Our adventure is about to take a bit of a different turn, tomorrow we hand the reins, the guide book and all of our trust over to a tour leader who will travel with us through China and allow us to experience things that right now only appear in my wildest imagination. With both of us desperate to experience Chinese culture, witness The Terracotta Army and put two feet on the infamous Great Wall we knew this was the only way to travel China.
When we booked this tour around November time last year we thought it would feel like an eternity before it came around. Well that’s not the case and like a flash the 12th of May was here and we were on our way to Hong Kong to meet with the group we would be spending the next 18 days with.
Naturally we were both apprehensive about the type of people we would be sharing this adventure with. The company you are with can sometimes be the make or break of a trip.
So it begins – The plan was to meet in the lobby of our hotel at 6pm so we can meet everyone, have a chat about the trip and then head out for dinner. Fran and I were first down and introduced ourselves to our tour guide Anson, who then gave us the itinerary and the names of those who will be joining us. ONE English name, the rest we had trouble reading let alone saying, oh boy were we in trouble.
There were two Danish girls, one English and Fran and I. Anson explained to us two more will be joining us tomorrow but they have had to spend the evening in a hospital thanks to a little run in with a crazed monkey in Thailand! I’m sure that wasn’t the start Anson had in mind for us all but we wait in anticipation and look forward to meeting them the next day hoping he survives n’all! That’s a grand total of 7 which I think is a good number of people as it will hopefully allow us to get to know each other really well.
Following the meeting and the introductions Anson took us out for dinner at a really local street food restaurant. Around 20 tables were arranged under gigantic sheets of canvas. The smell was enticing yet the sight was set to scare any newbie traveller. Us weathered travellers have become accustomed to such sights and understand that if you want the best authentic food you need to rough it – it always pays off! We left the ordering to the pro Anson who was born and raised in China. What turned up was a serious feast, and we spent the evening eating, drinking and getting to know one another.
First Stop – Hong Kong
Our meeting place and start of this grand adventure. My first views of the city included huge high rise buildings, crazy busy roads and oh so many people pushing, shoving and rushing their way through life. We wandered around Nathan Road, which kind of reminded me of Oxford street in London with its hundreds of shops, swarms of people and double decker buses. We found ourselves a Starbucks and spent a couple of hours in their drinking coffee and people watching. A perfect way to settle back into city life before the craziness begins.
After meeting with our group and spending our 1st of 18 dinners together we all headed out to a night market to see if we were still A* hagglers. Turns out it’s like riding a bike and I ended up buying myself a new pair of headphones and a lead that allows me to put my camera memory card into my iPad. Fran and I then spent the evening like children playing with my new toys and reminiscing over all the photos we had forgotten we’d taken. Which also means you lot will be able to see what I’ve been getting up to on Facebook now 🙂
We had our first experience of a local Chinese breakfast the next day which does not differ from the regular noodles and beef you can find for lunch and dinner. Not exactly what your stomach is craving at 9am in the morning especially with the spicy kick that the Chinese can’t live without. And you know what; it actually wasn’t bad and we all decided we won’t mind having this type of breakfast for the rest of the trip. Doing it how the locals do – bring it on!
Unfortunately our time in Hong Kong was already up and it was time for our first night train to our next destination. We were promised nicer sleeper trains than Thailand however that’s not what we got 😦 The cabins each had 6 beds, three bunks high, we were 3rd class, hard sleeper, which is exactly what it sounds – break braking beds and basic!! Honestly though it sounds worse than it actually was. After playing cards and chatting the hours away we all slept pretty well and woke up in Yangshou ready for anything.
Second Stop – Yangshou
Known to have the biggest cave in China! Well as you may know we’ve seen our fair share of impressive caves during this trip so this one had big shoes to fill. Once we were showered and had washed off the smell of night train we headed out to this famous cave – time for some exploring. It’s 2000 meters long and is so tall that there are three separate tiers you can walk along and experience some eye watering views. Of course there were the standard stalactites and stalagmites, which Fran and I have seen SO many of now that unfortunately it’s become all the same. I’ve had to say to myself to stop taking photos of caves and rocks as once I get home these will be the basis of the most boring conversation in history! Mum this is a picture of a funny shaped rock in Vietnam, this is another in China, here’s one we saw in Phong Nha – you catch my drift? There’s still no denying that it was magic inside and however many caves I’ve now seen there’s no way I can not stand in awe of there greatness!!
