Eastern China - tip: go south / east

Tripoto
6th Apr 2012

China is a huge country with a fascinating history and some of the most impressive ancient sites but we found the culture itself very difficult! Having come from India, Liam and I (Jem) thought we'd tackled the hardest country but China was a lot tougher! Not only due to the written and spoken language barrier but just in their mannerisms. We arrived in Beijing with a plan to zig-zag our way down south towards Vietnam. 

We flew into Beijing and stayed at a nice hostel and took our first trip to the Forbidden City which was home to the emperors and contains beautiful traditional buildings spaciously spread about within a walled area. Of course it was very touristy but as there was a lot of space inside it was easy to escape the crowds and enjoy looking around. We also went to Tiananmen Square which is particularly famous in its relation to the protests and massacre that took place in 1989.

The Forbidden City

Photo of The Palace Museum, Jingshan Front Street, Dongcheng, Beijing, China by Jemima Durnford

The Forbidden City

Photo of The Palace Museum, Jingshan Front Street, Dongcheng, Beijing, China by Jemima Durnford

During our time in Beijing we also went to The Summer Palace which was a pleasant place set beside a lake. We also decided to take a look at the Olympic Park and went towards the evening so we could see everything lit up and it was actually pretty cool.

The Summer Palace

Photo of The Summer Palace, Haidian, Beijing, China by Jemima Durnford
Photo of The Summer Palace, Haidian, Beijing, China by Jemima Durnford

One of the biggest tourist attractions within Beijing is the Donghuamen night market which is open on weekends, it is primarily there for tourists and apparently the locals think it's crazy. Basically you can eat all manner of creep crawlies and weird creatures such as fried cockroaches, tarantulas, starfish etc. It's a bit cruel as some of the creatures are skewered and still alive and you can see them moving on the sticks which isn't very nice. However it's pretty intriguing! I definitely wasn't going to be trying anything and although Liam had previously said he would try anything on our travels, he wasn't going to go quite that far either!

Photo of Donghuamen Street, Dongdan, Dongcheng, Beijing, China by Jemima Durnford
Photo of Donghuamen Street, Dongdan, Dongcheng, Beijing, China by Jemima Durnford

We also visited the Silk Market which is the place to go to for bargains. Situated in a six storey complex, it's not the prettiest of places and you have to get your bartering skills out! We browsed the numerous stalls but for us it was too overwhelming and we didn't last long!

We took a day trip to see The Great Wall of China and were able to easily book a tour through our hostel which made things easy. We were originally booked in with a few other people to take a private car but it turned out that the other people had dropped out so we got the service for the same price which was good! We opted to go to a part of the wall that was not a tourist hub and that also included the real ancient stones rather than a replica which in other tourist spots is the case. It took a couple of hours to get there and when we arrived we were the only people which was great! Unfortunately we were a bit rushed by the driver who said we could have only 30 minutes there! We were hoping that we would have been able to walk along for a couple of hours and so were quite disappointed but nevertheless we managed to explore a little way. Some parts of the wall were actually incredibly steep and as we progressed higher the view became really great. It was April so the landscape was quite brown but there was some blossom out which made it prettier.

Photo of Great Wall of China, Huairou, China by Jemima Durnford

From Beijing we wanted to start exploring more of China and so after getting advise from a travel agent we decided to take the train everywhere. Getting any form of transport or doing anything at all in China required some serious planning and we found the best way to get tickets was to ask the reception staff at the hostel to write our travel itinerary on paper, take it to the station and get the tickets. However if the train was fully booked or something then it would become such a mission as we would end up taking written conversation back and forth from the hostel and it took a whole day to book a ticket one time as the station was a 20 minute walk away! We would try to convey through expression and hand gestures whether we could take a later train or something but when it comes to communication in a form other than words, they just didn't respond and quickly ignored us which was a bit infuriating! Also, queuing and waiting is not a thing, so we were often shoved out of the way which for us English was not ok and we had to bite our tongues and stay calm!

Our first experience of the train station was interesting as everyone stared all the time, at one station, I sat beside a man who stared at me for about an hour without flinching! I had thought India was going to be like this but it was no way near as full on as China. People would turn in their seats and just look at us for ages, after a while we just tried to ignore it but I found it difficult to get used to and it felt that it wasn't in an intriguing way but in a nasty way. Also, China has open lavatories, so you can often see each other which made it very hard to go! I also had a few people pretend to read their newspaper and then I would see this phone slyly appear as they were trying to get a sneaky picture!

