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!!”

zjj3

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.

zjj1

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 >>

Advertisements

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

All-China Tour: Qingdao

All-China Tour: Qingdao

After a late start missing my first flight to China, an unintended and expensive extra day in Beijing, and a single, dirty day in Jinan, I was truly despairing that this was a wasted trip and everything was going to be awful. Qingdao proved to be the turning point where I stopped considering leaving early and was actually glad I made the trip in the first place.

Alighting from the train at first, I was just glad to be gone from my terrible hostel in Jinan. Nothing puts a damper on your mood like knowing you have to stay in a deplorable hostel at the end of the night. This next hostel, Kaiyue International Hostel, (spoiler alert!!) was/is the best hostel I’ve ever stayed at to date. I’ll go into what I think makes a good hostel later. After checking in, a nap, and some coffee in the hostel café/bar, I had chosen some easy sights for that afternoon.

Qingdao has a really cool feel. Although it was colonized by different western nations at times, most of the buildings have a German kind of aesthetic. The streets are hilly and cobblestoned, and the hint of beach and forest in the air is irresistible. St. Michael’s Church sits up on a high hill. I wanted to go inside but, as it was Sunday, I was unsure about whether I’d be allowed in because of masses or other events. In the square between the church and its event hall, there are scores of couples, spaced a few meters apart, taking wedding photos.

I was generally heading in the direction of the sea, but the streets don’t all head down that way. I finally found Taiping Lu, the street bordering the beach, and made my way out to Hualian Pavilion, the little temple in the bay connected by a long bridge. It was pretty rainy, so I didn’t get to collect any sand from the beach this time. The plan was to go to Tianhou Temple too, but it was getting late and I lost my nerve. On the opposite side of the beach from the temple is this mod Sydney Operahouse-looking building. I was curious about it so I walked to go see it, but it turned out to be nothing of interest. I had read that the thing to eat was lamb skewers in Huangdao Market. I didn’t find the market but I did find the lamb, also picking up some Taiwanese roll-style ice cream on the way back. I rounded out the day with Tsingtao beers and reading in the café.

The next day I had grand plans to see Zhongshan Park (which I didn’t manage) before going to the Tsingtao museum and brewery tour. Tsingtao and Qingdao are just different ways of romanizing the city name, and Tsingtao is China’s most famous beer. This proved to be one of the highlights of the trip and certainly my main reason for coming to Qingdao. My overall track record with buses is not great, so while I got lost walking there, I found the museum eventually: it’s impossible to miss the big green Tsingtao beer cans like a beacon calling you in.

I walked through the museum instead of a tour: it seemed that I was the only English-language tourist there that day and I didn’t want to have to wait for other people to make a big enough group to get a tour. At the end of the tour, you get 4 glasses of beer (unfiltered, draft, IPA, and stout) and sit in the big beer hall. That day there were several tour-buses full of Chinese and Korean tour groups. The Chinese tour group at my table got huge pitchers of beer, each pouring out a full glass, taking one sip after a toast (just for a picture), and then abandoned the beer. I was scandalized! So much beer wasted! They say that the Tsingtao tastes best in the city of Qingdao, because the water is purer and they make the beer with different water in different cities and regions (.. I don’t know if that’s actually true, but that’s some kind of marketing that I fell for).

Near the museum is what is touted as the “beer street,” which I came to find was really a bunch of restaurants that serve Tsingtao beer. As I was walking through there at 1 or 2 pm, none of the restaurants were open yet, and looked intimidating to go into alone. After a long walk, I finally found myself back at Tianhou temple, which was built to pray for favorable winds and calm seas for sailors. Returning to the hostel, I intended to get more lamb skewers for dinner, but fate had other plans. Some ahjumma pulled me into her restaurant (a seafood restaurant, and I’m not a huge seafood fan), and I somehow ended up ordering a giant plate of 24 fish dumplings, drinking some beer, and watching EXO Tao’s (a Qingdao native) new drama on TV. I picked up some beer and snacks and chilled in the “meeting room” on the top floor of our hostel, overall a criminally underused space, probably because it was so cold at the time.

