China: The Verdict

Guilin, 6 November

Duration: 40 days. Distance (land): 6,000 km. Stops: 14.

Total duration so far: 99 days. Distance (air): 20,437 km. Distance (land): 9,075 km. Distance (water): 115 km. Total distance: 29,627 km.

Since we’re checked in to our final hotel in Guilin, munching on cheese baguettes and drinking lychee and bamboo tea (yup, we are tea snobs now), it means our time in China is almost over. Over the last 40 days we’ve visited 9 out of 26 provinces, while experiencing all sorts of different food, landscapes and culture. Now it is time to tally up the scores!

First for all you thirsty (and thrifty) holidaymakers out there, let me give you the low-down on the pint situation. Unlike Sri Lanka and India where you’ll drink what you’re given, China has a lot of different beers to choose from, readily available in supermarkets, convenience stores and restaurants up and down the country: Tsingtao, Harbin, Yanjing, they’re all terrible. Though its supermarket pricetag of ¥2.50 (30p) per can may appeal, stay esspecially clear of Snow Beer; Unnaturally yellow, flat and with an all round unpleasant taste this would have to be the China’s worst brew.

Your typical Chinese lager has an alcohol percentage ranging anywhere between 0.5 and 3.5 or 4 if you’re very lucky. Rather than the big brands, to enjoy a good beer in China you best try the micro breweries. In the major cities you will find pubs with excellent local ales, lagers, ipa’s and stouts on draught, but make sure to bring a healthy wallet; a good pint will set you back about ¥40 (£4.50), pretty much the same as back home in Edinburgh.

Alternatively, among other European beers, Hoegaarden is commonly imported and we even managed to buy three different types of Delirium from a local supermarket in Fenghuang, at a very reasonable ¥21 a bottle. Full marks go to China!

Now, ladies and gentlemen, the moment you have all been waiting for, it is time to present to you China’s final scores, as awarded by our most irreproachable, evenhanded judge Lauren! Enjoy!

The people score 8/10. The Chinese have been extremely kind and helpful, in spite of the language barrier. They are hospitable, generous and made us feel welcome pretty much everywhere we went. Chinese people have a big soft spot for small children and babies, and while some of our helplessness at times may have evoked similar motherly feelings, I would like to believe they are simply warm, welcoming people.

Having said that, the loud clearing of the throat followed by spitting has been slightly more underwhelming, as has the sneezing without covering up or not using headphones on a crowded train.

Finally, since it goes so much against everything that is good and holy in Britain, I’m talking of course about proper queuing conduct, at first it was pretty annoying to have people constantly try and push their way out in front of you. Now 40 days later we’re cutting queues like a pro and cheer on anyone who cheats their way up front. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em! Gonna be awkward when we’re back home..

The food scores 6/10. Being a bit unconventional here with the scoring, as Chinese food is actually my favourite, but I can’t get around the fact that we’ve seen critically endangered Chinese giant salamanders up on offer at several restaurants around the country, not to mention that eating dog and cat (fragrant meat as its called), turtle and bamboo rat are a thing here too. Fair enough, it’s not for us to decide which animals are too cute to be consumed, but lay off the endangered species, will you China? Apart from that, Chinese food is entirely great and I’d go back to Sichuan just for that!

The transport scores 9/10. Hands down, China’s winning this one! The fast trains have been superb; not a minute late, clean, smooth-riding and easy to use. The metro system in the cities is well thought-out and appears futuristic compared to some in Europe and the US. The bus system has been slightly more difficult at times to figure out, but have been good as well.

So without further ado, I am proud to announce that China is the latest lucky recipient of Lauren’s coveted certificate of excellence! Hear hear!!

A perfect way to end China

Yangshuo, Guangxi region, 4-5 November

For our final stop in China we decided to reward ourselves with a couple days of pampering and relaxation by the pleasant Yulong River in Yangshuo, which is regarded one of the most beautiful counties in China. Its local scenery of the crystal clear Li and Yulong rivers snaking through limestone hills embodies the essence of Guilin.

Since the 80’s, Yangshuo county became popular with foreign backpackers such as ourselves. Today it is a resort destination for both domestic and foreign travellers. In the last thirty years village life has transformed from farmsteads and farming to resorts offering river-rafting. Though there are clear signs that given another five years it may well be a different story, when we arrive during the tail end of the high season it is still the quiet and peaceful place we were hoping to find, perhaps partly in blame of (or thanks to) the local transport mafia.

According to Wikipedia, Yangshuo is easily accessible by bus, but really they may as well have described it as ‘a major ball-ache’. Though only 100 km south of Guilin, it takes four buses, a golf buggy and a minivan, plus four frustrating hours of escaping taxi scams and feeling pretty lost, to finally get to the resort. Thankfully it lives up to the glowing reviews of the glorious views it offers of the Yulong River, as enjoyed here with a cold beer!

In case anyone reading this is planning to head in the same direction, let me save you from some of the hassle you’ll encounter from the Guilin maffia: take city bus K99 to the South Bus Station, ignore the ‘welcoming committee’ offering to take you to the ‘bus’, instead ask any of the bus drivers for the bus to Yangshuo (25 RMB p.p.), and once in Yangshuo find the Tourist Transportation Centre where a shuttle will take you to the resort area. Mind that this plan is by no means fool-proof, as even the bus personnel may try and usher you into a private car, or at the very least overcharge you for the bus ticket. In the end we get off easy paying a mere extra 10 RMB.

In the morning we set of on bicycles the resort offers free of charge. Being a Dutchman, there’s really no need to say more. Bikes you say? For free you say?? Let’s go already! In true Dutch fashion we have now rode bikes in every country we’ve visited. Strangely, in spite of providing her with regular exposure, I can’t help but feel that Lauren does not each time grow fonder of riding bikes. Which is probably not helped by the fact that I caused her to fall and scrape her knee (her version of events).