Our first journey by overnight train took us from Beijing to Pingyao which took about 9 hours. We met this lovely family from Norwich whose Father was originally from Hong Kong, Mother from Malaysia and son raised in England. The Mother kindly wrote us a list of things to check out in Malaysia and we spent most of the evening chatting with them. We spent just a day exploring Pingyao, leaving our luggage secured at the train station. Pingyao is a UNESCO World Heritage site due to being one of the best ancient walled cities in China. From the station it is a short walk away and quite strange as you pass from a very modern city into the walled old city. Covering 2.6 square miles, cars are restricted to certain areas and it is laid out as a grid of cobbled streets with cafe's and people meandering around. It is very chilled out and pretty, however once you've seen a few streets, you've seen it all and an afternoon there allows plenty of time to look around.

Photo of Pingyao, Jinzhong, Shanxi, China by Jemima Durnford
Photo of Pingyao, Jinzhong, Shanxi, China by Jemima Durnford

From Pingyao we headed on to Xi'an which took around 8 hours. We had barely slept on the train and so headed straight to our hostel and crashed out. Late afternoon we went to the Muslim Quarter, a part of the city with lots of shops and market stalls, worth visiting to pick up some pretty souvenirs at good prices.

Photo of Xi'an, Shaanxi, China by Jemima Durnford

The rest of the day was spent relaxing and discovering some tasty food for a change! I'm sure there is lots of yummy food to be had but for some reason we had not had much luck and had run to MacDonalds a number of times already! Our main reason to be in Xi'an was to see the Terracotta army and so the next day we headed out to the site. Although you would have thought that the army would be the main attraction, we ended up being runners up as the attraction, nearly everyone asked for photographs with us all day which was fine at first but then a few weird people were trying to sneakily film and take pictures of us and whenever we caught them, they'd quickly run away or pretend they weren't when it was so obvious, after a while it became rather disconcerting and annoying! All I can say is I'm so glad I'm not famous! We didn't see any other Westerners and actually after leaving Beijing we didn't see any until we came to Yangshuo later on.

The site of the Terracotta army was absolutely amazing and the fact that they have only uncovered 1% of the buried site is amazing. The whole place was very well laid out and the statues and objects were so beautiful. Each warrior has individual characteristics and there are also horses, chariots, 40,000 bronze weapons and more, all made to protect the Emperor in his next life. The army was discovered by farmers digging a well to find a pit containing 6,000 life-size statues in 1974. So far archaeologists have uncovered a 20 sq m area with 8,000 soldiers as well as other artefacts. The emperors tomb is yet to be uncovered but is marked by a pyramid mound, there are streams of mercury running within it, hence the trepidation to excavate. It was created by the same man who made the Great Wall, Qin Shi Huang who is credited with unifying all the provinces under one government but is also known for his cruelty.

Photo of Eastern China - tip: go south / east by Jemima Durnford
Photo of Eastern China - tip: go south / east by Jemima Durnford
Photo of Eastern China - tip: go south / east by Jemima Durnford

After Xi'an we took a 5 hour train journey to Louyang so see the Longmen Grottoes. It is a hillside dotted with 2,100 grottoes containing tens of thousands of statues of Buddha and more than 40 Buddhist pagodas. It is over 2,000 years old and is the 'Cradle of Buddhism'.

Photo of Longmen Grottoes, Longmen Middle St, Luolong, Luoyang, Henan, China by Jemima Durnford
Photo of Longmen Grottoes, Longmen Middle St, Luolong, Luoyang, Henan, China by Jemima Durnford

From Louyang we went to a city called Qufu which in hindsight wasn't worth it unless you are particularly fascinated by Confucius. The guide book made it sound a lot more exciting and perhaps if you are interested in Confucianism it would be but not so for us. It is the basis of Chinese beliefs, so we thought as it has such historical significance we should go but it was just a really dead city. We visited Confucius's home which was full of temples and that was about it. We did also visit the cemetery where he was buried which was actually very beautiful with lots of trees and blue flowers so it was nice wandering around and seeing the statues and various grave stones dotted about. After this though there really wasn't much to do and annoyingly all the train tickets were sold out until much later so we ended up spending about 5 days there, managing to work our way through quite a few DVDs which at least gave us time to recuperate.

Our next journey, 13 hours by overnight train, took us to Suzhou, famous for its Chinese style gardens. Unfortunately the gardens weren't as impressive as we'd hoped and we again felt a bit let down. We went to The Humble Administrators Garden which was nice enough but I was expecting to be more wowed. I was expecting smaller intricately laid out gardens but it was more like a large open park so it wasn't what we'd been hoping for. We visited the Suzhou Museum which had some interesting pieces, in particular a huge ivory tusk which was intricately detailed and impressively crafted but sadly, not worth where it came from! We had seen similar ivory pieces in other cities so it seems quite popular.

