Itinerary: Beijing – the Great Wall – Pingyao – Xi’an – Chengdu – Leshan – Lijiang – Shangri-La – Sóngzánlin – Dali – Shilin – Ping’An – Longji rice terraces – Yangshuo – Xingping – Shanghai
For the next four weeks I will be reporting from one of the largest countries in the world: the People’s Republic of China. Of the six billion people on Earth, 1.3 billion live in China. The country covers 9.5 million square kilometers, from the deserts on the border with Mongolia in the north and the mountains in the west, to the fertile, green lowlands in the east and south.
China is a country that is rapidly emerging on the global stage and its economic growth has been showing double digits for years on end. This economic progress is accompanied by a repressive political system, and the Communist Party of China still holds a firm grip on power. Media is censored and access to the Internet is restricted by the state. The itinerary of my journey in this country just shows highlights: the capital Beijing, the Great Wall, world heritage site Pingyao, the former capital Xi’an, Chengdu, Lijiang, Shangri-La, Dali, Ping’An, Yangshuo and finally Shanghai. I am traveling with a group for the first time in years, but the trip offers enough possibilities to venture out on my own.
My flight to Beijing leaves on a Saturday afternoon, just before 3 p.m.. After a transfer in London it is about a ten hour flight. Because in China it is six hours later, I arrive at Capital International Airport in Beijing the next morning. I hardly slept on the way, but the fatigue is not too bad. An employee of the local tour company is already waiting for me in the arrival hall of the airport, holding a sign with my name.
In half an hour we drive to the hotel, which is located on the southeast side of the center of Beijing. The Beijing metropolitan area has more than nineteen million inhabitants and is approximately the size of Belgium. The suburbs consist of drab high-rise buildings, where more concrete residential towers are being built. The hotel we will be staying in for the next few days is simple, but clean and the shower has hot water, which is welcome after so many hours in an aircraft.
I have thought about what I want to see in Beijing in advance. On my first afternoon I want to visit the Lama Temple and the Confucius Temple and then maybe check out some of the old hutongs (historical streets). A couple of fellow travelers are coming with me. From the hotel we walk to the nearest metro station, a walk of about twenty minutes. It is over thirty degrees outside. I expected a big culture shock when I arrived in China, but it’s actually not that bad. Here in the big city you can easily find your way (especially as an experienced traveller).
Fortunately, most street signs and information in the subway are in both Chinese characters and Western script. This makes it easy to find the right metro and buy the right ticket. Metro line 5 takes us to the center in fifteen minutes, a ride that costs two yuan (twenty eurocents). I had expected to see quite a few westerners (expats, other tourists) among the many Chinese, but we are with six westerners in an otherwise completely Chinese-filled metro.
In the Yonghegong Dajie street we walk past a row of shops where incense sticks and the like are sold. So the Buddhist Lama Temple cannot be far away. And indeed we soon arrive at the large entrance gate that (for 20 yuan) gives access to the large temple complex. The Lama Temple is the most famous Buddhist temple outside of Tibet. The temple was initially an imperial palace and became a Buddhist temple in 1744. The complex consists of several large courtyards with beautifully decorated temple buildings and shiny bronze Buddha statues. There are many Chinese who burn incense sticks and perform rituals in front of the temples and statues. After a few pavilions with Buddhas, just when you think you’ve seen it all, you come to the Wanfu pavilion, with an 18 meter high Buddha. A truly immense bronze statue, very impressive!
After the Lama Temple we are ready for food and drinks. Opposite the Confucius Temple, which is close to the Lama Temple, we find a vegetarian restaurant. Not that we are vegetarians, but the food is fine. We order a number of dishes, which we share with the six of us, as is customary in China (it is a typical western custom that everyone orders for themselves). After lunch we visit the Confucius Temple and the adjacent Imperial College. Its architectural style is reminiscent of the Lama Temple, except that you will not find Buddha statues here, but statues of the great teacher Confucius.
After visiting these two famous temple complexes, it is time to take the subway back. At the hotel our tour guide provides us with information about the trip and the optional excursion. After this we go for dinner at a restaurant within walking distance of the hotel, where we are served the famous Peking duck and various other delicious dishes.
Just after 8 a.m. I go out with a few others in search of a place to have breakfast. Near the hotel we find a small eatery, where a number of Chinese are eating. The tour guide warned us last night not to eat in questionable restaurants that don’t look very clean. This is one of them, but stubborn as we are, we take a chance. We are warmly welcomed in the tiled room that serves as a kitchen and restaurant at the same time and we order the filled dough balls that we have seen and which look well cooked (and therefore probably safe). They turn out to be quite tasty. Breakfast for five at this place costs us 8.50 yuan, indeed: not even a euro.
After this local breakfast we walk to the bus station across the street. We soon find city bus 8, which goes to Tiananmen Square, and for one yuan per person we are on our way a little later. After twenty minutes a friendly old lady gestures that we need to get off the bus. When we do, we find ourselves on the south side of what is said to be the largest square in the world. This side of the square is marked by the huge Front Gate, once part of the city wall, but now amidst the busy traffic and thousands of (mainly Chinese) day-trippers.
