17.10.2012 - 01.12.2012 15 °C
I left off my last post in Chengdu where I took a few days to relax after an interesting Tibetan adventure. As I boarded an overbooked train to Chongqing, I began the last leg of what had become a long journey through Southern 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 enjoying myself nevertheless.
Many travelers had told me to avoid Chongqing. It was described as an overly polluted, dirty mega city with little worth interest for the common tourist. Since it has a population which almost tops that of Canada, however, I was curious to see this super metropolis for myself. Upon arriving in the city center, I was instantly captivated by its immense skyline. The heart of the city was jam packed with countless modern high rises towering above the junction of two of China’s largest rivers. The city center was certainly grittier than China's other first tier cities but had some atmospheric old neighbourhoods and many modern amenities. I saw very few foreigners on the streets but the locals were more pleasant than is typical of major Chinese hubs.
On my first night in town, I had stopped to order some road side noodles when a local businessman randomly invited me to join him and his girlfriend at their table for a drink. He happened to be from Yantai and when I told him that I had worked in his hometown he was ecstatic. He wanted to hear all about my experience and insisted on treating me to some Chongqing style hotpot. I left my noodles on the table and followed him to one of the city’s top hot pot restaurants. Chongqing is famous for its delicious but ridiculously spicy hotpot. Many a foreign stomach has been destroyed by this local delicacy which is far from delicate. As much as I love spicy food, I was a bit anxious as we entered the restaurant and sat down in front of a steaming pot of bright red liquid. I knew my new friend would not be not stop ordering until he was certain I had my fill and, to avoid insulting him, I would not be able to refuse anything he put in front of me.
He removed the first piece of brisket from the pot, still dripping with chilli broth, placed it on my plate and smiled encouragingly. As I placed it in my mouth, my eyes widened and began to water. It was even spicier than I had imagined. Throughout the meal, I was forced to take two sips of beer for everyone one bite of food. By the end, my mouth was on fire, my stomach was simmering and my head was swirling from all the alcohol. The meal was fantastic but all that chilli pepper stayed with me for a few days.
As I made my way back to the hostel, I was tipsy enough to stumble into a fancy downtown club. As a backpacker in jeans and a torn t-shirt, I felt a little out of place. Chongqing’s rich and stylish youth sat at lavish tables filled with expensive bottles of alcohol and surrounded by beautiful women. I found a seat at the bar and perused the drink menu. The cheapest beer was eight American dollars, the equivalent of eight bowls of noodles. I was about to make for the exit when young businessman sat down next to me and immediately ordered us a round. As we chatted and played liars dice, several more drunken patrons stopped by to hand me a drink. I was forced to finish most of them on the spot. It was impossible to refuse. Some dragged me onto the dance floor where I received even more attention. Unfortunately, it was mostly from drunk men competing to bring the foreigner back to their table for a shot. I felt like a status symbol being dragged from group to group. Eventually I had to leave just to avoid getting sick. I had gone out earlier that evening with the intention of grabbing a bowl street side noodles and getting a good night sleep. Instead I returned at three in the morning, full of spicy food, beer and liquor. I hadn’t even spent a dime. Another strange night out in China.
When I awoke the following morning I was tired, hung over and had a bad case of the shits. Nonetheless, I downed some electrolytes, stuffed my pockets with toilet paper and set out into the city. China’s juxtaposition of tradition against modernity was no more apparent than in Chongqing. Giant futuristic skyscrapers towered above traditional neighbourhoods like new trees growing from old roots. High flying business executives sat at street side noodle stalls next to elderly men adorned in old communist memorabilia. You could literally see China rapidly emerging from its time-honoured past. It was an intriguing atmosphere.
That evening I took a cheap boat cruise along the skyline with a sea of kissing couples. After sunset, the exteriors of Chongqing’s riverside buildings illuminated with various animated patterns. The light show stretched the entire length of the riverside. The result was spectacular.
I packed my bags the following morning and made my way over to the ferry terminal. Since Chongqing sits on the Yangtze, I decided to book myself into a cheap cabin on a two night “pleasure cruise” which sails through China’s famous Three Gorges as I continued East. The boat looked nice enough in the pictures and I figured the journey would be relaxing. In China, however, initial impressions can be deceiving.
Inside my cabin were six small wooden planks and a toilet which had not been cleaned in ages. The sheets were dirty and the roar from the engine rumbled the walls. I had slept in worse conditions and I seemed to have the cabin to myself so I was not too concerned. My outlook further improved when a gorgeous Chinese woman entered the room and settled into the bed next to mine. We began chatting and she seemed friendly. For a short moment, I thought I would be sailing down the river with just a beautiful Chongqing local for company. But fifteen minutes before the departure time, five rambunctious eighty year old ladies entered the room and settled into the remaining spots. The boat was overbooked so two had to share a bed. They didn’t care though as they had no intention of sleeping. Instead, they drank Chinese whiskey, ate peanuts, laughed and gossiped all night long. One of them stole a table from somewhere and placed it in the center of our room so they could play cards and Chinese chess. It was pretty funny and cute at first but when this senile cabin party continued well into the wee hours of the morning I got pretty annoyed.