We’re off to see Moon Hill, which has its name because of the crescent shaped hole inside the rock. The pleasant cycle path from the resort leads us along and over the river, through nearby villages, to the hill’s entrance where a guy in uniform shakes us down for 4 RMB, explained as a bicycle parking fee. To begin the climb, we first have to enter through a photo-op with a group of Chinese dressed up in traditional outfits.

When crossing the platform they spring into action as if stung by a bee and begin posing next to us. It might be the already considerable morning heat, or the fact that I’m making myself believe they do not want to have to do this either, but suddenly I find myself almost agreeing to a picture. Until I remember I’d rather step barefoot on a piece of Lego than pose with some strangers pretending to be ethnic minorities. That was a close one..

A big sign that says Nixon Trail, tells the story of how in February 1976, the former US President visited Yangshuo and spotted Moon Hill from the nearby road. Amazed, he asked (quote): “Is the moon on the mountain you pierced with a missile?” (unquote). Having gone up the mountain, Nixon instead becomes convinced the hole is made by the sky itself. Here’s to judge for yourself.

The surrounding area is great to explore and we find plenty of scenic spots riding our bikes back to the hotel.

A Yangshuo favourite is taking a bamboo raft down river, but after seeing the endless stream of boats pass by the hotel we decide to give this one a miss. Something about being stuck behind twenty other boats doesn’t seem like the best way to enjoy this beautiful scenery..

So our 40-day tour through China has inevitably come to an end and we’ve both had the best time. As has become our custom, before taking the train to Hong Kong, we’re checking in to a transit hotel tomorrow where it’s time to sit back and reflect on our visit, presenting you with the scores for China!

More chillin’ in Guilin

Guilin, Guanxi, 1-3 November

It’s the start of November and we’re travelling further south by bus to the city of Guilin. Guilin is part of the Guanxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, a wild, mountainous area with a subtropical climate and bordering on Vietnam. When we arrive to Guilin in the late afternoon it’s warm and it’s sunny. Looks like we’re back in summer, let’s get the shorts out!

Situated on the Li River surrounded by limestone hills and renowned for its karst caves, Guilin is a popular tourist destination. With a population of 5 million, it is by no means a small city, but it feels a lot smaller than the big cities we’ve visited up north.

Our hotel is a bit away from town along a tributary of the Li River called Peach Blossom River. We’re welcomed by very friendly owner Robert and his border collie Bailou. As of today we’ve officially used up the data on our Chinese SIM card, rendering our translation apps useless, so instead, to get here, we’ve had to rely on offline maps, bits of sign language and a healthy dose of goodwill. Thankfully Robert speaks English and the restaurant next door has a picture menu. The sunset view from our hotel room is pretty amazing.

In the morning we set out to visit the Reed Flute Cave, a natural limestone cave nearby our hotel. Once used as a bomb shelter, this 240 meter long water-eroded cave features stalactites and stone pillars created by carbonate deposition. Despite evidence of its popularity during ancient times, the Reed Flute Cave was almost entirely forgotten for a thousand years before being rediscovered in the 40’s by a group of refugees fleeing Japanese troops. Since its opening to the public in 1962, it has become a top destination to impress foreign dignitaries (such as Mugabe for instance) and domestic big-shots alike, as extensively displayed on the wall of fame outside the cave.

It would be impossible to get lost inside the cave, yet the only way in is with a guided tour group. Once inside the group is easily ditched so we get to quietly enjoy the spectacular rock formations, highlighted throughout by different coloured lights, the effect of which is pretty trippy.

We decide to skip the Longji Rice Terraces outside of Guilin, since it’s not the right time of year: The rice has just been harvested and the farmers have begun to burn the fields. With a lot of time on our hands we decide to take it easy instead. Our first three months on the road have been pretty fast-paced and Guilin is an ideal city for a good old relaxing time. There’s parks everywhere and quiet hangout spots by the lakes and rivers to have a picnic, you can climb a few hills for views over the city, plus the city has plenty good restaurants and bars, including an Irish Pub where we watch the final of the Rugby World Cup in the good company of French and English travellers. Well done the bokke!

After Guilin we’re fully recharged and ready for the next couple months ahead. Our final stop in China, Yangshuo, a town just 60km south on the same Li River is coming up next!

A relaxing time in Phoenix Water Town

Fenghuang, Hunan Province, 29-30 October

Our journey south towards sunny weather brings us to the ancient town of Fenghuang. Also known as Phoenix, this old town on the Tuojiang River was built in 1704 during the Qing Dynasty and has preserved its appearance ever since.

Fenghuang, or Chinese phoenix, is a bird found in East Asian mythology that reigns over all other birds. Like the Phoenix rising from its ashes, Fenghuang has been reborn as a touristic hotspot.

Originally a Miao settlement, Fenghuang is a gathering place for Miao and Tujia ethnic minority. Not far from town, the southern part of the Great Wall of China was originally built there to prevent the Han Chinese from invading the Miao, while nowadays Han are the ruling ethnic majority. A few older women we see selling flower garlands still wear the Miao traditional clothing, although this may be more of a gimmick for tourists than cultural preservation.

Walking through the ancient town, most of the old houses have been converted to shops, restaurants and hotels and during the mornings and at night, when the town is brightly lit up and all the bars are open, Fenghuang is overrun with tour groups. From our balcony we’re having fun watching all the Chinese tourists dressed up in traditional attire pose for photos.

Perhaps the best way to experience some of the ancient way of life is to walk by the river around midday, when the tours have all gone. The streets become deserted but for a handful of cats and dogs napping in the shade and local men fishing by the side of the river, with the occasional gondola passing by.

