All-China Tour: Xi’an

All-China Tour: Xi’an

Years ago, I had one of those Dorling-Kindersley eyewitness discovery books on ancient China (I also had one about ancient Egypt, crystals and gems, spies, and polar expeditions, but none of this blog deals with that). I remember reading about the terracotta warriors of Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi’s tomb, among other things. I could not have made a trip to China without making this very important stop.

Xi’an ended up being the last stop before returning to Beijing on my trip. I’d originally planned to go up to Datong to see the stunning Yungang Caves, but ended up cutting that out in favor of streamlining the rest of my trip. It only took 3 hours on the train from Lanzhou instead of 5 or 7 as expected. I’d had time estimates when planning the trip, but they were seldom accurate. It was a nightmare trying to get metro tickets in the crowded train station. Some girl tried to help me find my hostel but led me in exactly the wrong direction; I’m dumb but I can at least read a map. My hostel was another one of the best hostels I’ve ever stayed in, with super helpful staff, a great bar/café, and great events and tours available. After I checked in and booked my warriors tour, I got a banana milkshake and Hawaiian pizza at the bar. I walked around a while afterward, to the bell and drum towers, and out to the city walls. I quickly got overwhelmed by the crowds and went back.

The hostel had this make-your-own breakfast situation which was not unlike those I encountered at hostels in Australia. I was the only one from my hostel going on the tour, so I had to go over to a neighboring hostel to catch the bus. Our tour guide’s name was Jaja and I made a French friend named Maelle. It’s nice to have somebody to make snide comments to when you’re on a tour (or ultimately to notice if you’re missing and stop the group from leaving without you). First, we saw the “tomb”of the first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huangdi, after whom China was named. I say tomb in quotes because we know it’s there underground, but it’s just a forested hill from ground level. You can’t actually see the tomb because the emperor deliberately poisoned the land with a mercury “river” to keep out tomb robbers. The land is so toxic that archaeologists still aren’t sure how they can excavate it safely. The stop on the tour is about a mile away from the hill, in front of a stone obelisk proclaiming the tomb site. Jaja explained you can take a golf cart tour closer, but you’re only going to see more forest.

Emperor Qin started planning his tomb long before his death, like many Egyptian pharaohs. He built a full-scale palace underground, filled worldly goods, models of animals and servants, and the mercury river running through the courtyard. Guarding this ghostly palace was an army of terracotta warriors, protecting him even in the afterlife. It was thought that each warrior was modeled after a different soldier, but we can’t know for sure. Out of the three excavation pits, the first is the most impressive. Out of 8,000 total warriors, only 2,000 are assembled, and archaeologists think it will take another 130 years to assemble them all. In the daytime, the aircraft hangar-like space is inundated with tourists, and at night the archaeologists get to work. I cannot describe – despite the insane crush of people clamoring around – the feeling of seeing the warriors excavation site in person after reading about it as a kid. It felt a bit like coming around full-circle. After we emerged from the “pits,” we had a traditional Chinese buffet lunch, complete with the lazy-Susan of dishes and bright yellow buckwheat tea. As if the day weren’t perfect enough, we got an impromptu tea tasting as we waited for the bus to come.

Back at the hostel, after naptime and coffee, they held what was called a “dumpling party” at the hostel café. Although I thought it would be more like all-you-can-eat dumplings, it was actually a dumpling-making class. You’ve gotta work for these dumplings. It ended up being more fun that way. After I’d had my fill, I met Maelle back at her hostel, which had a proper UK-pub-feel, for some beers before sleep.

The next day was kind of a wash because my ankle was killing me. The plan was to climb nearby Huashan mountain, famous for its terrifyingly narrow walkways over gaping crevasses, but the bigger to-do was getting my train ticket back to Beijing, later than intended so I had to stay 2 additional nights. I went to the Muslim Quarter with Maelle for dinner and exploring, where we had those hamburger- flatbread-things that you’re supposed to get when you’re in that area. There were lots of books in the hostel book exchange so I was determined to finish my book so I would have a new one to take to Beijing. As it was, the book I got in Xi’an would be the one I took all the way back to the States with me.

The next day was a serious scorcher, but as my last full day in any city in China, I was determined to make the most of it. I went to the Big Goose Pagoda and walked the city walls in the shimmering heat. It was a bittersweet kind of day. I went to Three Sisters Dumplings on the way back, attempting to try a bunch of dumplings (this would have been easier with a bunch of friends so each could order a different kind and all share). As it was, I got a plate of 20 and had to be okay with that. I was all dumpling-ed out for a while.

The next day, I caught the train to Beijing to depart the day after that. All the boxes were checked, all the “T”s crossed and “I”s dotted, nothing left to do but make the long-postponed journey home.

