Any traveller who has taken more than a few trips will develop a travel style. A typical pattern of behavior that leads to the greatest enjoyment of the area around them. Some will find the companionship and easy planning of group tours best suit their tastes. Some may find the adventure and self-sufficiency of independent travel more to their liking. Solo travels to exotic locations fit the desires of a few intrepid souls. The frugal life of a backpacker surrounded by thatched walls may be the calling of for some. Life on a luxury cruise ship or in ritzy hotels may make up another voyagers dreams.
As happens in all areas of one’s life, other people are going to judge you. You will be ranked according to the travel choices you make and the way they are perceived by others. Those who follow a microphoned guides flag on a well-worn route in some old school European capital will not be thought of in the same light as those who huddle around a faraway pot of spicy broth shared with exotically dressed locals. Those who road trip through the amusement park filled countryside of a palm-fringed beach paradise will not rank well against the intrepid soul who sails independently around the gale wracked cape of a storm-ravaged no man’s land.
However, if there is one thing we have discovered, it is this. If you are having fun and are content with what you are doing, it doesn’t matter what others think. In the last 6 1/2 years, we have tried many different travel styles. From road trips on bumpy Central American highways to backpacking through the sweaty backroads of Southeast Asia to cushy long-term stays in slick seaside bungalows in toney European dream cities, we have probably tried all the different varieties of travel.
Over time, we have found our style. Renting apartments for a month or so in comfortable locations has become our norm. Places with access to well-stocked markets where we can shop for local ingredients that make up the majority of the meals we prepare ourselves. Locations that offer good transportation infrastructure that allows us to move easily around the area we live. Good access to communications so we can stay in touch and easily access the information we need to stay on the road continuously. Places that are easy on the eye and, if they are off the beaten track, not so far that we couldn’t get back pretty quickly if we needed to.
For sure, we do not occupy the highest rungs of the most intrepid travelers. But we have had a lot of fun and, although at a snail’s pace, managed to see some pretty far reaches of the globe. Although we have surpassed our travel dreams, there are still a couple of countries that are high on the list that we have hesitated to take on. As best as we can guess, they require quicker moves and less normality than we are used to in our chosen travel style. These countries provide less access to the easy pace, routine, communication and normalness that makes up our travel life. They are both vast countries that may possess the most diverse landscapes anywhere on earth. They need to be seen. We have visited them both in years past, but never on our own or without someone else’s help. One of them is India and, to be honest, we are still not up to that challenge. The other is China….and we are going.
We left our tiny Hong Kong apartment in the early morning before the subway rush began. We struggled to get our overstuffed suitcases through the turnstiles and down the rapidly moving escalators. After a couple of quick line changes, we reached the East Rail Line that would take us to the border at Shenzen, China. It was only a one hour ride but our excitement was intense. We easily acquired our 10-year Chinese visas during our stay in Hong Kong, so we had everything prepared for our crossing. Entry was smooth. We cashed our Hong Kong dollars and got Chinese Yuan from the ATM. We were in.
A pleasant ride on the Shenzen subway took us to the massive Shenzen North train station. Towering ceilings, high-speed trains, McDonalds and KFC greeted us in the futuristic station. Our first glimpse of ancient China was anything but old. We boarded our shining new train for our rapid ride to Guangzhou. We have ridden high-speed trains in France and Japan, but this train seemed smoother and faster. Passing 300 kilometers per hour got us to Guangzhou quickly. We only had a brief stay in this massive terminal before we caught our second high-speed train onward to our final destination.
A couple of hours later we arrived in Xingping, a tiny town on the Li River halfway between larger Guilin and Yangshuo. This area of the Guangxi Province is most famous for its beautiful and unique limestone karsts that populate the entire area. Guilin was the hub for this area’s tourism until Yangshuo developed enough to support the many tourists. Among the major interests of the area are river rides on rafts, hiking in the hills or riding country roads on some form of two-wheeled conveyance. The most beautiful scenery in the area may be along the river in the small town of Xingping which is said to resemble Yangshuo before it was developed.
After our initial impression of fast-moving trains and gleaming engineering, Xingping presented more of the picture of China we expected. The potholed roads and bad or nonexistant sidewalks looked even worse in the light rain that was falling when we arrived. The town is very small but no one seemed to have a clue when we asked them directions to our hostel. In fact, they did little more than stare at us and point in different directions. We have become used to at least someone speaking English but China was going to be different. Sign language was going to have to work.