The unique wooden houses (Diajiaolou) built along the riverbank have been designed to protect from flooding and appear to be hanging over the river.

On the banks food is prepared by the numerous restaurants in much the same way as it has for centuries. A local favourite is fish Miao-style: fish pickled for 3 weeks until the bones are soft, inside a container of special soup, rice powder and sweet corn powder. Alternatively you can pick just about any animal, living or dead, from the aquariums and cages stacked up in front of the restaurants.

A pig’s face and some honeycombs.
A couple bamboo rats.

While we’re checking them out, one very smart bamboo rat pretends to be dead so we won’t buy it and eat it, but then one of the waiters comes running out and pokes it with a stick until it starts moving again. Wake up you, there’s customers! Way too cute to eat though, they’re like giant hamsters.

It’s nice to get lost for the afternoon walking around the narrow, winding streets of the old town, with plenty more to discover. We bear witness to some locals’ karaoke session in the public park and eat some of the best rice noodles we’ve had on our travels.

All in all we had a good time in Fenghuang. Slowly our journey through China is beginning to draw to a close. Next up we’re travelling further south still to the city of Guilin.

Speeding past Yangtze River

Chongqing/Yichang, 23-25 October

On the 23rd we are starting our journey to get from Emeishan to the Avatar Mountains of Zhangjiajie. The first step is getting the train to Chongqing, another one of China’s mega-cities and starting point of the Yangtze river cruise. We’re spending the night here at a nice-looking hostel called Lonely Village, located on the corner of where the city’s two rivers meet.

The hostel is a little bit hard to find. After getting off at the metro stop, we turn into a small alleyway where steep steps lead us through an area which can only be described as ‘little China’, so completely hidden away from daylight by the towering skyscrapers around it that it seems to be indoors. We carefully climb down the slippery stairs past shopkeepers performing their trade out on the steps, small groups of people sat down gambling or gossiping over lunch and kids running about, while evading the men and women carrying heavy loads up and down, which is a pretty amazing sight. Some of the old boys (or packmules) are seriously ripped! The stairs spill onto another street where we’re quite literally boxed in to stacks and stacks of giant boxes.

After finding a way out, and around the skyscrapers, the city suddenly opens opens up and there she is, Yangtze River!

We’re at our destination: a humongous apartment building consisting of three towering skyscrapers by the side of the river. It just doesn’t seem to have an entrance..

After some serious searching we manage to creep into the building through an inconspicuous looking carpark, past shops and restaurants, to find a secure door to the lobby of tower number 3. Naturally we don’t have the code. Some tailgating later, one of the many elevators in the lobby takes us up to the 50th floor, to the hostel, which is where today’s orienteering exercise is brought to a successful end.

Our effort gets rewarded, as we’re given an instant upgrade to our room for no apparent reason and it’s pretty great: floor-to-ceiling glass window the length of the room with the most amazing view of the river!

Better yet, the hostel has a shared kitchen we can use, plus a French supermarket around the corner, selling everything required to make a mac and cheese dinner, much to a certain someone’s delight. Happy wife, happy life, as they say in India!

The next morning our journey continuous eastwards to Yichang in the Hubei Province. Essentially we’re following the same route as the big cruise ships on the Yangtze, but on a budget, by train, which, as it turns out is a journey spent mostly inside tunnels..

The city of Yichang is located near one of the more scenic spots on the Yangtze, the so-called Three Gorges, created by the dam of the same name. The dam has flooded all the orginal villages in the area, but China wouldn’t be China if it wouldn’t build fake replacements, along with actors in traditional attire playing the flute for the tourist boats and even performing a wedding ceremony by the water for your ‘authentic’ Yangtze village experience, the ‘Tribe of the Three Gorges’.

In contrast, the area where we’re staying in Yichang offers a more realistic, though be it not necessarily better, experience of China. There’s a pungent smell in the air, which is a mixture of freshly butchered chickens from the guy that helps us find the hotel, and shops around the hotel that sell everything from live frogs to dog skulls to pigs trotters. Not related to the smell (or the dog skulls I hope!), there’s a guy at the nearby underpass selling cute little poodles out of a cardboard box, don’t see that every day either..

Our hotel is a definitely *not* a breath of fresh air: Facilities include a variety of mold, bloodstained pillows, termites, and a flooded toilet. At night, it’s *the* place for locals to meet and argue.

It never rains but it pours literally applies to our Yichang visit when the weather gods decide to add moisture to misery. We decide to give the Three Gorges a miss because of the unrelenting rain and are happy to continue our journey south to reach Zhangjiajie.

 

Keep Calm & Climb Sichuan’s Sacred Mountain

Leshan/Emeishan, Sichuan Province, 21-22 October

From metropolitan Chengdu our travels lead us to the more rural south. Though still passing the occasional urban settlement on the way down, slowly the scenery changes to a greener setting. We’re staying at the foot of Mount Emei, in a little town called Baoguo next to the bigger town of Emeishan. Mount Emei is the biggest of China’s Holy Buddhist Mountains.

The town of Baoguo is a pretty pleasant sight. It has a river that runs through it and lots of greenery, even better, there’s not a skyscraper in sight! As is usually the case with popular religious destinations however, the main road of the town is covered with trinket stalls and crawling with touts. The holier the place it seems, the more aggressive are its shopkeepers, a problem of all the ages, and if there’s one thing we’ve learned during our time in India it’s how to ignore touts.

As Baoguo town has only a handful of side streets we easily find our hotel, drop of our bags and immediately catch a local bus to the nearby city of Leshan, to see a giant Buddha statue.