Li River was next on the agenda. A stunning area that is surrounded by huge limestone mountains, it reminded me very much of Halong Bay. Actually that’s exactly what it looked like. The weather wasn’t on our side so visibility was pour and the rain was stop-start the entire journey. I can’t take away from the beauty of these mountains but because of the time Fran and I have spent in Vietnam, where there are an abundance them, it did unfortunately take away the magic for me. It’s really hard not to sound ungrateful about this amazing trip but we felt again as if we’ve seen all this before, and you can’t compare to our amazing Halong Bay trip! Fran and I came away feeling like we still hadn’t left Vietnam and had yet to enter China. Fingers crossed this feeling changes.
After a full nights sleep in hotel beds, we hired bikes and cycled around the magnificent mountains that surround the small town of Yangshou. It was a wonderful sight cycling through local villages and rural areas of China. We watched as locals planted rice and the buffaloes ploughed the stodgy mud paddies. It looked like back breaking work but as their only source of income is it a job they do well, rain or shine.
Our final stop was a limestone mountain with a huge curve near the top that is in the shape of a moon. Funnily enough named Moon Hill it is a pretty spectacular site. It was once a cave that has since collapsed and left this gigantic hole in the rock. We climbed the 800 steps to the top and took in the wonderful views of the surrounding area. Once we recovered from the intense climb we took some wicked photos and then headed back down for a well deserved lunch!!
While in Yangshou we were taken to a REALLY traditional food market full of fruits, vegetables and meats. Maybe it was a little to traditional for us mere westerners, as what I thought was a small deer hanging ready for slaughter actually turned out to be a dog. And I was out! I’ve seen some weird stuff on this trip but that there was the cherry!! Next stop please?
A 13 hour night train and a 2 1\2 hour bullet train and we’d made it to the next stop -Yichang. I’ve got to add here how crazy nuts the Chinese people are when it comes to travel. As soon as an announcement is made that gates will be opening a stampede literally erupts and chaos ensues. It’s as if it’s first come first serve for these trains but the funny thing is everyone has an allocated seat. Get a grip people, you will get on the train – stop pushing me out the damn way! I know this will be something none of us get used to.
Third Stop – Yichang
This is Ansons home town and he was very excited to share this with us. We headed out for dinner on the first night at one of his favourite local hotspots and again left the ordering to him. He surpassed expectations and the food was the best we’ve had so far. He ordered himself a share size portion of baby lobster, which was the spiciest shell fish I’ve ever tried. He ate the whole thing which was so funny to watch. I’ve never seen a man sweat so much while eating food. It looked as if he hated to love it!! Very funny!
A park opposite our hotel looked like it has been adopted as the home of dance. Hundreds of locals took to the streets to exercise and dance away the night to all types of music; from salsa to a simple one two step. We even came across a slow dance section that was full of older couples dancing under the moon light. So romantic.
We have come to Yichang for a trip to see the Three Gorges. What’s that I hear you say, well I thought the same before our very informative chat with Anson about the history and what a gorge actually is. A gorge is a narrow valley between mountains that has a river running through it. Oh god was this going to be the most boring trip of my entire life?
The morning of the trip the weather was miserable, misty and dark – England, is that you?
That weather didn’t change for the whole day and made the trip really disappointing. There are memorable bits but these include winning at cards and having my photo taken by swarms of Chinese people. This whole blonde hair blue eyes thing I have is not playing in my favour in China as it’s drawing me a lot of unwanted attention. At one point I literally had a queue of people waiting to have there photo taken with me. Signatures emailed upon request 😉
We did have an educational moment with Anson though when we stopped at the site of the Three Gorges Dam. There is so much water being held that since it’s completion in 2008 it has changed the landscape of the surrounding area with it’s higher water levels and wider rivers. The dam is under high secretary which I first found really odd and then learnt it’s seriously necessary as if the dam was to be broken it would flood 13 cities downstream including the whole of Shanghai. That really is a lot of water!