Luckily we spotted a homemade sign for the hostel and arrived after a wet walk. The night was arriving just as we were. The hostel was old but attractive in a rough way and as we met some of our fellow travelers we felt we had started our Chinese adventure on the right foot.
We passed our 3 days in Xingping simply. We walked along the river and took a ferry to a nearby village. The rain kept us from hiking the spectacular mountains that rose high above the river but the weather was still warm enough that we weren’t kept inside much. Everyone was friendly towards us and seemed to greet us with the phrase “Hello, Babu”. We eventually figured out that they were saying “bamboo” and were referring to the bamboo boats that give rides down the river. Much of the tourist trade is selling boat rides and they were just making us an offer. It was a question rather than a statement. We enjoyed walking the cobbled ancient street that ran through the town. We toured an ancient Chinese theater that has been in operation for an eternity.
In the days of old, many fishermen in the area traditionally used cormorants to fish the waters of the river. They tie the bird’s necks so they cannot swallow and light lanterns to attract the fish to the boats. They let the birds do the work unless they are using nets. The fishermen are mostly gone now, but a few still demonstrate their skill on the river. We were able to locate one of the old gentlemen and enjoyed spending some time with him on the river as the sun set on our last evening.
The next day we made the short move to Yangshuo. If mass tourism hasn’t quite found Xingping, it has definitely discovered Yangshou. We stayed nearby the famous West Street area of town. West Street runs from the main access road into town down towards the river. It is lined with every type of tourist attraction you could think of. Wax museums, underground ice skating, loud discos, themed restaurants and hawkers loudly trying to attract attention to whatever they might be selling. It is loud, brash, garish and was quite a shock after the quiet streets of Xingping.
Luckily our hotel was quiet. We spent our three days in Yangshuo enjoyably. We hiked up one of the nearby karsts. The view was incredible from the top and well deserved after the breath-stealing climb up the thousands of muscle destroying steps. We walked the pleasant streets of the small town that was much quieter in the mornings.
Most daringly we even rented scooters for a whole day. Riding in the traffic of town was frightening even though the scooters were pretty easy to ride. Helmetless and with no warmup we thrust ourselves into the busy streets and hoped for the best. Once we arrived in the countryside the traffic subsided and we began to enjoy the freedom of making our own way through the unique mountains and farms that made up the scenery. We enjoyed lunch in a local restaurant in a tiny town with chickens, ducks and cows wandering just outside the open air setting near the river.
We spent one night in Guilin to make onward transportation easier. The town was modern and seemed huge compared to the first two towns we had visited. We did get out to visit the colorfully lit Sun and Moon temples on a lake in the center of town. It made a fitting end to a busy first week in China.
Brad and Angelina…
Our second week began with another bus ride. Heading north this time, we got our first experience with the Chinese highway system. 6 hours of some of the most amazingly engineered road we have ever travelled on.
The freeway to Fenghuang had more tunnels and bridges than we had ever seen. It was almost as if the designers were attempting to make a statement. At times, it seemed we were continuously either in a tunnel or on an elevated bridge. The tunnels, some more than a mile long were cut through the rough mountainside. The bridges spanned the valleys in between the mountains where small villages and farms lay along the rare level ground. Sweepers in orange suits patrolled the roadsides every mile or so, sweeping the roads to apparently keep a nice shine on the engineering achievement.
Our next destination was the ancient Chinese river town of Fenghuang. Popular with Chinese tourists but less known by the western world, this city lies along the Tuoliang River and was founded more than 1400 years ago. The ancient center has been well preserved and offers the visitor a chance to witness how China must have appeared to visitors many years ago.
Stone city walls, stilt raised houses and narrow streets that lead to bridges of many designs greet the visitor in the central area. Open only to pedestrians, life in the old city comes with all the smells, noise, dampness and congestion one might expect in an ancient city. Wooden guesthouses line the cobbled streets and vendors pull carts laden with goods down alleyways filled with open restaurants and vendor shops. Having noodle soup from a steaming pot in an open-air food stall on a misty morning as the town awakened on a winter morning fulfilled our dreams of China from the olden times.
