Ok, so as many of you know I had been intending to go to Tibet, however the Chinese government had other ideas and decided to close the boarder. So rather than do nothing, I decided to explore China instead. And what a great decision that turned out to be, one of my top five holidays without a doubt.
Beijing was where it all started, and this place really blew me away, so much nicer than I had expected, it is clear that the place is quickly modernising, but there are still pockets of the ‘old’ Beijing that are well worth seeing and you can still get that sense of China’s history (which is way older than Christianity) and yet still appreciate just how fast the place is changing. I got a real feeling that it is China’s time, it is surely going to be their century.
Beijing is an enormous city but incredibly easy to get around by using the very clean, efficient, cheap and easy to navigate metro system. Did heaps while there visited the Temple of Heaven, Summer Palace which was once an imperial residence, the winding lanes of the hutong district, the vast Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City which was out of this world, it is the former home of China’s Imperial rulers, and the Lama Temple. So lots of walking in very hot weather… oh did I mention the backpack was full of thermal underwear and clothing as I was intending to be up in the mountains not walking about in a hot Chinese summer!!!
The highlight of Beijing for me was having some famous Beijing Roast Duck served with a side of crispy fat that you dip into sugar, my god it was a taste sensation, in fact a highlight of the whole holiday. Oh, but garlic infused nuts, a big fail!!!
Left Beijing reluctantly on an overnight train journey to Xi’an, this used to be the imperial centre of China for 2,000 years, and the city is still surrounded by city walls along which I cycle around on an old bike with no gears… and boy can those old cobble stones shake your bones. What was interesting about this place is it is home to many Hui people, an ethnic Muslim minority, and as such has a Mosque and a Muslim quarter which had some interesting markets, I got myself a tiny wooden carved pig with amazing detail. However the absolute highlight of this part of the trip was going to see the Terracotta Warriors. It is such an incredible thing to see and to think it was only fond in 1976 by farmers digging a well. I was really blown away by the scope of it all.
After another overnight train trip I arrived in the capital of Sichuan Province, Chengdu. This is home to the Panda Breeding Centre and it was so worth the visit, got there nice and early so they were really active and cute as, would it be wrong to have one as a pet I wonder? Sichuan food is spicy and in particular is known for its spicy hot pot which of course I had, and loved it. In fact all the food was great on this holiday, and no upset stomach at all!!!!. Also went to see a traditional Sichuan Opera performance while here, as you do.
Whilst in the area we also visited the world’s largest outdoor seated Buddha. It has been carved into a cliff face and is 71 m tall and seeing it in person you really do get a ‘my god that is big’ moment, hard to really explain how inspiring it is to see. Having seen the Buddha we then made our way to Baoguo Monastery which is on Emei Shan Mountain, one of the most famous Buddhist sites in China.
The views from the 3,099 m peak at Emei Shan are truly spectacular and we just happened to be on top on a nice clear day. These were some of the more energetic days of the trip, hiking up and down mountain steps and paths. Oh and it was also one of the nicest toilet experiences I have ever had, a poo with a view as I like to call it. The monastery we stayed in up in the mountain had a squat toilet built over the edge of a cliff open to the elements and with the most amazing view.
It was incredibly peaceful here, however not at 4am which is when the monks start chanting and banging their drums, I’m not a morning person….
Also spent and afternoon visiting some local hot springs, wallowed in the water, had a mud bath a massage and sat in a pool where thousands of little fish swarmed all over your body and nibbled away at you. I still don’t know if I liked it or not, it was relaxing and freaky all at the same time, mind you my skin was nice and soft afterwards.
After this we made our way to the city of Chongqing, which is the gateway to the Yangzi River. Not a very nice looking place it has to be said, but had one of the most amazing meals here, peppered beef which was really yummy. It is also the biggest city in the world with a population of over 20 million in the city center and suburbs. This was the starting point of the boat trip down the Three Gorges which was wonderful. The scenery was truly spectacular, and alas my photos do not do it justice…
By the way, prior to the boat trip I had been struck by how nice the Chinese people were, really polite and courteous, but put them in front of a buffet and all that goes out the window. It was like being in a stampede for the last meal on earth, little old women suddenly became crazy with rage to beat you to that last boiled egg… crazy I tell you.
At the end of the boat trip I got to visit the site of the massive and controversial Three Gorges hydro-electric project. It really is an incredible feat of engineering and the geek inside me was very excited to see it.
After another overnight train trip followed by a long bus drive with the world’s most annoying child and we came to Yangshuo. This was really different to much of the other places we visited, mainly in that it was very popular with international tourists, having not seen hardly any other westerners in China till this leg of the trip. It also has heaps of cafes and I had my first real cake here. Did I mention how bad coffee is in China? It pains me to say this, but whenever we saw a Starbucks we made a be-line for it as it is the best coffee you will get in China, also the most expensive, you can eat a three course meal in a good restaurant for a price of a coffee, but still I did it….
We took a relaxing boat ride along the Li River, to see some of the countryside around Yangshuo which is spectacular, a place where massive limestone peaks shoot up into the rural landscape and tower over rice paddies and the winding Li River. Very pretty indeed, you feel like you are standing in a postcard. Also did a bike ride into the countryside, had lunch at the house of a local farmer, went caving and had another mud bath.
This was followed by the last overnight train journey that took us to Shenzhen, and on to Hong Kong. Last time I was here it was still a British colony and I had not been back since the 1997 handover to the Chinese. To be honest I found it a bit too full-on at first, after China it was all a bit too much for me and Friday night along the bars where all the bankers were out getting VERY drunk and teenagers were getting pissed outside the 7 elevens I thought, what the hell…. But once I adjusted to being here I could appreciate that the city is still a unique place where the East really does meet with the West. And it was from here that we flew home, having had a truly great holiday and with a real desire to re-visit China again in the future.