The next day, I planned to move onto beach town Yantai, but it would have added ages to the travel time to Nanjing and it was still too cold to go to the beach. Another plan was to go to Laoshan, yet another famous hiking mountain, but my ankles were feeling bad from all the walking so I decided to take it easy for the day. I extended another night at the hostel and used that time to do laundry, a saga that ended up taking more than 4 hours because of the terrible quality of the machines. On this day I mused that on a 30-day-long trip, you don’t have to do a major thing every day or walk 20,000 steps everyday or you’ll die. You need a rest day every once in a while.

Another odyssey was going out to buy the train tickets, which turned out to be the entirely opposite side of the train station from where I started. I got the most fantastic spicy noodles at a little place near the station. Some ahjusshi saw me and raised his little flask of vodka or whatever to me in a kind of toast, and I responded with my Tsingtao bottle the size of my head. I got some more cheeky snacks (including my favorite snack discovery in China, cucumber-flavored chips) and was reading in the meeting room, but when I ran out of beer I headed down to the restaurant for more. Several beers deep, I ended up job hunting and signing up for a 10k.

The next day after a long breakfast, I got the train for my second shot at Nanjing.

Jinan << All-China Tour 2018 >> Nanjing

All-China Tour: Jinan

All-China Tour: Jinan

One thing you must know about me is I’m an INTJ. I like to have plans. My friend Rachael would say that I’m no good at planning trips and stuff, but the plans are comforting to me nonetheless.

After 5 days in smoggy Beijing, I was ready to get out and see other cities. For my two days in Jinan, I had a few things to do. At this point in the trip, I did not yet have a firm grasp on what was doable yet while still fitting in travel between cities and hostel check-ins. That being said, I had planned to go to legendary hiking mountain Tai Shan one day, followed by philosopher Confucius’s hometown of Qufu on the next. I had already missed a day because of my Beijing mistake, and was determined to buy my tickets to the next city right away. I didn’t have time for hiking, but figured I could maybe visit the “Thousand-Buddha Mountain” that was nearby to Jinan in my day there.

Jinan was one of the few cities where I couldn’t find a hostel on hostelworld. This should have been a clue, but the site does at least a little bit of vetting before letting a place list on their site, and no hostels existed in Jinan. The hostel I found on another site had a cute lobby, sure, but it was my first experience with a hostel where absolutely nobody spoke English. Google translator helped. The bathroom was just a squat toilet, fine by itself, but it also smelled like a port-o-potty, absolutely nauseating, and we paid to use this toilet as part of the hostel. The rooms weren’t great, either. Before I even slept the night, I was glad to stay there only one night. Seeing the hostel really underscored my need to get out of there at the earliest possible moment. Luckily, the train station was not far away, so I got my next day’s ticket quickly, and followed that up with a lunch of the absolute worst beef noodles in my life.

The goal was to find the bus to Thousand Buddha Mountain. I don’t like buses in foreign countries in general (even in Korea, I’m too afraid I won’t hear the announcement for the stop and miss it. It happened once after a trip to Everland and added 2 hours to my trip home). I kept walking down this road and never ended up finding the stop. Truthfully, I was just looking for a large enough mall or a Starbucks in which to find a western-style toilet, but they were laughably hard to come by. After hours of walking, it seemed, I found my way to this big plaza. There’s a huge mall and conference centers there, and it finally felt like I was back in civilization after the horrors that my hostel presented.

As a disclaimer: Jinan might be a nice place to go for a business conference, if you’re staying at the nice hotel and having a catered event and hang out at the nice mall. The rest of the city, there aren’t as many low-budget options and is really hard to navigate around if you don’t speak Chinese.

