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Published: December 18th 2015
It had taken thirty hours for our train to rumble its way from Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia to the Chinese capital of Beijing, eight hours of which were spent stationary at the Chinese border whilst the each carriage was shunted into a huge workshop, jacked up and the under carriage (bogies) swapped. This is necessary because Mongolia and China do not run on the same gauge railway, as the Mongolians use the same tracks as the Russians, their historical allies. Fortunately, we were able to sleep through a lot of this and woke up to bright and sunny weather as the train passed through some impressive Chinese mountain scenery.
Arriving in Beijing we immediately knew we were back in Asia proper as the motorcycles, scooters, bicycles, cars and people all zoomed around us competing for space. This sort of chaos cannot be faced on an empty stomach, so we found a friendly looking eatery, pointed to a couple of things on the menu, which conveniently had a lot of pictures, and enjoyed our first taste of China. Purely by chance we had chosen a hostel located in one of the city’s Hutong areas, which are very old, traditional neighbourhoods of one
storey houses with courtyards situated in a warren of narrow lanes. Some of these houses do not even have indoor plumbing and use communal bathrooms dotted around the lanes. Visiting a Hutong is like stepping into another more tranquil world, a world in which it is very easy to get lost, but fortunately we managed to locate our hostel and were relieved to find it did have indoor plumbing.
Whilst Beijing is a huge, busy and very polluted city it does have some fantastic sights and we did our best to see as many of them as possible during our short stay. We visited the Summer Palace, looked down over the Forbidden City from the Imperial Garden and of course took in the vastness of Tiananmen Square. We were lucky to meet up with a number of fellow travellers who we had met in Mongolia that were either passing through Beijing at the same time or were working in the city, which led to some memorable evenings at local eateries tucking into Peking duck, Chinese dumplings and all manner of other goodies which the longer term Beijing workers in the group had sniffed out, although neither of us fancied
the roasted scorpions on sticks available at the night market.
We could not hope to see all that the city had to offer in the few days we spent in Beijing, but there was one sight that neither of us were willing to miss out on, The Great Wall of China. There are many locations to view sections of the wall in various stages of restoration within easy reach of the city, some of these however are more visited than others and by all accounts can resemble a day out at Disneyland. Naturally we were keen to avoid this and plumped for an interesting sounding section which involved working out the local buses to eventually take us to the small village of Zhuangdaoku. Here we were able to walk up a narrow track at the back of the village and up to a completely unrestored section of the wall stretching off over the mountains into the distance. Even with a few trees sprouting out of it, the unrestored Great Wall was still very impressive. From this starting point we were able to walk along the top of this very steep section of wall all the way to the more
restored sections at Huanghua Cheng. Our efforts to negotiate the local busses had paid off and we virtually had the wall all to ourselves, allowing us to walk along the top for miles and just sit in the sun and gaze at the wonder of it, so much so that we very nearly missed the last bus back into the city.
With only thirty days to explore China, we thought it was about time to move on from the capital, which involved grappling with purchasing train tickets at the main station in Beijing. It soon became apparent that approaching queuing up at the ticket window in a British fashion was going to end up with us simply spending a month in the train station, so it was time to adopt the Chinese technique of he/she who dares wins. This is much easier when there are two of you as when you make it to the window one can do the ticket ordering whilst the other can defend the hard won territory from sneaky side invaders. The side invader technique seemed pretty popular when it came to boarding the trains too as there is never enough space for all the
luggage, so getting on early means getting space in the overhead luggage rack. We became pretty good at the side invader technique ourselves, as the saying goes “when in Rome”.
Our train lessons learnt we boarded our first high speed train reaching three hundred kilometres per hour to the historic town of Pingyao. Pingyao is described as one of the best preserved examples of an ancient Chinese walled town and it did not disappoint, it was especially interesting as it was very much still a working community within the old walls and not just a tourist trap. There is a good deal of domestic tourism here but less international tourists as was apparent when some interested locals stopped outside the window of a café to watch us eat our breakfast with a knife and fork instead of chopsticks. The only drawback to this town was its incredibly poor air quality. The town is situated close to a lot of coal burning industry and the air is full of coal dust which seems to coat everything. A couple of nights here was enough, so we moved further south to the city of Xi’an.
