Overall the trip was a good adventure and experience, maybe just not the fantastic excursion I am always hoping for. I left on Friday October 13th and returned Sunday October 29th, 16 days total. I lost 1 day crossing the International date line on my way there but I gained it back when I returned. By the time I got back it seemed like I was gone for much more than 2 weeks.
China obviously is a long way away and a large country so I spent a lot of time traveling to get there and around the country. I spent approx. 48 hours on airplanes and in airports and 40 hours on trains during my two weeks. Four times during my trip while traveling, I was awake for more than 24 hours. The good news is I wasn’t my luggage. My backpack took an extra 24 hours to initially arrive in China after missing my connection in San Francisco.
I initially flew into Beijing and spent 3 days visiting the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square and hiking different sections of the Great Wall. From there I took an overnight train to Xi’an where I stayed for 3 days also. I went to the world renown Terra Cotta Warriors and a Panda Reserve. Another overnight train from Xi’an brought me to Nanjing and from there I caught a train to Huan Shang where I spent another 3 days hiking and wandering. Finally, I caught a plane, train and automobile back to Beijing where I spent my final 2 days.
The food was fantastic. While I didn’t always know what I was eating (and that was probably for the best), it was damn good. My favorite had to have been the squid on a stick (at least I think it was squid) that you buy from the street vendors for around 2 yuan (about 30 cents). Next had to be the Beijing Duck. While most of us know it as Peking Duck, evidently the China/Taiwan political issue has caused the dish to be renamed. By any name, I like it. I ordered it four different times and each time I ordered from the menu entree listed, Beijing Duck. Each time, the waitress would ask me in broken English, one Beijing Duck. I would say yes. They would ask me again and I would say yes. Sometimes they would ask one more time and I would of course say yes. Because of the language barrier I figured they wanted to make sure they had the order correct. With every order they would bring a large amount of the condiments that go with the duck. On the last night of my trip and after ordering the duck for the 4th time and getting the same questioning, the waitress brought the condiments as usual, but this time had 2 plates of everything. It was at this moment that I realized the standard order of Beijing Duck for 1 person was half a duck and the questioning each time was more the fact that I was ordering a meal meant for two people not one. Well, I finished it every time.
I spent a great deal of time just wandering around the cities I visited. Whenever I did not have a specific location or activity I walked all around and saw everything I could. I probably walked over 50km around Beijing, Xi’an, Nanjing and Tunxi.
Beijing has some of the most popular tourist attractions which I of course visited. While I certainly expected foreign tourists I was amazed at the amount of Chinese tourists visiting the sites. This was true not only for Beijing but everywhere I went. The percentage of foreign tourists was actually minuscule. My first stop in Beijing was Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. Since the tanks left several years ago, Tiananmen was uneventful. The Forbidden City is anything but forbidden. Anyone and everyone is allowed in now. I believe half of China was visiting at the same time I was. Back in the days, it was the protected area where the emperor’s for several dynasties had their main residences. Not anymore.
I spent the next day hiking the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall. A 3 kilometer stretch that has been restored to it’s past glory. The next day I did a 10 kilometer hike along the Great Wall from the Jinshanling to Simatai. I met a Swiss Miss on the ride out and spent the day hiking with her. This section was great because most of it was not restored so it was more authentic and interesting. It also was a difficult hike so made for a good day. We went for dinner and drinks and then sorry to say, I was off to the train station for an overnight train to Xi’an.
My first train experience was pretty good. I had what is called a hard sleeper which meant I had a bed in a cabin with 5 others but the bed was comfortable and with my sleeping pill it was as good as a hostel. I arrived in Xi’an at 9am the next morning and the day was spent making my way out to the Terra Cotta Warriors and wandering around Xi’an. While touring the Terra Cotta Warriors I believe I ran into the other half of the Chinese population. I took a public bus out to the Warriors and a shuttle bus back. Let’s just say on the shuttle bus back I saw area’s of Xi’an that few westerners do.
While in Beijing I spoke to a guy that had just finished a volunteer assignment at a Panda Reserve outside of Xi’an and I got info on how I could visit it. So on my second day in Xi’an I went with a group to the Panda reserve. Evidently reserve translated from Chinese should be cheap zoo. I was expecting a nice lush setting where the Panda’s wander around in the green trees and brush. What I saw was Free Willy for Panda’s. Panda’s in small, dirty cages.
I was not certain when or if the “reserve” trip would work out so when I first arrived in Xi’an I held off purchasing my soft sleeper train ticket for my next port of call. By the time I got confirmation on the trip and went to purchase my train ticket, all they had left for the next 3 days was a soft seat. The Chinese train system has four classes; soft sleeper, hard sleeper, soft seat and hard seat. The soft sleeper is the best and hard seat the worst. The soft sleepers had sold out earlier that day. Now the Swiss girl I met in Beijing took a hard seat from Ji’nan to Beijing and was very complimentary. She said the seats were not hard but nice and comfortable and there were even TVs in the carriage. Plus I saw some nice seating areas on my train to Xi’an with nice tables and my hard sleeper was a very comfortable bed. I figured the soft seat couldn’t be that bad. Could it? Everyone see where I am going with this?
