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Published: January 24th 2009
Traversing some 2000 miles overland, discovering China was an epical adventure. And yet staggeringly, we never left the east coast. Still so much of China to see, it's one of those destinations we quickly realised would require multiple return visits.
China challenged. Flying in the face of so much of the rest of the world, English is not widely spoken. Not that in this I found cause for complaint. The obscene laziness of the English-speaking west is quite appalling. We reproved ourselves for our own shameful want of effort to grasp basic Mandarin before entering China. Fortunately for the likes of us, in each of the hostels we visited, staff members were proficient in English. They were of great assistance getting around. Each time we wanted a taxi or to purchase a train ticket to our next city destination, they would scribble little flashcards in Chinese characters for us to present to taxi drivers and at train ticketing booths. Of course, it was a hair raising game of chance holding up our tiny scribbled flashcards, having no idea how to read the characters ourselves, trusting in the goodwill of the hostel staff who'd produced them.
China intrigued. There were
many parallels with India - a burgeoning demographic and a growing superpower status. And yet China offered an altogether different cultural experience. It was, in many ways, less galling, less intimidating, less disagreeable. In India, the untouchables thrust at us their mal-nutrioned babies pleading for alms. In China, mannerly schoolchildren stopped us in the streets to give us goodwill souvenirs they themselves had handcrafted in class especially for foreign visitors. It did make one rather suspicious. In China, there was tangible social order, but at what cost, I wondered. It wasn't something we got the opportunity to discuss with anyone actually from China. Interestingly, there was a strong party line amongst the Chinese wherever we went - the greatness of China. Many we spoke to mentioned little or no desire to travel outwith China given all the things they are able to see and do in their home country. While pride in one's homeland is a worthy thing, and perhaps something we at home would do well to cultivate more, I couldn't help but feel sad that so many of China's millions seemed so uninterested in seeing the rest of the world.
Anyway, here's an extremely
general overview of
our trip from Macau to Beijing: Guangdong to Xiamen
: We entered mainland China at Guangdong where we encountered rigourous border control. Officials wanted to see all books being carried into the country. Bizarrely, it was clear from the way they were flicking through our books they were not actually able to read English. Still it's not unknown for Lonely Planets to be confiscated upon entry due to comments it contains regarding China's human rights record. Fortunately ours was returned to us. Our companion, our friend, our bible - we'd have been in a real jam without Lonely Planet!
It was a 2.5 hrs coach trip to Guangzhou where we picked up the sleeper train to Xiamen. We travelled soft sleeper class to Xiamen which was exceedingly comfortable. With a privacy screen door, flower vase and even linen doilies, we felt we'd gone up in the world! Xiamen
: This was a great place to make a first stop. A large city in the Fujian Province, we did well to choose a hostel a little out from the main city centre. We ended up in the University side of town which was sleepy and quaint. While there, we visited
the nearby Nan Putuo temple and the famously beautiful gardens of the university campus. There were some great cafes to explore. My favourite hideaway cafe was Cafe Lunch which, despite the name, was thankfully open all day and evening. The place was full of knick knacks, very retro style, with Elvis playing in the background. Gulang Yu Island
: Just across the water, by 15 mins boat trip, we had an overnight stay on the tiny island of Gulang Yu. All of 1 square kilometre, Gulang Yu was once a foreign enclave and is now a hot tourist attraction for domestic tour groups. Not in the slightest bit tranquil, the entire island was crawling with large hordes of domestic Chinese tourists - all complete with tour guide equipped with peace-shattering megaphone. Here, on Gulang Yu, I believe the humidity levels were the worst I've ever encountered. Within seconds of stepping out from our air conditioned room, every inch of me was covered with a thick film of perspiration. Sticky and unpleasant. In all, not a very restful stay but the island itself was pretty. Hangzhou
: With a view to saving some Yuan, we opted for hard sleeper class on
our train trip to Hangzhou which, yea, you guessed, meant no privacy screen door, no flower vase and no linen doilies! Ho hum - it was considerably cheaper. Our hostel in Hangzhou, the Touran Backpackers, was one of my favourites. Located in the West Lake District, it was a great place to relax and the staff were exceedingly helpful - Nini and Adam especially. One of China's more prosperous cities, Hangzhou is famous for its freshwater lake, the West Lake. We spent a day wandering its banks and visiting the nearby Leifeng Pagoda. Tunxi and Huangshan
: The bus journey from Hangzhou was much shorter than we'd anticipated. We were spilled out at a middle-of-nowhere bus station then had difficulty finding a willing taxi driver to take us to our hostel - even with our little flashcards showing where we wanted to go! It was very odd but a willing driver eventually appeared. Our hostel was located in the authentic and character-filled old town of Tunxi where, when it came around, we watched the opening ceremony of the Olympics with lots of locals. It was all very patriotic and we even stood for the Chinese national anthem!
the stunning Huangshan mountains. Ascending higher and higher in our tiny bubble cable car, the granite peaks and mountain pines produced quintessential images of chinese landscape. It was however still a very intensive walking experience notwithstanding the cable car trip. Utterly goosed after a long day of steep mountain passes, we collapsed on comfy sofas back at the hostel and quenched our thirst on Tsing Tao beers. Nanjing
: Our coach trip from Tunxi to Nanjing was all very suspect. It had been arranged by the hostel staff at Tunxi. We were passed from coach to coach in some very back and beyond carparks and it left me feeling rather cagey. I was just pleased when we eventually made it to Nanjing. A major Chinese city of great historical significance, Nanjing has served as China's capital many times. Regrettably, we didn't do a whole lot of sight-seeing but did make it to the Fuzi Miao district, which had a very 'funky chinatown' feel about it and was where I visited a Confucian Temple. Back at the hostel, we found it to be a great place for meeting other travellers and got chatting to folks from all over.
left Nanjing for Beijing, a city deserving of an entry of its own. So watch this space!
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