Xi’an has a huge Muslim quarter
with very crowded, bustling and narrow streets full of colour and abundant street food. Again by chance this is where we found ourselves lodging for a few nights and we enjoyed getting carried along with the crowds taking in all the weird sights and smells as we went. We had no idea what most of the food being prepared was, so had to take a gamble and plonk ourselves down on a bench outside a street stall with many a flaming wok and bubbling cauldron to see what we would get. We ended up with “Yangrou Paomo” which is a hot soup made with crumbled pitta bread in the bottom of the bowl, we were loosely told by the girl who took our order that it translates to “hot fire bread soup” and she was not kidding it was face reddeningly and mouth numbingly hot, but tasted delicious. Xi’an is famous for its proximity to the Army of Terracotta Warriors, which was of course our main reason for visiting. A fairly swift bus ride delivered us to the site of the Terracotta Army where we were able to join the hundreds and hundreds of other, mostly domestic, tourists in viewing
these incredible sculptures. Despite the crowds the sheer number of warriors and horses was an incredible sight.
Our next train journey was a bit of an error as we ended up spending fourteen hours in the “hard seat” class (sit down if you can find room), where we most likely developed an unhealthy passive smoking habit equivalent to forty a day. We emerged like a couple of wired zombies smelling like smoked kippers at the city of Chengdu, where just to add a little more pain the young guy on reception at the hostel was unfortunately far from efficient. Eventually we could have a shower, some food and a big sleep, making the world a good place again. Chengdu was a pleasant city with a modern feel and was noticeably warmer as we had now come quite far south. Being in the Sichuan province meant some good food was on offer too, including a firm favourite of ours Sichuan Chicken. Our top reason for being here though was to get a close up view of possibly the most cuddly looking bear on the planet, there was no way Liz was going to come to China and not see the
Giant Pandas. We could easily get to the Giant Panda Research Base, home to over fifty pandas, by local bus. Yes it is kind of a zoo but the enclosures are pretty big and the pandas seem to be able to enjoy lots of bamboo munching and general messing about. We enjoyed spending ages just watching them play before they dozed off for their long post breakfast naps.
Our next fast train ride took us six and a half hours eastwards to the town of Yichang situated on the banks of the mighty Yangtze River. We considered spending a day here to see the Three Gorges Dam as we had to pass through this way but in the end decided to use the time elsewhere, however, it was good to walk alongside the Yangtze in the fading evening light and watch the hard-core swimmers who were braving the strong river currents and passing boats. The following day it was back on to the train southwards to Zhangjiajie city where we were able to catch a bus to our next destination, the small town of Wulingyuan which is situated at the eastern entrance to the Zhangjiajie National Park. The park
is huge and is famous for its concentration of unique quartzite-sandstone rock formations. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site with over three thousand pinnacles and spires and apparently the Hollywood blockbuster film Avatar was inspired by this incredible landscape and having seen the film we can believe that this may be possible. The dramatic formations in the park were great to see, but the park is far from peaceful with literally thousands of mostly Chinese tour groups being bussed in everyday making it especially busy at the most popular viewpoints, there was even a McDonald’s neatly placed upon one of the tallest summits to cater for this mass of tourists and a KFC at another. This however did not detract from our enjoyment of the park as it made us seek out some of the quieter areas and trails up the mountains. We did get mugged though by a couple of cheeky monkeys who thought they were going to easily scare us into dropping our hot doughnut type snacks on sticks we had just bought from a vendor on one of the paths. No doubt this is what usually happens when they run menacingly at the tourists and try
to grab their food. Think again monkeys, they both received a swift boot for their troubles and went scurrying off with much jabbering to find easier prey, all this seemed to amuse the Chinese family on the path ahead of us no end.
We spent two full and exhausting days in the park before heading off to the city of Changsha known mainly for its sights relating to Mao as this was the city where he attended school. For us Changsha was just a convenient one night stop over, although finding the hotel we had booked turned out to be less than convenient and having already arrived late it was gone midnight by the time we finally checked in. What did strike us about the city though was how busy it was, even at midnight there were queues of traffic at the busy street intersections. Moving on the next day we finally arrived in the pouring rain at the city of Guilin, again only for one night but this time we had plenty of time to splosh our way around the pleasant city centre, admire the lake and find some very tasty dinner in a hole-in-the-wall restaurant where you
could choose from a selection of vegetables and meat which were then all steamed on a bed of rice through a lotus leaf. Very tasty and healthy after the more oily Sichuan food.
