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China – a very pleasant surprise

31 March 2012

The final month of our six month travelling was to be China.  We originally planned to spend a few days in Hong Kong with an old friend of mine and then a whole month in mainland China.  However, travelling through Southeast Asia we were hit by a wave of negativity about travelling in China, no one seemed to have had a good time there; no one spoke English, everyone was rude and would take advantage of you, there was no toilet paper (even Bill Clinton’s security staff had been unable to locate toilet paper), scams were common and you had to check every item on restaurant bills, hostel rooms would be bugged by the Government, the overnight trains were cramped, damp and cold pits, everyone stared at you wherever you went and the only thing more dismal than the weather was the welcome…

No, he wasn't mugging us, but welding with a shoebox lid...

It was therefore with some trepidation that we mapped out our trip around the mainland (vast distances to cover and the weather forecasts did indeed seem to be grim).  The lone voice of positivity came from my brother but this didn’t prevent us dallying diving in Thailand and whittling the time for China and Hong Kong to a month.  Hong Kong was very foggy and not instantly impressive but with the help of several friends the food was less of a challenge than feared (although Chicken’s feet and jellyfish was perhaps a step too far for the first few days Chris…) and gave us our first tentative steps into the Orient.  Although we delayed our final entrance into the mainland because we were unable to buy tickets in advance we were eventually able to do so (see post on getting into China) and left with about three weeks to cover a country the size of Europe.


Soft sleeper cabin

While Hong Kong had been foggy, the 15 hour train to Schenzen to Guilin seemed to reduce the temperature by ten degrees and add the first drizzle we had seen in months.  The overnight train was indeed cold but it wasn’t cramped and was quite spacious (we did our first few journeys in hard sleeper before experiencing the luxury of soft sleeper).  Whilst English did not seem prevalent, the train station had signs and announcements in English (albeit occasionally amusing translations like “the train D7 is leaving in minutes, board immediately”).

In contrast to our dire forewarnings, we found throughout China that the Chinese were remarkably helpful and friendly, often stopping to assist if you were looking at a map with a puzzled expression.  Although they did often look at you as though a Western face was a rarity they would most often smile, chuckle and respond pleasantly with a “nihao” if you greeted them or smiled but on the whole I was impressed by how the Chinese were just happy to go about their business, there was none of the traditional focus on “foreign money” in markets and no hassling if you showed an interest in goods (although it is useful to note that they would usually drop their initial offering price to about a third within moments of showing an interest).  Whilst many restaurants did have English translations in the more touristy areas, the matrons of those restaurants without English were often happy to try to serve you something, either inviting you into the kitchen to pick from a selection of meats.  We often overordered but it was rare that a dish was not appetising.   


A sample of the foods available (well, the pig’s heads were in a market…)

We started in Guilin, taking a trip to the Dragon’s backbone paddy fields, going on to the mystical scenery of Yangshuo and Xingping (see the 20 Yuan note and the scenery in the “floating mountains” of Avatar) before heading up to Chengdu for the Pandas (which really do look like men lounging around in oversize suits…) and the Giant Buddha of Leshan.

The pandas generally lounged around enjoying bamboo. The panda reserve is only a half hour taxi ride out of Chengdu and getting there early avoids the crowds of Chinese tourists making for a much more pleasant experience.

The Red Panda - generally less popular than the monochrome version but I thought they had more character, certainly this one who seemed to be auditioning for a remake of Return of the Jedi...

After Chengdu we took a 26 hour hard sleeper train to Xi’an.  Hard sleepers are carriages split into open compartments with six beds in each. While the lower bunk has plenty of space to sit up the middle and upper bunks have progressively less room.  Soft sleeper, on the other hand, has closed compartments of four bunks and often includes individual lights, heater and plug socket.  After Xi’an we tried the soft sleeper and did not go back, although the hard sleeper was a more genuine experience of China – we had karaoke, some sort of line dancing and plenty of farting…

Although many people spend only a day in Xi’an exploring the Terracotta warriors, we spent a couple of nights there.  This meant that we had time to enjoy the expansive Muslim quarter with its varied night market selling a range of delicacies and all manner of tourist souvenirs.  We were also able to take the time to cycle around the renovated walls of the city before heading to Shanghai (the Paris of the East and now one of my favourite cities in China), Suzhou (supposedly the Venice of the East although we were unlucky with the weather) and finishing in Beijing with the Great Wall and the Forbidden City.



 There are a number of options for seeing the wall (it is quite long…) including Badaling (very touristy) or Mutianyu (with a tobaggan) but we chose the 7km trek from Jinshanling to Simatei which offered amazing views without many other people to get in the way, although it is about 3.5 hours from Beijing. It’s definitely worth checking the weather forecast if you have a choice of days as our first few days in Beijing were very dull but it snowed on the Sunday and was forecast good weather on the Monday and Tuesday so when we went on the Tuesday there was a blue sky and a sprinkling of snow.  We also visited the Forbidden City (I don’t recommend the audio tour which, contrary to the Lonely Planet advice, is automatic and can’t be switched off for photos) and the Summer Palace which can easily take up a whole day.


I’m not saying that the Chinese did not have annoying habits (and the most dangerous driving in the world), the cultural imperative of hawking and spitting was disgusting, they seem to relish a scrum rather than a queue, drive as though life has little value and are downright hideous when combined as a tourist pack but in the local format, around the streets and as restauranteurs, shopkeepers or general pedestrians they are pleasant and much happier and helpful than I had ever expected.  In particular, the People’s Park of Chengdu was an eye-opener; it has been made available for the use of the public and, in particular, provides a place for the older generation to mingle.  This takes the form of a riotous mixture of dance, karaoke (sound systems blaring different rhythms within feet of each other) and fashion shows accompanied by musicians verging on the hysterical (one in particular, who looked like a tall, Chinese version of Woody Allen, tried to get us to join in the action by writing “Fun” and other words in chalk on the pavement and beseeching us to dance and prance to the crowds – I have to confess I was to0 taken aback to contemplate this…).


Night-time in Shanghai

The scenery around Yuangshuo and Xingping can be enjoyed on bamboo rafts

The dragon's backbone rice fields


From → Travel

  1. I love this bear, beautifull

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  1. Red Panda – Chengdu, Sichuan | Tubbyman Tales

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