Lanzhou << All-China Tour 2018 >>

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All-China Tour: Lanzhou

All-China Tour: Lanzhou

When I think back to my trip through China, the next two cities stuck in my mind the most: Lanzhou and Xi’an. While I was most nervous about the perceived remoteness of Zhangjiajie from everything else, the place with the greatest chance for error was Lanzhou. I vastly underestimated how commonly travelers visited this city, and wasted way too much time getting out there.

I’d never taken a sleeper train before, so I got some baozi buns and “groceries” for the ride. I had chosen my bunk earlier and unknowingly split up some family: two parents, a little girl, and their grandma. As in the parents and child were on the top bunks (there were only 4 bunks per compartment as opposed to the 6-bunk compartments elsewhere on the train) and I and the grandma were on the bottom bunks. I didn’t have faith in my ability to scale the ladders or steps in the middle of the night if I had to make a bathroom trip. As it was, I didn’t ever move from the bunk, anyway. I read for a while and it seemed like in no time at all I was arriving in Lanzhou. Easy.

Lanzhou was the last city remaining for which I didn’t have a Hostelworld-approved hostel. The hotel was quite far from the station, so I had to take a taxi. I got checked into my room even though it was only about 8, 9 am at this point. It seemed eerily quiet, like nobody else was staying there. (it was an off-season weekday, but it was still creepy the way the doors of unoccupied rooms gaped at me as I walked past.) I had thought, from the terrible translation of the booking site, that I was staying in a hostel with a 3-bed room. As such, I put all my stuff on one bed “””just in case””” more people would later occupy my room. (It turned out that I idiosyncratically reserved a 3-person room for myself, a move that probably generated more than a few eyebrow-raises). The design was nice, cement and pine wood with occasional splashes of color, tastefully if spartanly decorated. Most importantly, I got a bathroom and a shower to myself for the first time in weeks. The beds were super plush. After a call with my parents, I fell asleep for about 2 hours.

I had to get a taxi back to the train station to buy all the necessary tickets. It was impossible to get anywhere from my hotel without a taxi, except possibly by bus. I was recommended that I try the Lanzhou beef noodles. Luckily, “beef noodles” is one of the words I know in Chinese. I went to  some halal beef noodle place, surely offending the delicate sensibilities of the regular patrons, but then again,the little kid licking the sides of the questionably-clean tables was offending my sensibilities. I took another stop at an ATM and spent a long time trying to find a café that I’d found in the guidebook. I ended up not being able to find that one, but I finally found another, where I unfortunately got a hot americano instead of iced, which was less than a boon when I was so hot and sweaty walking around. I got some groceries for the next day’s trip and McDonald’s. Taking the taxi home, the opposite bank of the river was all lit-up like in Spirited Away.

The principal error in my coming to this city was that it was nowhere near the national park I was trying to get to. I had had plans, in staying there for 3 days, to go to the Zhangye Danxia park one day and the Labrang Monastery another day. Neither is close to Lanzhou. This kind of folly is akin to staying in NYC and expecting to make a day trip to Boston one day and then to DC the next, while returning to NYC in the middle. Foolish. I never made it to the Labrang Monastery, unfortunately.

My train left at 8:30 in the morning and I had a return train at 5:50. As the train journey went on, it got foggier and colder. While it was summer weather in Lanzhou, out on the edges of the Gobi Desert, when I finally got to Zhangye town, it was damn cold and I had only worn shorts. I was also despairing because there must be nothing to see, whether because of fog or dust storms or whatever, the visibility was horrible. Besides that, I realized it was quite far to the park from the station, which I had not accounted for in planning.

Some dude had a sign that had the character for people and said my destination, Zhangye Danxia National Geopark, so I super foolishly asked if I could join. Somehow, he said yes. We hopped in a bus with other Chinese tourists and we went for food. I got to try those little fish-shaped noodles that Zhangye town is apparently famous for and had an amusing conversation in broken English and a little Chinese with some old ladies in the group. We had to stop at the travel agency to rig the whole situation. This tour group leader seriously could have told me no and I would have had to huddle in the station for 5 hours in the cold, not seeing anything. He really bent over backward for me to get to see this park. Was it worth it?

Because my departure time was way earlier than the rest were scheduled to get back to their hotel, one of the other travel agency guys actually drove me to the park and helped me buy a ticket. Since I was “””part of a group,””” I got a slightly discounted price.Through google translate, the guide explained how to use the hop-on, hop-off bus to get around the park. The park is huge, so you could never just walk around. The main draw here is the stunning colorful layers in the rocks, layers upon layers of geological history folded and eroded so lovingly.

Even though it was cloudy and grey and the colors weren’t as vivid as they would have been on a sunny day, it was still amazing to see the park. I appreciated it even more, almost, that there were so few people that day. I don’t think I could have handled it on a full-summer day with as many people as the Yuyuan Gardens in Shanghai, jostling for a good picture.