Another must-see building in Tiananmen Square is the Chairman Mao Memorial Hall. In this stately mausoleum Mao Tse Tung lies in state. There is a long queue in front of the mausoleum every day. We don’t want to wait two hours to see Mao and walk around the mausoleum towards the large open part of the square. Especially on the north side, Tiananmen Square is a huge and impressive square. To its left is the Great Hall of the People (1959), where the National People’s Congress meets, to the right is the National Museum and right in front of you is the impressive Gate of Heavenly Peace. This is the main gate with the famous portrait of Mao, which gives access to the Forbidden City. This is definitely a very impressive place to find yourself!
It is very busy on Tiananmen Square and a little later also in the Forbidden City. This is a tourist attraction not only for foreigners but for many Chinese people as well. Western tourists are a minority. Through a pedestrian tunnel, under the busy road that separates Tiananmen Square from the Forbidden City, we arrive at the Gate of Heavenly Peace. The gate was built in the fifteenth century and is accessible via seven arched bridges. On October 1, 1949, Mao Tse Tung proclaimed the People’s Republic of China here. Now we are face to face with his meters high portrait.
In the past, anyone who dared to enter the Forbidden City was punished with the death penalty. Now you can visit the complex for twenty yuan. Times change… The Forbidden City is not just a palace or a temple, it is a city in itself. The part within the walls is about 900 by 600 meters. Two imperial dynasties have lived here for five centuries. Only at the beginning of the twentieth century did the imperial family leave the Forbidden City.
After the Gate of Heavenly Peace you will first come to the Duan Gate. Every time you go through a gate, you come to another square with old buildings on the left and right and another gate in front of you. Everything you see around you is impressive and undoubtedly intended that way. After the Meridian Gate, previously only to be used by the emperor, and the Gate of Supreme Harmony, large buildings with names such as Hall of Preserving Harmony and Hall of Heavenly Purity follow. Imposing buildings on marble elevations. The Emperor’s throne still stands in the Hall of Supreme Harmony. Other halls served as reception or relaxation areas. The smaller buildings were the living quarters, libraries and temples, all set amid richly landscaped gardens and courtyards. It’s all truly beautiful to see!
The second part of the Forbidden City, behind the Heavenly Purity Gate, looks different. Here you will find smaller buildings and many narrow streets. While the fresh coat of red paint of the first series of buildings glitters in the sunlight, this part has not (yet) been restored. Ideally, you would forget the tourists and replace them with the emperor, his concubines and people of the court, to get an idea of what it must have been like here.
We leave the Forbidden City through the Shenwu Gate on the north side. A little later we pass a restaurant that looks good and since we are hungry, we decide to have lunch here. A very good choice: the restaurant turns out to be specialized in ‘hot pot’, a famous dish in Beijing next to Peking duck. You all get a kind of pot on a warming holder, filled with broth. Meat, fish and vegetables of your choice are placed on the turntable and you can prepare everything yourself in your own ‘hot pot’. The food is delicious!
After this great lunch we continue towards the Clock Tower and the Drum Tower. This is the center of what was once the mighty Mongol Empire. In the Drum Tower you can go up a long steep staircase, but the view is not very special. We continue walking down the streets of Dongcheng, as this part of the city is called. There used to be many ‘hutongs’ here, old streets with traditional houses. But they are fewer and fewer, because the Chinese government is rapidly modernizing the city. Which means razing down the old hutongs. One of the hutongs mentioned in the Lonely Planet turns out to be a large construction site now. After relaxing for a while on a terrace with a view of Lake Beihai, we walk down some remaining hutongs, which don’t seem very authentic and look aimed at tourists.
A bit to the south (well, a bit: we walk quite a distance today) is a modern shopping street, the Wangfujing Danie. A wide shopping street with many well-known brands. At the street market a little further on, there are all kinds of ‘delicacies’ on display that we don’t really feel like eating ourselves. Like snakes and scorpions. We end up in a cozy street with red lanterns and a number of restaurants. We sit down at one of them, but the menu appears to be only a Chinese character. Fortunately, the tour guide gave us a sheet of paper with a large number of dishes in characters and in English. This allows us to place an order. Moments later, the waitress comes to ask if she can borrow the sheet of paper to help other non-Chinese guests. Hilarious. Especially when it turns out that she copied it, so that she can also help other non-Chinese guests from now on.
The Great Wall
We get up early today. At half past six we leave for Mutianyu, an hour and a half drive north of Beijing. Here we will visit the Great Wall, one of the highlights of this trip. Because I don’t have time to have breakfast, I bought a cup of instant noodles early this morning at a small shop near the hotel. The Chinese eat a lot of these noodles (just add boiling water and you’re done) and it is sufficient for breakfast.
After we have left the city, the area quickly becomes mountainous. We have to make a detour, because the road is blocked by a pile of dirt and rubble, but when we arrive at Mutianyu we are still the first ones there. After we have been taken up with a cable car, we are the only ones on the three kilometer long stretch of wall. The original wall was built over 2,000 years ago to hold back enemy tribes from the north. However, the wall fell into disrepair and was rebuilt during the Ming dynasty. The largely restored wall that we now know as the ‘Chinese wall’ largely dates from that time.
It is absolutely a fantastic experience to walk on the Great Wall. It is an impressive structure that winds over the mountains, with a watchtower every few hundred meters. You also have a great view from the wall. The walk over the wall is not a very relaxing activity, because the wall runs up and down the mountains and it is occasionally quite a climb. But it is very special to be walking here.
