17.10.2012 - 01.12.2012 15 °C
I left off my last post in Chongqing where I took a few days to relax after my Tibetan adventure. It was here that I began the last leg of a long journey through China. I was facing quite a few challenges at the time, with burns not yet healed and a stomach still recovering from too much yak meat but I was still enjoying myself. I was told by many to avoid Chongqing. It was described as a incredibly polluted and dirty mega city. But since it had a population which almost tops that of Canada, I was curious to see the super metropolis. I was pleasantly surprised to see the downtown was really quite cool. It certainly isn't as fancy as China's other biggest cities but it had a more gritty real feel to it and some interesting old areas. The skyline gives any other Chinese city a run for its money jam packed with some very beautiful old and modern architecture and rising above the junction of two rivers. At night the skyline lights up to create a spectacular light show. I saw very few foreigners for such a big city but the locals were a little more pleasant than is typical of larger Chinese cities (or large cities in general).
On my first night there, I was eating some road side noodles when a man randomly invited me to join him and his girlfriend for a drink. He happened to be from Yantai and when he found out I had worked in his hometown he insisted on treating me to some Chongqing hotpot. Chongqing is famous for its delicious but stupidly spicy hotpot and, since my new friend was ordering, I didn't have a chance to ask for the milder version. The meal was delicious but massive intake of chili pepper stayed with me for a few days. I hit the clubs for a drink on the next night and ended up meeting a guy from Shanghai who got me very drunk then forced me onstage to dance with some local girls. Unfortunately, I just ended up being surrounded by more guys competing to bring the foreigner back to their table for a drink.
The next day, I woke up hungover and walked over to the pier to catch a cheap "pleasure cruise" down the Yangzi. Since I had to head east anyways, and Chongqing is on the Yangzi river, I booked myself into a third class cabin on a boat which sails through the three gorges. I was in for a tough journey. My cabin consisted of six small wood planks as beds and a tiny bathroom in which holding your breath was necessary. The cruise started well when a gorgeous girl entered the cabin and took the bed next to mine. I started chatting with her and, for a short moment, thought I was lucky enough to be placed alone in a cabin for two days with a beautiful Chongqing local. But fifteen minutes before the departure time, five 80 year old ladies entered to occupy the remaining four beds. The cruise was overbooked so two had to share a bed, but it didn't really matter since they had no intention of sleeping. Instead, they drank Chinese whiskey, ate peanuts, laughed and gossiped all night long. It was pretty funny and cute at first, but at 4:30AM I had to tell them, unsuccessfully of course, to be quiet.
The boat itself was absolutely ridiculous. It was dirty, the average age of those on board was probably 75 and though it was called a pleasure boat, 'pleasure' consisted of singing karaoke or playing cards. If you wanted to indulge in these pleasures, you had to pay an extra five bucks to enter the 'pleasure area' and then pay again if you wanted to take a seat. No joke, if you wanted to sit anywhere on the boat, you had to pay for a small plastic stool. There was no where else to sit either than on your bed. There was no restaurant either, only a small shop that sold packaged chicken feet and instant noodles. Yum...
The dirty boat and lack of sleep aside, the gorges themselves were quite beautiful and made the trip worth it (after all, I did only pay about $60 for it). Some of the peaks were pretty mystical and watching the foggy sunrise over the XiLing gorge was sight to remember. Eventually we reached the three gorges dam where we disembarked. I quickly made my way to the bus station and caught a bus to Wuhan where I booked into a single room to take a shower and finally get some sleep. Wuhan is a monster city with many popular tourist attractions, but it was raining while I was there and I was too tired from the cruise to be bothered to leave my relatively nice hotel room. I only ventured short distances to the KFC and the internet cafe where I burnt some CDs. After a couple days recovery I caught a train to Hefei then transferred to Tunxi, a small town which serves as the jumping point for HuangShan (Yellow mountain). Ever since I entered china, I had heard amazing things about HuangShan. It was one of the places I was most looking forward to seeing. Luckily, I got a couple nice days for the hike as well. At the hostel, I met an American named Thomas who has been playing tuba in the Beijing orchestra for the last three years and we hit the moutain together. When we arrived at the base, it was quite cloudy but the weather cleared as soon as we got on the trail. The scenery really was spectacular. The mountain side looked almost fake it was so smooth, like the kind of thing you would see in Disneyland. And the view of the surrounding mountains was breathtaking.