As I mentioned earlier, the food in China wasn't great and our worst experience happened in Suzhou. We were wandering around for a while trying to find some good, cheap local cuisine and were really getting hungry. We thought we'd found a place that looked ok and as soon as we were shown to a table I had a bad feeling. As usual we pointed to the Chinese symbols for chicken and noodles and usually this would indicate we would like a meal including these ingredients and they would create something quite nice. Not this time, she picked up her axe, disappeared behind a screen where we then heard her loudly chopping up the food and after a little while she came to our table with what must have been an anorexic chicken chopped up on a board with everything inside and a bowl of luke warm disgusting plain noodles! Well, we just couldn't eat it at all and politely picked at it for a few minutes and then left with her charging the most ludicrous price!

Photo of Suzhou, Jiangsu, China by Jemima Durnford
Photo of Suzhou, Jiangsu, China by Jemima Durnford

We also had an awful experience when visiting a park with animals enclosed in tiny cages and smelling quite bad. The worst was a couple of big bears at the bottom of a concrete pit surrounded by faeces and a small pond with stagnant water, they did not look healthy at all. We found the attitude towards animals really terrible and upsetting.

Photo of Shantang Street, Gusu, Suzhou, Jiangsu, China by Jemima Durnford

Suzhou is also popular for its canals which are very pretty to wander around, especially at night and there was a good atmosphere in the town. We found a friendly restaurants and cafe's which sold really good food around Shantang Street.

Photo of Eastern China - tip: go south / east by Jemima Durnford

Our next stop was Chengdu which took 22 hours to get to! From there we took a day trip out to Leshan to see the world biggest Buddha which is carved from the rock beside a river. It was indeed giant and a staircase allowed us to walk from the top to the bottom and see all perspectives. It overlooks the river towards a modern city which shows quite a contrast between to the two.

Photo of Leshan, Sichuan, China by Jemima Durnford
Photo of Leshan, Sichuan, China by Jemima Durnford
Photo of Leshan, Sichuan, China by Jemima Durnford

Chengdu is home to the Panda and so we headed to the famous Chengdu Panda Breeding and Research Center which was so worth the visit. It is just 6 miles away and easy to get to. It was a misty drizzly day and a first we couldn't see any pandas and I thought they might not come out but then the first Panda's we did see were actually Red Pandas which are the cutest bears ever! There was an entrance which enabled us to walk through an enclosure and get really close to them which was great. Soon after we saw some of the big Pandas and as we moved on from less crowded areas we were able to watch them pretty much alone which was brilliant. The reserve is huge and you could easily spend a full day there, we had to rush back to get the train and just about saw everything.

Our next trip took us to Guillin from where we took a bus to Yangshuo. The train journey took 27 hours which was our longest and one of the toughest journeys. We had thought we'd bought a sleeper bed but instead we had been given a much more basic wooden seat and it was so uncomfortable but definitely an eye opener! It was so hot and humid with fans going but no air conditioning and we just sat there sweltering and trying to sleep! By the time we made it to Yangshuo we were exhausted and after a day in bed we were able to properly explore and it was by far my favourite place yet. The further south you go in China the more beautiful the landscape becomes. This area is covered in peaks jutting up and is said to be the inspiration for the film Avatar. It is such a picturesque place and the town itself had a really great vibe. We spent two days cycling around all the peaks. It was great to be out in the countryside as we had mainly stayed in cities and taken day trips places.

Photo of Yangshuo, Guilin, Guangxi, China by Jemima Durnford
Photo of Yangshuo, Guilin, Guangxi, China by Jemima Durnford
Photo of Li River, Diecui Road, Yangshuo, Guilin, China by Jemima Durnford

We had planned to take a bamboo raft on the Li River but it was quite expensive so we walked up a hill instead and had great views from the top.

The scenery was really stunning and it may have been nice to head further west towards Kunming but we had already booked our train ticket to Hong Kong as we would have to do this about a week before we travelled in order to get a seat. We were also ready to leave China by that point and we finished our exploration of China by seeing a spectacular light show called Liu San Jie Impression Light Show. It was brilliantly put together and they lit up the surrounding mountains and had hundreds of one maned boats on a lake.

Photo of Eastern China - tip: go south / east by Jemima Durnford

On the whole, southern China is worth exploring and we found the people friendlier and the countryside more beautiful. It would have been great to have gone further west and maybe into Tibet but we were put off going to Tibet when we discovered that you had to do a tour and go and leave with the same people and you were monitored all the time.

The culture is very different and to us a lot of people seemed quite rude and unhelpful, particularly if we were lost or needed general help, they would just ignore us. I don't know if this is because they don't know English and so feel uncomfortable and would rather ignore and not communicate or whether they just don't want to help. Plus the staring became far too much, the language barrier is a nightmare and the idea of queuing does not exist.

There is also a clear divide between the very modern rich cities and smaller towns and rural places which seem quite poor in comparison. However the transport is good, as long as you book tickets at least a week in advance, during busy periods I think you need to allow a few. Be prepared that the country is vast and when you get a train make sure it's with a bed if long distance! Plus China has very cheap but not good quality items so grab a bargain but know that it will unlikely last long.

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