On the way back to the city we pass by the 2008 Olympic Stadium, known as ‘the bird’s nest’. After lunch (in a desolate restaurant), we visit the Summer Palace. This popular tourist attraction (also for many Chinese people) was built in the eighteenth century as a country residence for the imperial family. They left Beijing during the sweltering summers to seek peace and coolness here on the water of Kunming Lake. It is a large site with beautifully decorated buildings, reminiscent of the Forbidden City. There is also a marble boat that the empress had built here.
After our visit to the Summer Palace, we go to the nearest metro station by rickshaw to take the metro to the Sanlitum district. When we get there, it turns out that it has started to rain. We wait until it rains a little less and then we walk about the neighborhood looking for a restaurant to eat. It takes some searching, but we eventually find a sleek restaurant on the third floor of a modern shopping center. The food is delicious, but (for the first time) also quite spicy. After dinner we go to a bar in a nightlife street a little further, where we have another beer, before we have a taxi drop us back at the hotel.
Wednesday is our last day in Beijing. I pack my things, check out and leave my luggage in the hotel lobby. With a few others I walk towards the Temple of Heaven Park, not far from the hotel. The weather is beautiful, but also very hot. The Temple of Heaven Park is a large park with several Ming-style pavilions, built in the fifteenth century. The largest building in the park is the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest, a 38-meter high circular temple building on a large marble elevation. The hall was built without cement, nails or other fixing materials. The building was originally built in 1420, but destroyed by lightning in the nineteenth century and rebuilt. It’s very nice! As with the Summer Palace, you also have a number of ‘corridors’, covered paths where the Chinese sit on the wooden railings playing drafts, playing cards and dominoes and where women are knitting and drinking tea.
On the way back I pop into an internet cafe. Here you can access the Internet for four yuan an hour. E-mailing works without any problems, but Facebook is blocked. After I have done some groceries we leave for the train station at 5 p.m., to take the night train to Pingyao. The train looks neat. We sleep in open compartments with six beds (three on top of each other). A seller regularly comes by with drinks and fruit, but you mainly see many Chinese shuffling by, who are on their way with their tea cup or their instant noodles to get boiling water from the tap at the end of the compartment. We pass the time chatting and eating noodles and at 10 p.m. sharp the lights in the train go out.
I don’t sleep much in the train. It’s quite noisy and right next to our compartment the guard kept opening and closing the door loudly all night and people were talking. My earplugs do block out some noise, but not everything. But, we survived. At 7 a.m. we arrive at Pingyao station, in Shanxi province. With four electric vehicles, a kind of oversized golf carts, we are driven to the hotel. The hotel is located in the middle of the old town and is built in the characteristic style of the old Pingyao. Very atmospheric. After breakfast my room is ready. Time to take a shower and change.
Refreshed I walk over to the ten meter high city wall of Pingyao with a couple of my travel companions. Pingyao has recently been added to the UNESCO list of protected cultural heritage. The old town dates from the fourteenth century and is not large, about two by two kilometers. You can walk around the town on the wall, a nice walk with views over the roofs and streets of the old town. After we have walked around the town, we walk down some old streets. After lunch we visit the local Confucius Temple, whose central Dacheng Hall dates back to the twelfth century.
We spend the rest of the afternoon outside at a cafe. While we are chatting and enjoying our drink, Chinese people regularly pass by taking pictures of us. This we will experience many more times on this trip. Chinese people travel a lot in their own country and everywhere we come across many more Chinese than Western tourists. Some of these Chinese tourists come from rural areas, where they rarely, if ever, see Westerners. Regularly people will enthousiastically shout ‘Hello!’, stop to take pictures of us or come up to us to ask if they can take a picture with you. Very funny, I’ve never experienced that anywhere before.
After dinner, everyone gathers in the Sakura bar. After a few drinks the first ones venture onto the dance floor and not much later the whole dance floor is full. With our group we fill almost the entire bar, which is open on the side of the street, where Chinese people regularly stop to look or take pictures. One of our travel companions provides the music and knows how to keep everyone on the dance floor all evening. It’s a super nice evening.
The next day the rest of the group is going to do an excursion in the Pingyao area, I opt for an excursion-free day for myself. I sleep in and then walk into Pingyao. I stroll through some streets, past the city tower in Nan Dajie street. There are many tourist shops and restaurants here. Men and women sit on the sidewalk in front of their house or shop, rickshaw drivers constantly offer rides. It is not very clean at some places, in some streets the smell betrays the lack of a sewer and children just pee in the street.
The houses in Pingyao, once an important trading city, are built in a square around a courtyard. Sometimes an open gate gives a glimpse of such a courtyard. It’s clear that the people here have sober lifestyles. Between the many small houses are also some larger houses, which used to belong to rich merchants. You can visit some of them. The nice side is the inside, facing the courtyard. The beautiful buildings of the former Richengchang Bank and the Military Escort (which accompanied transport of valuables) are also worth a visit. The entire town dates from the time of the Ming and Qing dynasties and the whole place feels like you are back in time.
After lunch I go back to the hotel, where I sit in the courtyard with a book for a few hours. After dinner we leave for the train station, where at 9:30 p.m. the night train to Xi’an leaves. This time no air conditioning in the train (the first train was just as hot though), but otherwise the train is okay. Because the lights go out at 10 p.m. again, we go to sleep almost immediately.
