn't actually enter Tibet). The mountains were breathtaking, the bus rides were memorable and the locals were as friendly as ever. It was in Kangding and Xiangcheng that we started to see a different side of China.

Once we made it to Shangri-La we were in Yunnan, the province we spent most of our time in China. Shangri-La wasn't as great as we thought it would be but Tiger Leaping Gorge somehow exceeded our high expectations. Tiger Leaping Gorge was our very favourite three days in China. The scenery was like nothing we have ever seen and may never see again! Let's take a moment to remember the perfect rainbow... wow! After TLG we had the national holiday tourists to contend with so we found sanctuary in Shaxi Village, Dali Old Town and Caicun. We probably couldn't have chosen better places to spend our time. We were able to mostly avoid the crowds, get a sneak peak at the gem of Shaxi Village (which will be yet another tourist attraction in 2 or 3 years) and get some R&R by Erhai Lu (Lake).

Next we headed southeast to Kunming, we had been saying for most of the trip that once we got to Kunming we would be officially clear of Winter and Fall and we were right! From Kunming we proceeded to the Yuanyang rice terraces. The terraces are brilliant. It's so hard to find a way to describe them. The way the clouds roll in and out of the valley and the sky reflects on the water-filled terraces as the sun rises and sets is...

After nearly a three weeks in Yunnan, we hopped on another 24-hour train to Yangshuo where we found out just how much we missed English. From there we spent a few days in Nanning and off to Vietnam we went.

The only logical way we could figure out how to explain China was to break it down into categories.

Our Approach:
Upon arrival to any city our first task is of course to find accommodations. Within the next 12 hours we have usually scoped out the cheapest food nearby and got a pretty good idea of where we are and what there is to do.

The Big Cities:
The big cities in China are not just big, they are massive. Luckily the public transit system is fantastic. As long as you know which bus or subway to take, getting around is always easy and straight forward (assuming you have been on a city bus or subway before). We also found the large cities almost immaculately clean. Sometimes it felt like we were living in “Pleasantville” with the nice clean roads, shiny fancy cars parked along the side and big old leafy trees creating a canopy over the sidewalks. While neither of us grew up in a city as large as the metropolis' of China, we felt comfortable and safe in these neighbourhoods. Of course, there were always alley's or small side streets that didn't get as much attention as the main roads and core area of the cities but with so much else to see we didn't concern ourselves with one piece of garbage out of place. With huge cities and such a wide gap between rich and poor, you would think you would see beggars or homeless people. Unless we are completely oblivious or they stash these people away in parts of town we didn't visit, we came across very very few. It's not all that uncommon to see a guy taking a nap on a park bench on a hot day but nothing about those people says they are homeless.

The Smaller Towns:

Big city vs. Small town was like night and day. While you could tell the smaller towns still tried to keep their roads clean, they weren't quite as spik-and-span. Getting around was still pretty easy too. Depending on just how small the town was or how many tourists it was used to, we sometimes had a hard time finding accommodations up to our standards (we prefer western toilet and a general clean feel, not damp and musty with a squat toilet). In the small towns you get a much bigger sense of community though. There are so many different minority groups in China that each small town was slightly different albeit just as colourful and welcoming.

Bathrooms:
Yuck... just yuck! We saw everything from an open stream you squat and straddle over to proper western toilets (with toilet paper – which is far from expected) in tiled bathrooms with waterfall faucets and chic sinks. Yet somehow they all smelled of urine. The closer you get to the stream – or as we called it “trough” – style, the more it smelled like a pig barn. When we were hiking, mother nature was our toilet and when we had to use the grossest stinkiest bathrooms it was in and out as fast as possible (hopefully without breathing) without touching anything and then bathing in hand sanitizer. Often we would prefer the great outdoors to a public washroom.

Getting Around:
As mentioned above, getting around was easy as long as you know where you are going. When we knew what bus to take or at least knew what direction to go we could find our way around pretty seamlessly, although with no English we still don't know how we managed to get off at the right stops. It was the times that we came to a new city and had no idea how to get from A to B that was more stressful. It is amazing how much of a conversation you can have without actually speaking the same language. While asking for help was far from easy, we usually came out with a helpful response and got to where we needed to be. Perhaps our favourite form of transportation was the overnight trains. They are so easy! You get a bed, you get a seat, you get to walk around, you can eat or drink whatever, we loved talking to locals on our train rides and the best part is that all of this is getting accomplished while you're moving. Buses were never as fun. Sitting in one spot for hours at a time, squished between two people, stopping only when the driver decides to, inhaling smoke, listening to people gag, holding your pee because your bladder decided it was time to go 10 minutes after leaving the last rest stop. No. Not nearly as leisurely as the trains. But the buses still got us where we needed to go so it wasn't all that bad.