Unfortunately I can’t say any of us loved the trip. I’m sure if the sky was blue and the weather was warm we would of enjoyed it a lot more but the weather wasn’t on our side and those views that were promised were no where to be seen.
It’s time to move on again which means another stint of night trains and noisey Chinese. Usually we are all together in one cabin so we get to chat, play cards and go to bed when ever we want. That wasn’t the case this time around as we were all separated into 4 cabins. 2 of us in each sharing with 4 Chinese people. We hardly got a wink of sleep, they sat on our bottom bunks way after lights out so we couldn’t go to sleep. The evening became an official disaster when a lady started changing her babies nappy at the bottom of my bed. Never again do we want to be split up on the trains, never again. Give us our friends back!
Fourth Stop – Xi’An
The roads here are absolute chaos and the way they drive kinda scared me, there are zero road rules and way too many cars and people for the roads. But we made it alive to our next destination and it was time to explore again.
We headed out on the public bus to the famous city wall. I really enjoy taking the bus but now were in China we get stared at like were animals in a zoo, which is not even slightly enjoyable.
The city wall in Xi’An is the only one in the world that still stands fully intact. We jumped on some bikes and peddled our way around the whole thing. It was such a great way to see the city and get some wicked photographs. We even caught a bit of a tan/got sunburnt (it’s been a while guys), so it was a great day in all.
Xi’An is home of the Terracotta Warriors and the main reason for this stop. It was the day I was really looking forward too even if I didn’t know too much about them before. Just to say I’ve been there and witnessed the real thing is something I couldn’t wait for.
And boy were my expectations exceeded. I was absolutely mesmerised as soon as I entered the building. Thousands apon thousands of life sized clay coloured soldiers stand in formation in between thick walls guarding the once powerful emperor that is buried behind them.
It was so fascinating learning their history and the fact that over 50000 people were killed after the terracotta soldiers were completed, just because the emperor wanted his burial site to be kept a secret. Isn’t that nuts! This has been the best day so far on the trip and I am so happy that I can finally tick the famous Terracotta Warriors off my bucket list.
To end the day the best way we could we feasted at a dumpling banquet and filled are faces with the biggest variety of the tastiest dumplings I’ve ever had. Best. Day. Ever.
Good news for us, we were back with our girls for the next night train in the same carriage, no more noisy’ness hooray! Once we were settled, beds were chosen, bags away and cards were out, Anson makes the announcement that this train always runs behind schedule and we will probably arrive in Shanghai 2 hours later than planned. We all looked at each other and said the first thing that came into our minds. We defiantly don’t have enough snacks for this loooong journey – crisis!!
We struggled through the night and didn’t moan once 😉 Anson was right, exactly two hours late. It puzzles me why they don’t just change the predicted arrival time. That’s too easy huh!!
Fifth Stop – Shanghai
We had no preplanned activities for this stop but Anson came at us with suggestions as long as his arm so we knew we were in for a busy 3 days in Shanghai.
First on the agenda was a visit to the tallest building in Shanghai. The Central Business District is a pretty impressive sight. Each sky scraper is unique in size, colour and appearance. The building we were heading towards, as well as being the tallest also looks a lot like a bottle opener. Looking at it from the ground, we gazed up in awe at the scale of the building and braced ourselves for the 120 second speed elevator to the top! eek!! 10 meters, 20 meters, 100 meters, 435 meters and we made it. We stepped gingerly over the glass floor and prepared ourselves for the epic view over Shanghai. We were now standing in the bottle opener, wow we high high! Unfortunately epic it was not, apparently due to the ‘fog’ which I think is probably pollution we couldn’t see too much and the whole build up ended with an anticlimactic thud. Our mood was lifted a little when using the toilets though. These apparent 6 star toilets that Anson kept banging on about really did live up to expectation. It was like sitting in a small space ship with control panels to your left, a heated seat below and a self wash option, it was insane! Wiping’s for paupers anyway.