I searched the decks for a quiet spot to relax but the boat offered no refuge from the cabin. It was dirty, cold and lacked any proper amenities. There was no restaurant and no common area, only a small shop that sold packaged chicken feet and instant noodles. 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 a fee to enter a 'pleasure room'. Hanging on the wall in this room was a menu of ‘pleasurable tasks’ each with a fixed price. Tasks included ‘singing a song’, ‘dancing a dance’ and ‘sitting’. Yes, ‘sitting’ was a pleasure. If you wanted to sit anywhere on the boat, you had to pay for a small plastic stool and carry it wherever you went. I guess that’s what you get for a fifty dollar cruise.
Means of transportation aside, the gorges themselves were stunning. The jagged peaks flanking the river were steep, mystical and shrouded in mist. The ravine was wide in some areas but quite narrow in others allowing little space for our boat to squeak through. Unable to sleep, I caught a beautiful foggy sunrise over the XiLing gorge and spent much of my time on the top deck admiring the scenery. Late in the afternoon on our second day, we arrived at the enormous three gorges dam. I couldn’t wait to get off the boat. I quickly made my way to the bus station to catch a ride to Wuhan. From Wuhan’s terminal, I went to the closest cheap hotel, booked into a single room, took a long shower and got some desperately needed sleep.
Wuhan is a monster city which I saw very little of. It was raining heavily during my stay and I was too tired from the cruise to be bothered to leave my comfortable room. I only ventured short distances to KFC or the internet café. I spent most of my time watching bad Chinese movies.
After two nights of this recovery routine, I caught a train to Hefei then transferred to Tunxi, a small town which serves as the access point for Huangshan (Yellow Mountain), one of China’s most famous landmarks. I had heard many wonderful stories about Huangshan’s mist laden peaks and alluring sunrises. It was time to finally experience the mountain for myself. I had been looking forward to it for weeks.
As I prepared for the climb in my Tunxi dorm room I began chatting with an American who slept in the bunk opposite mine. He was a professional tuba player who had been working in the Beijing orchestra for the last three years. He seemed friendly enough so we agreed to hit the trail together early the next day.
When our minibus dropped us at the base of the mountain, it was cloudy and chilly. As soon as we hit the trail the skies opened up and the mountainside heated. The early morning scenery was spectacular. The yellow tinged cliffs were smooth and rounded but rose into sharp jagged peaks. Lazy trees clung to mountainside digging their roots into the rock face and swaying in the breeze. As we climbed higher, the peaks of surrounding mountains poked through the heavy mist which had settled in the valleys below. Layers of mountains made themselves known in the distance.
I was surprised by how simple the climb was. The Chinese government make these popular landmarks accessible to anyone with two legs by paving stone steps from the bottom to the top and providing cable cars for those unable or too lazy to climb. Nonetheless, the steep ticket price of over forty American dollars really means these sites are accessible only to the elite.
As I happily walked up the mountain, the convenience of the paths lulled me into a false sense of security. Instead of watching my step, I was walking more as I would on a side walk, taking pictures all the while. We were about half way to the summit when I failed to notice a break in the trail. One way led up and the other straight down steep stone steps. I unwittingly walked into the path leading down and quickly lost my footing. I still remember the moment, mid-flight, when I realized what was happening. I had removed the bandages from my burns only a few days before and now here I was again, facing another potentially trip-ending scenario. I hit the steps hard and tumbled a good two meters more bouncing from one stone step to the next. When I finally came to a stop I, along with my hiking buddy and the twenty Chinese tourists who witnessed the incident, thought for sure I must have broken something. The fall was from a good height and onto nothing but stone. When I stood up, I was bleeding from my left shin, right knee, left hand, right arm and chin, not too mention a badly bruised ass cheek. My right knee got the worst of the fall but, amazingly, not even it was broken.
In the immediate aftermath, I was more mentally than physically shaken. As I peered down at the steep stone steps below, I quickly realized how bad the fall could have been.
I had to take a moment to regain my composure before dusting myself off and continuing the climb. From similar soccer injuries, I knew my knee was damaged in a way that afforded me a few hours before the real pain set in. My best option was the continue climbing to the top and hope to find a mountain top clinic.
