Xi’an – Shaanxi Province
China …oh China!!
Entering into Xi’an we were expecting a dirty, busy and crazy city, as the stereotype of China goes. What was waiting for us was quite the opposite and we were surprised at how clean and orderly it was. The public transport was frequent and efficient, traffic in the streets flowed and herds of (silent) electric motorbikes crept up on us out of nowhere only to be gone again in a flash. Rather impressive for a city of nearly 9 million inhabitants, which I guess is only a medium sized city by Chinese standards.
On our first night we tried to find somewhere to eat close by our hostel. We walked around the block and came across a strip lined with Chinese street BBQs. With groups sitting atop plastic stools and stooped over low tables, the pavement was full of loud talkative Chinese socialising, gambling and sharing a meal and a few Tsingtao beers. The language barrier hit us like a brick wall as we were approached by waiters in loud fast Mandarin and menus only in Chinese characters. Despite Charlotte’s basic middle school Mandarin, trying to enquire about the food was next to impossible. We started to retreat when we were met by a friendly Mandarin-only speaking restaurant owner who took us under her wing and lead us around other patron’s tables to point out the different dishes on offer. The locals were excited to see a western tourist and began offering us samples of their meals, one even pulling on his ear when we asked him “zhe shi shen ma?” (“what is this?”) – an ear of a pig was assumed. We ended up sitting down to a delicious Chinese street BBQ (we still have no idea what meat it was), Tsingtao beer, with friendly interaction and obligatory photos with the locals. Our spirits were lifted and even though we knew this was going to be like no other country we had visited we were now feeling up to the challenge.
On the way home we walked past what looked like a high end dining establishment (especially in contrast to our street BBQ). Sitting inside the window was a topless man with his T-shirt draped over the back of his chair. In China we soon began to realise that you can wear whatever, whenever. Ranging from pyjamas in public, T-shirts with inexplicable English sayings (‘You should see my black face’ – what ever that may mean?) to track pants with high heels, it is also socially appropriate for a male to wear their T-shirt sitting on the waist, tucked above or below the nipples or just not at all.
Xi’an itself was truly an amazing and captivating city with a lot of history and great architecture. As the oldest of the ‘Four Great Ancient Capitals’ of China it played a central role during the Western Zhou, Qin, Western Han, Sui and Tang dynasties and was the starting point to the Silk Road.
The city centre is surrounded by a city wall (and moat) with gated entrances, which was rebuilt in 1370 after the original wall, dating back to 194BC, was destroyed at the end of the Tang dynasty. We spent our first afternoon walking and cycling around the 14km long perimeter, a strange feeling cycling atop a wall with such deep history. The wall itself has 5,864 battlements and you can imagine the arrows and crossbows shot and javelins thrown to protect the city during times of siege. I had an enjoyable interaction with a Chinese couple on a tandem bike. They cycled past at full speed and were shocked when I caught and cruised past them (must have maintained some of the cycling fitness from Sri Lanka). No words were exchanged but the laughter from both sides said it all. This was the first of many friendly interactions with the locals who were not scared to let their big personalities and humour shine.
Within the city walls stand the bell tower and drum tower (both from the 14th century). Seeing them lit up at night was a sight to behold. The nearby Muslim quarter was always abuzz day and night and had a great array of food on offer. The street is lined with street stalls where you can consume an array of flavours to please any tastebuds. The neon lights that light the strip at night set the scene for the hustle and bustle of this pedestrian only street.
The major tourist drawcard in Xi’an however is the Terracotta Warriors, which I have to say is one of, if not the, most interesting archaeological sites I have ever visited. Emperor Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China, shortly after ascending to the throne aged 13 commenced work on a Mausoleum and underground army (made from life sized terracotta figures) to protect him in his afterlife. Discovered by a local farmer in 1974 the site is now a major archaeological work-in-progress with an estimated 8,000 soldiers, 670 horses and 130 chariots along with other non-military figures across 4 underground pits. Pit one, the largest, has over 6,000 soldiers to which 2,000 have now been restored. The site was significantly damaged and burnt by in a period around 200BC and subsequent collapsing of the roof led to damage of all but one of the figures, which due to his kneeling position was preserved whole. The most capturing characteristic of the army is that no two figures are the same, each having a unique face. This helps understand why 700,000 conscripts were required to construct the 98-square kilometre site. The site today sees 30,000 average daily visitors but has had up to a whopping 460,000 on national public holidays!