I was surprised at how easy the climb was. After about an hour and a half we were almost at the top. The Chinese make these types of attractions accessible to anyone with two legs by paving stone steps from the bottom to the top and providing cable cars for those who don't want to climb but the ridiculous ticket prices of over $40 really make them accessible only to the elite. The steps make the climb pretty simple but this can easily lull you into a false sense of security. Instead of properly hiking I was walking more as I would on a side walk, taking pictures all the while. I think it was as a result of this false security that I failed to notice a break in the path. One way led up and the other down some steep stone steps. I walked right into the path leading down without noticing it and lost my footing. I still remember the moment, mid-flight, when I realized what was happening. I literally had just removed the bandages from my burns only a few days before and now here I was again, facing another potentially trip-ending scenario. I tumbled a good two meters and managed to hit almost every part of my body. When I finally came to a stop, I along with my hiking buddy and the twenty Chinese tourirsts who witnessed the incident, thought for sure I must have broken something. The fall was from a good height and onto nothing but stone. I was bleeding from my left shin, right knee, left hand, right arm and chin not too mention a bruised ass cheek. But amazingly, the only thing that got really injured was my right knee and even it was not broken. I was more mentally shaken than anything as it really could have been a lot much worse. But after a minute I got up, dusted myself off and continued the climb to the top. My knee started to stiffen up during sunset and by the time it was dark (we were staying on the top of the mountain) the pain slowly began to creep in. This did not bode well for tomorrow. At 4:45AM I was woken up by several loud tour groups to a painful and almost completely immobile knee. I hobbled out to the hotel balcony to watch Huangshan's famous sunrise with a see of Chinese tourists then back into the hotel to figure out what to do. The closest cable car was a six km hike along the top of the mountain away and I was even having trouble walking on even ground. Luckily, we ran into a group of older foreign tourists who, due to their issues with arthritis, had a mobile pharmacy full of painkillers. They gave me two Aleve and two Tylenol after which I could not feel anything in the leg at all. A little walking and the knee loosened up and we eventually we made it off the mountain. The next day the knee was still quite painful but already feeling a lot better and I was confident that I had not done any serious damage. I caught a bus to Hangzhou where I planned to get both a visa extension and an x-ray just to be safe.
Hangzhou is a very beautiful city. The west lake is gorgeous and there are several old-style pedestrian streets and neighborhoods. Pagodas and temples look over the skyline from several hill tops west of the lake and the surrounding area is full of trendy bars and cafes. Maybe not the most Chinese Chinese city but a nice place nonetheless. I was looking forward to the prospect of spending a few days there while my visa extension processed. I was hesitant, however, to head to the visa office since I already had five Chinese visas in my passport (some of which weren’t exactly credible). I only had three days left on my current visa so if I was denied I would be in big trouble. When I arrived in the city I went straight to the public security bureau to apply. The officer took a look at my passport, mumbled ‘buxing’ (not good) under his breath and told me that I was not registered at a hotel in Hangzhou and that I needed both bank statements showing I had at least $3000 and a full itinerary of my travels in order to apply for an extension. I went back to my hostel, told them to register me in the system and asked to use a printer to print off my bank statements. Of course they didn’t have one so I had to search the city for an hour to find a print shop. I made a quick itinerary, printed everything off and, finally with all the proper documents in hand, made my way back to the PSB. Once there, the officer informed me that I had all the proper documents but in Hangzhou they only offer 15 day visa extensions which take one week to process. This basically means that by the time I get my passport back I would have seven days to leave the country. A pointless extension and Chinese bureaucracy at its worst. When I asked him what I could do to get a 30 day extension he told me to go to another city. I went back to the hostel empty handed and looked at my options. I only had three days left so I booked a ticket to Changsha praying that the visa office there was a little less strict. I then walked thirty minutes to a local international clinic to get my knee checked. Out front the clinic was a large sign which read “24 Hour Seven Days a Week International Health Care Service”. I walked up to the door in the middle of the afternoon on a weekday to find that it was locked and nobody was home. China at its most frustrating. That night I tried to drown my worries with a group of foreigners from the hostel at a local bar and the next day I took an overnight 13 hour hard seat train to Changsha.