The Leshan Giant Buddha is a 71-metre tall, 8th century stone statue depicting Matreiya. Matreiya is supposed to be a future Buddha, who will bring back the teachings of Buddhism at a time when it’s forgotten. Carved out of a red sandstone cliff near the city of Leshan, Matreiya sits at the confluence of two rivers flowing beneath its feet and faces the holy Mount Emei. It is the largest stone Buddha in the world and the tallest pre-modern statue worldwide.

China’s rapid economic development means a large middle class has formed and its domestic tourism is at an all time high. Happening at pretty much every tourist stop, being caught up in masses of middle-aged farmers-turned-tourist coupled with an entire younger generation with single child complex and a lust for sightseeing is enough at times to make you want to rip your hair out and start flailing your arms around like a lunatic, but in the end it’s best to go with the flow and try and keep calm while not letting anyone walk over you. China is not the place for politeness, and no-one expects you to either.

At the Leshan Giant Buddha keeping your sanity includes making the decision not to attempt to take the plank steps down to the foot of the statue, as every Chinese tourist on the steps with a good view of the Buddha simply refuses to move on, even though it means blocking the entire path. The park’s management has resigned to its inability to police here. Instead there’s a sign to warn you it can take two hours to get to the bottom, fair enough.

Thankfully the scenic area is very big and after a while all the noise dies down and we find ourselves entirely alone in peaceful surroundings, this is great!

In the distance we can hear chanting and decide to follow the sound, which leads us to a small temple at the top of steep steps. Inside we find monks sat at a table inside a beautifully adorned main hall practicing their hymns. They’re happy for us to have a quiet walk about and even take a few pictures.

The scenic area up on the cliffs that overlook the rivers around Leshan make for a pleasant afternoon stroll and we enjoy exploring the various caves, tombs and temple buildings scattered all around.

Before the exit we pass through what is called a ‘traditional’ fishing village, looking an awful lot like a street full of restaurants. The fresh-looking daily catch is displayed out on the street though, and it’s quite the selection: cat fish, eels and water snakes, turtles (sadly), and even a huge salamander (might actually be critically endangered), all caught locally and freshly prepared while you wait. Seeing the murky, grey river behind the restaurants does not exactly entice me to try what’s on offer, but it’s pretty sweet seeing the fishermen out on the water.

Dinner in Baoguo consists of dumplings in broth with dipping sauces, spicy Sichuan pork with bell pepper and a big plate of french fries, don’t judge me alright?

The next morning we wake up early to visit Mount Emei, which actually consists of four different mountains, and has its highest peak at 3,099 metres above sea level. Stone steps just five minutes away from our hotel starting at the Baoguo Temple lead past Qingyin Pavilion and the Wannian Temple all the way up to a plateau at the top of the mountain, the Golden Summit, high above the clouds.

Baoguo Temple, the entrance gate to Mt Emei

The uninterrupted path leads through dense forests inhabited by monkeys (as well as red pandas we’re told) and is littered with waterfalls. A poet from the Qing Dynasty summed up the landscape of Mount Emei into ten scenic views, now known as the ten old views of Mount Emei, with names such as the Smoke Cloud in the Thunder Cave, the Moonlit Night in Elephant Pool and the Lucky Light at the Golden Summit. Since then, ten new views have been added, each given their own equally appealing name.

Slit in the Sky (no joke!), one of the new views of the mountain.

Now the best way for a true pilgrim to visit Mt Emei (and quite possibly avoid having to fork out on the expensive ticket) would be to start hiking up from Baoguo Temple when it opens at 7AM and reach Wannian Temple at the end of the day at 1,020 meters high. Then stay the night at one of the many monasteries that offer beds, hike up to near the Golden Summit on day two and go up the next day to witness the Lucky Light at the Golden Summit, an incredible sunrise over the plateau. We’re clearly not that devoted so settle for a much easier though be it slightly less rewarding route.

In the early morning the two of us and a sleepy looking monk take the tourist bus through dramatic scenery up to Wannian parking lot. The monk quickly heads off to the cable car, but we start our ascend on the stone path leading up to Wannian Temple.

View from the bus

The 3km long climb takes us through a sleepy little village with a tea shop, a group of old men playing a game of Mahjong and stalls selling plastic crap and bamboo sticks for fighting off cheeky macaques to use further up the mountain. It’s peaceful and serene here in the early morning and a welcome change from visiting China’s mega cities.

In total there are more than 30 Buddhist temples on the mountain. On the way up we stop off at one of these to nose around, use the toilet (another word for a hole in the ground) and play with the tiny resident kitten. A short while later we reach our first viewpoint.

On the final climb up to Wannian Temple we see a guy use a slingshot to shoot squirrels from a tree. On the opposite side of the path his wife is selling mystery meat shishkebabs from a stall, although.. not a mystery anymore..

Tour guides describe Mount Emei as a place to be one with nature and find spirituality and peace in its mystical, rugged beauty. Most Chinese tourists on the other hand use it as a place to pose for group pictures with subjects ranging from sign posts to every individual object found inside and outside the temples. Once a series of pictures has been completed, the picture taker will then swap position with another group member for the whole thing to repeat itself. Now you can offer to take the picture for them so everyone’s in it at the same time, but this will just slow things down. Now you have to be in the picture too, and before you know it you’re part of their whole switching routine. Finally once everyone has had a turn you get about a second to take a picture of the temple before the next group arrives, so here I have it for you, Wannian Temple!

So long as you don’t get annoyed with shops, crowds and noise, climbing Mt Emei makes for a pretty rewarding day however. Both the scenery and the long walk up are guaranteed to take your breath away!

And in case your legs cramp up from all the walking, there are always some alternatives on offer to cheat your way to the top instead. Presenting the Sedan Chair, the lazy man’s vehicle of choice:

When we reach Qingjin Pavilion in the afternoon the sign reads it’s another 50km to the Golden Summit. We’re almost starting to consider the Sedan, but then meet the real heroes of the mountain. Ever wonder how a temple gets built at 3,000 km above sea level? This would be step one..