By this time, thanks to train delays it was already gone 5pm so we headed out for a noodle and dumplings dinner and then spent the evening at a place called The Bund. Coming to Shanghai and missing The Bund is apparently like visiting Beijing and bypassing The Great Wall, a sight not to be missed, I was looking forward to this. Massive commercial buildings either side of the Huangpu River loom imposingly between an assortment of old classical buildings that were built by the British Consulate in 1873. Walking along here we felt like we could be back in London alongside the Thames, it was pretty comforting, there’s even a replica Big Ben (kind of) that they call Big Ching. It didn’t chime the same, I was disappointed. On the other side of the river there is a completely contrasting view. Futuristic skyscrapers reach high above the clouds and illuminate the nights sky with the thousands of lights that cover the length of every building. It was an incredible sight and I took maybe one too many photographs but never in my life have I seen such a view as that.
Phwoor and that was only day one.
Day two was another full on touristy day. Up early, dumplings for breakfast and we were ready to face the world (I’m starting to look like a dumpling – just saying).
First on the list was a visit to the Yuan Gardens a beautiful place with rustic Chinese buildings that look beautifully looked after and make you feel as if you have stepped back in time. It was a haven for tourists, thousands of people milled around in and out of restaurants and shops. The gardens here are like something from Mulan with beautiful arched gateways, pebbled floors and pagodas – it was a wonderful thing to walk around and take in the history of the place, some of the trees were over 500 years old.
It was time to move on to the next place called The French Concession. According to Lonely Planet “it is like London minus Kensington and Chelsea”. However I felt more like I was in France with its atmospheric tree lined streets and lively coffee shops and restaurants. It was well out of our budget, with shops like a Vera Wang Bridal shop but was a beautiful place to walk around and take in the cool vibe. We all agreed that if we were to live in Shanghai and had a ton of money we would choose here.
Next was a visit to Shanghai Zoo. We were all childishly excited about this as we were going to be able to see giant pandas in their home country!! We weren’t let down, the pandas were magnificent, first sleeping in the midday sun, they then came alive and started playing with one another, parading up and down their enclosure and eating their weight in Bamboo! We felt so lucky to be able to see that!
The evening was spent at an amazing Acrobats show that was organised through Anson and our tour company. It was well over budget but with strong recommendations and the knowledge how crazy talented the Chinese gymnastics are we all thought it was something not to be missed. Well what we saw absolutely blew our minds. The flexibility, the strength, the elegance and the bravery of every single person in the show is beyond words. At one point four grown women crawled out of a plant pot no bigger than 4ft high! They jumped, dived, drove and swung themselves through this show and all of us were mesmerised from start to finish!!
Wow what an amazing time we’ve had in Shanghai, tomorrow it’s time for our last night train. Our end destination is in sight.
Sixth And Final Stop – Beijing
Our last over-night train of this entire trip is complete and we made it to our final destination of the tour; Beijing. With only a two night stay here and a lot to see we started our day early and headed out on the public buses. Were now so used to the overnight trains that we don’t feel so tired throughout the day and can actually function whereas at the beginning our first day trip after a night train was a disaster and most of us looked as if we were sleep walking. With our brains in gear and our legs ready for a day of walking around Beijing we headed to our first destination; Tiam’anmen Square. Apparently not knowing what this place was was a laughable offence in Anson’s book which I kind of took too heart but he soon filled us in. It’s the fourth largest city square in the world and has been the site of many culturally significant events in Chinese history. Many a protest has been held here, more notably one in 1989 where military soldiers killed hundreds possibly thousands of civilians. Isn’t it strange how the Government won’t give a definitive number of lives lost – they have an unbelievable amount of power in this country!! Actually while writing this Tiam’anmen Square has appeared in the world news as 8 men have just been convicted of a terror attack that happened last October!
