My China Adventure
This summer marked a big first for me. I have worked in the travel industry for 18 months now, but during August 2014 I took my inaugural trip to Asia, and for my introduction to this continent, I chose to go to China. I lost track of the number of people who asked me why I’d picked China over somewhere like Thailand or Vietnam, and to be honest, I didn’t really have an answer! China wasn’t in my top 3 destinations to travel to next, but when I saw the itinerary for the China Adventure I was immediately sold, and knew that this was going to be my Big Trip for 2014.
I was due to fly on 9th August, so in a somewhat out of character fashion, I left work on Friday 8th and headed home to pack. Talk about disorganised! It took three attempts for me to get everything in to my rucksack, having to reluctantly remove items that just weren’t necessary for a backpacking tour around China before I could say I was ready, and even then, five minutes before leaving for the airport I realised I’d forgotten to pack a towel!
The journey to Hong Kong itself was pretty much a breeze; my Cathay Pacific flight left Heathrow on time, the leg space on the plane was better than any other economy flight I’ve ever taken, and even the food wasn’t that bad by plane standards! I made it through arrivals without too many problems (if you don’t count joining the queue before realising I had to fill out an arrivals card, and being told to remove my hat by a stern looking official).
The first thing I noticed when I exited Hong Kong airport is how incredibly humid it was. We’re talking instant sweating, make up melting, hair curling humidity. The kind of humidity that almost makes you feel like you might be breathing in water. Within 5 minutes of being out of the air-conditioned airport, I was regretting my stylish travel outfit of a jumpsuit and blazer, and was desperate to get into a pair of shorts and t-shirt. There was no airport pick up on the trip, however it was simple enough to find the taxi rank as all the signs in Hong Kong airport have a handy English translation.
With hindsight (isn’t it a marvellous thing?!), and after handing over the equivalent of £35 to my taxi driver who wouldn’t have known where to stop unless I’d pointed out the sign for the hostel to him, I realised I should have just taken the MTR, which is Hong Kong’s metro system. The journey costs around £10 (something I learnt from the rest of my group later that evening), and the Causeway Bay stop is about 2 minutes from the hostel. Ah well, at least I know for next time! One advantage of taking a taxi is that I got to take in some of the views of Hong Kong during the drive; I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect of the city, but the rolling green hills that we drove between were a bit of a surprise to me.
After I lugged my rucksack up the stairs to the hostel (having been too stubborn to take the lift), I was informed that I was a few minutes too early for check in, so I ‘plonked’ myself down in the communal area and listened to another British girl explain to her friend on Skype exactly how she’d ended up with a broken nose the previous night (an unfortunate incident involving an unseen step, and a toilet seat, for anyone who’s interested), until I was allowed to check in and make my way up to the room.
After a much needed shower and power nap, I headed back down to the lobby, where I met up with the people who would be my travel buddies for the next two weeks, and our tour guide, Sally. After an introduction meeting and an explanation about how the tour ran, we headed out to the streets of Hong Kong, and made our way to the Avenue of Stars, for the famous Light Show. Hong Kong really does have some breath taking views, especially when it’s all lit up at night. Unfortunately it was at that point I realised I brought my camera, but no memory card (thanks goodness for iPhones!), which meant my first stop the next morning was to a daunting 13 storey shopping mall to find a camera shop!
Our stay in Hong Kong was brief, as after a hike up Victoria Peak (or in my case, a taxi ride), and a quick lunch, we only had a couple of hours to get our stuff together before making our way towards the Hong Kong border, to enter mainland China. This was the first of one of our overnight journeys, and this one involved a sleeper bus, and I’ve never been on a bus quite like it! It was a normal coach sized vehicle, like the type used in the UK for school trips, but instead of two rows of seats, there were three rows of bunk beds! It was a bizarre experience climbing into a bunk bed on a bus, but I slept surprisingly well that night!