I was quite annoyed that I couldn’t get my visa renewed in Hangzhou because the city was so relaxing and the possibility of staying there for a week was quite attractive. I knew nothing about Changsha either than it was the capital of Hunan province and that the lonely planet had not given it a great review. I arrived at the train station and went to the only hostel I knew of in the city. I tried to have them register me into the system right away so I could go to the PSB to apply for my visa but they said they couldn’t because my visa ran out in a day. I tried to tell them that I could not renew my visa unless they registered me first but they didn’t seem to understand. It took a half hour of explaining my situation in broken Chinese for the desk clerk to finally take me to the police station so I could register there. I still had my bank statements and itinerary from the application in Hangzhou so I went to the PSB hoping everything was in order. I had all the proper documents but the officer informed me that the bank statements I showed him did not have a name so he could not accept them. I showed him how my credit card matched the number on the statement but apparently that was not good enough. I was sent back into the city in search of a printer once again. I first asked at the hostel, no luck there. Then I found a small print shop but their printer was broken. I went to the closest internet cafe but they had no printers for public use. Three hours later, I finally found a hole-in-the-wall print shop next to the university and got my documents. I went back to the PSB, waited in line once again, and showed the officer the new statements. I waited anxiously while he studied the papers closely. Then he told me to pay for the visa at the front desk and come back in one week to pick up my passport. What a relief.
After finally solving the visa problem I took a nap and woke up feeling much more relaxed. I took a walk into downtown Changsha to find that it is actually one of the coolest cities I’ve been to in China. Since Mr Mao was born only an hour away, I guess I thought the city would be a little more conservative. I couldn’t have been more wrong. It is one of the few places I’ve seen in China that has real lively homegrown nightlife. Not just bars and clubs, but everyone old and young was on the streets eating, playing games and singing songs until the wee hours of the morning every night of the week. There were several large night life streets and an eclectic mix of bars and cafes. Chinese style night life is usually all about the glitz and glam, high priced drinks, strobe lights and loud top40s music. While Changsha certainly had plenty of this style of bar, there was also tons of tiny student run music bars, small shops and cafes, something I have not seen much of anywhere else. At one of these student bars, a cute five table live music joint called ‘nothing bar’ I found myself ordering a beer and listening to live covers of western indie music. The girl who brought me my drink did not work at the bar but was helping her friend who owned it. Her name was Cheng Te and she was a 21 year old fashion consultant (she literally taught classes to woman in their mid twenties on how to dress) who had done quite a bit of traveling in China. She didn’t drink but liked to come to her friends bar to use the WIFI and hang out. After handing me my beer she sat down and we began to talk about travel. I ended up spending my entire week In Changsha with Cheng Te. Everyday I would meet her after work and we would get dinner before checking out some of Changsha's things-to-do. We often ate at nicer international restaurants since she had several restaurant promo cards from her work but we also gave Changsha's incredibly spicy street food a few tries. One dish in particular “MaLaTang” was really tasty. You pick a variety of fresh vegetables and tofu or meat then give it to the cook who prepares a very spicy bowl of vegetable noodle soup. After dinner we would sit along the river or in the local parks, go to a cafe or just walk the busy streets. One night we found an ice rink in the city’s fanciest mall and I taught her how to skate which was a funny experience. Either than the time she took me shopping and to get her hair done, we always had a good time. But after a week, my visa was ready and it was time to move on. We said our goodbyes, promised to stay in touch and I caught a bus to ZhangJiaJie.
The Chinese claim that the natural spires and forests around ZhangJiaJie are where the film avatar was filmed. I always thought avatar was filmed in a blue room and made with computers. Nonetheless, the area really does look a lot like the setting in the movies. Thousands of vertical spires some several hundred meters tall cover the bizarre rain forested landscape. The giant spires appear as though they are growing at impossible angles and create an incredible sight. I spent a night in the middle of the park then my birthday walking around the area. That night I returned to the hostel and hit the town for a few birthday drinks. Since ZhangJiaJie city is quite small there were no other foreigners to go out with, but the city has a similar vibe to Changsha in that there are several small joints to get a drink. I hopped from bar to bar chatting with the locals until I ended up at a KTV bar owned by two sisters. I sang a few songs with them before they closed at 3AM. Then they invited me out for a late night meal and bought me a bowl of pig’s foot soup for my birthday before dropping me off at my hostel. What nice girls. The next morning I slept in and almost missed my bus. I literally caught it as it was pulling away from the station and after a couple hours ride I arrived in the funky ancient town of Fenghuang. Fenghuang is set on a river amidst misty hills and is full of ancient small town charm. Its known for its houses built on stilts and crazy rooftops. Unfortunately, domestic tourism had taken over the town so there was not much left of it. Almost every old building was a hotel, restaurant, trinket shop or loud KTV bar. It took away from the experience a bit but the city was still beautiful and Chinese domestic tourism is a cultural experience in itself.