When we arrive at Xi’an station at 7 a.m., I actually slept a little better than on the first night train. Our hotel is opposite the train station. The rooms are not ready yet, so we have breakfast first and then take a shower and change. Most people in the group are going on an excursion today to, among other things, the Terracotta Army. However, with a few others I go on my own. With public bus number 6 you arrive at the Terracotta Army in an hour, for only seven yuan.
The Terracotta Army is one of the most famous tourist attractions in China. Emperor Qin Shi Huang ordered the creation of more than 7,000 terracotta statues of soldiers, who would guard him after his death. The statues were accidentally discovered by a farmer in the late 1970s. Part of the ‘army’ of statues has been excavated and is (now covered in three large halls) arranged in long rows, facing the same direction. Each soldier has been given his own facial features by the makers. It is special to see, but to be honest, I think the widely praised Terracotta Army is somewhat overrated as an attraction.
After having a drink and taking the bus back to the city, we have lunch in a small eatery (where I eat the longest noodles of this trip). Everywhere you go, the food is dirt cheap. This lunch costs 140 yuan (less than one and a half euros) and even if you order a number of different dishes with a few people (which is always more than enough), you often only pay a few euros.
After lunch we take a city bus to the Great Wild Goose Pagoda. This pagoda is located about eight kilometers outside the city walls. Thanks to a Chinese girl we find the right bus and the driver kindly indicates when we are there. At the pagoda, which itself isn’t very exciting, a large, sloping plaza has been laid out with a multitude of fountains spouting to the beat of classical music. Really nice.
After taking some time to relax at the hotel, we go to a restaurant near the fourteenth century clock tower (which looks beautiful lit up at night). The main dining room is packed with Chinese, we are the only foreigners. After dinner we walk down the nearby Muslim quarter, where the streets are buzzing. In many ways it is an ‘ordinary’ Chinese neighborhood, but from the food prepared on the street, the women with headscarves and the Arabic texts you can tell that you are among Muslims. Because we are unable to hail a taxi, the five of us squeeze into a tuk-tuk that actually only has room for four and not much later we are back at our hotel.
Xi’an was once the capital of the Chinese Empire and the terminus of the Silk Road. Now it is the capital of Shanxi Province and a modern city of eight million inhabitants. A busy city, where construction is taking place everywhere. One residential tower after another is being erected. I sleep in, pack my bag again and then walk into the city, towards the east gate. The city wall of Xi’an was built in 1370 and measures fourteen kilometers long, twelve meters high and nine meters wide. On all four sides of the wall are imposing city gates. It’s not crowded when I walk a quarter of the wall (from the east gate to the south gate). It is very hot on the wall you’re walking in full sun.
At the end of the afternoon I am back at the hotel. Part of the group has already taken the night train to Chengdu. With the rest of the group I leave at seven for the airport to fly to Chengdu on a domestic flight. It’s 1 a.m. when I go to sleep at the hotel in Chengdu.
Chengdu and Leshan
At 9.30 a.m. I take the bus, together with a few others, to the center of Chengdu, capital of the Sichuan province. First we visit the Wenshu temple, Chengdu’s largest Buddhist temple (which is not even that big and after the other temples we have seen also not very special). Then we go to the Renmin Park (the People’s Park). In this green oasis in the city people walk, make music, dance and sing. All publicly, which is quite normal here. There are also a number of tea houses in the park. We sit down at one of them to have a cup of tea. Chengdu is the fifth largest city in China, a modern city with five million inhabitants. But there isn’t much to see. What stands out is the sheer amount of shops and malls in Chengdu. The growing prosperity is clearly visible here.
After dinner our tour guide takes us to a karaoke bar. This turns out to be a very kitschy place, with only gold, chandeliers and mirrors. We have our own room, where we can all do karaoke. I will never do karaoke voluntarily, in Asia however it is extremely popular. You can even see people doing it even in the streets. Our tour leader kicks off and then various people from the group follow. The Chinese enthusiasm for karaoke is apparently contagious.
The next day there is only one attraction on the itinerary: the 71 meter high Buddha in Leshan. Leshan is a 2.5 drive from Chengdu. The huge Buddha statue was carved out of the rock in the eighth century, a job that took nine years. It is said to be the largest Buddha statue in the world. With a (rather touristy) boat you first sail past the statue (which overlooks a river), but you only really experience the size of the statue by looking at it up close. You have to queue for a long time, because Buddha is quite popular. As westerners, we again attract a lot of attention from the Chinese tourists in line. On one side of the Buddha you go down a narrow staircase. You start at his head and end at his feet. It is indeed an impressively large statue.
The following day I visit the Panda Breeding Research Center with a few travel companions. A taxi takes us in half an hour to the park, which is located just outside Chengdu. We are the first visitors to arrive. The pandas are spread over a large park. Some are quitely gnawing on bamboo stems – pandas only eat bamboo, thirty kilos a day! Young pandas frolic with each other on tree stumps. They look adorable and extremely cuddly. There are also red pandas in the park. I didn’t know those existed, they also look different from the well-known black and white pandas. Due to the size of the park you can easily walk for two hours.