I saw the Baotu Spring Park nearby, which was probably the highlight of the day. It was a lovely manicured Chinese garden with natural springs to see (not bathe in), and randomly a pond with seals (the animal) swimming around in it? Jinan was wild, y’all. The big plaza outside had a lot of kite fliers, and I finally found a bathroom in the mall beside it. I walked through the Yanhuchi Jie night market and got some kind of flat samosa-like pastry for dinner, just as it was starting to rain.

I finally got Starbucks at the end of the night. I hadn’t brought anything to read, so it was depressing looking at all the missed opportunities in my guidebook while I sipped my coffee. Once more, I considered just high-tailing it back to Beijing and the airport and calling it quits. It seemed that China wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. Back at the hostel, it was only 9pm or so, and all the girls in my dorm were there, full lights on, in bed just scrolling through their smartphones. Not a word exchanged. At least we could have turned the lights off and scrolled in the dark? It was weird.

You know a hotel isn’t up to my germaphobe dad’s standards when he doesn’t even take his socks off when he goes to bed. I felt like that in this hostel. I slept in all my clothes because I was so ready to be gone from there at first light. The front-desk guys sleep on a bed in the little bar-area next to the front desk. I ended up waking them up in order to check out. It wasn’t that early, by my standards, but it’s still pretty shit to have to be sleeping but on-call whenever you’re on duty. I felt better with some baozi and drinks in my bag and checked in for my new train journey. I was even more excited to be out of Jinan than I was to be out of Beijing. I hoped the next city would be an improvement, for once, as I headed down the coast making my way to Shanghai.

Beijing << All-China Tour 2018 >> Qingdao

All-China Tour: Beijing 1

All-China Tour: Beijing 1

Tokyo, Seoul, Beijing (we’ll get back to Shanghai later). These cities are always mentioned in the same breath as being the largest and most important cities in eastern Asia. Beijing didn’t give me a great impression at first, but I think that’s mainly due to the insane crowding, worrying amount of police and security, and the not-so-happening neighborhood where my hostel was.

The day I was supposed to leave, after breakfast of “boiled egg and soldiers” with my friend Rachael, whose house I was staying at, I packed up and took a taxi to Ilsan to meet my friend and former co-teacher, Tiffany. Embarrassingly, I had only just discovered the wonders of the Kakao Taxi service the week before. I had waited this long to close out my bank account because my last paycheck hadn’t arrived until the day before. I didn’t want to close the account until I had all the money in one place, and I couldn’t have done all the complex bank manipulations by myself. This involved withdrawing the Chinese yuan for the trip and calling home to find the “swift code” for our bank, certainly upsetting my parents right before bedtime.

Afterward, I closed out my phone plan. I wanted to get a new SIM card for my phone once I got to China, and I’d already gotten the VPN so that I could access American websites and apps from across the Great Firewall of China.

It was hard saying goodbye to Miss Tiffany, since we formed such a strong bond while working together and stayed friends even after we both left the school. But, in a way, it felt like we had come full circle. My time in Korea started and ended with Miss Tiffany.

After a nearly-tearful departure from Tiffany’s house, I headed for Gimpo Airport. I made sure to arrive almost 4 hours early for the evening flight, but I couldn’t find sign of my flight anywhere. The reason, I learned after talking to the airline service desk, was that my flight had left at 8 in the morning and not in the evening. An expensive mistake, I had to pay for a new ticket the next day. For not the first time, I considered just staying in Korea for another week (despite not having a bank account or phone with service) or going directly home instead. However, I wanted to follow through on the trip more.

As some self-penance, I took the subway back to Rachael’s for one additional night. I still had no cell service to notify her of my coming, so I couldn’t tell her until I was back in Holly’s Coffee wifi later, after a sad McDonald’s dinner and a nap. I was quite dejected, but it was really nice to be at the house of a friend rather than staying in a lonely hotel room.

At times like these, I can’t turn my brain off or stop thinking about what I could have done differently. In hindsight, the problem started when I wrote down the flight times incorrectly. It was silly to assume that the “8:40” readout meant PM and not AM, but that’s what I wrote. However, that extra day in Bucheon reduced my time in a sub-par hostel, so it wasn’t all bad.