We reached the summit just in time for sunset. Countless jagged peaks glistened in the waning sunlight. The colours so were so breathtaking that I nearly forgot about my injuries. By the time it was dark, however, the pain slowly began to creep in. There were a few hostels on the summit but the only available clinic was closed for a holiday. This did not bode well for the climb down. Unsure of what to do, we found a couple warm bowls of noodles, a chilly dorm room and did our best to get some sleep.
At five in the morning, we were awoken by several loud tour groups preparing to watch the sunrise. I yelped in pain as I slowly swung my leg over the side of the bed. My fears had been realized. The tenderness of the injury had finally settled in and the knee was almost completely immobile. I managed to hobble out to the hotel balcony to watch Huangshan's famous sunrise. It was well worth the short painful trip. Layers upon layers of mountain tops rose out of the thick mist which had settled overnight like countless jagged islands in a milky white ocean. The knee loosened up slightly as I stood amongst the sea of Chinese tourists taking in the landscape but by the time the sun was far over the horizon, I was far from in climbing condition. With limited options, I had to come up with a plan. A six kilometre hike along the top of the mountain stood between me and the closest cable car. Either I made it to this cable car or I paid a few porters a hefty fee to carry me back down the way I came.
In hindsight, it may not have been the best decision to make for the cable car. I was lucky enough to run into a group of older foreign tourists who, due to their issues with arthritis, had a mobile pharmacy full of muscle relaxants and painkillers. They gave me two Aleve and two extra strength Tylenol. Thirty minutes later, I could not feel anything in the knee at all. Come to think of it, I could not feel anything period. We began to make our way towards the cable car. In the wake of the medication the pain had subsided. Nonetheless, the staunch stiffness was a constant reminder to take it slow. A couple hours later, we were off the mountain and on our way back to Tunxi. I stayed in bed all evening to give my battered body a rest.
The pain returned the following day but was much less severe. Confident that I had not done any serious damage, I caught a taxi to the bus terminal and boarded a coach to Hangzhou where I would get an x-ray just to be safe.
I arrived in Hangzhou on a sunny fall afternoon. My first order of business was obtaining a much needed visa extension. I was hesitant, however, to head to the visa office since I already had five Chinese visas in my passport and not all of them were credible. I kept wondering if I had perhaps pushed my luck too far. Only three days were left on my current visa so I would be facing difficult circumstances if denied. My only option would be to book a last minute flight out of the country. I trimmed my beard, combed my hair and put on my nicest clothes before heading to the public security bureau.
The immigration officer mumbled ‘buxing’ (not good) under his breath as he took a look at my passport. He clearly was not impressed by all of my visas. He told me that a hotel registration, bank statements showing in excess of three thousand American dollars and a full itinerary of my travels were necessary before I could even apply for an extension. He took pleasure in the irritation clearly evident on my face. I wish someone had told me this before I waited in line for an hour.
Tired and frustrated, I limped back to my hostel, asked them to register me in the system and requested to print off my bank statements. Of course, they didn’t have a printer at the hostel so I was forced to hobble around the city for well over an hour before I found a tiny print shop down a dark back alley. Once I was sure I had all the proper documents printed and in hand, I made my way back to the visa office. I waited in line for another hour before being confronted by the same officer who had turned me away earlier. He studied each of my documents carefully. After reluctantly confirming that I had all the proper paperwork to apply, he informed me that the Hangzhou visa office offers only fifteen day visa extensions which take one week to process. Essentially, by the time I would get my passport back I would have seven days to leave the country. It was pointless. This was Chinese bureaucracy at its worst. When I asked him what I could do to get a normal thirty day extension he told me to go to another city.
I returned to the hostel empty handed and frustrated. I had to consider my options. It was Friday and my visa was to run out on Monday. To make matters worse, all of China’s visa offices were closed Saturday and Sunday. Either I stayed in Hangzhou and paid for the pointless extension or risked trying to obtain a visa on Monday in Changsha, my next destination. It was a tough decision, but I just had too much more to see in China. Seven days was not enough. I booked an overnight ticket to Changsha leaving Sunday night and hoped for the best.
With my visa problems on hold, I considered what to do about my physical ailments. My knee had loosened up considerably but was far from one hundred percent and some of my other wounds had become infected. The hostel owner spoke of a good international clinic in the area. I staggered around for thirty minutes before I found it. Out front the white building was a large sign which read “24 Hour Seven Days a Week International Health Care Service!” I walked up to the front door in the middle of the afternoon on a Friday to find that it was locked and nobody was there.
That empty clinic nearly sent me over the edge. I had been in China for almost a year and had dealt with many a frustrating episode. ‘This is China’ was a mantra I would often recite to calm myself down. But with the visa issues, the injuries and the daily frustrations of being unable to accomplish anything, my limits were being tested. I eased my worries by drowning them in beer with a group of foreigners from the hostel at a local bar that night.