Around noon we are back in Chengdu. On the way back, I notice how a thick gray-brown blanket covers the city. I know that the air pollution in the big cities in China is a serious issue, but here it is also very visible. On the way back we sit on the terrace of a restaurant to drink tea. After we get the tea, cutlery for the food is brought. Gesturing, we try to make it clear that we only want to have tea. The message is difficult to get across, apparently they assume that everyone who sits there wants to eat. When we want to pay a little later, the lady of the restaurant gestures that we don’t have to. Surprised, we decide to put some money on the table when we leave. At the end of the day it’s time togo to the Chengdu train station for the night train to Panzhihua, from where we will continue to to Lijiang.
Traveling by night train is easy and it is a good way to cover large distances without losing a whole day. I sleep reasonably well and at 9:30 a.m. we arrive in Panzhihua, a city that has only been in existence for thirty years and relies on the local steel and coal industry. We transfer directly to two medium-sized buses for the ride to Lijiang, in Yunnan Province. The tour guide acknowledges that it is a tough day of travel, but, quoting a Chinese proverb he says: that is part of it if you want to see beautiful things: “Your body goes to hell, but your soul goes to heaven.”
The bus ride takes nine hours, which is not because of the distance we cover, but because it goes straight over the mountains. The first part of the road is bad, but after lunch it gets better. The road winds up and down the mountain slopes. In the valleys we drive between the rice fields. A nice ride. After traveling for more than 24 hours, we arrive at our hotel in the heart of the old town of Lijiang and after a quick shower we walk into the old town. The maze of streets is a kind of mix between an open-air museum and an entertainment center. Everything has been commercialized, in the old streets there are only tourist-oriented shops, restaurants, bars and discos.
The worst thing that can happen to me during a trip (besides getting hurt physically) is losing my camera. On our first morning in Lijiang, right after breakfast, I doscover that my camera is gone. I’m always so careful about my stuff, especially my camera, but one moment of inattention is enough. I check the front desk of the hotel whether mabe someone has found it, but no. Then I go over to the restaurant we were at the night before to ask if maybe they have found a camera, but no. I’m really really sick of it. I haven’t switched memory cards in days, so a lot of my pictures are gone. To me, that’s seriously awful. I don’t care about the camera, a camera is replaceable, shame about the money, but that’s not important. However, photos are irreplaceable… Unbelievable that they’re lost… On the upside: I’m traveling with a group and several traveling companions offer me to share their photos with me, which offers a bit of consolation. A bit…
I try to file a report with the local police, but that turns out to be complicated, time-consuming and ultimately impossible. I would have to go to the local police station and fill out a form. With that form I would then have to go to another regional police station the next day, where another form would be filled in, which I could then submit to the insurance company as proof of reporting. But because tomorrow is a Saturday, the report at the regional police station can only take place after the weekend. But we are leaving Lijiang before that, so I can’t go to the regional police station on Monday. When asked, the police officer indicates that the entire process of the report cannot be arranged the same day because of the time it takes. A tourist information officer (who acts as an interpreter during the conversation) confirms that filing a report is a time-consuming process. And then there is the language problem. In the end, I decide not to file a report. Hopefully my insurance company will understand.
In the afternoon I go into town with the tour guide (who acts as an interpreter) to buy a new camera. In the second store we go to, they have the camera I’m looking for (the latest version of my old camera) and the lens I had (which is not available everywhere, so I’m lucky). After some negotiation about the price and the accessories I have a new camera. A must when I travel. But the huge hangover from losing my photos won’t go away.
The next day I’m strolling about Lijiang, but it’s hard for me to enjoy it. Outside it is a pleasant 28 degrees, better than the 35 degrees in Beijing and the 37 degrees in Xi’an. I walk down the old streets of Lijiang. In the morning there are few tourists in the old cobbled streets with traditional houses. The town was rebuilt in 1997 after a severe earthquake and is now on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Now that the shops selling tea, scarves, jewelry and other souvenirs have not yet opened, it all looks a bit more photogenic. The Naxi people, a minority of Tibetan descent, live in and around Lijiang. In the old town many women walk in traditional costume. North of the old town is Black Dragon Pool Park. The view over a pond with a marble arch bridge and the Jade Dragon Snow mountain is beautiful.
Shangri-La and Sóngzánlin
After two days we leave Lijiang. Leaving is hard for me because I’m leaving behind something that is dear to me. The hope that someone will still find my camera is now gone. We are in the bus a lot today. In 2.5 hours we drive over the mountains to the Gorge of the Leaping Tiger. Here the Jinsha River flows down a narrow gorge. Due to the height differences and the rocks that direct the water, the water has an enormous speed and corresponding force in some parts. A nice stopover, but not that special.
After lunch, it’s another 2.5-hour drive to Shangri-La (formerly Zonghdian). Shangri-La is located on the Tibetan plateau, at an altitude of 3,200 meters, on the border of the provinces of Yunnan and Sichuan. The area is inhabited by Tibetans as you will notice immediately when you drive through the area. The architectural style (buildings that are slightly wider at the bottom than at the top), the facial features of the people, the clothing (colored traditional Tibetan clothing) and the farmers with their yaks on the land.