After FengHuang I caught a bus to a little known town called HongJiang which has a beautiful ancient commercial center full of thatched roofs, cobblestone streets and stone walls. For anyone who feels as though China has lost some of its traditional roots, go to HongJiang. Outside the ancient center, the demographic is generally older and many still wear traditional clothes. The streets are filled with groups of old men playing cards and Chinese chess next to campfires to keep warm. Inside the ancient town there were no tourists, only families and retirees living out their lives. Save for a couple tourist shops at the entrances and some signs pointing to the significant buildings, there was not much of a tourist infrastructure. It felt very authentic. As I was the only foreigner who had been through town in probably a couple months, everyone was very friendly. Spending a couple days on the old streets made the little town one of my favorite destinations in all of China. But I only had short time left in the country and had to move on so I caught the bus to HuaiHua then an overnight to Yangshuo.
YangShuo is probably the most famous scenic area in all of China. It’s certainly popular with both domestic and foreign tourists. The actual town is one of the most westernized places in all of China but the scenery in the surrounding countryside is sublime. Large karst limestone peaks jet out of a flat landscape covered in rice paddies. This makes it perfect territory for biking and I did just that. I stayed in a funny little hostel called Monkey Jane's which had a fantastic rooftop bar complete with beer pong table. I spent most of the nights there playing drinking games with the tons of Nordic travelers who were staying in the place. On a rainy day we checked out a cave with a natural hot spring and mud bath. On American thanksgiving we all went to the market to buy some fresh ingredients then the hostel chef along with a couple of guests cooked a great Chinese-western meal. I was stuffed when I boarded the overnight bus to ShenZhen that night.
ShenZhen is China’s biggest ‘special economic zone’. It went from being a small village twenty years ago to a modern skyscraper filled financial center today. As a city, it’s pretty boring. It’s all business and shopping. But the main reason I went was to see a girl, Annie, who I met two months previous in Shangri-La. She met me in the downtown but, since the city doesn’t really have any attractions, we just spent the day in the park playing guitar and chatting. After dinner she went back home and I went to a cafe to use the WIFI. When the cafe closed at eleven I asked the owners, a couple of girls in their mid twenties, if there was a bar nearby where I could continue to use the WIFI. They misunderstood and invited me out to a club with them and their friends. I thought, why not, and one hour later, found myself in the middle of ritzy ShenZhen club with a large group of Cantonese friends. After a few hours of dancing and playing liars dice, we hit a KTV joint where I was forced to sing “Wonderwall” and “Gangnam Stye”. At 5AM we ditched the KTV joint and hit a late night Cantonese restaurant. Seafood congee (rice pudding) and fried noodles before finally getting to bed around sunrise. A crazy and unexpected Cantonese style night out.
After ShenZhen I caught the bus to GuangZhou where it was raining hard. The little I saw of the city seemed very nice, a good mix of old and new, but I didn’t feel like walking around in the rain, so I planned to just stay in and read. That is until I got an unexpected text from Cheng Te (my ChangSha friend) in which she told me that she had taken a day off work and was catching a train to GuangZhou that night to see me before I leave China. She arrived late that night and we spent the next day together eating at one of GuangZhou’s most famous dim sum restaurants in the morning then checking out canton tower (the tallest building in China) in the afternoon. In the evening, we said another goodbye as she caught a train back home and I caught one to Dongguan on my way to Hong Kong.
The next morning I crossed the border into Hong Kong and finally officially left China. It was weird feeling getting my passport stamped for the last time. I guess I was sad to leave but ready. I had spent such a long time in the country and, despite the wealth of cultural diversity in China, it was starting to feel a bit too normal for me. Having that passport stamped was kind of like leaving home and not knowing if I would ever be back again. It was a bit of a sad moment but it wasn’t long before my longing for China was interrupted by the awe inspiring site of Victoria harbor in Hong Kong. I had seen it before, but it never gets old. For someone who loves skylines as much as me, its the ultimate sight. Hong Kong is one of my favorite cities in the world. It’s a perfect mix of natural and man made beauty and a place where you can find literally anything at anytime. It is its own country and in many ways its nothing like China. The Cantonese culture and language is much different from the rest of china (with the exception of GuangDong province) and Hong Kong fosters a much more liberal, international and generally crazy environment.