The following day, I took some time to calm down next to Hangzhou’s renowned west lake. It was the perfect atmosphere to ease my troubled mind. The water sparkled in the late autumn sunlight. Willow trees hung over grassy shores from which I was afforded stunning views of the nearby foothills. Surrounding the lake were several pedestrian streets and traditional neighbourhoods. Colourful pagodas capped several hill tops west of the lake and the entire district was full of trendy bars and cafes. Hangzhou was far fancier and more westernized than the China I was used to but an agreeable setting nonetheless. The lovely city afforded a pleasant means for ignoring my problems for a couple days. On Sunday, I snapped back to reality as I settled into the hard seat of an overbooked thirteen hour overnight train to Changsha.
I knew nothing about Changsha beyond it being the capital of Hunan province and the former home of Chairman Mao. The city was certainly not a typical stop on the east coast backpacker highway. I didn’t much care about the setting though. I just prayed that its visa office as more relaxed than Hangzhou’s. Upon arriving at the train station after a long sleepless night, I went straight to they city’s only hostel to drop my bags and register. Since my visa was to run out in less than twenty four hours, the desk clerk said he was not allowed to register me as a guest. They advised me to go to the visa office and return with proof of a visa extension. I tried to explain to him that I could not apply for a visa unless I was registered at a hotel in the city but my broken Chinese was simply not good enough to get the point across. Finally the clerk took me to the police station to register with an officer. I was unsure whether the little slip of paper the officer gave me would be sufficient to apply for a visa but I had no choice but to try.
Running on fumes, I arrived at the visa office with my makeshift registration and the documents I had already printed in Hangzhou in hand. I did my best to fill out the pre-application paperwork and waited for half an hour to see a visa officer. He carefully inspected all of my documents. After a short deliberation period, he informed me that I had all the proper paperwork but my bank statements were three days old and had to be reprinted. The dates on the bank statements had to match the date of the application. He was unwavering on this point and I was sent back into the city in search of a printer once again. I first asked at the hostel, no luck there. I found a small print shop down the street but their printer was out of order. I went to the closest internet cafe but they had no printers for public use. I searched the streets but could not for the life of me find a printer. It was two hours later that I finally stumbled upon a hole-in-the-wall print shop near the university several kilometres from the hostel.
With my registration, up to date bank statements, itinerary and application paperwork printed, I returned to the visa office late in the afternoon. This was my last chance. If I was turned down I would not have enough time print off everything again and return before closing. Without a new extension, I would have no choice beyond heading straight to the airport and booking any available international flight. I waited anxiously while the officer once again closely examined the papers. Seconds felt like minutes. He left me in suspense for far too long. At last, he told me to pay the fee at the front desk and come back in one week to pick up my passport. I was so relieved I nearly jumped across the desk to hug him.
With my visa issues finally solved I took a long wonderful nap and awoke feeling much more relaxed. Even my knee was feeling a bit better. Then I took a walk into downtown Changsha to find that it is actually one of China’s most happening cities. Since Mr Mao was born only an hour away, I thought the city would be more on the conservative side. I couldn’t have been more wrong. It is one of the few places I’ve seen in China that has a lively home grown nightlife. The street side corners were packed with large groups of locals, both young and old, eating spicy hotpot, drinking, playing cards and singing songs late into the night. There were several large night life districts and an eclectic mix of clubs, bars and cafes. Chinese style night life is typically all about the glitz and glam, high-priced drinks, strobe lights and shitty top40s music. While Changsha certainly had plenty of this, it also boasted many small music bars, trendy shops and European cafes. Most of these establishments were run by local students or recent grads. This was something I had not seen anywhere else in China save for perhaps a few small corners of Beijing or Shanghai. Speaking a little Chinese, it was an easy place to make friends.
At one of the 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 tunes. The musicians could not have been older than eighteen but were quite talented. The young woman who brought me my drink did not work at the bar but was helping out a friend who owned it. Her small frame was adorned with all sorts of funky attire and accessories. She took the seat opposite mine as she placed a cheap Chinese beer in front of me and introduced herself as Cheng Te, a twenty one year old fashion consultant. Apparently, this meant she taught classes to woman in their mid twenties on how to dress. She had done quite a bit of traveling in the west of China and we chatted about our favourite destinations. Various guitarists and singers took the stage as we passed the time sharing travel stories. When the bar closed, we moved to a late night noodle joint. We continued chatting well into the night. Much of our conversation was beyond the scope of my mandarin abilities but I did my best to keep up. It was almost sunrise when I finally made it back to the hostel. We agreed to meet again the next evening.