Yup, that would be a ton of bricks strapped onto their backs.

Obviously we’re not going to see the Golden Summit, but finish our day looking for the macaques instead. Everywhere one the mountain there’s warnings signs telling you to be careful around the monkeys, but we feel like we’ve been lied to, there’s not a monkey in sight! They could be anywhere on this mountain, having loads of fun attacking tourists, which is kind of a comforting thought I guess. The monkey area is not to blame though, plenty of things to climb here.

We may not have reached the top, but have had a pretty great day on the mountain either way. With tired legs we drag back to the hotel and complete our adventure in Emeishan with a beer and a Sichuan feast of chilli beef and tofu stew, garlic mushrooms, different greens we’ve never seen before and rice, shared with a guy we met earlier today at the bus stop.

Join us next time when you will see us follow the Yangtze River east!

On the Giant Panda trail

Chengdu, Sichuan Province, 18-20 October.

Today on the high speed train we cover a distance of over 1,000 km to get from Luoyang to the Sichuan capital of Chengdu, home of spectacular spicy foods and adorable panda bears!

With an urban population of over 11 million, Chengdu is one of three most populated cities in Western China, and the largest in Sichuan. Due to the Dujiangyan Irrigation Project constructed in the year 256 BC, the Min and Tuo River, two branches of the famous Yangtze river, supply an irrigation area of more than 700 square kilometres. This furtile land is why Sichuan Province is called Tian Fu Zhi Guo, the Heavenly State.

In this province Hotpot was invented, a cooking method where a simmering pot of soup stock is placed on the dinner table and hotpot dishes such as thinly sliced beef, mushrooms, wontons, egg dumplings or seafood are cooked tableside, similar to fondue, but hot enough to numb your tongue and lips for the rest of the day!

In Sichuan cooking Sichuan peppercorns (Ma) and dried chillies (La) play a central role. The dried chillies produce some serious heat on the Scoville scale, while the peppercorn causes the tingly lip-numbing sensation, lovely! Though deadly when prepared by the inexperienced chef, in reality not every dish in Sichuan cuisine is extremly spicy, but it’s always fragrant and usually delicious. It’s been my absolute favourite food on our travels so far!

The hostel we stay in is pretty comfortable. Just off a busy road next to a metro station, the inner courtyard is a pet lovers paradise; we count 5 cats, 2 dogs, some gold fish and even spot a turtle. We’re staying on the fourth floor. A gaping hole with no door at the end of our corridor leads to a rickety emergency exit stairway attached to the side of the building – pretty glad we’re not staying here in winter.. From the top of the stairs we look right into the garage of our neighbour, who runs a pretty professional looking illegal casino from there, the Chinese sure love a gamble!

We decide to give the temples here a miss and catch up on some much needed rest while in Chengdu. This city has a lot of expats and the quarter finals of the rugby world cup are on, so we spend a lot of time at the Shamrock Pub which is showing all the games. Most of the rugby fans we meet are in Chengdu for teaching, the go to gig for the native English speaker.

It’s nice to be able to speak with other people since our Chinese is not quite the level required for a good old existential debate (or even small talk for that matter..) Besides hello and thank you, and a few words for different foods, we know good morning (zao) and good afternoon (chi guo ma, lit. have you eaten?), plus one our Irish friend from the pub taught us: sha bi, which you can use on the public bus when another passenger snorts their nose and spits the contents out in the little bucket.

No trip to Chengdu would be complete without a visit to the Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding. A short drive out of town, this is likely where the two faulty pandas who refuse to mate in Edinburgh Zoo are from. The centre consist of a huge park imitating the natural habitat of the giant panda, as well as nursing houses for the baby pandas, a training centre, playgrounds and research laboratories. It is home to about 83 giant pandas and red pandas, including their young.

When we arrive in the early morning the park is already crowded. Most people are queuing up for the shuttle buses which operate inside the park, but we decide to follow a quick-paced group of walkers who seem to know their way around the park. It’s best to arrive early not to miss feeding time and because the giant bears are most active in the morning. Come 10 AM they usually hunker down and sleep away the rest of the day.

Bamboo has little nutritional value, so the pandas are usually too tired to play, fight, mate, or simply stay awake. While they may lack an active lifestyle they certainly do have the cuteness factor!

Seeing the red pandas on the other hand is a lot more interactive. These little fellas are quite playful and curious. At the Research Base you can step right into their enclosure for a close encounter!

Chengdu has been pretty good. It’s easy to get around, a good place to meet a few expats and eat good food, plus the Panda Base is well worth a visit. After spending a lot of time in China’s big cities it’s time to discover the countryside. Our next stop is Baoguo village, just south of Chengdu.

Buried beneath skyscrapers: Visiting the cradle of Chinese civilization

Luoyang, Henan Province, 15-17 October

After Xi’An we’re making a sidestep back east to the city of Luoyang situated along the Luo River, where we witness both the effects of China’s rapid development and the hospitality and kindness of the people of Luoyang. And visit the Longmen Grottoes and eat all the food!

As mentioned in my previous post, Luoyang is another one of the Four Ancient Capitals. Founded in the 11th century BCE, no less than 105 emperors across 13(!) dynasties have ruled from this city and it was a centre of politics, economy and culture for a total of over 1,500 years.

After learning a thing or two about Luoyang’s rich history on the train we arrive with great expectations. During the Eastern Han Dynasty, under the rule of emperor Ming, the city became the first eastern starting point of the Silk Road to Europe, which reached all the way to the Roman Empire. When the emperor’s ambassadors returned on the Silk Road bringing back sutras and monks, Luoyang became the birthplace of Chinese Buddhism. White Horse Temple, the first Buddhist temple in China, was constructed here in 68 CE.

