When I got back from Italy last February (you can read more about it here), I felt ready to take over the world. I had finally challenged one of my deepest fears: flying. I had taken a long haul flight alone and, although the fear will never leave, I learned to accept it and deal with it.
Now, I must have liked the adrenaline a lot because, not even three months later, I was yet again on flight all alone. Yet again it was an impulsive last minute decision. This time though there was no family waiting for me at the airport, no familiar faces, not even the same language because….
I went to China for 5 weeks!
Xi’an – Terracotta Army
Chengdu – Pandas & Leshan
Guiyang – Huanggoushu
Background: I don’t speak Chinese, I’d never been to China before.
So, why China people ask (as if there must be a good reason behind that choice)? I’ve always been fascinated by China, ever since a huge Chinese family moved near my house and their children became my playmates. I’d go to their house, where there were all these things I’d never seen before, all these hieroglyphics…after all, living in a small town in Italy meant having almost no connection with anyone but Italians, so my first encounter with this new culture sparked curiousity. They invited me, my grandma and grandpa (this was back in the early 2000s) to one of their Chinese New Year celebrations where there were black eggs and all sorts of delicious yet mysterious stuff. Can you imagine an elderly Italian couple at a Chinese New Year celebration? It was awesome. They’re still friends to this day. Plus, last year, when it was time to choose my minor at university, I choose Sociology, although Chinese would have been my first choice. It turned out Sociology was the wrong choice, because I’m going back for summer courses and I’ve changed my minor back to Chinese…
It was the best trip of my life. I’ve felt alone and vulnerable at times, yet I was able to prove myself that I can do it, that I can be alone, that it’s ok not to have a plan…life sometimes shows you the way. Being a very controlling person, very anal, very precise…it was like a breath of fresh air. I landed in Shanghai and realised that I had no idea what I was doing, that for the first time ever I was in a place so completely different from anywhere I’d been before. I hadn’t had time to contemplate what would be waiting for me on the other side until I actually got there. It was also the most tiring and draining 5 weeks of 2012, and when I got back to Sydney I was exhausted. Backpacking is mentally and physically exhausting, but so so so worth it.
I travelled by train and bus, only flying Sydney-Shanghai and Hong Kong-Sydney…which meant I travelled a total of more than 110 hours by train, mostly overnight, with the longest being over 18 hours straight. I travelled in hard sleepers, which made me feel like merchandise on a shelf, but it was oddly enjoyable. I want to go back so badly because there’s so much China I haven’t seen yet!
I’ll try and quickly give you a overview of Shanghai, Zhujiajiao, Beijing, Pingyao and Xi’an in this first post, and I know it will be a very long post. But hey, if you’re planning a trip to China anytime soon, it’s worth a read.
Shanghai, you charming yet cloudy cloudy city! I was in Shanghai for 5 days and not once you dared show me the sky, let alone the sun. Not once! I loved Shanghai, I did. But it was possibly the worst city to be welcoming me to China, because it was so hot and humid, and so terribly smoggy, that by the end of my 5 days I was wondering weather I would see the sun at all in 5 weeks. I sometimes felt as if there was not enough oxygen in the air, no joke. But I met the most awesome people there (yes, you Miami Pilot Guy & Seraph!) and ate delicious food from food stalls…yum! I love street food, and this loves comes from my childhood trips to Venezuela where I learned that delicious food is not supposed to be of the sanitised kind. I’m lucky, too, because I can digest anything and everything (the only time I ever got a sick from food was after having a Wendy’s milkshake. Go figure.). Noodles, dumplings, Uyghur dinner (middle photo), fried veggies on the corner of the street, spicy lamb that was supposed not to be spicy…it was all amazing. And my first hot pot in China (first photo), where I discovered my love for needle mushrooms and sesame sauce! You really can’t miss a walk from Nanjing Rd to The Bund at night, a day in the History Museum, Old Shanghai, the French Concession (although it’s damn expensive to eat/drink there) and, why not, the Sculpture Park!