I was nervous that I wouldn’t get back to the guide’s car on time, but I ended up having plenty of time to spare. So much, in fact, that he tried to take me back to see the attached geological museum and get me to take pictures in front of the obelisk at the entrance to the park. We had to wait for some other guys in another tour to get back to the tour, and then we were back off to the train. When I arrived back in the hostel, the girl at the front desk seemed horrified that she would have to try to speak English to me and confused as to why I was there. Flashing my card,she was relieved that she didn’t have to do any of that. I did not succeed in finding ramen to eat for dinner, so I nommed on snacks I’d brought from other cities and fell asleep quickly.

The next day after social media bingeing, checking out, and taxiing to the train station, I succeeded in getting some coffee before I left. A lot of this trip was me not succeeding in finding food for long periods of time, followed by big noodle meals at times, but I survived somehow.

Chengdu << All-China Tour 2018 >> Xi’an

All-China Tour: Chengdu

All-China Tour: Chengdu

Last night, I was served some Facebook ad about a travel company with all-inclusive trips to different countries around the world. Out of curiosity, I looked up their all-China trip, and I’ll definitely say I’m proud of how much more comprehensive mine was. Yes, there were far more moments of uncertainty, much more wandering around unfamiliar streets, retracing my steps, or blundering my way through food orders or taxi directions. But I did it my way, and it was awesome.

Chengdu was a relatively short stop on the trip, but it served as a microcosm for almost all of the highs and lows that could be found in a trip. Some spectacular high points, and some demoralizing lows.

After that 10-hour bus ride to Chongqing, anything shorter than that seemed like a steal.. The hostel front desk girls advised me that I shouldn’t go to Panda Base, the main attraction in Chengdu, that day as all the pandas would be asleep by that time. I went anyway. I didn’t see how I could figure in a time to go with what I had planned the next day, and it seemed a pretty straight shot with subways and the free shuttle. Panda Base is part zoo, part research facility centered around breeding and raising pandas. Since it’s hard for pandas to breed in the wild (as we learned, it’s because they’re lazy AF and they hate to waste the energy), all of the best scientific minds are directed at this task. It’s a big area for so few pandas, but I did see more pandas in one day than I ever have, including lots of cute, floppy baby pandas and some red pandas, too. (16 pandas and 2 red pandas)

I had trouble getting the free shuttle back, so I ended up taking a taxi back. After a nap, I went up to the hostel’s nice indoor-outdoor rooftop café area for a barbecue. The barbecue consisted of choosing your meat or veggie skewers, and then somebody else would cook them for you. While I went with neither the intention of talking to people nor the idea that I should be alone, a gaggle of Chinese students talked to me for a while. It seemed like an assignment that they were fulfilling, but recently retired from English teaching, it wasn’t too much trouble to oblige. After I’d had my fill, I retreated inside to have beer and watch Netflix, but didn’t get very far with that, on account of both the internet connection and beer being bad.

That night, I woke up to silent trembling of the bunk bed. What it felt like, unmistakably, was somebody retching and trying to throw up silently. I was suddenly wide awake, but I dared not look down. A few minutes of retching and shaking later, and there came the sound of splashing on the floor. I tried to breathe out my mouth and fall back asleep.

This was such a vivid memory that I couldn’t have dreamt it, but when I woke up in the morning and looked over the edge of my bunk, it was just as spotlessly clean as the night before.

I should say something about this hostel, because it’s one of the best I stayed at. Here, the staff were all really helpful (and one even went with me to help me buy train tickets), the food was great, and the beds were comfy. The cafe area was nice and had lots of books for me to read. Finally, the panda motifs on our floor were super charming.

The plan for that day was to go to Le Shan, see the Big Buddha, return to Chengdu (Le Shan is really not all that far from Chengdu), and go to Wouhou Temple and eat at the vegetarian restaurant there. My time getting to and from Le Shan ruined most of my day and any possibility of doing anything after. After breakfast at the hostel café and getting help buying train tickets to Le Shan and the next city, Lanzhou, I got on the train to Le Shan, taking a taxi from the station to the park, and arrived in the early afternoon. It was Sunday so the park was packed to the gills, and the only solace I got that afternoon is that I got a slightly-cheaper ticket with my Yonsei student ID. That’s it.

