Caution – this is a long one…two weeks in China with two awesome people left me with a lot to say!
My year of travel might never have happened if it weren’t for the invitation from Amy and Nathan to join them on a two-week trip to China. When our plan to go to Peru together fell through due to flooding and my move to Canada, they asked me to join them on this trip. I eagerly accepted, but soon started thinking “If I am already all the way in China, I would like to see Laos, and if I go to Laos, I would really like to see Thailand…” and on and on. So, when a few other factors fell into place it became clear that my two weeks in China had morphed into a year-long world adventure. However, with China always being the impetus, and therefore the country with the longest period of time with me looking forward to it, it seems to have snuck up rather quickly. When I arrived in Hanoi, it was time to sort out how the heck I was to get to Shanghai on time to meet Amy and Nate. After about 3 days of trying, I managed to book a bus across the border to Nanning, a hostel in Nanning and a train from Nanning to Shanghai which would get me there within 2 hours of the others. It was perfect! Well, the plan was perfect, the person executing the plan was not. I managed to get past the border (which took a lot more effort and was a little more surreal then you might imagine) and got to Nanning just fine. In the morning, I headed to the train station only to discover that I hadn’t factored in the time change. All of China is in a single time zone, and it is not the same as that of South East Asia. So, I missed my train (by about 10 minutes because I thought I was getting there early). So, after 5 minutes of “Oh Crap, Oh Crap, Oh Crap” (among other things), I pulled myself together and thought, “Well, it could be worse”. It was a 27 hour train ride. If I couldn’t manage to get myself to Shanghai somehow in the next 27 hours, I wasn’t trying hard enough. I instead booked a flight for the next day and learned my $300 lesson. As John Steinbeck said “A journey is like a marriage. The certain way to be wrong is to think you control it.” Perhaps I needed a reality check after getting complacent with the ease of travel in South East Asia. In the end, I arrived in Shanghai a few hours later than I had first scheduled and all was well. Walking into the hotel room and seeing Amy and Nathan instantly wiped any residual frustration from my mind. Seeing them was almost like coming home. I instantly felt that comfort and ease that you only get with the familiarity of home. We had big hugs, chatted and fell into a very content sleep.
The next day, we toured around Shanghai with our guide Sydney. We got to see the Bond, the TV Tower, a beautiful garden and more. I was very surprised to find out that the Pudong area of Shanghai (very modern and impressive) is only 20 years old. The city seems like it is made up of bits of architecture from all corners of the globe. And with a population of about 23 million, there are more than enough people to fill all of those buildings. We also headed to a tea room for a lesson in various types of teas and all came away with a little something to remember it by. That evening there was a bit of a show at dinner, which included the least convincing Lady-boy I have ever seen, including office Hallowe’en parties. After dinner, we got to go to an Acrobatics show that had come highly recommended. I have seen 3 different Cirque shows in Vegas, and this blew them all away. To say it was incredible does not do it justice! The next day, we headed to the bullet train and travelled 285km/h to Suzhou. There we went to see the Master of Nets Garden, took a boat ride down the grand canal, wandered around in the old town and visited a silk factory where Amy and I actually petted the silk worms (weird). The following day we walked to Tiger Hill to see the Leaning Pagoda and to take super cheesy tourist pictures. Once we were done there, we walked to find the lesser known Twin Pagodas. The garden surrounding them was a little overgrown with an older man practising Tai Chi in the middle. It was very quite and peaceful. The following day was a travel day, with a train ride back to Shanghai and a flight to Xi’an.