In the 5th century BCE the Northern Wei emperor ordered the creation of the cave temples at Longmen, and thus cemented Luoyang as one of the greatest centres of Chinese Buddhism. Around the same time Taoism was also founded in Luoyang, and, last but not least, a Shaolin Temple was constructed on nearby Mount Song, which marked the beginnings of Shaolin Kung Fu.

Not convinced of Luoyang’s historical significance just yet? Three out of four great Chinese inventions were created in this city: Gunpowder, printing and paper making!

At this point one might be led to believe Luoyang has all the hallmarks of an unforgettable visit, but sadly its glory days didn’t last: In the 8th century the city fell into economic decline and by 1949 its population had dwindled to only 75.000. In the 1950’s, helped by the Soviet Union, Luoyang became one of China’s major industrial cities and the city experienced even more rapid development since the 1980’s. Today it has flourishing chemical, textile and food-processing industries and a population of 6.5 million, but rapid growth and development have come at a price.

Future site of a skyscraper.

I’m beginning to discover a pattern in China. The Great Wall, though hugely impressive, in some places has been repaired with little concern for the original. In Beijing the hutongs are fast disappearing. In Xi’An antiques markets have been replaced by tourist stalls selling knockoffs, but Luoyang takes the cake: Its ancient town has been turned into a friggin’ amusement park, with its only remains a tiny bit of wall and a pretty sad looking drum tower..

Skyscrapers and apartment blocks stand in place of what is considered to have been the cradle of Chinese civilization. Though the museum holds a vast collection of pottery and stone carvings from Luoyang’s glory days, lots of it recently discovered on building sites across town, I can’t shake the feeling much of its history has been paved over carelessly. Not to worry though, as the main reason we travelled here is to see the Longmen Grottoes.

Our first mission after getting off the train is to find our hotel and have a bite to eat. While we travelled by metro in Beijing and Xi’An, Luoyang’s metro system is still under construction so we need a bus to take us downtown. Problem is there are four different bus stations and half of the buses have no numbers. Armed with our smartphones we enlist the locals’ help, but even they seem entirely confused by their own transport system.

A very friendly man walks us to one of the bus stations, then can’t find the right bus and gets other people involved. Soon a whole group of people discuss which bus we need to take and finally a woman walks us to another bus station to find bus 81 (we have a number now) but it still remains at large.

After about an hour we gamble on bus 33, which might possibly head downtown we’re told. Luckily it does. The moment we cross the river the skyscrapers end and when we reach our stop we’re in an area which feels more like a small town than a big city, with loads of little eateries and shops. The locals are both surprised and amused to see us.

It’s beginning to get dark and rainy, so we’re keen on finding our hotel, having only a general area on the map to work with. Again we’re in luck; Eagle-eyed Lauren spots the hotel immediately in one of the back alleys. We made it!

The door is open, but the lobby is deserted except for two fluffy cats napping in a cage. We try the phone number found on the desk. When someone answers and I explain that we’re at the hotel I’m not quite sure they understand, but ten minutes later the owner of the property arrives. For some reason she seems surprised we don’t speak Chinese, but her English, sounding very much inspired by Sasha Baron Cohen’s character Borat, is very nice!

We’re staying in the family room, which, for a family room, is perhaps a bit heavy on the semi-erotic wall-art.. But hey, it’s clean and it’s comfortable (except for the beds, Chinese like their mattresses hard as rock), so we’re happy. We’re recommended a good restaurant nearby (sign in Chinese, picture of a big red chicken), and end another successful day.

The next morning we wake up early to visit the Longmen Grottoes, and we’re well-excited! Longmen is located on the city’s Southside, where the limestone rock formations of East Hill (Xiangshan) and West Hill (Longmenshan) stand facing eachother. With the River Yi flowing in the middle, together they form a natural gateway named Yique (gate of Yi), or Dragon’s Gate.

View of Longmenshan and Yi River.

Started in 493 CE during the Northern Wei Dynasty and continued for the next 400 years across several dynasties, the limestone cliffs of the two hills house tens of thousands of statues of Buddha and his disciples, which have been carved into the rock relief and inside over 2,300 excavated niches and caves. The Grottoes are considered to contain some of the finest pieces of Chinese Buddhist art.

8 meters tall Buddha Amitabha at the Qianxisi Cave (Tang Dynasty)
Smaller carved reliefs.
Most of the carvings are missing a few parts.
Maitreya Buddha (female Buddha) at Moya Three Buddha Cave (Zhou Dynasty, Wu Zetian regime)

Xiangshan Temple, whose rooftops are described as ‘flying the clouds’ was built in 516 CE to house the monks overseeing the stone carvings. It is situated in the middle mountainside of the East Hill and offers wide views of the river and the caves of Longmenshan. Wu Zetian, China’s only ever female monarch, used to spend a lot of time at this temple, and against the backdrop of the Longmen Grottoes, she declared herself empress here!

Before we leave the Longmen Grottoes, there is one last big finale to see, which is the shrine of Fenxian Si. This monumental temple was carved out over the three-year period between 672 and 675 CE and features a colossal Buddha figure more than 17 metres high, flanked by its attendants. It truly is a sight to behold and the crown jewel of the Longmen Grottoes.

Stairs leading up to Fenxian Si.
As seen from across the river.

The Longmen Grottoes are a tough act to follow and the next day we attempt to visit the Shaolin Temple, but a late start to our morning plus the chaotic bus system in Luoyang gets the better of us. By the time we have finally found our bus at 11am, it’s not leaving until 2pm and will take over two hours to get there, so we end up strolling around the town for the afternoon instead.