I spent a lot of time with Cheng Te over the following week. It was a week of much needed relaxation. My routine was simple. I often slept til the afternoon before taking a short walk around the city. In the evening I would meet Cheng Te for dinner at one of Changsha’s posh international restaurants. Several promo cards from her work allowed us some high class meals. She also exposed me to Changsha’s mouth numbing street food. It was delicious but spicy as all hell. One dish in particular “malatang” was very interesting. At a malatang stall, you pick from a wide selection of fresh vegetables and types of tofu. Then the cook turns your selection into a spicy bowl of noodle soup. It soon became one of my favourite Chinese street snacks. After dinner we would often sit along the river, hang out at a cafe or just walk the busy streets. We always found something interesting to do. One night I taught her how to ice skate at Hunnan province’s only ice rink. On another we witnessed Changsha’s spectacular weekly fireworks show on the riverside. Except for the nights she took me shopping or to get her hair done, I always enjoyed myself.
The week seemed to fly by. Soon my visa was ready and it was time to move on. Cheng Te saw me off at the station as I boarded a bus bound for Zhangjiajie City. She was sad to see me go but, as is often the case when traveling, we both knew that our time together was limited. I only had three weeks left on my visa and lots left to see. We promised to stay in touch.
My reason for travelling to Zhangjiajie City was to visit its famous national park. Locals often claim that the movie Avatar was filmed amongst its giant limestone spires and thick forests. I always believed Avatar was filmed in a big blue room and put together by CGI experts but I was curious to see what all the hype was about. I spent a night in the city before trekking into the park. The weather was warm and sunny when I arrived. It was immediately apparent why locals associate the area with scenes from Avatar. Thousands of vertical spires, some several hundred meters tall, covered the bizarre rain forested landscape. The pinnacles rose out of canyons and valleys at near impossible angles with trickling streams and mossy rocks settled on the forest floor below. Various plateaus provided stunning views of the bizarre landscape.
The main paths were littered with Korean tourists so I took a lesser known trail following a clear water stream into the heart of the park. The climb to the top of the plateau was more difficult than I had anticipated. I realized that my knee had not fully recovered from the fall on Huangshan. But from the top I had a beautiful view of the sunset over the spires. Tucked away in the forest was a cozy little hostel where I stayed the night. I was lucky enough to have a heated dorm room all to myself. Since I was to turn twenty four at midnight, I considered it an early birthday present.
I awoke the following morning to the sound of heavy rain on the hostel’s rooftop. The clear weather from the day previous had all but disappeared and the park was shrouded in fog. I spent a few more hours hiking around the area but left early in the afternoon to return to the city before evening. It was my birthday after all and I wanted to treat myself to a nice dinner and a few drinks.
My hostel was empty and the city devoid of foreigners. I had no one to join me in my birthday celebrations. Setting off into the town center alone, however, did not bother me. I had become quite use to it in China. Although it was considerably smaller, Zhangjiajie City had a nightlife vibe similar to that of Changsha. There was no shortage of happening joints to grab a drink. I hopped from bar to bar chatting with locals in each spot. Everyone was receptive and friendly if not a little confused by my presence. Eventually, I ended up at a KTV bar owned by two beautiful Chinese sisters. They treated me to a few birthday drinks and persuaded me to sing a couple songs. By that point, I was far too tipsy to refuse. When the bar closed around three in the morning, they invited me out for a late night snack.
‘Zhu ni shengri kuai le’ (happy birthday) one of the sisters said as she placed a large steaming bowl of soup in front of me. It was filled with a dark broth and had the severed foot of a pig poking through its surface. This was my birthday gift. Chopsticks and spoon in hand, I hesitated as the foot’s three steaming toes stared me in the face. ‘Happy birthday’ I said to myself as I threw my inhibitions aside and dove in. It was actually quite tasty. After our late night meal, the girls dropped me off at my hostel. I thanked them for their generosity. They had made my second birthday in China a day to remember.
The next morning I slept in and nearly missed the bus I had booked the day before. I jumped aboard as it was pulling away from the gate. Three short hours later I arrived in Fenghuang, a funky ancient town set upon a meandering river amidst misty hills. The town’s traditional buildings hung precariously over the riverbank kept from falling in only by thin wooden stilts. Unfortunately, domestic tourism had clearly made its distinct mark on the settlement as inside every beautiful old building was a hotel, restaurant, trinket shop or loud KTV bar. This detracted from the cultural atmosphere, however, Chinese domestic tourism is a cultural experience in itself. It rained constantly during my stay but the town was a good one to experience in the rain. The stone streets and walls reflected the colourful paint which barely clung to buildings and statues in the downpour. Mist roamed in and out of alleyways as much as the Chinese tourists. Elderly townsfolk stayed hidden underneath umbrellas as they meandered through the maze of windy streets. After sunset, the whole riverside was illuminated with colourful Christmas lights. Every post, window, rooftop and bridge glimmered brightly. It was a spectacular setting, but I only spent a couple nights in the old city. It was too touristy for my tastes.