Xi’an is one of the oldest cities in China, with more than 3,100 years of history and is one of the four great ancient capitals of China. It is also where you can find the Terracotta Warriors, which was our first major stop. Before heading there though, we started the day with a trip to the Temple of the 8 Immortals. This was a little challenging to find, but worth it for the oasis it provided from the city. From there it was off to the Warriors! It was understandably crowded, but still very cool to see hundreds of unique clay warriors standing in their battle formation waiting for a fight that is never coming. That evening we went to a Tang Dynasty show where we were fed a random collection of dumplings shaped like different kinds of animals. We may have played with the food a little. 🙂 Up next was a day at Mount Huashan. We knew it would be somewhat busy, but were shocked to find a 3.5 hour line up for the gondola to the top. However, once we arrived, it was worth the wait. We climbed up some pretty crazy stairs carved into the ridge of the 5 peaked mountain and saw some incredible views. On the way down, the line up was again over 2 hours, so we decided to take the stairs. This is a decision that would haunt the thighs and calves for the next few days. The next day was our free day, which started out with a walk around in both the Bell and Drum towers, then a walk to the wall. Amy and Nate took a bike ride around the top of the wall (even though we had just descended a mountain the day before) while I wandered through the markets of the Muslim district and the Gate area. I love market food, and I may have slightly over indulged…but it was yummy!
From Xi’an we were off to Beijing. We arrived early and took a little walk to explore. The next day was a big one. We started by visiting the Summer Palace, then off to the Forbidden City, Tiananmen square, the Temple of Heaven, and a Kung Fu show. While at the Temple of Heaven, Nate and I both got to be the Chinese center of the universe for a while, and although I am pretty sure I already had the title anyways, Nate insists it’s his. After the Kung Fu show we had some dinner and called it a night, because we had to rest up for something big…something so big you might even call it Great. That’s right, we were off to the Great Wall! The spot we were heading to was far enough outside of Beijing to avoid the massive crowds and steep enough to avoid the slow. When we got there we were excited to find that there was a chair lift to the top of the mountain and a luge ride to get down…as if the wall weren’t awesome enough. We got to the wall and started walking/climbing. It was surreal, incredible, sweaty, amazing, marvelous (I think you get the idea). At one of the towers, there were some monks doing some chanting. We later passed two of them as they were running and cheering down the stairs to the next tower. They tried to get us to run with them, but there is only so much these legs can handle. After we had as much as we could do, it was back to the luge for en epic ride down the mountain. What an experience!
After the amazing day at the Great Wall, we were pretty tuckered out, but we had a long drive to snooze and recover on our way to Mount Cangyan. For anyone who has watched Crouching Tiger, it is the location of the end scene with the suicide jump. We took a slightly terrifying gondola up to the top of the mountain that gave amazing views of the temple and bridge wedged between two cliffs. It was very cool to be up there, but it was also very hot. There were some beautiful views and some funny pictures before we were ready to go. We again took a walk down the mountain, which at this point is sort of our thing, and were stinky sweaty messes when we got back in the van. We spent the night in Shijazhuang (aka Shazam!)before heading back to Beijing for our free days. The first this we did when we got back was to enjoy the soft, luxurious beds for a bit before Nathan took us out on a wee bit of a death hike. We walked from the hotel to the “Culture Street”, which is really just a shopping area, then to the actual shopping area (where Nate finally got his Haagen Daz) then took the subway part way to the Olympic Park. Once we thought we were there, we roamed about looking for the entrance for a while. After finally arriving just as the sun was going down, we found a seat and watched the lights turn the park from pretty impressive to WOW! The Birds Nest and the Water Cube are lit up every night and people from all over gather along the path leading tot he park to rollerskate, speedskate, dance and sing some good ol’ karaoke. It was well worth the hours of walking, but we took a cab back. 😉
Our last day together had arrived and we decided to take it easy on the walking (or so we thought) and just head to Beihai Park. The plan was to have Nate row Amy and I around the lake for a while, have some food and take in the sights. We took the subway to the start of the park, but it turns out that the south end is private and the whole park is walled, so we walked again. This was no small area to cover, but we eventually got to the entrance and headed in to see China’s smallest city…a walled temple on an island in the middle of the lake. We then hiked up the stairs to the Dagoba where we got a 360 view of Beijing. The view of the Forbidden city really put its massive size into context. Next up was the rowing, which ended up being pedal boats but was a great way to relax and see the rest of the park. It was a perfect last day together. The next day would see me off to Thailand and Amy and Nathan heading home. It was amazing to get to travel with two fantastic people and to get to see a country that is so drastically different from anywhere I have been before. It was also so good to get a bit of home while I am so very far away. I hope the Bakers know how grateful I am to them for this experience. Now it is time for Thailand part 2!