★ I stayed at: The Phoenix Hostel, Shanghai - highly recommended, very close to the city centre, the Bund, Museum, and the bus station.
If you go to Shanghai, you really can’t miss Zhujiajiao. Or you can, depending who you ask! It’s a couple of hours’ bus from Shanghai and it’s quite difficult to find the right bus and to understand how it all works but it’s worth it. I met zero foreign tourists there, as apparently it’s very popular with Chinese tourists rather than foreigners…a big plus for me. Zhujiajiao is also called “the Venice of China” and as it’s a city on water just like its European counterpart. Small streets, little houses…it’s great to get lost in there. However, you might want to hurry up as there were some really nasty huge buildings being constructed at the edge of town, and the whole place might lose its’ charm to skyscrapers someday. Now, as with every tourist attraction in China…it’s touristy, you can feel it in the air that it’s somewhat artificial. This doesn’t mean it’s not nice, but don’t expect the traditional little village sort of thing. If it’s on Lonely Planet (I hate LP with a passion), then forget about the “traditional Chinese experience”. Greg, my American foodie friend, found this place to be really sad, although I quite enjoyed it, if only because it made for some nice photos…it really depends! But hey, Zhujiajiao is the only place where I got to try snails, mashed with unknown herbs…well, to be honest, I have no idea what I was eating most of the time while in China, so definitely not recommended to people that are afraid to get out of their comfort zone. Another note on eating in Chinese restaurants, especially if not in the main cities, is to get used to people staring. And by staring I mean having restaurant staff sit in the table beside yours, turn their chairs towards your table, get comfy and watch you eating. I believe we might have been quite entertaining because those old ladies were smiling and laughing the whole time…but they were so cute and tried to their best to please us, so I didn’t really mind.
After taking the first of many trains, a trip that revealed to be much more pleasant than I expected, and finding myself in a crowd in front of Beijing Railway Station with no clue where I was supposed to go, I got to my hostel in the Hutongs early in the morning and was welcomed by, you’d never believe it, sun and a clear blue sky! I’ve been told it’s not very common but, for the entire 8 days I was in Beijing, it was sunny and hot and beautiful. Shortly after getting to Beijing I met Rebecca, an awesome British girl with whom I ended up sharing a good 1/3 of my journey, and was lucky enough to join her and her friends for a walk around the 978 Art District, a hike on Badaling Great Wall and dinner in a delicious hot pot restaurant.
Did you notice that, although I was theoretically travelling alone, I was always eating and sightseeing with people? That’s probably the most amazing part of the whole backpacking experience, the fact that the things that keep me from talking to people I don’t know in Sydney don’t seem to apply to travelling-me. The normal boundaries I’d put up with people I meet at uni just don’t exist when I’m ”out there”. Yes, sure, there’s always a degree of suspicion at first because, after all, you don’t know these people, but it disappears pretty quickly. Travelling makes us all more genuine, maybe because of the tiredness, or maybe because we don’t have any of the social restraints we experience at home – no one knows you there, right? You can be exactly who you are.
Rebecca and I pretty much went to all the temples and other historical attractions of Beijing ( Tiananmen Square, Forbidden City, History Museum, Temple of Heaven, Lama Temple, Summer Palace, and, last but not least, Mao’s Mausoleum where we got to see the man himself!) as well as going for a stroll on Wangfujing Street and sampling food from the awesome Wangfujing Night Market. What food, you ask? Well scorpions and starfish, of course! Although it was really difficult to say no to the likes of sheep penis, spider king, centipedes and beetles, let me tell you. Scorpion tasted just like popcorn, it was actually quite good and I had two. Starfish, on the other hand, was pretty awful: it was salty, had a weird consistency and smelled/tasted like dead fish. Weird food apart, I really loved Beijing, all its temples and gardens…there was so much more to discover, I will definitely go back soon!
★ I stayed at: Happy Dragon Courtyard Hostel – cheap accommodation in the hutongs, quite good (although the common bathrooms are not so special, if that’s your main concern consider another hostel) and Lucky Family Hostel - brand new hostel in the hutongs, awesome bathrooms, good location (bit difficult to find the first time) – highly recommended!
