When I first decided to visit China, I was slightly overwhelmed with the size of the country and worried about getting around without knowing any Mandarin. I was tossing up between travelling solo and taking my time or travelling with an organized group, which would be more fast-paced but smoother. In the end I’m glad I went with the group option… it was a lot easier to get around with a local Mandarin speaker… little things like ordering in restaurants, buying train tickets, finding a toilet and getting a taxi all become much more difficult when you don’t know the language!
In total, I spent a month travelling around China and Hong Kong. It was an extremely interesting, insightful and cultural experience. I have some fantastic memories that I brought back with me and also some not so great ones, but it was definitely a worthwhile trip. I was able to see some breathtaking sights, such as the Great Wall of China and Emperor Qin Shihuang’s Terracotta Army. I also met some truly wonderful people, both locals and fellow travellers, but also had some really challenging moments.
Some of my fondest memories are sitting by the Shanghai Bund at night watching the bright lights of the skyline; riding on a bamboo raft along the Li river surrounded by stunning limestone karsts; learning Tai Chi in the early morning in a local park; watching cute, cuddly yet incredibly lazy giant pandas chewing bamboo; and watching the sunset out on the deck of the ship while cruising down the Yangtze river.
Shanghai Bund skyline at night
Bamboo rafting on the Li river in Yangshuo
Early morning Tai Chi class
Pandas at the Giant Panda Breeding Research Base in Chengdu
Sunset on the Yangtze river
Other vivid memories (not as fond though) include sitting on a five hour public bus ride with a sack of live animals next to me (it turned out they were chickens but I let my imagination run wild); having our group stalked by a local lady in the Chengdu market and trying to lose her; and disturbing images of cats and dogs hung up for sale in the local Yangshuo wet market.
The trip started in Beijing in the north of China. It took me a few days to get used to being there… the new language and distinct lack of English anywhere; the noticeably higher levels of pollution; the humidity; the squat toilets, a lot of them extremely filthy; people spitting on the streets as they walked past me; and let’s not forget chopsticks! When I arrived I couldn’t even pick up a dumpling with a chopstick but I’ve finally mastered the art of eating with them… I didn’t really have much of a choice!
It was an amazing experience for me to climb parts of the Great Wall of China… twice… because once is just not enough! The climb to actually get to the wall was challenging… it felt like I was on a never-ending staircase leading to nowhere, but I eventually made it up to the wall. Local people along the way kept greeting me and asking to take pictures and selfies with me… I felt like a bit of a celebrity! Climbing the wall was challenging but also very humbling when I thought about the people who built the wall and what they went through as they had no proper pathways or stairs to climb with the materials and worked throughout the year in all conditions. The views from up on the wall were breathtaking… I’d always seen pictures of this architectural wonder but couldn’t believe I was actually standing on it!
Hiking the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall of China
Another highlight of the trip for me was seeing the Terracotta Warriors in person. This was something I had read about before and seen photos of on the Internet but they don’t come close to what it looks like in person. I was surprised by the sheer size of the army and all the detail that had been put into each individual warrior… it was an incredible sight and I’m sure my pictures won’t do it justice!
Terracotta Army in Xi’an
Warriors still undergoing restoration
Over the course of the trip, I took three overnight trains in China. Memories of the overnight trains are bittersweet for me… I loved them and hated them all at the same time, but I’m glad I experienced them! I had some fun times with fellow travellers and friends… playing cards, chatting away, watching movies together, eating countless pots of noodle soup and building friendships over cups of tea, cans of beer and sometimes shots of Chinese ‘firewater’! But it wasn’t all fun, games and laughter… sharing a 6-bunk ‘cabin’ was challenging with some beds that you couldn’t even sit up straight in. I say cabin in the loosest sense of the word as there weren’t really any cabins… the whole carriage was open plan and without any curtains arounds beds for privacy. I still remember my first train ride where I hardly slept because there was a super loud snorer on the bunk next to me (I’m talking deafening snores!) and another guy who wanted to play loud games on his phone! After finally falling asleep in the boiling hot carriages, I awoke at 5.30am to find a random stranger eating breakfast at the end of my bed… he was slurping away at his noodle soup while I was asleep! I have to admit I found that a little creepy! Aside from sleeping arrangements, the hardest part was the squat toilets… not just because you had to squat but because toilets on the trains are probably some of the dirtiest I’ve ever seen (I won’t go into graphic details!).
Playing UNO on the train
Another of the highlights of the trip for me was a two-night stay in a monastery in Emeishan. The monastery was beautiful and although the rooms we stayed in were simple they were a lot nicer than what I was expecting… in my mind I pictured us all sleeping in one large room with mattresses or blankets on the floor. We could only use communal showers between 5.30pm and 9.30pm and I had to go on spider kill and cockroach hunt a few times. Nonetheless it was an amazing experience. I especially loved waking up at 5.30am to the sound of the monks chanting… it was very peaceful and a great way to wake up.
Monastery in Emeishan where we stayed
Candles lit in the monastery
We spent one of the days in Emeishan hiking in the area surrounding Mount Emei. I used to think I was pretty good at reading maps but apparently I’m not to be trusted hiking on a mountain – I’ll get lost! At least I wasn’t alone! While hiking, I got separated from most of the group except one person. The two of us continued alone following our maps… we ended up seeing sights that weren’t on our planned route (albeit beautiful sights), climbed what felt like hundreds of steps, and got horribly lost! When we finally got out of the national park (without making it to our destination of the monkey zone), we walked almost 5km in the wrong direction and then found out that a monkey had bitten one of our friends! We tried to hitch a ride back to the monastery on a motorbike that wasn’t big enough for two, ended up walking back the way we came and then got told off by a bus driver in Mandarin because we didn’t listen to him the first time when he tried to give us a lift! All in all it was an eventful and tiring day… we got lots of exercise and ended up walking around 22km in total… but we made it back in one piece! If I never see steps again it’ll be too soon!
Hiking around Emeishan National Park
Lost outside the national park
Aside from the major attractions and great outdoors, China has some wonderful local markets. I really enjoyed strolling around the bustling market in Shanghai, haggling and bargaining for things… it was more for the experience rather than the 20p it saved! The local food market in the Muslim quarter of Xi’an was also really great. It was colourful, vibrant and full of food stalls with interesting smells. I really enjoyed sampling the different foods there… one of my favourites was a yellow sticky rice cake with fresh dates.
Local market in the Muslim Quarter in Xi’an
Sticky rice cake and meat burgers in the local food market
The foodie in me really came out to play in China. I truly enjoyed the variety of food and drink on offer and the different flavours from different parts of the country. From the succulent Peking duck in Beijing, to mouth watering dumplings, to the fiery hot pot in Chengdu… the food was delicious! I’ll never feel the same about eating duck and hot pot back in London! I even got to try and make my own dumplings in a cooking class… they didn’t taste too bad for my first attempt!
Peking duck in Beijing
Duck shaped dumplings at a dumpling banquet in Xi’an
My very own homemade dumplings!
The trip ended in Hong Kong with the highlights of the beautiful Victoria Harbour and stunning views from the top of Victoria Peak.
View from Victoria Peak
Then it was time to say goodbye to new and dear friends; it’s funny to think we started as a group of people who all stood in silence as we rode the elevator together when we first met! It was time to head back to Beijing to meet new travellers, revisit the incredible Great Wall, sample more duck and get ready for the journey west… into Siberia.