Now no story about Luoyang would be complete without describing our experience with the restaurants. So far when we needed help finding buses the locals have been very friendly and helpful, but at the restaurants friendliness is taken to another level, and the food never stops coming.

Generally in restaurants we use our phones to translate a picture of the menu, but usually it just gets you gibberish. At that point we tend to try and order something simple and hope for the best, and most of the time that works. On our first night here, at our local Big Red Chicken restaurant we ask for chicken noodles, and end up getting something amazing: A humongous plate of chicken, potatoes and vegetables in a chilli broth with lip-numbing but delicious spices. When the staff sits down to eat their own dinner they give us some of their soup and bread to taste. And if that weren’t enough, fresh noodles are brought out twice and it actually cost next to nothing. The staff thinks it’s hilarious when we leave a tip!

This afternoon we randomly walk into a busy restaurant and ask for beef noodles (you can tell our vocabulary is pretty limited). The woman at the counter nods in understanding, but then her colleague starts pointing frantically at the menu. We point at what we think are the beef noodles and pay for the order. When we collect the food it turns out to be a light broth with beef and noodles, perfect.

We take a seat and dig in, it’s delicious. Minutes later one of the chefs comes running out of the kitchen, shouts at us in Chinese and leaves a basket of freshly baked bread and bread strips on the table, probably comes with the noodles we’re guessing. Then suddenly the same woman from the counter shows up and puts an even bigger and tastier bowl of beef noodles down in front of us. We can’t understand what she’s saying, but she seems upset and we’re beginning to think we may have messed up our order here. The app produces a curious translation: I told you lie down for enjoy hot noodles to warm on a cold floor. We try to pay for the extra dish, but she is having none of it and keeps smiling at us while I’m trying to finish what is a pretty unreal amount of food.

After this big lunch, in the evening we visit our local food street to get a light snack. We find a place that does dumplings and ask for a portion each. Usually a portion consists of about 8 dumplings, but in this restaurant it turns out a portion is about 40 dumplings, holy shit! And it comes with a bowl of soup, all at a cost of under £3 for the entire meal! All the tables are taken but the other diners immediately clear some space for us and fill saucers up with dipping sauces for the dumplings, amazing! I think everyone finds it super funny we cluelessly walk into the local eateries, but either way we feel incredibly welcome here in Luoyang, the city that won’t stop feeding you!

Luoyang has been a great experience and now we’re off to find even more food and visit the Giant Pandas, when we go to Chengdu in the Sichuan Province!

 

Tracing the origins of the Silk Road

Xi’An, 11-14 October

An easy 3 hour train ride takes us from the Shanxi Province to the Shaanxi Province. We’re now roughly 1,100 km southwest of Beijing at our second major stop Xi’An, capital of Shaanxi, and a city world-renowned for the Terracotta Army.

At first glance Xi’An is not exactly winning any beauty contests. As expected of a city with a growing population of 8.7 million people, it has plenty of skyscrapers and ongoing building development. Most of the landscape passing us by on the train today was hidden from sight by a thick blanket of grey fog and Xi’An is much the same. While the air pollution may be why so many (usually older) Chinese love, and I mean really love, to hock a loogie (loudly clear their throats and spit out the contents), it does not however explain why they also burp and fart in public with impunity (men AND women), or smack their lips when they eat, or devour whole pieces of raw garlic, but let’s not digress.

Our hotel, So Young, is situated on the 12th floor of an apartment complex inside the old town square with views over the city. It has a rooftop bar with two resident cats, and our comfortable room even has a television with pretty terrible but funny shows airing on the state channel CCTV.

Our view from the room.
Some interesting wiring next to our hotel.

It’s still quite early in the afternoon once we’ve made some plans for the next few days, so it’s time to head out and get a bit more feel for Xi’An. Similar to our previous stops of Beijing and Pingyao, Xi’An is a city which has a long and rich history. Though under various different names it was the capital city of some of the most important dynasties in Chinese history, including Zhou, Qin, Han, Sui and Tang, and is therefore named one of four Great Ancient Capitals of China. It is also the eastern terminus of the Silk Road and, as mentioned, home of the Terracotta Warriors, made during the Qin dynasty.

With over 3,100 years of history in Xi’An we assume that here might be a good place to browse around a few antiques markets but are left wanting. In place of shops and stalls we find a building site for what no doubt will be another skyscraper or apartment building. Sad, but perhaps no surprise as in recent years Xi’An, as part of the economic revival of interior China, has re-emerged as an important center for research and development, national security and space exploration.

Change is made rapidly in Xi’An and that which used to be is easily forgotten, as even the locals seem confused to find there ever was an antiques market in the place we’re standing. Lauren uses an app, which translates written English to Chinese characters and spoken Chinese back to English, which has been very handy. While one guy is helping us, a bystander joins in and soon they’re arguing over where the market may have gone. After ten minutes we’re none the wiser, so we thank them both for their efforts and decide to give up on this one, but the two men, perfect strangers before they met today, walk away as friends, chatting happily to eachother! Not such a bad result for an afternoon.

On our way back we find the pub street with Old Henry’s Bar, where we’re hoping to watch the Rugby on Sunday, and we end our day with street food from the Muslim Quarter. This network of streets offers all kinds of delicious foods which are prepared on the spot and is popular with both tourists and locals. You can find anything here, from fresh juices to spicy tofu to whole crab kebabs. We try out the Rou Jia Mo, or meat-in-a-bun, which tastes an awful lot like stovies, before some candied apple on a stick and frozen rice candy. Though satisfied for today we’re sure to return here later to try a few other things.

We’re saving the Terracotta for after the weekend to avoid some of the crowd, so on Saturday we go out to visit the Big Wild Goose Pagoda.