The next day I woke up stupid-early at 4 or 5 AM. There was no way I was missing this flight. Rachael graciously called the taxi for me and then went right back to sleep. Gimpo Airport has a lot less going for it than Incheon, so I had a seriously mediocre breakfast and a lot of time to kill before my flight left. Before you leave the country for the last time, they take your ARC (Alien Registration Card) away for good. The Beijing airport was a lot of walking but at least I had no problems with immigration this time, unlike the last time I slept over in Nanjing.

After a long train ride and a while being lost in the area of my hostel, I finally found it. Lots of things are in back alleys (hutongs) in Beijing, while big official buildings line the major streets. I was super unimpressed by this hostel, despite its cute courtyard. The bathrooms were gross, and the rooms were always cold and a little damp. I wonder if my opinion on the hostel would have been different in the summer, whether I could have better appreciated the cute rooftop patio in nicer weather. At the hostel, I got a nap, some tea (the one thing my hostel did well was keeping you filled with nice hot tea), and some wifi, I made the plan for the rest of the day.

The most doable thing for the rest of the day was to head to the Temple of Heaven (which is, apparently, not actually a temple). The original purpose of the buildings was for the emperors to offer gifts to the gods for healthy harvests and good weather. There were different temple buildings for each offering, but the most majestic was the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, the biggest building up on a marble dais, looking out over the rest of the grounds. Even as late in the day as I went, there were still lots of tour groups going around, and apparently the done thing in China is for your tour group to wear matching hats?

After the temple, I headed to a Pacific Coffee (apparently they exist outside Hong Kong and Taiwan), where I had super trouble ordering an iced americano.  I explored some malls and found a decent food court, where I got jiaozi dumplings, some kind of tomato-fish stew, and bubble tea. It seems that my tastes have become completely Koreanized with craving soup all the time and iced americanos. Dinner over, I returned home to the hostel for social media and sleep.

The next day was a packed-full day by my plan. I woke up early, drank more tea, and the hostel front desk girl helped me to get tickets for the Forbidden City online. You have to get somebody with a Chinese phone number to buy them in advance and then you can just show the proof that you bought them on your phone with a screenshot or picture. When I got to Tiananmen Square, I got super worried waiting in the long security line. The whole 2 hours standing in line, I barely saw any other foreigner tourists, there was no signage to guide us one way or the other, and I couldn’t figure out which documents I would need to show to get through the security. My time in Beijing was a little unsettling because you needed to submit bags for the x-ray scan each time you went into a subway station, train station, or museum, there were armed guards watching each entrance of the subway station, and there were volunteer guards with red armbands on every corner. You definitely felt like you were under surveillance at all times. In Tiananmen Square, you’re also under the watchful eyes of Mao himself, where his portrait stares seemingly-benevolently down from the high walls.

Before I even entered the Forbidden City, I was approached by some nice English-speaking Chinese ladies. However, I had read about this exact situation in this exact spot. They start by talking to you, complimenting you, and asking about your travels. Then they offer to take you around for a tour, and then for some tea. It’s your first day in Beijing, what better than to follow your trip to the Forbidden City with a nice pot of traditional Chinese tea? That’s the scam. The teahouse has no prices on anything, so they just politely advise you as to the best tea, and then markup the prices crazy-high. Luckily, I bowed out of the scam and continued on my merry way.

I don’t have much to say about the Forbidden City, honestly. It was a larger version of the same kind of palaces that you’d find in Korea and Japan. It was more ornate, and the tilework of the roofs and railings was stunning. The palace itself was a sight, but I enjoyed exploring the grounds around back a lot more, where the buildings and gardens are closer together and form interesting little pathways to wander through. The palace itself is a lot of just high walls and open space, no doubt just to hold huge crowds of people. Nonetheless, it would have been utter folly not to have gone.