To get to the big buddha, first you walk up the hill to look at the top of buddha’s head and his face. Then, if you’re brave enough to face the crowds and interminable lines, you head down the steep stone steps to his feet, where you can truly get a sense for how big the buddha is. It’s cool and all walking around the buddha’s head, seeing how tall his ears are, but the wait and consequent slow slog down the steps took almost an hour, jostling in the hot sun with other tourists, many of whom were all-too-unconcerned about lawfully staying in the line like they’re supposed to. I’m sure the stairs would be scary if you were going down them quickly, but at a granny’s pace, the only danger is not tripping, falling, and knocking over a whole elderly group. I hesitate to say it was “worth it” when you get to the bottom of buddha’s feet and look up, but it was an awe-inspiring sight. Apparently it’s even cooler from a river cruise vantage point, but it’s something to not even measure up to the top of buddha’s toes, when you know you were standing at eye-level not too long before.

The trip back to Chengdu was unexpectedly awful. I hiked back up to buddha’s head and out of the park, okay no problem. I took a free shuttle back to what I thought was the station. There are three stations in Le Shan on the four sides of a kilometer-wide square. I saw the bus station on the other side of the square, so I walked the kilometer across the square. As I tried to figure out if I could get back to Chengdu from there, I was harassed by taxi drivers the entire time. I ascertained that I couldn’t get back from the bus station, try the coach (bus) station, which was back on the other side of the square. One kilometer later and I’m exhausted and frustrated, so they offer me an immediate ticket back to Chengdu, as in I’m the last person on the bus and immediately thereafter the bus departs. I was just reading, so I didn’t notice anything until the bus stopped and everyone got off.

We had landed in the suburbs somewhere, which I think ended up being north of Chengdu. I just wanted to get to a subway station and get home for a meal. I was harassed by taxi drivers again, and this time I wasn’t able to repeat my trick of getting directions from a driver without getting a ride. I finally relented, but the driver was extremely confused about the address I had given, even though it had both a metro station and a street address written in Chinese for him. Was I in the right city at all or was I even more lost? Another driver leaned in the passenger seat and started arguing loudly with him as I attempted, with google translate, to explain where I’m going. At this point, anywhere within Chengdu will be fine. Chinese men have this way of talking which sounds very scary to travelers where it sounds like they’re angry yelling, but really that’s just having a normal conversation. I got into another taxi and I’m sure that I’m going to die, as this driver has convinced me out of the legit-looking taxi and into his relatively unmarked car. This, for the record, is one of the dumbest things I did in my whole trip. The ride was probably more expensive than it should have been, but the relief I felt at arriving back in Chengdu was unparalleled. (After I got back, I tweeted something along the lines of, “didn’t die in the taxi today so that’s a win for me!” and sent all my friends and family into a tizzy.)

I’d intended to go out and explore for dinner, but I hadn’t the physical or emotional energy to make myself move from the hostel, so I caught a Tsingtao and bacon fried rice for dinner in the hostel café and collapsed into bed.

The trip to Lanzhou is long, an overnight train, so I didn’t have to leave until after 8pm the next night. As such, I had most of a day to kill. I had a notion to go explore some museums, but many museums are closed on Mondays in China. (It was a Monday.) I took a walk through Citizens’ Park, where a lot of people were gathered on a huge patio at little tables, eating, drinking tea, playing cards, getting their ears cleaned. I bought some panda merch and walked a while in the Wide and Narrow Alleys. This one was considerably more bougee and less solo traveler-friendly than the pedestrian areas I’d been to in other cities, but I did manage to get a gelato there. I returned to the hostel for a burger and Tsingtao, found a new book to read, and then finally shipped out to the train station for the next city.

Chongqing << All-China Tour 2018 >> Lanzhou

All-China Tour: Chongqing

All-China Tour: Chongqing

Last January, I watched the iconic Hong Kong movie “Chungking Express” for the first time. Although I appreciated the aesthetic, I still can’t necessarily tell you what that’s about. I’m not a “”film person”” and it usually takes more than a week to watch a movie on my own because I don’t have the attention span.

That being said, the mere mention of Chongqing had me wanting to visit there on my grand tour. It’s not easy to get anywhere from Zhangjiajie, but it’s really not easy to get to Chongqing from there. I was quite proud that I’d managed to get what I’d thought was a train ticket to Chongqing so easily. Well, it was actually a bus ticket, and the bus’s predicted duration was 10 hours. I sat in the front and somehow managed to put myself in a trance-like state, barely eating or drinking anything the whole time because I didn’t know how often we would stop. Somehow between the mountain tunnels and dozing off and on, I managed to finish another book. When I arrived in Chongqing, I had to battle a bunch of taxi drivers not to drive me. The most memorable thing from that night was lugging my tired self and two backpacks up these steep, wide stairs lined with noodle shops. The bus station was at the bottom and the metro stop at the top of the stairs; no way around it. But not a fun way to end the day, drenched in sweat.

As always, I had big plans for my only full day in Chongqing. There were lots of things to do, like the Dazu Buddhist caves, taking a river walk or cruise, ancient city gates, or eating some spicy noodles for which the city is famous. I only did one of these things.