Guilin was the jumping off point for us to visit The Dragon’s Backbone Rice Terraces which is where we headed the following day by three bus rides and a walk to the minority mountain village of Dazhai, a pretty village of traditional wooden buildings set amongst the steeply sloping rice terraces. We very quickly found a traditional, little guesthouse with seemingly no other guests, and although the very smiley lady spoke no English, we managed to communicate with no problems. The guesthouse family also cooked evening meals which was a good thing as there were few other dining options. However, in this department the communication was a little more interesting, we were always served good and tasty food, but not always what we thought we had ordered which made meals a very amusing sort of food lottery. Especially when we asked for some tea and got two glasses of home brewed rice wine instead which turned out to be very good and put Ross’ home brewing
efforts to shame. We didn’t risk ordering coffee!
We spent two enjoyable days walking up and down the rice terrace slopes and through numerous small villages often without meeting a single other tourist, just an old lady grazing her cows on the slopes, who joined us for a biscuit and a chat as we stopped for a while to admire the views, even though she could no more understand us than we could her.
From here it was another few bus rides further south to the small town of Xingping which is situated on a sweeping bend in the Li River with a backdrop of stunning limestone peaks that feature on the back of the twenty Yuan note. It did rain a fair bit whilst we were here, but fortunately we had a few days so we were able to get out and enjoy some long walks in the stunning countryside and pomelo groves surrounding the town when the sun shone.
With our thirty day visitor visa coming close to its end we decided it was time to head out of China, so after another quick stop over in Guilin we caught our final Chinese fast train
to the southern city of Shenzhen, we crossed the city via the metro and after completing the border formalities took the train straight into Hong Kong, where we congratulated ourselves on traveling overland all the way from the UK to Hong Kong.
Hong Kong is hugely busy and we ended up staying in the Mong Kok area of Kowloon which is apparently the world’s most densely populated place and it certainly felt like it. With so many neon lights, looking along the streets at night almost hurt our eyes, but it did feel more ordered than mainland China and in some ways more familiar to us, particularly as they drive on the left in Hong Kong, unlike China where they seem to drive pretty much wherever they like, although supposedly on the right.
We were pretty amazed by the buzz of Hong Kong and especially enjoyed the view over the water at Victoria Harbour looking towards Hong Kong Island. We crossed the harbour a number of times on the famous Star Ferry and at night we watched the symphony of lights. We were surprised to find out that more than seventy percent of Hong Kong is mountains and
forests, mostly in the New Territories. About an hour of combined metro and bus travel took us out of the city and into another world to the Sai Kung East Country Park. Here we found some beautiful, almost deserted beaches where we could swim in the warm South China Sea and walk over the hill, through the forest to another village and catch a bus back into the city. Hong Kong was the perfect way to end our trip through China. We were now looking forward to our first flight on this leg of our travels to Japan.
Things we have learned during our travels through China:
- A wall of wheelie suitcases created by a group of what we think were patiently queueing Japanese tourists will not stop the Chinese side invaders.
- It was only until we reached the Cantonese area of China that we began to recognise any of the Chinese dishes we see at home from our local Chinese takeaways. We spent the rest of our time sampling wonderfully varied dishes, many of which we had never seen or heard of before. Throughout the whole of China the food was delicious but we
avoided the chicken's feet.
- You can't fully appreciate the vast size of China's population until you visit a city you’ve never heard of expecting to find a small town only to be confronted with a mega city with skyscrapers and millions of residents.
- It was surprising how many Chinese people wanted to take a photo either of us or with us. There must be many photos of us documenting our travels somewhere on Chinese social media. Apparently the reason for this is that many Chinese domestic tourists do not see many Westerners in their home towns, so we were often as interesting to them as the tourist attractions they had come to see.
- We found traveling in China to be quite easy, it is a vast country but new high speed rail links have slashed journey times. Everywhere we travelled we saw new high speed rail links, huge roads and associated infrastructure being built. The pace of development seems rapid, so it appears that travel in China can only get easier, but also perhaps even busier.
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