Afterwards, I hopped right back on the subway for more sightseeing at the Drum Tower and Bell Tower, both in the same plaza. In every Chinese city were this pair of towers (that doesn’t look much like the typical picture of a “tower” at all, more like a big box-like building) to announce the time, the news, or any emergencies. The ones in Beijing were not necessarily the most magnificent specimens I saw, but it was a cool little detour. Since the towers weren’t all that tall, I didn’t see the use in paying to go up to the top when there wouldn’t be much view to speak of.

On the way to the next sightseeing, I stopped at a cool little coffee bar, called Hainan, I think. I got lunch at a place that had caught my eye in the guidebook, Punk Rock Noodle. Everything about this place makes you feel good. The cool music and décor, the good food, etc. Apparently it was begun by a punk-rocker, its staff all punk musicians, and after some time became something of a cult favorite, in addition to being popular with students. I should have gotten the Panda Brew (Beijing craft beer) there, since that was on my to-do list for the day, but I never ended up having that beer or visiting the brewery that day.

I had intended to go to both the Confucius Temple and the Lama Temple. They are right next to each other on the street, but I miscalculated how much time I had, so I only got to go to the Confucius Temple (again, less of a temple than a Confucian academy). I chose the lesser of the two, and should have gone to the resplendent Lama Temple. That’s apparently the temple you should go to if you don’t have time to make it to Tibet. Next time, I guess. On the way back, I stopped in some of the small little drink stalls on our street and bought some pastries. The pastry stand was one of the only good things about this location in Beijing. After a nap and a long wander around the neighborhood (there is seriously nothing in that whole area), I found some kind of fast-food-looking place, where I got some sort of noodle soup meal with donuts (youtian) and eggs. It was a very strange meal, but it kept me from starving to death, so I was satisfied with that.

On the second full day in Beijing, there was only one thing on the plan: The Great Wall. I had read up on recommendations about where to go on the wall, when to go, how to get there. About camping and hiking and restored versus “wild” sections of the wall. Over breakfast of leftover pastries and Emergen-C (fearing I was getting sick, my hostel roommate hooked me up), I decided to play it safe and go to the Badaling section of the wall. It’s the most heavily restored and crowded, but also the closest and easiest to get to. At the hostel, the front desk girls offered little help planning and scheduling the trips, so I tried to do this one on my own…

The guidebook listed the Beijing North Railway Station as a straight shot to this section of the wall. I knew that if I left too late, I would miss the last train there, so it was earlier. After getting off at the nearest subway station, I had to walk under an overpass and across a huge thoroughfare (luckily Chinese are not shy about walking on seemingly non-pedestrian-friendly roads so it wasn’t all that strange) to get to the station. Once there, it seemed that there weren’t any signs on how to get there. One sign would lead you one way and then the trail would die 15 meters later. Finally I got on a good path and discovered the north railway station, which seemed to have been defunct for at least several years. You would think you’d be able to take a train to get to the most popular section of the Great Wall, that would be common sense, right?

I regrouped in a café near the shut-down old station. Coffee is considerably harder to come by in mainland China than in Hong Kong or Taiwan. I found a bus that would take me there, so I got back on the subway and headed to the new stop. I’d memorized the characters for basically “Badaling Great Wall,” so I was following signs to get to the shuttle bus from there. The last bus is supposed to leave at 12 or 1, so I was solidly within that timeframe. All throughout the walk, scammer taximen were trying to get us to take a super-expensive taxi to the wall. After a while, it became apparent that the group of Arabic-speaking girls behind me were also going the same way, and we teamed up. They were headed in the same way as me. It’s gratifying to know you’re not alone sometimes. Further along, we were also following a group of Chinese tourists, so all together it was not a small group. Once at the bus stop, we found out that the scammer taximen weren’t completely wrong. The buses to the wall really were done for the day. It was solidly 12:50 at this point. At the slightest sign of discomfort, I was ready to just go to a museum or something and give up, but together the team was tenacious.