Jiuzhaigou National Park – Sichuan Province
From Xian we ventured south into Sichuan Province to the town of Jiuzhaigou, home to one of the most spectacular National Parks I have had the privilege of stepping into. Reaching the entrance gate at opening time we joined the end of a long ticket line. There is very different (read no) queuing etiquette in China so it took us quite some time to reach the front, often with help from being pushed from behind.
At the entrance to the park there was a large number of opportunists selling ‘selfie sticks’. These are sold absolutely everywhere in China and through extensive observation we can confirm that there are as many, if not more, selfie sticks in China, as people (for around $3 a piece who wouldn’t want to buy a 2nd, 3rd or even 4th?). At the key viewing spots within the park, which were packed with tourists, it was hard to take a photo without a selfie stick or a person in the frame. On one overcrowded walkway I almost took the handle of a stick to my face as it’s owner answered the phone connected to the other end – with selfie stick at full extension! This was the first of many National Parks that we visited in China and were continually amazed at the flow of tourists within the parks. Buses, elevators and escalators ferry people between the key sights, which leaves the trails in between empty and very enjoyable.
On foot, once inside, we covered about 25kms through the park and also took a couple of buses to allow us to get to see as much of the Park as possible. The Park had some of the clearest and most amazing coloured lakes we have ever seen, pristine waterfalls and dense forest with moss covered undergrowth. Visiting in spring the park was very lush and green. From seeing photos of it covered in snow in winter and the array of colours in autumn it would be an amazing site at any time of the year.
Chengdu – Sichuan Province
Arriving in Chengdu we had the most pleasant taxi experience of the entire trip thus far. The driver was unsure exactly were the hostel was so he turned off his meter until it was found. We found the Chinese to be very honest operators, even the taxi drivers, and never felt like we were getting taken advantage of, which is a rarity when traveling in foreign countries. It was a nice change.
We only spent a couple of days in Chengdu but they were highly enjoyable with the highlight being a visit to the Giant Panda Research Centre. This was truly fascinating as the largest home of Giant Pandas (which are found in Sichuan Province in the wild) in the world. It was also highly educational and informative. We could have stayed and watched the clumsy cubs play fighting with each other in the trees all afternoon but the Sichuan hotpot was calling.
A hot pot is a traditional Chinese dish in the region and Sichuan is the benchmark for spicy. A boiling broth in the middle of the table becomes full of meat vegetables and noodles (in that order if you want to do it correctly) of your choosing (in our case due to a character-only menu again, being taken into the kitchen by friendly waiters and pointing at things to order!). The region’s signature Sichuan black pepper acts like an anaesthetic agent, which numbs your mouth to counter the spice. We soon were feeling the effects as our whole table of backpackers broke out in chilli-related sweats, having to remove layers of clothing making us stand out even more than previous, being the only westerners in the restaurant! Needless to say we remembered the spice again the next day.
Lijiang – Yunnan Province
We used Lijiang as our starting point for the famous Tiger Leaping Gorge hike. The town itself is infamous for it’s old town, which is a UNESCO Heritage Site. With winding cobbled streets and waterways the once residential town is now packed full of restaurants and handicraft and art shops. A short walk north of the old town the Black Dragon Pool provides a stunning view towards Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, the tallest mountain in the region standing at 5,596m.