Tiam’anmen Square holds the gate to The Forbidden City which was our next stop. I knew next to nothing about The Forbidden City but was intrigued by the name and desperate to see it for myself. It is literally a private city in the middle of Beijing that was home to Emperors and their households from 1406 to 1906. It is so so big, wide open spaces of nothing fill the majority but yet there still manages to be around 980 buildings inside its great walls. We walked and walked through this gigantic city, through huge partition gates that separated one huge open space from another. I learnt that the Emperors were paranoid about their safety and that is why there are so many gates and high walls. It’s also why they had the cobbled floor descend 8 meters with bricks so no one was able to tunnel in a kill the Emperor AND why there are no trees or plants in any of the court yards as they would obscure any view of intruders. Scaredy cat!!
A few hours were spent haggling in a market before dinner where I ended up walking away with a cheap pair of trainers and a new backpack. I can tell you I don’t miss haggling one bit, it’s such a drag when the vendor starts the price ridiculously high and you have to argue your way down to a price your happy to pay. Anson told us this particular market they will start at a price so high that you can literally haggle 90% off before buying. For example I was told 800 Yuan for my trainers and ended paying 150 Yuan. Such a drag, but I got there in the end!
Dinner was at a shady looking local spot again but was so tasty as usual. The group then split up as half went to a Kung Fu show and the rest of us got a bus back on our own. Surprisingly there is so little English spoken in Beijing that we thought it would be really difficult to get public transport on our own, but with Ansons guidance we were fine and made it back to our hotel with no problems. What would we do without him!
29th May 2014. Today is the day I climbed The Great Wall Of China. Wow what an absolute pinch myself day. We started early much to our annoyance but on reaching the wall could of kissed Anson as there were barely any other tourist and we felt as if we had the wall to ourselves.
Let me start from the beginning. We arrived around 9am and all decided to take the cable car ride up to the wall. The weather was scorching already, the sky was cloudless and the excitement was building. Heading up the mountain in the cable car the wall came into view. Miles and miles of it weaved off into the distance like a snake in the grass. It was such an incredible sight to see we were all already awe struck, we hadn’t even set foot on the wall yet!
Then the time came, our first few steps on this amazing creation. What can I say, I lost of use of the English language and just stared in bewilderment at what lay in front of us. We were graced with the best weather Beijing had seen in over 2 months which just added to the beauty of our surroundings. We walked 10 meters and then stopped, walked again, and stopped, none of us could believe that we were actually walking on The Great Wall Of China! The wall stretches a massive 5500 miles long, and goes on further than the captial of Beijing. That really puts in to perspective what an incredible feat this build was!!
We shared this unforgettable experience with people from our group, ‘The Helen’, Mette and Johanne who we will now never forget. The whole way we spoke about how lucky we were to be there, with the weather and to be in great company – it couldn’t of been any better!
We took some amazing photographs, made some amazing memories and made sure that that moment in time was going to be something that we would remember forever. What. An. Experience.
Our farewell dinner was an emotional one where Anson thanked us for being an enjoyable group for him to tour China with. He said we opened our hearts to China and were willing to give everything a go. We slept on trains with babies screaming throughout the nights, men spitting on the ground everywhere you go, trying every type of food put in front of us, spicy or not and just living every day.
Anson was leaving us tonight, we were sad to say goodbye and sad to see him leave. We now have 3 days in the land of no English to survive for ourselves. He left us with advice we have lived by throughout the trip – T.I.C – This Is China! It must be said over and over when you see, hear of smell something disgusting, T.I.C, T.I.C, it calms you and restores your faith in humanity. We will take this with us, it really worked!
Without Anson we wouldn’t of been able to get out of Hong Kong, we saw no other western people on the trains because no public transport is translated into English. When we reached our destinations we only ate thanks to Ansons local knowledge and the fact he obviously speaks Chinese. Without him we wouldn’t of experienced half of the things we were lucky enough to see. I started the tour with reservations about China and whether it would be worthwhile. I am now so glad to have experienced all I have and sad to leave it all behind. Goodbye Asia, you were a once in a lifetime trip and something I know all of us will treasure for the rest of our lives.