The People:
Chinese people sometimes get a bad rep, we can definitely see why but we also want to make a point to fill you in on the things you don't know. “Saving face” is a big thing which is why many of them don't smile, but at the same time wherever we went we saw people laughing and joking together just like we would at home with our friends. They are all extremely proud of their country and that is to be expected. Sometimes they might not come off as the most friendly people but most of that is probably due to the fact we couldn't speak the same language, or the fact that they are shy, or in some cases lack of education. One of the amazing things about China is the diversity within it's population. No matter where you are, there are generations of people – infants to elders – eating together, travelling together, spending time together, it's great! They also have some of the most intelligent people in the world to some who have less than a couple years of education under their belt. Those with little school education, however, likely have been trained in the family business and therefore shouldn't be considered uneducated, they are just raised for a different life and for that knowing how to read the weather or use a hammer are far more valuable. While it is extremely hard for us, after seeing everything we have, to generalize a Chinese person, we agree that they are happy, friendly, kind and honest people and really love children. Without the assistance of so many people every day we would not have left China with so much respect for the people. We often felt like part of their families and being so far from home, it was a warm and appreciated feeling.

The Cultures:
The fact is, there are too many to tell you about. We were only in China for two months, we only saw a fraction of rural China yet every single city or town we saw was different than the last. Tyler read a stat that said about 70%!o(MISSING)f China was atheist, while there is also a strong Buddhist, Taoist and even Muslim influence. Confucianism is huge in China and definitely helps mould the Communist Peoples Party, and the way of life of the local farmer.

Scenery:
Can you describe a country's scenery/landscape as speechless? Probably not, but it is so hard to put in to words what our eyes witnessed, that we are... speechless. The Great Wall was our first look into China's magnificent scenery and ingenuity. We just happened to pick the perfect place to see the Wall and got it all to ourselves. It was perfect. From there we were overwhelmed with the new types of trees and flowers that were around every corner. When we got to the mountains, our jaws simply dropped. It couldn't get much better than those mountains... but then we found ourselves in Tiger Leaping Gorge and you know how we feel about that place. And then... oh jeeze, then there were the rice terraces. How the heck can you beat them? Every day held a new natural surprise. If we ever make it back to China, it will be the landscape that draws us here. It is such an enormous country and there is so much to see! After seeing what we did, it's hard to think that any inch of this country isn't postcard-worthy.

Habits we disliked:
Okay, truth time!! Anything you do in the privacy of your bathroom is a public affair in China. No more needs to be said about that.

We were pleasantly surprised by: Respect for the arts and sense of community.
It was so amazing to come to China and see first hand how much they value the arts. We both have always said that learning to sing, dance or play an instrument is extremely important. In China they take that to a whole new level. No matter where we were, we could find people singing, dancing, doing tai-chi, playing an instrument, painting or sketching. When we had the chance to speak with someone they would describe things in relation to a poem or a mountain, a tree, a flower or a lake. They truly respect nature and don't steer away from natural feelings or instincts. If they love their friend, they will walk around arm in arm. If they have an artistic instinct, they will sit by a park and paint. It was really beautiful to find such an artistic population among a country that is known to be so conformist.

Everyone is family in China. While the one child rule is still heavily in effect (with only a few ways to have a second kid) that doesn't stop people from getting together and making their own extended family. We would see groups of people sitting down to eat and at first assume that the toddler is picking on his uncle or that the crazy aunt was telling a hilarious story but when we thought about it, most people don't actually have an aunt or an uncle. For us this is completely foreign and hard to comprehend. We stopped trying to figure out the large “families” because it was hurting out head. Still everywhere we went, there they were helping each other in the rice fields, travelling together during the holidays, running a hotel together etc. It was always so beautiful to see the generations together whether they were related or not. The eldest is always the most respected and the youngest is always the most adored. People in China refer to people as “sister” or “brother” even if they are not and they kind of make their own families.

All in all China was beautiful and icky, sunny and difficult. We experienced a wide range of emotions every day but we wouldn't change any of it if we could.

xoxo Ty+Becs

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5th November 2012

Four months already
Hi tyler and rebecca-- Your summary and overview of China was extremely interesting and educational--so many interesting and historical places. It is hard to believe you have been gone four months. You have covered a lot of territory. Glad you are safely in Viet Nam- -looking forward to hearing from you. Love you Grandma Shirley.

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