Evidently depending on the specific train route, the train carriages are nicer than others, and as it turns out, the nice seating areas and tables I saw on my previous train were actually the dining cars. Let’s just say my train ride leaving Xi’an was…an experience.
Rather than seats arranged like a plane’s, the “soft” seats on this train were grouped facing each other. So, not only was I sitting in a not so comfortable seat for 20 hours, it was in a group of 3 connected seats facing 3 others. This meant your legs were entwined with the person facing you and stretching out was just a dream.
Even though it was long and cramped, it was a great experience as I sat next to a Chinese family, and although they did not speak any English, we tried as best we could to communicate throughout (I was the only person on the train that spoke English). The father knew Denver because of his fandom for basketball and Carmelo Anthony. They shared their food with me. And when I got up to go to the bathroom and other passengers took my seat, the father made them leave when I returned.
This 20 hour, 3×3, Noah’s Arc simulation was only to Nanjin, the first leg of this train trip. I still had another 7 hour train ride to my destination, Huang Shan. So upon arriving in Nanjing, I did what any person in their right mind would do, I checked into the Ramada. There not only did I have a nice comfy bed with a nice comforter and fluffy pillows but they had a travel agent on site that I used to book the rest of my trip. From there I organized my train ride from and back to Nanjing and booked a flight back to Beijing. It was this or another 21 hour train ride from Huang Shan to Beijing. I think I made the right choice. I spent the next day traveling to Huan Shan Mountain (7 hour train ride and 1 hour taxi).
Huang Shan Mountain is actually a group of peaks (Yellow Mountains) that is one of the many sacred mountains in China. You access the mountain and peaks by cable cars or by hiking up one of 2 routes; one a supposed 10km hike up and the other a more difficult supposed 15km up. I don’t believe the distances were as advertised but I do know they were both pretty long and steep. Both routes are stairs made of stone. Not trail, but stairs. Many, many, many stairs. I spent the next two days hiking around Huang Shan and it’s adjoining peaks. The first day I hiked up the easier route and the second doing the more difficult route. Once at the top I wandered around to the different peaks. Between both days I hiked for about 14 hours and assume I probably hiked around 50km. Think about 14 hours hiking either up or down stairs. Yeah I was hurting for a few days after.
While at Huang Shan I stayed at a hotel just at the base of the mountain which had a great view. I met several other travelers including an Austrian couple from Innsbruk. For all of you ski (or accounting) fans, the guy was Bennie Reiche’s tax accountant. My third day there was spent wandering around Hun Cun, an ancient city well over a 1,000 years old (hence ancient) and rumor has it part of Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon was filmed there. I also spent the day wandering around a small town named Tunxi (also called Huang Shan City) before catching my 10:30pm train back to Nanjing. Tunxi is a small mountain city that I would compare in location to Moab, UT (far away from everything) except for 1 difference; it’s population is over 1 million people. Even remote, out of the way small towns have a million people. Throughout Huang Shan there were a massive amount of Chinese tourists so I believe I saw the third half of the Chinese population. I now understand what they mean about 1 billion people.
I had an overnight train and again because of the route the train was an older style and even though I again had a hard sleeper, this one was much different. More like a dormitory on a rail car with a mattress that made a therm-a-rest seem like luxury. After another sleepless night, my train pulled into Nanjing at 5am where I made my way to the airport for my flight to Beijing.
My last couple days in Beijing were spent in luxury. I stayed at Paul and Lanelle Neumann’s apartment near the foreign embassies. It was a large modern apartment building that housed mainly diplomats and expats and had a concierge and coffee bar. Although 2 hours after I arrived on Friday they left for vacation in Thailand, they still let me stay at their place which was very nice of them. I spent my final two days again wandering around Beijing and doing some shopping to pick up my souvenirs. Everyone raves about how inexpensively you can purchase products in China and I must say it is true. I purchased several items including my new Rolex watch for $7. I think it is real.
China is a strange country. It is very much a capitalistic economy even though the government is communist. You can see the censorship in the media but apparently many people are speaking out against the government and for the most part, it is accepted. Everyone has cell phones yet all farming is still done by hand and all highways are cleaned by people using homemade weed-like brooms. Cars will stop at lights early to make sure they do not go through a red light but have no concerns about going the wrong way down streets or driving on the other side of the road. I barely saw any automobile accidents yet saw the craziest driving. I was once in a shuttle on a two lane road and saw two cars pass a third (one on each side) while an on-coming car passed in the other direction. Did I mention it was a 2 lane road.
Well that’s my story and I am sticking with it. An interesting trip.