After a quick look at the harbor I went to Chung King mansion, a large building on the Kowloon side which houses hundreds of tiny Indian run guesthouses and sweatshops. It’s the cheapest place to stay in central Hong Kong but you have to be ready to bargain. The building is massive, organized into 17 floors and five blocks. You cannot access one block from another and the elevators are always packed so I had to carry my backpack up and down the stairs bargaining at guesthouse after guesthouse until, two hours later, I finally found a good deal. A small room with a decent bed and a shower for $20 a night. As soon as I had the room I dropped my bags and went to meet a local friend of mine, Rains, who I knew from new years previous when I was in Hong Kong last. She is a financial planning consultant who was born and raised in Hong Kong and the crazy city really is a great place to know a local. She knew I didn’t have a lot of money to spend so she took me to temple street to get some cheap local style Cantonese food then we just sat at the harbor, drinking 7-11 beers and enjoying the view. The next day Rains had to work so I just walked around the Kowloon side. Its much different from the island and a very interesting area. The buildings are older, the streets narrower and population much more multicultural than the Hong Kong side. Rains took the day off the following day to show me a small island 45 minutes from Victoria harbor called Cheung Chau. The little island town is a nice get away from the big city. You’re not even allowed to drive a car there. There were a few decent beaches and a ton of fishing boats which supplied the tasty cheap diner style restaurants in the center of town. We got some food there before catching the boat back to Hong Kong and meeting a friend of Rains’ for a few drinks in Prince Edward district. After drinks we had some street octopus then I had to say goodbye to both Rains and Hong Kong. I woke up early the next day, boarded my flight to Bangkok and, as I caught a last glimpse of the Victoria Harbour from the plane window, my year in China had finally come to an end.
I had some amazing experiences in the country but my time in China was not without many challenges. It is not all rainbows and butterflies over there and it can be an incredibly frustrating place for a foreigner. Communication is always a challenge even if you do speak a little mandarin. Every region down to the level of a city has its own dialect which is not fully understood in other parts of the country. While everyone can speak standard mandarin it is spoken with a wide range of accents which are difficult for even locals to decipher. Learning the language is one hell of a challenge in itself, but even if you know the language, trying to communicate while traveling from one region to the next can be just as difficult. And of course, outside of the CBDs of a few major cities, English speaking Chinese are rare. With the said, learning mandarin and practicing on the road has opened many doors to some great experiences and every time I have a successful conversation, no matter how short, with someone who does not speak English I still get that rewarding tingle in my stomach.
Another thing that makes China difficult is that, while a large tourist infrastructure exists, it is designed for domestic tourists and not foreigners. This is in stark contrast to other South East Asian countries where foreigners are catered to and, in many cases, don’t have to lift a finger to get things done. You are truly immersed in China. When you take a train or a bus, you are likely to be the only white person on board. When you go to a restaurant, you often have to point at pictures, at dishes on other tables or randomly at the menu and hope for the best. Outside of a few large cities, you do not find those small western niceties that help keep you comfortable like a pub, cheese or a sit down toilet. But these challenges really do make China more interesting and rewarding in the end. When I am in China, I don’t feel like just another tourist. I feel immersed in another culture where I often have no choice but to do what locals do.
I think China is a country where you get what you give. If you willing to step out of your element, give that weird street food a try, take that bumpy mountain road into unknown territory and try your hand at learning a little mandarin, you can get a lot out of this place. And if you make the effort, you will find that China is a real traveler’s smorgasbord. It has some of the world’s largest and most modern cities as well as some of the most remote and rural villages. It has rain forests, snow covered peaks, deserts, plateaus and everything in-between. The cuisine is incredibly diverse and always delicious. As a backpacker, my culinary test of a country is how good of a meal I can get for a dollar. China is unmatched in this respect. Not only can you get an excellent meal for a dollar but the selection is bewildering. From tofu cracker wraps to peanut rice noodles to street barbecue eggplant, there is always something new to try. Every region in China has its own traditions, languages and cuisine. In some cases, visiting neighboring regions feels like visiting different countries. And even within cities you see incredible contrasts. BMWs share the streets of smaller cities with mopeds and horse drawn buggies. Around the corner from trendy clubs and cafes you find groups of old men playing Chinese chess by firelight. Even in the center of China's largest metropolises, beneath the towering skyscrapers and five star hotels you still find little old ladies selling you one dollar bowls of noodles. Thats what makes China most interesting.
Last but not least, the of people of China are truly a generous and welcoming. Even with the communication problems and big city attitudes, I have never felt so much love from so many people. In smaller cities I often felt like a celebrity. I had countless meals and drinks bought for me and now have more 'best friends' in China than I can count. And locals are not nice to foreigners because they want something from them which is often the case in more touristy countries. They are generous and welcoming because they are genuinely interested in outsiders. They want to know where you come from, what your doing in China and whether you are enjoying yourself in their country. Contrary to stereotypes outside of China, the locals actually have a long tradition of welcoming foreigners and I almost always felt welcomed where ever I ventured. I think thats what I love and will miss most about this country. The people truly are fantastic.