With three different phones working on a wifi hotspot, Google translate, and one of the girls speaking a bit of Chinese, we managed to work together to secure taxis for the group to get to the wall. It ended up being only 150 yuan each, which sounds like a lot but is actually a steal for what we got, which was driving nearly one hour there, waiting for us to come down from the wall, and taking us back to where we started. Split between two taxis, the girls and one Chinese tourist got in one car and I and the rest of the Chinese group got in the other. “I’m gonna die, this is how I die today,” I kept chanting because this is, of course, how people get murdered all the time. Logically, though, that’s a whole lot of work with all the translating for the very little payoff of murdering little old me.

In the car on the way there, I was just consoling myself, but every few minutes one of the Chinese tourists would use the Chinese version of Google translate, assure me I was perfectly safe, and tell me the taximan’s plan for picking us up again. Since it was much later in the day than most people normally go to the wall (most people go in the morning), it was almost completely devoid of any tourists or souvenir-hawkers. The view was amazing and just so peaceful. It ended up being a great time of day to go. The steps were wicked steep! I can’t imagine being a soldier in full armor trying to hurry up those steps to get to your post. After I got back to the hostel, I found some kind of baozi steamed bun place for dinner and collected some snacks like taro ice cream and tomato Pringles.

The next day I was slated to leave Beijing for Jinan. I wanted to do something (like visit the Summer Palace or the National Museum) in the morning, perhaps stop in Tianjin on the way to see that epic library, and then end in Jinan in the evening. I was definitely ready to be out of Beijing by this point, maybe escape the oppressive smog and scary police at every corner.

After packing up, I went to the National Museum. I had had to wait in that insane long security line again in Tiananmen square to get in, but at least the museum was free. My favorite exhibits were the collection of gifts that Chinese leaders had received from foreign dignitaries and the display of Chinese money from throughout history.

The next phase represented one of the darkest chapters of my time in China. I returned to the hostel to get my bags and eat some pastries for lunch, and then took the subway with all my bags to Beijing South station. I waited in this line forever to get a ticket, any ticket to Jinan. Here, I had made several miscalculations. In Korea, you can take a train or bus from Seoul, same day, with very little trouble, as long as you don’t care about when you leave. I also overestimated how many trains would go there each day. Jinan is not that important a city. No trains to Jinan would leave that day, but they sold me a ticket for the next morning.

Dejected, I pouted awhile at Starbucks in the station. Without a Chinese phone number, I couldn’t use the wifi there. Again, I thought how easy it’d be to go to the airport, buy a ticket home (forget the cost), and surprise my family. In the guidebook, I found some hostel in the Drum Tower neighborhood, and after standing in an interminable taxi rank for what felt like ages, I finally got a taxi. That hostel was full and I couldn’t find the hostel they directed me to. I was sore and angry after standing in so many lines with my heavy bags, so eventually I checked into a James Joyce Coffetel. It was super expensive, like 10 times as expensive as a single night in any of the hostels I booked in the rest of my time there, but James Joyce + coffee was a hard proposition for me to turn down. It was a way-too-nice-for-me hotel, with cute little single-serve pour-over coffees included in the room. After a bit more pouting, I went out and ate some amazing mouth-numbing spicy noodles and had a few beers at a taphouse called The Beer Guys, watching some Chinese drama on the TV. I was still salty to have wasted more money, but the food, beer, wifi, and a call to my mom helped immensely.

The next morning I headed out to Jinan, which would prove to be my least favorite city in China.

All-China Tour 2018 >> Jinan

“It’s not that late!”: All-China Tour 2018

“It’s not that late!”: All-China Tour 2018

In the two months now since I got back from my literally life-changing trip to China, it’s taken about that long to organize my thoughts into a post on the subject.

… Just kidding.

A single post on the trip could easily be 40,000 words long. Ain’t nobody got time for that! So instead, I decided to divide it up into more readable chunks. At first I thought it would be by week, but then I thought it would be more convenient to divide it by city. In this first instalment, I’ll just talk about the process by which I made the plan and acquired the visa.

