Beijing is a behemoth of the ancient and modern worlds. The current Chinese Communist Government is one of the most powerful on earth with a strong grip of control over its people. And while much of the traditional Chinese culture has been downplayed in China’s recent past, sites such as the Great Wall and the Forbidden City demonstrate China’s long-lasting legacy stretching back millenia.
What do I mean by “strong grip” of the government here? One example: each Chinese person is permitted to work where the government decides. This usually means that a person can work in their home province, and are not allowed to move to another region of the country without permission. As Beijing and Shanghai have stronger economies, there are many “illegal workers” from other parts of China. While using the Beijing metro (which is awesome), there were several police checkpoints that require personal identification. As a foreigner the police didn’t care about me – only Chinese nationals. If an illegal worker’s ID was scanned multiple times, they could be flagged. Not quite what we’re used to back home… perhaps a tradeoff between freedom and economic development. Even if you don’t like the Chinese government’s policies, the economic progress over the last decades have been unprecedented in human history.
In the city we stayed in a traditional area, with our hostel having an open common area that was surrounded with rooms. Very peaceful area and a nice neighbourhood. The food in Beijing is to die for, especially the Peking Duck. The duck was brought out and carved in front of us, and is eaten with thin pancake/crapes and various vegetables. So good!
Obviously, we visited the Great Wall! We went to a part of the wall that is less visited, and we had it to ourselves for the most part! I did meet one Chinese fellow who was trying to tell me something. My lack of Mandarin and his lack of English resulted in a traditional charades discussion. I figured out that he was offering me a cigarette, and that along his trek, we was smoking one cigarette for each wall tower! He had a good laugh and headed off!
The China trip comes to an end. This has been a truly unique and fascinating country. Even though us in the West don’t always agree with other political/value systems, we can appreciate their strengths and learn from their weaknesses. Now for the last leg of the Asia trip – Japan!
Shanghai is a bustling and modern city with gorgeous cityscapes, parks, and museums. For some reason I thought it was going to be less developed and unpleasant – but I was wrong. The city is clean, easy to get around, and has lot of cool sights!
The famous cityscape of Shanghai, the Bund, is gorgeous at nighttime. Another place not to miss is the Shanghai Museum. There are artifacts and artwork from the many Chinese dynasties. My favorite collections are the ceramics and jade. So cool!
There are many very nice parks in the city to chill and relax. At one of the main parks in Shanghai you can visit the Shanghai Marriage Market. This is where the parents of unmarried children go and try to find prospects for their kids. It’s quite fascinating – you can see photos and stats such as height, occupation, age, etc. It’s like an online dating profile filled out by your parents. You’ll see one photo of this below.
One recommendation for food – all over the city you will find self-serve soup restaurants. You get a bowl and add whatever you want: meats, veggies, noodles, spices, etc. You then give it to the kitchen staff and they prepare it for you. It is extremely tasty and quite cheap. Watch out though, one time I thought I’d selected pork, but it ended up being stomach. Haha, live and learn!
I really enjoyed my time in Shanghai. Now off northwest to Xi’an and the Terracotta Warriors!
Photos by Jon Lang
Asia Trip – Early 2016
P.S. – In the last post I mentioned that we were going to take a 20 hour train ride to Shanghai. This ride went very well, and was quite comfortable. We had a sleeper, which is a bunk bed stacked 3 high. Each compartment had 2 sets of bunk beds, so there were 6 of us. Jon and I shared it with a local family, who were quite curious about who we were. Even though we couldn’t converse due to the language difference, they were very friendly and good travel companions. We had a good night’s rest, and were well fed with the food cart that went by every couple of hours during the daytime. Even though it was long, the train experience was very good!
Zhangjiajie and Mt. Tianmen are some of the most stunning places in my travels so far – and that’s saying something! I’d read about them, but actually being here is jaw-dropping.
The city of Zhangjiajie is an 8 hour drive north of Guilin, but we took a short flight. Near the city is Zhangjiajie National Forest Park. This is where many of the stunning photos are from. The landscapes include hundreds of high and skinny pillar-like formations as far as you can see! This is actually the area where the movie Avatar was filmed. When you see this place, it’s almost seems too amazing to be real!