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After breakfast and sticking around the hostel for way too long, I finally went out to hunt for a good view of the iconic bridge or the city gates. I don’t think I ever found it, and after a long time of walking and wandering around an unsettlingly new shopping mall, I finally found my way to the Luohan temple, which was under construction. It was still pretty aesthetic, though, in a crumbling pastel walls, faded figurines, and hanging vines kind of way. A monk gave me some incense and a candle to light on the way in, and it was nice to feel like I had “found” something that I’d been looking for, for once.

Intending to go back for a nap, I ended up having coffee in a shop across the street from my hostel instead and reading. The view was nice and peaceful, but I could tell that my area wouldn’t be hopping until much later. As such, I made myself leave again. I knew that would be the end for me if I actually returned for a nap.

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I headed to an area called Ciqikou, which I thought would be quite similar to Nanjing’s Laomendong neighborhood, or Shanghai’s Tianzifang. However, Ciqikou was an infinite improvement on the first two. My only regret here was that I was alone, and such a woefully inadequate Chinese speaker, because every single place I passed seemed like a cute little hole-in-the-wall restaurant with live musicians playing in every one. The vibe here was a cross between surf shack and Chinese punk rock. I was enthralled, but still too nervous to go in. I couldn’t even tell if the places were bars, restaurants, or cafes. There were also lots of little boutiques selling jewelry and accessories and stalls selling strings of peppers so hot it made your eyes water just to smell them. On the way back, I bought a pineapple on a stick as an ode to the movie, and also to my friend who had said that day that “it’s a perfect day to eat pineapple.”

After I came back and showered, I finally put my laundry in to wash. I had this system of plastic vacuum bags for clean clothes and one single Gudetama drawstring bag for dirty clothes. So every time that bag got too filled I would have to do laundry. While I waited, I ended up talking with some Cantonese Australian dude. It was refreshing to share my experiences with another English speaker after a few days of talking to almost no one. You really get into your head at those times. He was trying to convince me to go to the night markets with him, but I couldn’t leave until my laundry was done, and he was unwilling to wait that long. I was not too pressed, watching a new 5 Seconds of Summer video as I hung my laundry on the communal drying racks.

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I went out myself to the night markets, and found the spicy noodles. I can’t tell you how I was able to order them, but somehow they were able to understand exactly what I wanted, the numbing spice noodles. It’s a little like drinking windex at first, but I love that flavor. To calm my screaming tastebuds I got a bubble tea afterward, walked around, and then headed back to the hostel to crash.

While this hostel didn’t have much to recommend it in terms of sleeping arrangements, it did boast an impressive collection of common spaces with a great variety of ports for charging your devices, plenty of recommendations on where to go, and books to trade.

The next morning I got breakfast and took all my stuff out to the hall to pack, on account of all the crinkly bags. I got a taxi to the railway station, thinking I would be late, but ended up having plenty of time to spare. Chongqing started out kind of rocky, but I ended up making something of it. In contrast, Chengdu ended up being one of my favorite stops on the trip.

Zhangjiajie << All-China Tour 2018 >> Chengdu

All-China Tour: Zhangjiajie

All-China Tour: Zhangjiajie

In my original trip plans, I would stay 2 nights in Changsha and only one in Zhangjiajie. As I sat at my hostel café in Qingdao and later Shanghai, I didn’t see how I would be able to do a full day of hiking in Zhangjiajie without getting there the night before; it was one of the most remote locations I visited. Most of my fears centered around making it to the park, hiking to the top, and getting back to my hostel in one piece. Real talk: the only reason I wanted to go to Changsha is because it’s Zhang Yixing’s hometown.

I ended up going to Changsha for a bit anyway. Since there were no direct trains or buses from Shanghai to Zhangjiajie, I had about 4 hours to burn between trains. I walked around and stumbled upon an ahjumma’s shop, where I had some wonderful kind of beef-pepper rice bowl. I hung out in McDonald’s for an ice cream sundae and iced tea, even though I could never succeed in connecting to their wifi (both Starbucks and McDonald’s require you to have a Chinese phone number to connect to wifi, so I was SOL). The train trip to Zhangjiajie was stressful to say the least: loud notifications, little kids running around screaming, some dude’s movie playing with the sound at full volume. I finished my book 2 hours in and just had to stew in my worries for the remaining 4 hours, unable to sleep because of the noise and bright train lights. Most of those worries stemmed from the fact that I was using the most terribly incomplete map to find my hostel and no directions.

When I arrived in Zhangjiajie city, I actually asked a taxi driver to help me line up the map with my actual position. The walk from the station wasn’t all that long, distance-wise, but the hostel was set back in a confusing maze of streets, and I walked past it several times before eventually finding the right street. Let’s underscore: it is an absolute marvel that I managed to find this hostel given the map I had to work with. The hostel itself was pretty bare bones, but it’s all you need as a crash pad before and after hiking.