Our stay in a hostel on the outskirts of the old town was the most memorable experience from our time here. We sat down to dinner with our roommates and hostel staff initiated by a Chinese guest who couldn’t speak a word of English but was determined to be our host. With conversation half in English, half in Mandarin (with a lot of translation and beer in between) we had a very interesting discussion around the political situation in China, it’s recent economic growth and bright future. Wherever we went we found Chinese people to be friendly, well humoured and genuinely interested in us, and the world.
Tiger Leaping Gorge – Yunnan Province
Joined by a new Singaporean friend, Edwin, and a number of other tourists we caught a bus from Lijiang to the start of a 2-day hike along the Tiger Leaping Gorge, one of the deepest and most spectacular rivers canyons in the world.
The gorge, 15kms in length, crosses between the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain and the Haba Snow Mountain (5,396m). At its narrowest point of 25m wide the river surges by at incredible speed as the water squeezes past 2,000m high cliff faces.
Taking the 22km ‘high route’ we were spoilt with fine weather and amazing views along and down the gorge. On day 1 we formed a larger group with Emily (an Australian), Tanja and Raph (a Swiss couple), and a Chinese tourist from Beijing named Yan. Together we shared all meals, many stories and a spectacular dorm room with floor to ceiling glass looking down into the gorge.
Dali – Yunnan Province
Having formed new traveling friendships with a few on the hike and travel plans aligning, six of us continued on to the township of Dali, situated on the large Erhai Lake. We had a very fun day cruising on electric bikes along the lakeside and through rice fields, visiting ancient villages and religious sites. With Yan as our Chinese ‘tour guide’ (often jokingly asking for tips) we also sampled a number of famous Yunnan foods, including delicious gourmet ice cream! On our way back to Dali Edwin and Yan’s bike was low on power so we stopped at a roadside restaurant for a beer and some electricity. As dusk drew near and we got closer to Dali all of the bikes started getting slower and slower as the batteries ran low (in Edwin and Yan’s case completely running out of power leaving Edwin getting towed by holding on to the tray of a ute) resulting in us taking an early dinner stop for some delicious hot pot and some more charging of the bikes. Quite literally the restaurant ran an extension cord out the front door, allowing us to charge two bikes at a time on rotation. As environmentally friendly as they are it turns out they are not that suitable for long-distance trips out of the city!
Having said goodbye to our fellow travellers we spent the next day exploring the old city of Dali, with its vibrant nightlife, ancient wall and numerous tourist shops. We also took a cable car to hike in the surrounding mountains and enjoy a view out over Erhai Lake.
With our visa nearing its expiration it was time to get to Hong Kong for a new one, as there was still so much more of China to explore. Taking a quick overnight stop in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan, we boarded a flight to Hong Kong.
Neither of us had visited Hong Kong (HK) before and had viewed it as a place to renew our visa rather than a destination in itself. Upon landing in the hot and humid air of HK (thankfully at sea level for the first time in a long time) we caught a bus into the city and checked into a room in the Chungking Mansions – probably the cheapest private room in HK, all 7m2 of it.
We aren’t regular users of Facebook but thankfully on our first morning we happened to go online to see that our good friend Neil was, according to a recent post, en route to HK. The stars aligned as we got to catch up with him on his one-night only stop over in HK in a sky-high bar we chose which happened to be 2 floors above where he was having dinner when we managed to contact him. We shared some travel stories and caught up on news from home over a couple of cocktails with a spectacular view of one of the world’s greatest skylines. It was both weird and normal but so wonderful to be unexpectedly with one of our best friends from home.
We found HK highly developed after where we had been traveling and the commercialism/materialism took a little bit of getting used to. That said after a couple of days there I began to love the mix of ‘east meets west’ and could see the appeal to live and work there as an expat. We ate at our first Michelin Star restaurant (the world’s most affordable – Tim Ho Wan), hiked the Dragon’s Back trail and took a swim, and enjoyed the amazing HK skyline at night-time from both sea level and The Peak. With the highly efficient Chinese visa processing in HK we were once again ready to head back into China to continue exploring the history and culture of the world’s largest population. Stay tuned for more…