Spending late mornings and early afternoons wandering routes along the river and across the many bridges or down the many alleys and up the winding streets of the city made for interesting days. We never saw another Western tourist for our entire stay. Chinese tourists and locals seemed to find us quite interesting and we always attracted a crowd wherever we went. Everyone, especially children, seemed to be tickled when they would say “hello” and we would answer back. So many brave locals asked for pictures with us that at times we felt like celebrities. At first flattering, but a little irritating after a week, we had our first taste of what it might be like to be famous. We could understand why many celebrities might become testy.
If the daytime beauty of the city was unique in our travels, the nights were even more so. The entire town along the river is lit just after dark. Not a few buildings or select streets. Everything, literally everything is aggressively lit. Multi-colored lights make the bridges, temples, houses and ancient dwellings glow like a Chinese version of Disneyland’s Main Street, USA. Every version of music from classical Chinese to bongo drums to Karaoke to thumping disco is piped at full volume over the riverside. The peaceful surroundings of the morning become a strange nightclub that continues loudly until 11:30 PM when the cacophony thankfully stops. Nowhere we have travelled has such a dramatic personality change from morning to night.
Farther north in Hunan Province, we reached our next destination. A three-hour bus ride brought us to the small town of Wulingyuan. Located just outside of the Zhangjiajie National Forest Park, the town gives off a bit of a ski area vibe. Winter finally caught up with us and the weather turned colder and a chilly haze hung in the skies.
Zhangjiajie is most famous for its towering mountain peaks that rise abruptly above the valley floor below. When viewed from the surrounding mountains these peaks rise through the nearly constant mist and create a unique vision that has inspired artists for centuries. Most recently it is said that much of the inspiration for the settings in the movie Avatar were taken from this classic Chinese wonderland.
We found our nice guest house a short distance from the bus station. The park was located a short walk from the park. We purchased our 4-day pass and made plans to visit the park over the next few days. We were told that the heavy clouds might hamper our view from the upper peaks so we decided to hike the lower portions of the park to start our tour.
Much of the town was shut down because we were so offseason. We had our guesthouse to ourselves and made good friends with the owner and his family during our stay. Mostly only small local restaurants were open and we were welcomed and remembered in each place we stopped to eat. The restaurants generally did not have menus and the fact that they remembered us and our orders made communication on our second visit much easier. Many seemed surprised that we returned more than one day and we quickly felt like regulars.
The park has free buses which transport you everywhere within the park. We used them to take us to several nice trails that we enjoyed leisurely strolls on. Many Chinese tour groups were visiting but we saw very few independent tourists.
On our second day, rain kept us from the park. However, the longest cave in China is located a few kilometers from Zhangjiajie. The perfect place to stay dry on a rainy day! Upon entering the cave we took a half mile boat ride to the end of the cave and then made our way back to the entrance over the next few hours. The cave was warm and with all the stairs and hills, we eventually were in short sleeves and felt much warmer than the winter day we had left outside the cave. The cave was spectacular and for some reason free when we visited, which was nice for our tight budget. Like in Fenghuang, the Chinese decided to garishly light the cave with multicolored lights. It made the cave interesting to look at but in some ways we felt it diminished the natural beauty of this scenic wonder.
Finally, we got a clear sunny day and we had our best day in the park. We rode the 1000 ft outdoor elevator to the top levels of the park and hiked trails to get views over the scenic peaks below. The tallest peaks were over 1000 meters and when viewed from the lofty trails above were among the most incredible natural views we have ever witnessed on our journeys. We returned to the valley floor after a full day by taking the skytram lift. It carried us down through towering peaks and gave an incredible birdseye view of one of the great natural wonderlands anywhere on earth.
We felt lucky to have been granted at least one sunny day to view the park. The next day the weather turned cold again and sleet and snow forced the airport and lifts into the park to close. Our flight was canceled and we had to extend our visit while we waited for onward transportation.
It proved to be our only hitch during our 3-week visit to China. We are glad that we decided to try a different style of travel. The change of pace has been challenging at times and forced us to do things that we normally would not. We have gotten out of our comfort zones and taken on challenges that we weren’t sure we could do without help. Perhaps we will be inspired to reevaluate our travel style in the future and add a little more risk.
For now, we are on our way to the next 3 weeks of our visit to China. Hopefully, it goes as well as the first 3.