As part of the Da Ci’en Temple of Great Kindness and Grace, this Buddhist pagoda was originally built during the Tang Dynasty for the study of Buddhist scriptures, then following an earthquake in 1556 it was renovated during the Ming dynasty. Today the temple complex is still in use by monks.

Interesting about the Pagoda’s architecture is that its 7 storeys are built with layers of bricks without cement, in bracket style.

The Pagoda is closely connected to China’s Silk Road, as in 652 AD, the temple’s first abbott Master Xuanzang brought the precious sutra and other relics from India along the Silk Road to China and translated the valuable Buddhist text here, to be kept safe inside the Pagoda.

Monks carrying treasure up to the Pagoda.
Temple wall depicting Silk Road.
Throwing coins into the big teapot for good luck.

In the afternoon we explore the town centre. In Chinese history from Ming Dynasty each city had a Drum Tower and a Bell Tower. In old times the bell was sounded at dusk and the drum at dawn.

Xi’An Drum Tower

The Da Ci’en temple has their own smaller version of these towers, which were used to give the monks instructions throughout the day, and we find out what they look like on the inside.

Big drum and walls covered in resonating plates. The sound is supposed to resemble a lion’s roar.

On Sunday we’re taking it easy with a nice leisurely stroll along the city wall. Known as the Fortifications of Xi’An, the wall encloses an area of about 14 square km and is one of the oldest, largest and best preserved city walls in China. Built in the 14th century as a military defense system, it still exhibits the complete features of the rampart architecture of feudal society.

Typical Xi’An day with low levels of visibility.

There are four gates in total of which the south gate is the largest and most decorated. Each gate has three gate towers, called Zhenglou, Jianlou and Zhalou. The outermost gate is Zhalou, used to raise and lower the suspension bridge. Jianlou is the middle gate with small windows on its front and sides, and was used as defensive lookout. Zhenglou, the inner gate, is the main entrance to the city. The Jianlou and Zhenglou are connected by the wall. Soldiers were stationed in the area between these towers, called Wong Cheng.

Eastern Zhenglou with sloped horse passages leading up from Wong Cheng.
Eastern Jianlou.
View from one of the front windows at eastern Jianlou.

The vantage point of the city wall provides an interesting contrast between the old and the new city.

We finish our walk at the main gate on the south side of the wall.

Traditional neighbourhood viewed from the south wall.
Southern Zhenglou and Jianlou.
South gate entrance

The Terracotta Army

We’re saving the best for last with our visit to the Terracotta Army, a massive collection of clay statues from the late 3rd century BCE, which has captivated audiences all over. Here in Lintong County, just outside Xi’An, they were discovered by local farmers back in 1977, and have since been displayed throughout the entire world.

The Terracotta Army depicts the armies of Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China, and were buried alongside him to protect the emperor in the afterlife. It is estimated that the three pits containing the Army hold more than 9,000 figures.

The figures vary in height according to their roles, with the tallest being the generals. They include warriors, chariots and horses. Other, non-military figures, such as acrobats and musicians, were also found.

The wooden chariots have all disintegrated.

Each figure is uniquely different and some even bear the artist’s signature.

Excavation work is still being carried out, even during our visit. Every complete figure has been painstakenly re-assembled usually from hundreds of broken pieces. Esspecially the faces require a lot of restoration, which is why a lot of figures are currently headless.

I can definitely recommend visiting Xi’An, we’ve had a great time here and the Terracotta Warriors have been a big highlight for us on our China trip! Tomorrow we’re taking the slow train eastward to Luoyang in the Henan province, another one of the Four Great Ancient Capitals of China.

Visit to Turtle City

Pingyao, 9-10 October

Our first stop after Beijing is one of China’s four best preserved old cities, the Ancient City of Pinyao, famed for its Ming and Qing urban planning and architecture, temples, and a grand City Wall.

Located roughly 600 km southwest of the capital in the central Shanxi Province, Pingyao was first recorded around 800 BC and considered an important financial centre of the Qing Empire in the late 19th century, controlling most of China’s silver trade. In 1997, together with the nearby temples of Shuanglin and Zhenguo, it was inscribed a world cultural heritage.

Pingyao is called Turtle City because of its city wall. Along the wall are six gates, four of which are symmetrically placed on the east and west sides to resemble the turtle’s legs. The Southern and Northern Gate are its head and tail respectively, while the crisscrossing lanes of the city form the patterns on the turtle’s shell.

It’s cold and dreary when we step off the train at Pingyaogucheng train station, but a bus is stood waiting to take us to our hotel without delay. Though Pingyao is a quiet city of only 50.000 people there’s four lanes leading to and away from town. There’s no such thing as small in China. In 30 minutes we arrive at Jiaxin Guesthouse, which is full of character and settle in quickly.

The next morning we set out to visit a few sights. The driver of bus 108 is a total badass playing loud drum ‘n’ bass and smoking cigarettes from behind the wheel. Without much trouble we make it to Shuanglin Temple, a large Buddhist temple founded in the 6th century and notable for its collection of over 2,000 decorated clay statues from the Song, Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties. We’re about the only people here and have a great time checking out all the incredibly detailed and lifelike sculptures. This would have to be one of my favourite stops so far.

After the polished, restored ancient buildings in Beijing it is welcome to see a temple both well-preserved and well-worn over time, rather than done up. And one that isn’t overrun with other tourists either!

After such a great morning it shouldn’t be a surprise that the other sights in the Ancient Town are a little underwhelming. Pingyao is pretty touristic and there’s more shops than actual sights. In fact, every building that’s in a good nick is either a shop or restaurant, and everything that’s not a shop or restaurant is a total wreck. It makes for a nice afternoon stroll nonetheless before we head back to the hotel to plan our next trip to Xi’An, home of the Terracotta Army.