From FengHuang I caught a bus to a town called HongJiang. For anyone who feels as though China has lost some of its traditional roots, I recommend a trip to HongJiang. I knew little about this hidden gem upon arrival but quickly fell in love. The ancient commercial center was full of thatched roofs, cobblestone streets and weathered stone walls. Many of the old retirees who represented the majority of the demographic still wore traditional clothes and played traditional Chinese games around street fires. There were no tourists, only old families living out simple lives. It felt very authentic and was a nice change from the touristified Fenghuang.
The locals were all very curious and friendly. Several old men offered to buy me a bowl of noodles. Many old ladies stopped me on the street to chat. How they expected me to communicate in their local dialect I am still not sure. All I know is that their welcoming attitudes along with Hongjiang’s laidback atmosphere and beautiful surroundings quickly made the town one of my favourite destinations in all of China. I could have stayed for weeks but I only had ten days left on my visa and no trip to China is complete without a visit to Guanxi province. So, after three short nights in Hongjiang, I packed my bags and hopped from bus to bus until I finally reached Yangshou over ten hours later.
Next to the great wall, Yangshou is probably the most famous scenic area in all of China. I was certainly surprised to see so many tourists in one Chinese town. One look around, however, and the tourist migration is understandable. The scenery was absolutely sublime. Countless bizarre karst limestone peaks jetted out of the flat landscape. In between the towering formations, farmers tended to rice paddies and raised cattle. The large Li river winded its way through the region splitting and rejoining itself to accommodate the strange formations. The area was full of well trodden trails which connected the many small villages and allowed an easy escape from the hoards of tourists. It was perfect biking territory. I occupied most of my time doing just. When the rain did not allow for biking I visited a limestone cave with a natural hot spring nestled inside.
I stayed in a funny little hostel called Monkey Jane's which sported a rooftop bar complete with beer pong and cheap tsingtao. I spent most of the nights there playing drinking games with a bunch of Scandinavian backpackers. On American thanksgiving we bought an assortment of fresh meats and vegetables at the local market and prepared a large half western half Chinese feast. The Scandinavians cooked up some meat balls, a Valencian traveler made us a Spanish omelette and the Chinese cook whipped up a few stir fries. Everything was delicious. I was stuffed when I boarded a bus bound for Shenzhen that night.
As anyone should after a thanksgiving meal, I slept well on the cushy sleeper bus to Shenzhen and arrived in need of a toilet the following morning. At the time of my visit, Shenzhen was China’s biggest ‘special economic zone’. In the late 1980s, businesses willing to invest in the area were given free rain to conduct commerce with low taxes and little government interference. The region went from being nothing more than a backwater to a modern skyscraper filled financial center in little more than a decade.
To be honest, as a backpacker, I found it to be pretty boring. There was not much to do beyond business and shopping. But the main reason I went was to visit a girl, Annie, who lived in nearby Dongguan. We had watched ‘Kung Fu Panda’ together at our Shangri La hostel two months previous and kept in touch ever since. After I found myself a cheap room, I met Annie in the downtown core. There was nothing to see beyond towering skyscrapers, so we spent most of our day in a park chatting about our experiences in the west of China and strumming on my guitar. In the evening we ate Sushi and drank at a fancy Japanese restaurant. The prices were high and I felt out of place as a budget traveler but the conversation was good. I always enjoy reconnecting with people I met while traveling. When Annie returned to her sister’s home, I walked back to my guesthouse with a significantly lighter wallet.
It was nearing midnight but I was wide awake. I found a small café with an internet connection next to my hostel to write some emails. The owner, a hip local woman who was dressed to the nines, told me that the café would close in only a few minutes. As she brought the chairs in from the patio, I asked if there was a bar nearby which had a WIFI connection. She misunderstood my question and invited me to join her and her friends at a posh night club. I certainly had no intention going out that night but I rarely turn down an opportunity to party with locals.
One hour later, I was sitting at a large round table in the middle of a ritzy Shenzhen club with a group of classy Cantonese friends. We drank, we danced and we played liars dice. The entrance price was steep, but bottle after bottle of fine whiskey seemed to appear on the table with no sign of a bill. When the club thinned out, our large group got a room at a fancy KTV joint. The drinks continued to flow as each member of the entourage took turns singing sappy Chinese love songs. I was eventually forced to sing “Wonderwall”, the only English song I could find in the system.
At five in the morning we ditched the KTV joint in favour of a late night seafood restaurant. The server placed a gigantic bowl of rice pudding stuffed full of strange ocean creatures in the middle of the table. It took almost an hour for seven of us to polish it off. As the sun was rising, one of the more rambunctious of the group suggested another after hours club. I told them all I had to catch a bus in only a few hours, thanked them for showing me such a good time and returned to the guesthouse. I remember thinking to myself how these unexpected random nights were becoming much less unexpected in China.