In the morning, I got a very decent breakfast and detailed instructions about visiting the park. For the record, this is the park on which the “floating mountains” in the movie Avatar were based. Even without that western pop culture context, though, they were a stunning natural phenomenon by themselves. I took the shuttle bus to the national park. Even with my student ID from Yonsei, it was still 160 yuan for entry. On the way up, I got attacked by some monkeys who were drawn to the swinging shiny things on my backpack and the promise of food. I let out the most ungodly shriek, amusing some old guys having their lunch in the main square. The hikers going up the mountain thinned out almost immediately. It was clear that most people would rather take a bus up to the top to see the sights instead. The hostel front desk guy had actually given me such thorough instructions that I felt that there was less potential for error in hiking than trying to ride the buses. It was about 3 hours to the top, where the jaw-dropping sights seemed unending. Palanquin chairs carried by teams of two kept passing by me, trying to get me to take a ride, but I was there for hiking, after all.

You can tell you’re nearing the top (the “Ecstasy Terrace” is the main draw here) from the sound. The crush of all the humans is almost deafening, but the sights are worth it. It’s a place where, if you weren’t surrounded by clouds of fellow tourists from around the world, you could sit there and gaze at the huge granite pillars rising up out of the mist for hours on end. Unfortunately, “ain’t nobody got time for that!”

I looked for a bus to take me to other sites, but when I saw the lines, I balked. I had seen what I came to see. Some taxi drivers harassed me to get a ride, and I, nearly in tears, resolved to hike down the way I came. Ironically, I didn’t get lost on the way there or back, but wandering around the terraces on the top of the mountain. Surrounded by hundreds of others, I felt more lost there than when I was in the woods alone hiking. Another stunning site I saw was the “first natural bridge,” a naturally-occurring arch hundreds of feet of the ground, protected by a man-made pathway on top of it and decorated by red ribbons with prayers written on them. I was wary going over this bridge, despite my geology knowledge. How many people go across this bridge every day? Was it made to withstand this kind of traffic or would today be the day it says, “enough!!”

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I took the way down at a much faster clip. I was all-too-aware that the last bus for Zhangjiajie city left at around 6, and the changing light made me nervous. I got to the bus with plenty of time to spare. There ended up only being 3 people on the ride back, bouncing over potholes of construction for an hour on the way back. I was wondering what I should eat for dinner on the way back to the hostel when some lady pulled me into her restaurant. It was a large family-style restaurant, and I was pretty stinky from hiking all day, but she seemed not to mind. She seated me at the other side of a big table where another foreigner had been similarly coerced into coming in. It was here that I had the best meal of my whole time in China. I wish I knew what it was called, but it consisted of this roast pork with black beans, so soft it came apart so easily in your chopsticks, rice that came in a big thermos-looking-thing, and as much bright-yellow buckwheat tea as we could drink.

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The street outside on the walk back to my hostel was sticky for about 500 meters. I don’t want to know why. When I got back, I showered and went to bed early, and headed out after breakfast the next day, armed with a new book.

Shanghai << All-China Tour 2018 >> Chongqing

All-China Tour: Shanghai

All-China Tour: Shanghai

Last year, some friends of mine went to go teach in Shanghai after being in Seoul for more than two years. After some mishaps with their new school (mostly due to an illegal bait-and-switch scheme on the employer’s part), they returned after about a week to Seoul. Shanghai is the biggest and best city in China, most people say, but the friends sparing in their praise about it. Many advised me not to take such a long trip in China in the first place, and certainly not to see any more than the bare minimum of sights and major cities. After a long stay in Shanghai, I moved west to the more remote areas in China, far less well-trodden than the coastal cities I’d visited thus far.

The train from Nanjing to Shanghai, now that I was not actively becoming sick like the last train journey, was far shorter and easier this time. I would have to decide how long I would ultimately stay in Shanghai and whether to skip the next city or two on the way west. The subway from the train station proved to be easy, easier than Beijing, but crowded because it was rush hour time. It was also easy to find the hostel (it’s painted bright orange). I searched the neighborhood for food, but ended up getting McDonald’s as everything was closed even at 8:30. It was a residential kind of  area where I was staying. At Macca’s, there was this stunningly ridiculous black-cone, matcha-syrup oreo ice cream sundae mess which, of course, I had to buy. It was too sweet, but it looked like Halloween, so I couldn’t not get it.