The next morning we arrived in the beautiful town of Yangshuo, which was definitely one of my favourite stops on the trip. The landscape (known as Karst landscape) is absolutely stunning, and I spent that first morning just wandering around the town feeling pretty awestruck by the beauty. There are loads of great activities on offer in Yangshuo, and on our second day the whole group decided we wanted to hire bikes to cycle to the bamboo rafting that’s included in the trip. I haven’t ridden a bike in a few years now, and I have to admit cycling on the roads in China was a little daunting at first because the traffic is crazy, but after a little while I found myself loving it. After cycling back to the hostel, we had an hour or so to clean up before we went out to watch a Night Fishing Cormorant show (like they have in the HSBC adverts), followed by dinner and a few (make that few too many) drinks.
The next morning a few of my group opted to chill out and have some free time, whilst the rest of us took a Chinese cooking class. Our teacher took us to a local market to by some of the ingredients we would need, and for someone who loves food it was interesting to see all the products they had on offer.
The cooking class was great fun, and I now consider myself an expert in the art of making dumplings! That afternoon we hired bikes again to ride to Moon Hill for a hike. Even though it was a bit overcast, the views were still stunning, and definitely made the 800 step climb to the top worth it! It turned out the walk back down the steps was harder, mainly because I was concentrating so hard on not missing a step! Our hiking efforts were then rewarded with a stop off at the local mud baths and thermal springs, where we got to cover ourselves head to toe in thick, gloopy mud before jumping into hot springs!
One of my favourite Yangshuo experiences has to be the hot cupping that we got done that evening. It’s a weird sensation and the large purple rings your back is left covered in aren’t entirely attractive, but it feels pretty good! You can also get a “kissing fish” foot spa, which left my poor flip-flop feet impressively soft.
Our last day in Yangshuo was more relaxed than the previous days, due to some unfortunate weather, but we made up for it by having a big night out. The nightlife in Yangshuo is great, as there are loads of hostels with rooftop bars, where you can get cheap beer and cocktails The hostel we stayed in had a beer pong table set up, so after several rounds of beer pong we headed out to a Chinese club where we danced with the locals, before making a 3am visit to the local KFC (they LOVE KFC in China!).
The next morning we had to pack our bags and say goodbye to Yangshuo, to make our way to Guilin, where we would embark on our first epic train journey, to Chengdu, which is a whopping 24 hours! Sally said goodbye to us here, and told us our next guide, Kid, would meet us at the station the next day. The train was different to the only other sleeper train I have been on, as the beds are stacked 3 high (watch your head if you’re on the top!), and I wouldn’t recommend being hungover, but the journey itself was actually better than I expected! I’d definitely advise having a pack of cards and a fully charged Kindle or tablet, as this made the time pass much faster than I thought it would.
We were met at Chengdu station by Kid, who took us to our hostel; that afternoon was free for us to relax, do some laundry, and clean up after spending 24 hours on a train! A few of us decided to try out a Chinese massage which is done by blind masseuses. It’s certainly not like the kind of massage you might get at a spa weekend, but it definitely worked out some of the knots in by back and neck! We then all headed out that evening for a famous Sichuan Hotpot meal, which is an all you can eat meal where you cook meats, vegetables, dumplings and all kinds of yummy (and some strange) foods in a spicy broth. It was delicious, and great value at £8 for all you can eat AND drink!
The next morning I was super excited, and that was the day we got to go and see the pandas! I have always loved pandas (when I was younger I had a panda cuddly toy that I just couldn’t sleep without) so for weeks before I left the UK I’d been telling anyone who would listen that I was going to get to see PANDAS! We arrived at the breeding and research centre early, which was great because it meant we got in way before the crowds started to arrive. I was in my absolute element, especially when we got to see the fluffy baby pandas in incubators – I nearly squealed at how cute they were. We had a good two hours to explore the centre and it’s different areas; there are red pandas there too, and they’re much more energetic and playful than the giant pandas, and it was fun to watch them chasing each other round and play fighting! That morning was definitely one of the highlights of the trip for me, and I’m thrilled that I can now say I’ve seen real live pandas!