Mid-afternoon we arrive at our hotel, which is built in traditional architectural style around a courtyard. At the end of the afternoon we all walk into the old part of Shangri-La. It’s a bit like Lijiang, but smaller. We walk past Guishan Park, a hill with a Tibetan temple on top. When I walk up the stairs to the temple, I immediately notice that we are on a higher elevation. The thin air ensures that you reach the top panting, while you would normally climb such a staircase without any problem. Furthermore, Shangri-La consists of old streets á la Lijiang and the town is clearly aimed at backpackers and other tourists.
In the evening, after dinner, I walk back to the hotel alone. In the dark (there is no street lighting) I overlook a step and fall forward. After I’ve scrambled to my feet, I continue walking, but back at the hotel it turns out that blood is coming through my pants. I ripped open the skin of my right leg in the fall. With the cold shower I try to counteract the swelling (which doesn’t really work) and then I put a bandage on the wound and go to bed.
Shangri-La is still deserted when the next morning I walk into town with a few others. There is only one time zone in China, which means that the sun rises much earlier in the east (where Beijing and Shanghai are located) than in the west. Because of this, public life in Shangri-La apparently also starts later. In one of the streets we find a place that is already open and advertises (western) breakfast. The girl who takes the order turns out to be alone. We see her making a phone call and not much later two more girls come running in, apparently ordered out of their beds to help.
After breakfast we take bus 3, which takes us to the Buddhist Sóngzánlin Monastery. The monastery, a complex with several temples and residences for the monks, is well worth a visit. After we have visited the monastery, we walk around the nearby lake and from there back to the ticket office of the monastery. Back to Shangri-La, where we look for a restaurant for lunch. There are many tasty things on the menu, but apparently they just don’t have them right now… I do some shopping and sit at the hotel to read for a while. Tomorrow is a traveling day again.
We leave Shangri-La and for the first hour we drive across the Tibetan plateau. There are wooden constructions in the fields everywhere, on which the harvest can be hung to dry. Women are walking along the road in colorful clothes and with a large basket on their backs. Yaks, goats, pigs and chickens are everywhere. After an hour we drive across the mountains again. One hairpin bend after the other. The clouds hang between the tops of the mountains. A beautiful route.
As we come lower, mountains and valleys alternate and we drive between rice fields. We regularly pass through small villages. The same picture everywhere: small houses and shops along the road, some nicely painted and decorated, others old and dilapidated. There is rubble everywhere, the rubbish contrasts with the neatly laid out rice fields and fields.
In rural China you realize how huge the contradictions in China have become in recent decades. The ‘new openness’ policy pursued by the CPC since the 1980s has brought great economic prosperity to the country. Cities like Beijing and Shanghai have grown enormously and all things that are normal in the West (computers, mobile phones, clubs) can also be found here. This is modern China, which is on its way to becoming the largest economy in the world. You can also see the appearance of modern China in provincial cities such as Xi’an and Chengdu.
But out there, in the countryside, you see poverty. Prosperity is unevenly distributed in China. The land is still worked by hand, the farmer still walks with the plow behind his ox and the water comes from a well. Life here is not about the latest gadgets, but about having enough rice on the table every day. While elsewhere in China the competition with the USA and Europe is being fought, the Chinese countryside is still a developing country. It is therefore not surprising that millions of Chinese go ‘da gong’, i.e. move from the countryside to the city in search of work and prosperity.
Just before we arrive in Dali, we stop at the three pagodas. It’s not worth paying the high entrance fee, so we only take a look from the outside. After a long bus ride we arrive at our hotel in Dali late afternoon.
When we order breakfast the next morning, we already have the feeling that the waitress doesn’t understand it all that well. An hour later, some of us get a part of their breakfast (I only get coffee myself). We complain and decide to leave. A little further is a shop where we buy sandwiches. Then we go and rent mountain bikes and drive out of Dali, towards Lake Erhai. We cycle along rice fields and through a small village. On the shore of the lake you have a view of both the mountains on the other side and the mountains on the other side of Dali. After riding for a while, my chain comes off. We get it back in place, but something isn’t right: I can only continue in a very light gear.
Back in Dali I have a cold drink and then I walk about town by myself for a while. Like Lijiang and Shangri-La, Dali is an old town, but the architecture is slightly different. Around Dali, a town inhabited by Bai people, is an old city wall with a beautiful city gate on each side. In the evening I have dinner with a few travel companions in an open-air restaurant in the heart of the old town. It is a lovely balmy summer evening to eat and have a drink al fresco.
Shilin, Ping’An and the Longji rice terraces
After a rainy day in Dali, we travel the long way from Dali to Shilin, just south of the large city of Kunming. We drive on a wide highway, a bit different from the winding mountain roads of the past few days. Here too the contradictions are visible: if you look to the right from the modern toll road with bilingual signage and large billboards, you can see the farmers with their traditional instruments tending their rice fields. And between the new apartment complexes, if you look closely, you can still see the old workers’ houses (which may or may not be about to be demolished).
Kunming is a big modern city where the progress is visible: elevated highways, countless flyovers, brand new residential towers, I even see a Walmart along the way. A large Ferris wheel on the river gives the impression that Kunming wants to mirror London. We have lunch in a restaurant along the road, where we have our doubts about the hygienic standards…
Near Shilin is the Stone Forest, a collection of rock formations, carved by water, a kind of ‘forest’ of stones. We visit it for over two hours and then go to a nearby train station to take the night train to Guilin. This time I sleep pretty well on the train. For the first time on this journey, the train is delayed: instead of 1:30 p.m., we arrive in Guilin at two. Here we immediately board the bus for the two-hour ride to the Longji area. Here we transfer to another bus, which takes us up the mountain via a number of steep and sharp hairpin bends.