The planning began months before departure. I spent lots of time researching Lonely Planet’s substantial volume on China, collecting articles and inspiration on Facebook and Instagram, and trying to weed out things that were doable within a reasonable amount of time from the impossible. I quickly found that I couldn’t see all the things I wanted to see in a single week. Why not a month? Why not a grand tour of China over the course of a month? Even though I had a month, I still couldn’t do it all. I never got to see the 2008 Summer Olympics venues in Beijing, despite being there for four days; although there were tons of awesome things to see and do in the southern city of Guangzhou, I couldn’t justify the long detour; the same go for a “little jaunt” over to Tibet or Mongolia, where visa processes add time and complexity to the already-fraught application process.

The schedule I originally settled on was this: beginning with 4 days in Beijing, tracing my way down the coast with 2 days in Jinan, 2 days in Qingdao, a 1-day upshot to coastal beach town of Yantai, one night in Nanjing to reprise my attempt to stay there on the way back from Taiwan, 3 days in Shanghai, starting the journey west with 1 day in Hangzhou, 1 day in Zhangjiajie, 2 days each in Chongqing and Chengdu, 3 days in Lanzhou, 2 days each in Xi’an and Datong, and finally landing back in Beijing for a final night before taking off for the United States the next day.

Once deciding on the time-frame and buying the tickets, you can’t just apply for a visa as easily as in Vietnam. You must have a very detailed plan before you even set out to get the visa (once you schedule the appointment, you can get your visa in as soon as the same day or next day, depending on how much you’re willing to pay), so the hardest part is doing all that planning before you ever have the visa. You must have proof of all your hotel reservations (I found hostels on Hostelworld and Agoda), where you’re going each day, what you plan to do, and how you plan to travel between cities. When I got to the visa office, I had a plan but certainly not all the information. I had addresses for all the hotels but I needed phone numbers, too. I needed to re-print all of the proofs of reservation so that they specifically showed my name and not just confirmation number. It felt very scary, like they would be checking up on you at every hostel and you’d get in trouble if you changed your plans.

Once you fill out the forms and submit all the paperwork and payment, it’s actually quite fast to receive your visa. Just return to the office in 1-3 business days. It’s really expensive for US citizens to get a Chinese visa, more than USD $200, but luckily the visa is multiple-entry and lasts for 10 years. Unlike in Vietnam and other places, too, they truly do check your passport and visa every time you go into a subway, train station, or museum. (They, of course, confiscated my ARC at Gimpo Airport when I left the country, so my last remaining official ID was my passport.)

Before leaving, it was a constant jumble of offloading my stuff onto anyone who would take it, moving out, and sending my stuff home. (One of my boxes still has yet to arrive, after 3 full months at sea). I couldn’t send my laptop home, so I had to take it in the pack with me. I thought I could keep the contents of my pack in the big bag and have the small pack rolled up outside, but after just one or two cities I lost all sense of shame and started carrying one pack on my back and one on front, “like a proper backpacker.”

As with all trips, the plans never pan out. The real roster of places I visited was more pared-down, as I quickly discovered that it’s no fun to spend less than 24 hours in a city and then move on, so minimizing the amounts of one-day stays:

Beijing,

Jinan,

Qingdao,

Nanjing,

Shanghai,

Zhangjiajie,

Chongqing,

Chengdu,

Lanzhou,

Xi’an,

and Beijing again.

The accounts of each city will be linked above as they are written. There’s still a lot of work to do. However, this will have been my last big trip abroad for a long time, truly a once-in-a-lifetime journey, so I want to do it justice.

“How was your trip to China?” they ask me.

“Well, I vastly underestimated the amount of planning I needed to do, and vastly overestimated how much English people would know.”

“Oh.”

“In other words, it was an awesome trip for me but I would never wish it on anyone else.”