This hostel, too, was one of the best hostels I’ve ever stayed at. Great café with a beautiful common area, easily accessible, and knowledgeable staff. In addition, it seemed to be a traveler’s kind of hostel. Behind the desk were scores and scores of China, Shanghai, Beijing, Tibet, and other travel guidebooks, all in different languages. There was a noticeboard filled with posters and business cards of similarly famous hostels in different cities around the world. In addition, one of my goals for a trip like this was to bring a book, finish the book along the trip, and trade that book at the hostel. This hostel was the first one where I actually finished my book (Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84) and got to trade, even though most of the books there were in German, French, or Chinese and almost none in English.

While in Qingdao, at the beer museum actually, I stumbled on a phenomenal piece of good luck. I was scrolling through facebook in a rare moment of wifi access when I saw one of my friends from high school’s post. He was in Shanghai? Had he been here this whole time? I messaged him to find out. He told me we could meet up when I got to Shanghai, and to ask him for any advice I might need.

My first full day in Shanghai, the plan was to meet with that friend, Nick and check out some museums. I didn’t have much of a breakfast because I just snacked on things I’d picked up at the convenience store. I became addicted to this “salt” lemonade (maybe the salt was electrolytes?) during this trip, and it sustained me on many long days.

The first stop was the Shanghai Museum. In many ways this museum was better and more impressive than the museum in Beijing. There were many more facets of Chinese art history covered here (compared to some of the more propaganda-like communist art exhibits in the Beijing museum), and I enjoyed the exhibits on carved name stamps and clothes from ethnic minorities from Tibet, Mongolia, and elsewhere. I had some moments of pause here because I saw some art pieces (particularly a centuries-old painted stoneware pillow) that I distinctly remembered from a book on China that I had when I was a kid. How surreal to read about something like that in childhood and get to see it in person years later! But, I suppose, that was the point of the trip.

The second stop of the day was the Shanghai Urban Planning museum, which was a cool combination of maps, old and new photos, dioramas, and interactive exhibits. There was this unreal model of the city that lit up with the different buildings and rivers; it took up an entire floor of the museum and you could walk around it to see it from different angles. It was fascinating to see how much Shanghai has changed in such a short time—the comparisons are truly jaw-dropping.

I met my friend Nick in People’s Square. It’d been so long since I’d seen him, and I was a bit jealous to find a friend who seemed to have his life so well figured out, to find a place that suited him so well. He certainly has a very solid and comfortable niche carved out for himself in the city, and intends to make it his forever home. We got bubble tea, walked through the park, and tried Yang’s fry dumplings. We walked through Nanjing Road to see the Bund, the famous riverfront park where everybody has to take their selfies with the new and bright buildings on one side and the historic buildings on the other.

There were some banking issues that I wanted to resolve, and mostly these stemmed from using the wrong ATMs and the fact that my bank didn’t know I would be in China. When I got back to the hostel, I asked the front desk girl where an ATM was, which she readily told me, but after an hour of walking around, I never found it.

I don’t know how I planned to stay only three days in Shanghai. There was a lot to do and I didn’t nearly touch the half of it. I’d seen some truly lovely pictures of Yuyuan Garden and bazaar, so it was my plan to go there. I didn’t consider two things: 1) that Yuyuan gardens is one of those crazy-busy places all the time, like Myeongdong in Seoul, and 2) that the day I was planning to visit was a Saturday. When I arrived, it was so crowded at the bazaar, when I finally made it to the entrance of the gardens, I didn’t even go inside. Something for the next trip.

A highlight of the Shanghai stay was the art compound M50. It took a while to find, but the walls covered in graffiti led the way like blazes in the forest. It was a very avant-garde complex set in an old factory with spaces set up for each artist or group of artists. Some were active studio spaces, others were galleries, some were installations, and some were a mix of all of them. There were little cafes and restaurants hidden in some of the spaces, too. I had some curry rice for lunch while I took some wifi. In the evening I found the neighborhood called Tianzhifang, another one of those historical districts like Nanjing’s Laomendong where there are no cars and the houses are all in the old grey-brick modular style. It was crowded there, too, with an insane amount of bars, eateries, and boutiques crowded within the small space. I ate chips for dinner at the hostel and extended my stay.

The next morning after my social media binge over breakfast, I went to Jing’an Temple. This is definitely one of the more resplendent temples that I visited in China (some would argue that I left out some of the most stunning examples, but I tried my best), with beautiful wood carvings and plenty of gold-painted details. The contrast between the traditional temple and the modern glass skyscrapers behind is what I think China is all about. Visitors get to light incense and try to toss a coin into the bronze tower in the center of the courtyard. I think real monks live in the temple, but I’m not sure. I got pho for lunch near the station, and afterward got my tickets to Changsha at the railway station. The last stop of the day was the Rockbund Art Museum, which I ended up having a blast at. It was a really nice modern art museum, and the explanations for the choices in art works were really thoughtful, too. I got some cute stickers for my laptop there and got an iced americano at the museum café while I curated some photos for Instagram. The station closest to my hostel was Zhangshan Station, and in the food court of the station I finally got some xiaolongbao, soup dumplings. I think I could easily eat these soup dumplings every day and never get sick of them, and these were definitely some of the best. After dinner and a nap, I’d intended to go to another neighborhood called Xintiandi but I was too sleepy. I formed a “snack fortress” and chilled out in the hostel bar drinking tea and beer.