I managed only a few hours to sleep before catching a bus to Guangzhou. It was pouring rain when I arrived in the Cantonese mega metropolis. I was tired, hung over and fighting off a nagging cold so I quickly settled into a hostel and planned to spend a couple days reading, writing and recuperating indoors. That is until I got an unexpected text from Cheng Te in which she told me that she had taken a day off work and was catching a train to GuangZhou to see me before I left China. To be honest, a small part of me wanted her to stay in Changsha. The part of me that was desperate for some sleep. Nonetheless, I was excited to see her when she arrived at the train station late that night. We spent the following day huddled under an umbrella as we explored Guangzhou’s streets. Even in the shitty weather, the city was quite nice. It had an interesting mix of traditional and colonial influences with a distinct international flair. The street food was fantastic and we caught a memorable lunch at Guangzhou’s most famous dim sum restaurant. The huge spiralling Guangzhou tower was also a worthwhile attraction. The surrounding area was full of chic modern architecture and fancy parks. We had little time to explore. Early in the evening, less than twenty four hours after she arrived, Cheng Te and I parted ways as she caught a train back to Changsha. With me leaving China the following day, we both new that this goodbye was final.
I took a short bus ride to Dongguan where I was to spend my last night on the mainland. Annie, who had returned to Dongguan to work, met me at the bus station. We grabbed another delicious, although thankfully much cheaper, Japanese meal and perused the streets of Dongguan before I retired to my guesthouse.
Early the following morning, I made the short trip back to Shenzhen to cross the border into Hong Kong. At the border control, an immigration officer stamped my passport, officially concluding my stay in China. It was a sobering moment. I felt like I was leaving behind a second home unaware of when I would ever return. It was difficult saying goodbye to a country that had had such an influence over the last year of my life. Nonetheless, I was ready to experience something new. I had spent a long time in China and, despite its wealth of cultural diversity, life inside its borders was starting to feel too normal for the backpacker in me.
It wasn’t long before my contemplative thoughts were interrupted by the awe inspiring spectacle that is Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbour. It was not the first time I had laid eyes on the towering jungle of steel, glass and concrete but the view never gets old. For someone who loves skylines as much as I, it’s the ultimate sight.
Hong Kong is one of my favorite cities in the world. It boats an ideal mix of natural and man made beauty. It is a place where you can find literally anything at any time of the day or night and there is no where in the world quite like it. The fast paced Cantonese culture is much different from that of mainland China and the western influenced government fosters a much more liberal environment.
The high costs make backpacking through Hong Kong difficult but the city can be experienced on the cheap. My method was to go straight Chung King mansion, a massive building in Kowloon which houses hundreds of tiny Indian run guesthouses and sweatshops. I had discovered this gem one year earlier when Yahia and I showed up in Hong Kong on New Years Eve without a room. If you know how to bargain, it’s by far the cheapest place to stay in the city.
The building is organized into five massive blocks and stretches seventeen floors. One cannot access one block from another and the few flimsy elevators servicing each block are always jam packed. As a result, I was forced to carry my backpack up and down the stairs from guesthouse to guesthouse searching for a good deal. The sweatier I became, the more desperate I looked and the more difficult the bargaining. I had to take breaks in the stairwell to regain my composure. It took well over an hour to find a decent price. For $20, I booked a small private room with a clean bed and a bathroom. I dropped my bags and took a quick shower. There was no time to relax as I had already agreed to meet a local friend for dinner.
I had met Rains on the New Years Eve previous when I was in the city last. We had stayed in touch ever since. She was a young financial planning consultant who was born and raised Hong Kong. The crazy city really is a great place to know a local. Rains spoke often of what she despised about her hometown but clearly enjoyed showing a foreigner around. Aware of my limited funds, she took me to Temple Street to get some cheap local Cantonese food. Everything was smothered in sweet and sour sauce and dripping with oil. It was exactly what I needed after a long afternoon of trudging up and down stuffy stairwells. After dinner we sat at the harbor, drinking 7-11 beers, chatting and enjoying the view. The late night winds from the ocean eventually forced us back to our homes. It was late December after all and even Hong Kong can get chilly.
The next day Rains had to work so I took a few hours to wander Kowloon. I had spent most of my last visit to Hong Kong on the main island. Kowloon, however, felt like a whole other city. The buildings were older, the streets narrower and the demographic more multicultural. Shopkeepers from around the globe peddled anything from fake Rolexes to greasy samosas. Colourful signs stretched their bright neon arms out over the streets in a futile attempt to gain the upper in hand in a competition over limited advertising space. It was an interesting environment.