Halfway between Beijing and Xi’an is the old town of Pingyao, a nice stop-over that will make your train trip to Xi’an a little less endless. Also known for being one of the best ancient cities of China, this walled town is definitely a good change from the busy Shanghai and Beijing! However, it’s also the mother of all tourist traps and I wouldn’t recommend spending more than two days there: first, it’s expensive, and second, once you have a walk around the city, it gets pretty boring and depressing. At least, that’s how I felt after a while…but that might have been because of the terrible experience of seeing a group of dying kittens in the street. See, I don’t cry. But damn, I cried like a baby after that, and I still get all teary thinking about it. Nothing hurts more than meowing kittens standing in a corner…ok ok ok, I was sad. But the city was nice, just a bit repetitive (the menus were basically the same everywhere) and quite expensive (I would have gone on a walk on the town wall but it was more than 100RMB, too much for my broke self with another 3 weeks of travel to go!). We had cold meat, a specialty of the area, plus buns and dumplings, as well as fried braided bread (not in photos). And that first yellow crepe-like thing? I’m not too sure myself, it tasted egg-y and it was filled with seasoned cold meat. Interesting.
★ I stayed at: Yamen Hostel – nice common room, good shared bathrooms (much better than the Beijing ones, and by Pingyao my standards had plummeted anyway…)
The last place I’m going to talk about in this first part is Xi’an. After spending one day too many in Pingyao, going back to a bigger city felt good and I really liked Xi’an ( by now you should have noticed that there is not one single place I didn’t like, I really did love China!). Rebecca, whom I had been travelling with since Beijing, and I even found a Walmart! What a treat. Anyways, Xi’an was a great place and I would have spent even a bit longer if I could have. The main attraction in the area is, of course, the Terracotta Army (well worth the 150RMB entrance fee) and the feeling one gets upon entering the first of three hangars of 6000 life-size statues and horses is indescribable, overwhelming to say the least. Can you believe they’ve been unearthing and working on these statues since 1974? And there’s still so many that are being reconstructed as we speak.
But Xi’an has other things to offer beside the Terracotta Army, like the Muslim Quarters, Bell Tower (pictured above) and Wild Goose Pagoda (which I only got to see from a distance). Although by this stage I was a bit over markets full of overzealous sellers, I still enjoyed the smells of spicy street food (lamb, especially) and roasting nuts. I even succumbed to one of those delicious peanut crisps that were made before out eyes, which I stupidly didn’t even take a photo of. Although it was surely one of the most crowded markets I went to, the Muslim Quarters were not that bad – I just didn’t have the money to enjoy all I would have wanted to try! :) Another little gem that I quite liked exploring was an underground market (close to Walmart) selling all things cute and sparkly and pink, plus clothes, perfumes, shoes …everything. You need to bargain, no doubt, but there’s quite a few things I found really hard to say no to! But what about the last photo? That’s a single package spicy boiled egg and a packaged chicken foot. It’s not too uncommon to find these in Sydney (I quite like hot chicken feet when I have yum cha) but I know my friends and family in Europe would find it extremely weird. Worth a try, you might be surprised!
★ I stayed at: XiangZiMen Youth Hostel – NOT recommended. Firstly, they gave us only one key to share between the two of us, which was ok but, especially since we were in a dorm, I would have expected two keys, but whatever. But then, the toilets were dirty as hell. And by that (don’t read if you’re easily disgusted) I mean there was blood on the toiled bowl and it wasn’t cleaned for as long as we were there (5 days)… Lastly, because of some mix up at check in, we both paid a deposit of 100RMB and got back only 50RMB each, which I was especially not happy about. Oh well.
And we finally got to where I tell you that you’ve done such a good job reading this whole thing, I’m so proud I’ll reward you with a sneak peak to Part 2 of my backpacking adventure to China. Are you ready?
(Chengdu Panda Base)
Want to see more pandas, more waterfalls, more pagodas?
You better check out Part 2 next week!