Getting around this park is really easy, as you can ride elevators, gondolas, or shuttles. We even stayed overnight in the park at a hostel. I recommend staying at least 2 days in the park, and 3 if you have time. After the park we headed back to the city for a night. We then checked out a nearby mountain, Tianmen Mountain. The road going out to the mountain is unbelievable. The only road that compares is the Transfagarasan road in Romania. Check out the photo below. Once you get up to the mountain, you then take an escalator THROUGH the mountain. Yes, they actually drilled through the mountain and built a massive escalator! The engineering here is amazing.
Once you get near the top, you can take a stroll on a glass bridge bolted to the side of the mountain. They even give you slippers to put over your shoes – everyone looks so tidy! You can check out the Buddhist Tianmenshan Temple near the top that was built over 1100 years ago.
Zhangjiajie is an absolute must for anyone travelling to China. While a little out-of-the-way, you can catch planes or trains to get out here. Our next stop is Shanghai – a solid 20 hour train ride away!
With our visa in hand, it was easy to travel from Hong Kong across the mainland Chinese border to Shenzhen, a city right next to Hong Kong. When we got to the immigration desk, the officer looked at us and gave someone a phone call… our hearts started beating. Luckily there was no problem and we were able to catch our train to Guilin.
If you travel in China, know that the train system is awesome! The network is massive and has state of the art bullet trains that go over 300km/hr. You can use an app called C-Trips, where you can buy all the train and plane tickets that you need. It is in English and is easy to use.
We arrived to Guilin, and were surprised to find out that the city has over 4.7 million people! The maps and books made it look like a small city… I guess for China it is! It was fun wandering around and checking out the different neighbourhoods. There aren’t very many foreigners here, so we definitely got some stares. With a wave those stares soon turned into smiles!
From Guilin we took a boat ride down the Li River to the stunning town of Yangshuo. This area is surrounded by steep/narrow mountains, and provides some great views. A local told us about a hiking trail up to a communications tower. After a good hour of climbing steps and steep trails, we had an ample reward. Check out the photos!
The next day we decided to go freestyle hiking throughout the countryside. We came across several little villages and farms. At one point we had our tablets open trying to figure out where we were, and a local farmer came up to us and asked us where we wanted to go. Note this was all done through charades. We pointed on the map that we wanted to follow the river, and he showed us a good path through his farm to reach the river.
After following the river for an hour or so, we came to the end of the trail. Unfortunately we wanted to keep going, but the steps were washed out. We back-tracked and bartered with a fisherman/merchant for a ride to our destination.
It was a good adventure, but we were really hungry! We stopped by a little restaurant and found a menu with good pictures! Our Mandarin is nil, and ditto for our hosts’ English. We ordered a ridiculous amount of food – a massive fish, chicken, duck, pork, and rice. Our hosts watched in amazement as we gobbled down everything. It was so good!
The fish was really fresh. In fact, it was swimming in a tank just outside of the restaurant. A guy on a moto drives by each day and delivers the fish right to the tank! After we sat down at the restaurant, our host grabbed a fish and showed it to us. Needless to say it passed inspection!
Another quirky thing about many restaurants here is the cutlery and dishes. They come pre-wrapped in plastic and are set out on the tables. I think that the dirty dishes/cutlery are collected by a company at the end of the day, and they clean, re-package, and deliver them the next day. Pretty efficient!
A few general tips about travelling in mainland China:
Google is blocked. No Google search, no Gmail, no Google Maps, no Playstore. Be sure to have some other email account, map app, and any other apps that you need BEFORE entering mainland China. All of this was accessible in Hong Kong when we were there, but once crossing the mainland Chinese border, it is blocked. I’ve never seen such an effective firewall… best to be prepared
There is very little or no English in many places. Try to find a hostel/hotel where there are English speakers. Check out the property description and reviews – it will usually say. This is very helpful as you can get good local travel tips, and have someone write down your hostel or destination in Mandarin, and you can show this to a bus driver or cab driver. This is more valuable than you can imagine!
Prior to going to China, buy a good travel book. This can provide useful information for sights and destinations. Make sure that the book includes the Chinese names of things in case you need to ask someone for directions.
Most tour agencies are for local Chinese, not foreigners. Agents often don’t speak English, and you will be on a big bus with Chinese tourists. I recommend asking for info at your hotel/hostel if there’s an English speaker there
Obviously, be respectful of the local traditions and customs. Also, as government control is quite tight, don’t say anything negative about the government or its policies.
Other than that, enjoy this beautiful country!
There’s a lot more to check out in China, so stay tuned!