Rains took the following day off work to take me to Cheung Chau, a small island forty five minutes by ferry from Victoria Harbour. This little island town was a great getaway from the big city. There were no cars and the buildings were no more than two stories high. Countless fishing boats scattered throughout the bay supplied the tasty cheap diner style restaurants in the center of town. We took a nature walk along the water which passed by secluded coves and dark tunnels. It was hard to believe we were still in Hong Kong. It was the perfect example of what is often overlooked in this place. There is much more to this business hub than fancy buildings and big city lights. We explored Cheung Chau until sunset at which point we caught a ferry to the city.
Back amongst the towering skyscrapers, we met a friend of Rains’ for a drink on Prince Edward Street, one of Hong Kong’s main night life districts. The bars were busy and the prices wallet crushing. I could only afford a couple beers on my backpacker budget. We capped off the night with some street side grilled octopus, yet another ‘must try in Hong Kong’. I think I could write a book on this subject after spending a couple days with Rains. I thanked her for all her hospitability as we parted ways that night. Once again, a friendly local had made my experience.
I woke up early following morning to catch the subway to the airport. An Air Asia flight bound for Bangkok was waiting for me at the gate. I settled into a cramped window seat and closed my eyes. The plan raced down the runway and propelled itself into the sky. As I opened my eyes, I caught my last glimpse of the Victoria Harbour skyline through the fog. It finally set in. My year in China had come to an end.
My experience in this wild country was full of interesting adventures but not without its challenges. The mainland can be an infuriating place for a foreigner to live and travel. As my visa issues can account to, the mistrust of outsiders in the high levels of government makes it difficult for even lowly backpackers to trek through all the red tape.
Communication was always obstacle, even when I was able to speak a bit of the language. It seemed as though every city had its own unique dialect. Each was distinctly different and often only loosely connected with mandarin. Outside of the central districts of a few major cities, English speaking Chinese and translated signs were rare.
A large tourist infrastructure was available in popular areas of China, however, it was clearly designed for domestic tourists, not foreigners. Even in touristy areas, I often felt immersed in a culture which was fundamentally different from that of the west, where I often had no choice but to do what locals do. When I took a train or a bus, I was almost always the only white face onboard. In restaurants, I was reduced to pointing at pictures on the wall, at dishes on other tables or randomly at the menu. Outside large city centers or major tourist spots, I seldom came across those small western niceties that keep a westerner sane like pubs, cheese or sit down toilets.
Nonetheless, these challenges are what made my experience in China more interesting and rewarding in the end. China is a country where you get what you give. Being willing to step out of the large commercial centers, explore remote corners, deal with everyday frustrations, give that weird street food a try, take that bumpy mountain road into unknown territory or learn a bit of the language is what ultimately opens the door to experiencing the depths of what this massive country has to offer. Once I opened that door, I found China to be a true traveler’s smorgasbord.
China has some of the world’s largest and most modern city centers and some of its most remote minority villages. It has rain forests, snow covered peaks, deserts, plateaus and everything in-between. Each region has its own distinct traditions, languages and cuisine. In some cases, visiting neighboring cities feels like visiting different countries. Even within cities, stark contrasts are apparent. Fancy cars share the streets 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 one dollar bowls of noodles.
The cuisine is diverse and the selection infinite. If it is edible, it is eaten in China. From insect meat to pig’s feet, I came to realize how the Chinese have developed a talent for making anything taste delicious. But ultimately, as a backpacker, my culinary judgment of a country depends on how good of a meal I can get for a dollar. China is unmatched in this respect. Not only could I get an excellent meal for a dollar but the selection was bewildering. From tofu cracker wraps to peanut rice noodles to street barbecue eggplant, there was always something new and delicious to try.
The Chinese certainly have a bad reputation among neighbouring countries. They are often described as loud, brash, impolite and greedy. They are dismissed as unfriendly and unruly. But many of these impressions come from those who have not spent enough time outside of China’s few major cities or tourist attractions.
Contrary to the big city stereotypes, most Chinese are very welcoming and interested in outsiders. Many have had little contact with foreigners beyond what they see on TV or in the movies. They want to know where we are from, how our home differs from theirs and what our impression is of their country. Most want us to leave their small corner of China with a full belly and a wide smile. Their chief obstacle is communication. Learning a bit of the language opened up a whole other world for me. Once I was able to cross the communication barriers, I had never felt so much kindness from so many people. Locals often felt obliged show me the way when I was lost, treat me to dinner when I was hungry or show me around when I was curious.
The Chinese may lack the social civility and communicative ability of people in more developed countries. Yes, they yell, they spit, they don’t line-up and they are brutally honest. But these things are cultural; they do not speak to character. Manners aside, the vast majority of the people I encountered in China were some of the most genuine and welcoming I had ever met.