The last day in Shanghai was a non-starter day. I slept in, had a leisurely breakfast, and did my laundry. I tried to get the soup dumplings in Zhangshan station again, but it was too crowded at lunchtime so I lost my nerve. I went to Xintiandi, but that ended up being a more highbrow version of Tianzhifang, just a very upscale lifestyle center that just so happened to have these extremely pristine historical buildings. There were lots of chic-looking cafes and restaurants on the block, but not much to do in the way of entertainment. In the evening I had a long Netflix session, camping out on one of the couches in the hostel café. The normalcy of that was very comforting.

I slept terribly that night, so I woke up even before my 5:40AM alarm rang. I was packed up and checked out by 6. Of course, in order to do so I’d woken up the front desk guy sleeping in front of the door to give back my key. It’s a rough life for a hostel front desk worker on the overnight shift. I was at the train station ready for Changsha by 7, and one of the most surreal parts of my trip was yet to come.

Nanjing << All-China Tour 2018 >> Zhangjiajie

All-China Tour: Nanjing

All-China Tour: Nanjing

By now I’ve beaten to death that story about sleeping in the Nanjing airport. On the way to Shanghai, I decided that I would be remiss without giving it one more shot. I had made big plans about getting to Nanjing early enough to explore in the evening, but of course nothing ever goes as planned.

The Chinese countryside is beautiful and flat, and on this trip we passed by a giant golden Buddha on the hillside. That must have been pretty big to-do for many tourists, but I never found out what it was. I had some rough times on trains during this trip, but this might have been the worst one overall. Throughout the course of this 4-hour-or-so ride, I came down with a crushing fever. I pride myself on being strong, but it’s hard to lug a pack off the train when you’re not sure if you’ll collapse from fatigue or dehydration at any moment.

I immediately booked my ticket to Shanghai, but had trouble finding my hostel. It was hidden in the historical district, a maze of alleyways where no cars can go, so the closest subway stop is still pretty far. I was wandering around, close to tears, for maybe 30 minutes before I finally found it. It’s located behind/attached to a bar/café, and while I arrived early enough to explore the area, I barely had enough energy to spread out my blankets and get all my stuff out of my bag. I hadn’t eaten all day, but I just drank hot water while I watched figure skating. I also couldn’t get the VPN to update at that time, so I was without wifi. As a true millennial, that’s my sign to go to bed.

It would have been a wasted trip to the city if I woke up as sick as the night before. Why did I even try to come to Nanjing and put myself through extra stress?

Luckily, I woke up feeling much better. What a 180-degree turnaround from the night before! The sun in the enclosed patio felt great on my face as I ate my toast-and-latte breakfast and social-media binged. I didn’t have to ship out until later in the afternoon, so I had much of the morning to explore.

Nearby my hostel was the Zhonghua Gate, one of the ancient city gates around the walled city. While Beijing means northern capital, Nanjing is the southern capital, so these walls, built in the Ming Dynasty, were once very important in protecting the city. These are something like the best-preserved walls from that era in the whole country, as during the Mao era many ancient walls, monuments, and buildings were destroyed. In some cases, they even advocated using the stones from the ancient walls as free building materials, encouraging this pillaging as a patriotic activity. From the top of the wall, there is a stunning view of the city. On the one side, the historical district and surrounding parks, and on the other, skyscrapers as far as the eye can see.

The next thing on the plan was to see the Zhan Garden, which was part museum about the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom (a group of militant idealists tried to stage a rebellion and take over China; after a massive civil war, they lost), and one part beautiful manicured gardens.

The area I stayed in is called Laomendong, which is basically a historical district (like colonial Williamsburg in the U.S.) which is pedestrians-only, built in a distinctive grey-brick style with black-tile roofs. I had found a cool New Zealander burger place in the guidebook, but I couldn’t find it when I went walking around. This was not too much of a loss, because I got to walk all over the serene canal and explore all the backstreets while on the hunt. I ended up getting some kind of meatball soup in a back alley shop, which felt way more authentic anyway. The area was insanely photogenic, and there were lots of fashion bloggers and wedding photoshoots once again. I returned to the hostel for another latte (gotta take coffee where you can find it in China) and a spot of instagram before heading to Shanghai. I was glad that my second shot at Nanjing was not as disappointing as the first, and certainly that I didn’t stay sick the whole time. I would have missed out on a really cool city otherwise.

Qingdao << All-China Tour 2018 >> Shanghai