The next stop on my adventure was Xi’an, which is one of the oldest cities in China, and is rich with history. To get there we took another overnight train (much shorter this time, at only 15 hours), and we were met by our next guide, Sasha, when we arrived. Xi’an is a walled city, and on the first morning there you get the chance to cycle around the top of the city walls. Unfortunately during the train journey from Chengdu, I picked up a bit of a nasty cough, so opted out of this bike ride in favour of lots of orange juice and sleep, but the rest of my group seemed to have a great time. That evening, feeling a bit better having had some rest, about half of us volunteered to go to the local soup kitchen, where we got to help give out free meals to the homeless. After a week of having nothing but fun, it was nice to do something that looked after the community, even if it was only for a couple of hours, and you could see how much they all appreciated the food.
Xi’an is also famous for the Terracotta Warriors, which was where we headed the next day. I’d been really looking forward to this activity, and it didn’t disappoint. Although it was very busy, it was absolutely fascinating to see the statues, which are over 2000 years old, and to learn the history behind it. We had a couple of hours to wander around at our own pace, so we didn’t have to rush and were able to take our time. I think getting the chance to visit the Terracotta Army is definitely up there with seeing the pandas as one of my trip highlights!
On our last evening in Xi’an we got to explore the city, and its markets, by night. It’s another very beautiful city, especially when it’s all lit up at night, and it was probably my second favourite place after Yangshuo; I’d definitely love to go back and spend some more time there one day! It also has some great local bars which brew their own beer, and others where you can get cheap drinks and play pool, which is how I spent my last night with the tour guide, a few of the others from my group. I was sad to leave the next morning, but was also excited about heading to our next stop, Dengfeng. We were met in Xi’ian that morning by our next tour guide, Monica, before catching the bus to Dengfeng, which took just a few hours. When we arrived we dropped out bags at the hotel, and then headed straight back out to visit a Taoist temple, and a short hike/rock climb.
Dengfeng is the home of the Shaolin Monastery, and is famous for Kung Fu. Whilst we were there we got the chance to watch a Kung Fu show, explore the monastery itself, and also go on a hike up to a cave where a local nun lives. It was a very spiritual place and much like the other places we had visited, very beautiful. During our time there we also got to spend a day at a local orphanage, where the young boys are trained in Kung Fu, and we even got the chance to have a lesson with the Master, and do some weapon training (I was, surprisingly, not great at tossing 10 pound cement blocks in the air and catching them)!
My final stop on the China Adventure was Beijing. It was a bit sad, as I knew after our two nights there I would have to say goodbye to my group, as they would be continuing on for another 10 days, but we had one more Big Attraction to visit before my trip finished. The Great Wall of China. Probably the most famous tourist attraction in the whole of the country, and believe me, it is definitely worth all the hype. The best part about visiting the Great Wall whilst on this trip was that we didn’t visit a really busy tourist section of the wall. We were dropped off at the start of the hiking trail with our new guide, Luna, where there was camping gear waiting to be picked up, and then we all set off on a short hike to our campsite, which was as close to on the wall as you can possible get. I feel so lucky to have had the opportunity to do this, as it’s certainly not something that everyone can say they’ve done, and sitting on the remains of a watchtower as the sun set is something I will definitely never forget.
We returned to Beijing the next morning and after a quick shower back at the hostel we headed back into the city to visit Tiannamen Square and the Forbidden City. On my final evening a few of us decided to go and watch an acrobatics show, which was equal parts fascinating and bizarre, before grabbing drinks with the rest of the group and saying goodbye to everyone.
This summer I fell in love with a country that I never thought I would fall in love with. I’ve been back for a few weeks now, and almost every day I think about how amazing it was, and how much I miss it. Hopefully one day I will get the chance to go back and experience more of what this vast and amazing country has to offer, but for now I feel so lucky that I got to see as much of it as I did! China might not be the first country that comes to mind when you think Asia, but honestly, I can’t recommend it highly enough. Go on your own China Adventure, and you definitely won’t regret it!