The bus takes us to the Yao village of Ping’An, which is located on top of a mountain. The last part the bus cannot go any further, so we have to walk. Local women with baskets can bring your luggage up for a small fee. I choose to carry my backpack myself – it feels a bit too much like slave labor to have such a small woman carry such a heavy bag. The last part is a steep climb via stairs to the guesthouse located almost on top of the mountain. I’m sweating a lot and the thin air makes breathing heavier than usual. I’m glad when we arrive on top.
The destination is worth the climb: the all-wood guesthouse has what you call ‘rooms with a view’. From my room I look out over the mountains and the rice terraces. Tomorrow we will take a (long) walk here. Today we stay at the terrace of the hotel, with delicious food, a Tsingtao beer and a fantastic view.
I sleep with the windows wide open and when the crickets give way to crowing roosters and the sun comes up, it’s time to get up. I am the first and so I have breakfast in peace on the terrace of the hotel. It is 28 degrees and partly cloudy, a beautiful day for a walk through the rice fields. At 9 a.m. we leave with a large part of the group and walk along various viewpoints with beautiful views over the rice terraces. After an hour, the tour leader returns to the hotel with most of the people. With a few others I continue walking. With a small group of diehards we plan to walk all the way to Dazai.
We walk through a beautiful part of the famous Longji rice terraces. There is hardly anyone to be seen here, certainly no tourists, only the occasional local Chinese, whom we ask whether we are still going in the right direction. Fortunately, we are. We literally walk right amidst the rice terraces, over narrow paths and regularly climbing over a mountain top via a cobblestone path. In general, the walk is doable, but the climbs are quite tough.
At half past one we arrive at a small village, where we can have something to eat. We are the only ones here too. The food that is prepared for us is fine and with new energy we walk the last part to Dazai. Once there, a small bus with Chinese tourists is waiting to go to Ping’An. The driver is willing to take us for a few yuan. Super. At 4 p.m. we are back at our guesthouse, satisfied, tired and soaking wet. In all we’ve been walking for 6.5 hours.
Yangshuo, Yulong River and Xingping
We leave Ping’An the next morning. I carry my backpack back down, where we have to wait for the bus. We drive (with a stop at a small tea plantation) to Yangshuo, where we arrive early afternoon. When we walk into the town, I immediately notice: it is sweltering hot here. Much warmer than the past few days and the humidity is very high.
After lunch I walk about the town, which is not big (about 300,000 inhabitants), but modern and it has everything you need as a western tourist (and also a lot that you don’t need). In the town you will find the usual souvenir shops, street vendors and endless offers for a trip on a bamboo raft. What Yangshuo mainly has to offer is the environment, but we’ll save that for tomorrow. I spend the rest of the day and evening relaxing, eating and having a drink in one of the bars.
The next day we rent bicycles to go for a bike ride in the area around Yangshuo. We cycle along the Yulong River, which is smaller than the much-visited Li River, but the surroundings are just as beautiful. The entire area around Yangshuo consists of steep karst mountains that rise from the otherwise flat landscape. In between are grassy fields, rice fields and here and there small villages. A beautiful area for a bike ride. After we have cycled along the north bank of the Yulong River for a while, the road does not continue. We are taken to the other side of the river on two bamboo rafts. The one I’m sitting on can barely hold two people plus two bicycles and sinks further and further into the water along the way. But we arrive without getting wet and continue cycling along the south bank.
Not much later, one of us has a flat tire. Luckily we have just arrived at a small village. A resident makes a phone call and moments later a Chinese man on a motorbike arrives and repairs the tire. When we continue, the road narrows and eventually changes into a fifty centimeters narrow unpaved path. Just when you start to wonder whether you are still driving in the right direction, the road widens again.
We cycle al the way to Yulong Qiao (Dragon Bridge), a 600-year-old stone bridge over the Yulong River. Here we cross to the other side of the river again. We try to find a small road that goes back along the north bank of the river, but we don’t succeed. So we cycle back to Yangshuo via the main road. Just before Yangshuo it starts to rain lightly, but not enough to get more wet than we already are. At 1 p.m. we return our bicycles. After a journey of four hours we have a well-deserved lunch.
After lunch we walk about the town for a while. We end up at a local market, where, in addition to all kinds of fresh vegetables, they also have containers with live fish, snakes and frogs. The market hall next door, however, beats everything: here are pens full of chickens, geese, ducks and rabbits. A little further on, dogs hang from a meat hook, live cats are piled up in a cage. There is a pungent smell in the hall. Fortunately, we have already eaten, because after a visit to this market you really don’t feel hungry anymore.
At the end of the afternoon, when I’m back in my hotel room, there’s a heavy thunderstorm. After reading for a while, I go to dinner with a few others. I’ve been in China for almost four weeks now and again we manage to eat dishes we haven’t had before. If you like oriental cuisine, you can really indulge yourself in China.
The next day the weather is less nice than the past few weeks. It’s cloudy and from time to time it rains. After breakfast I take the bus with a few others to Xingping, a village fifteen kilometers north of Yangshuo. We walk across the local market, where you can buy everything from vegetables and chickens to clothes and tools. Then we walk towards the Li River. Here are dozens of boats ready to sail tourists on the river between the karst mountains. We negotiate the price with a Chinese woman (eventually 70 yuan per person) and walk with her. The boat appears to be a long way away. Once there, it turns out that at that moment only boats are allowed to sail downstream and not upstream. No problem, because that’s the most beautiful part and actually where we want to go.
We have to wait an hour and decide to have lunch first. After lunch it starts to rain, but on the covered boat you keep it more or less dry. We sail from Xingping to Yangdi in an hour and then back again in an hour. The mountains to the left and right of the river are partly shrouded in clouds, but it is nevertheless a beautiful area to sail through. Sit back and relax. Back in Xingping we have some food and drink and then we head back to Yangshuo by bus.
My four-week trip in China is almost over. For the last leg I fly to Shanghai, my last destination this trip. The rest of the group travels to Guangzhou. I sleep in, pack my things, and take it easy, because I have plenty of time today. I kill the time with reading chatting with fellow travelers. At 4 p.m. I am being picked up and I say goodbye to the travel companions present. When we are near the Guilin strain station the driver asks if I have a hard sleeper or soft sleeper on the train. I reply that I’m supposed to be dropped off at the airport, not the train station… It is a small airport and I quickly check in and pass security. There I am, for the first time in almost four weeks, without the rest of the group, alone, waiting for my flight to Shanghai. It’s a bit strange to end the journey alone.
The flight is right on time and 9:15 p.m. we arrive at Pudong International Airport in Shanghai. An employee of the local travel organization is already waiting for me. She is young, just graduated and tells me all about Shanghai along the way. The drive from the airport to my hotel takes 45 minutes. It is already dark, but you immediately see that this is a large, modern metropolis. Wide highways, flyovers and tall buildings lit with neon lights.
My last day in China coincides with the 90th anniversary of the Communist Party of China. I spend this last day in the largest city in China, which now has almost 23 million inhabitants. The city is located in the far east of the country, at the mouth of the Huangpu River. Shanghai was once just a small fishing village, until the area fell into French and British hands after the First Opium War in the nineteenth century. Since then, the city has become the economic heart of China.
If this journey over the past few weeks has shown where China came from and where it is now, then Shanghai shows where the country is going. Shanghai roughly consists of two parts: Puxi on the west bank of the Huangpu and Pudong on the east bank. Puxi is where most of the attractions are, the old town, the Bund and the main shopping centers. Pudong is the business district, with gleaming office towers and the Oriental Pearl Tower, the icon of the city. My hotel is half an hour’s walk from the Bund, just north of the Huangpu district. Nanjing Street is the city’s largest shopping street. At the end of the modern, partly car-free street with large retail chains is Renmin Park (People’s Park). A modest green area in the busy city.
From here I walk south, towards the ‘old town’. The street scene here is completely different from the rest of the city: no concrete high-rise buildings, but modest low-rise buildings, no billborads and trendy clothing stores, but small tea and spice shops and market stalls. This old part of the city is threatened on all sides by the advancing modernity. Entire blocks have already made way for construction pits and new construction. To compensate, there are a few blocks further along where a kind of ‘old town’ has been recreated. The architectural style is classical Chinese, but it is a first class tourist trap. Endless shops selling souvenirs, men selling counterfeit watches and western chains such as McDonalds and Starbucks. It is very busy here, apparently places like this do attract a lot of people.
After lunch I head for the Bund. This is a pedestrian promenade along the Huangpu River. On one side are the old buildings of Puxi, on the other the skyline of Pudong, the Manhattan of Shanghai. I spend some time at the Bund to enjoy the view and watch people passing by. Every now and then a Chinese person comes and sits next to me to have a chat with this lonely westerner. At dusk, the Bund gets even busier than it already was. After all, the skyline of Pudong is most beautiful when it gets dark and the buildings are illuminated with neon light.
Just before 8 a.m., my driver enters the lobby of my hotel, waving enthusiastically. In forty minutes we drive to Pudong International Airport. I can go straight through and I am checked in in no time for my flight via London to Amsterdam. After a fifteen-hour journey, I will arrive there at 8 p.m. local time.
It has been a fantastic journey! I saw a lot, met nice people, had great meals. Prior to the trip, I had expected quite a bit of ‘culture shock’. But that went very well. Yes, the Chinese spit on the street, the toilets are often dirty and small children sometimes do their needs in the street, there is litter scattered about everywhere and not every place where food is prepared looks equally hygienic. But if you’ve been to Asia more often, all those things might not surprise you.
Communicating with the Chinese people, who barely speak English, is sometimes difficult, partly due to the complicated writing in characters. But the signage is often bilingual, menus as well (or have pictures) and in the Lonely Planet many (place) names are also in characters. With that – and with some sign language – you come a long way.
Of course, during a trip like this you mainly see the beautiful things. The enormous environmental pollution, the factories where tens of thousands of Chinese work under poor conditions, the penal camps that still exist and the widespread corruption, you hardly notice it at all. What will stick with me are the sharp contrasts and the pace at which the country is developing everywhere. Whoever was in China ten years ago has seen another China. Whoever comes here in ten years’ time will also see a different China. In any case, It’s great to have been there for now.