If you ask me 'So, how was China?', you might get a long pause.
A country so vast and diverse, China has defied my attempts to categorize it into short, tidy descriptions. The landscape, the cuisine and even the language varies more than I originally thought possible and it was overwhelming at times.
If pressed, the short answer might be 'It was never boring.'
The kicker is that even though we visited eight cities over the course of eight weeks, we barely scratched the surface. First, we started in southern Yunnan province, going all the way to Tiger Leaping Gorge before heading north to Chengdu in Sichuan. Then, we made our way north east to Xian, in Shaanxi, before turning east towards Nanjing and Shanghai. We ended our trip in Beijing before hopping a train that traversed Hebei and Inner Mongolia (the Chinese province) prior to crossing into Mongolia, the country.
Though we covered a lot of ground, it was just a sliver of the country.
What I did see, however, wowed me. From the rice terraces of Yunnan to the skyscrapers of Shanghai, there were many high points.
Here are my top nine.
Number Nine: The Pandas
Some people (like me) go to Sichuan for the food, but most visit for dà xióng māo aka the Giant Panda.
Initially, I wasn't sure I would make it there. Sure, they are cute, but I get plenty of that visiting cat cafes. While I didn't have the urge to go, I'm glad that I went because it turned out to be a major highlight.
Sichuan, where 80% of the world's pandas live, is also home to the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, the official name of panda central. Of the 375 in captivity, this place houses 80 of these black and white superstars.
My reaction surprised me. Once standing just a few feet away, I couldn't take my eyes off them. I spent two hours in a hypnotic trance, watching them eat, roll around, eat, shift position and eat some more. How they use their teeth to rip the husks off bamboo stalks is fascinating.
If the bears aren't enough, the facility is also impressive. With wide, shady walking paths, a peaceful lake and several cafes, even with the crowds, I found it a relaxing place to spend a morning.
Top Tips: To avoid crowds and save money, go early morning on a weekday and take the metro/shuttle to the complex (Line 3 to Xiongmao Ave, exit A, pay shuttle 58 yuan for one-way ride and entrance fee). Once inside, skip the trolley and make a beeline towards the back of the complex. The pandas are there and they are more playful in the morning. If one area is crowded, seek out another as there is plenty of room for all the panda lovers out there.
Number Eight: The Trains
From one end of the country to the other, China is a rail transportation machine.
All of our travel within China was via train, and while the many types and classes took a bit of study to fully comprehend, we found our experiences on Chinese trains to be overwhelmingly positive- relaxing, safe, efficient, affordable and authentic. Did I mention they have boiling water dispensers for tea and noodles in every carriage? Even the British don't do that.
While we rode in all the varieties, my favorite experiences were on the overnight K trains. While the G (bullet) trains are very nice, they don't have much personality and I found the K trains to be a really cool way to view the countryside (see here in this video) and be immersed in Chinese culture, both good and bad.
On the favorable side, we shared a quad soft sleeper with a nice young couple and their two small boys headed to Chengdu to see the pandas. The older boy, alternating between adorable sweetheart and naughty troublemaker, wanted to show off his English skills while his baby brother kept a wary eye on us tucked in his mother's arms. It was fun (covertly) watching them go about their routine of dinner and bedtime stories and we caught a bit of footage of them in this short video.
On the not-so-great side, we sat near the vestibule on the way to Dali where half the carriage chain-smoked. Another time, I sat next to a guy for three hours who smelled strongly of both cigarettes and hot dogs. P.S. Cigarette smoke + hot dogs ≠ kielbasa.
While our fellow patrons were not super friendly, they were curious about us and we definitely had more than a few stares, giggles and requests for photos. Even things that I didn't necessarily love at the time, like the scrum that is the platform entrance gate, I now remember proudly as we were the only Westerners in sight. Part of the objective in traveling China was to challenge ourselves and throw a curve ball or two into our experiences. Train travel, especially K trains, provided us with unique and memorable adventures.
Top Tips: A great starting point for train travel anywhere in the world, including China, is the excellent website, The Man in Seat 61. Also, we used China DIY Travel to book all of our intra-China train tickets, well worth the $5/ticket fee (with the Seat 61 promo code) to avoid purchasing tickets at the train station, a bit tricky if you don't know Mandarin.
Number Seven: The Cats
I realize 'cats' might not make many 'Top Reasons to Visit China' lists.
For us, however, it might have ranked higher if we had seen more of them outside, (like Thailand) but the fact that we only went through one bag of treats in two months is telling. The majority of our fur ball encounters occurred in the twelve cat cafes we visited across the country- one in Chengdu, three in Xian, three in Shanghai and five in Beijing.
They ran the gamut from high rise apartments with a few street kitties to lux cocktail bars filled with pedigreed purebreds and everything in between.
We spent a lot of time looking for now-defunct cafes, which leads me to believe that the bar for opening a cat cafe in China is fairly low. Got a cat, an espresso machine and an apartment? Presto, you are now a cat cafe!
Regardless of the circumstance, we enjoyed visiting China's cat cafes and searching for them provided extra opportunities for sightseeing and working off my excessive intake of dumplings.
Full reviews (and an exciting cat cafe-related announcement!) are forthcoming.
Number Six: The Food
Ah, dumplings! I thought it was possible I might lose weight in China, but because of 'plings, I didn't.
As we often struck out trying to order food in restaurants (even being turned away on occasion), we ate in many nights with my go-to specialty of steamed dumplings and a side of veg. Add a teaspoon of my new favorite condiment, Lao Gan Ma Chili Sauce to soy sauce with a drop of sesame oil, and voilà, it's what's for dinner.
Sichuan is officially the cuisine I crave the most, but mainly because of this sauce of all sauces: Lao Gan Ma aka Old Dry Mom aka The Godmother. The chili crisp flavor is my personal favorite with the black bean version a close second. If you love Sriracha, give the Godmother a try.
When I wasn't stuffing my face with dumplings and chili sauce, I found time to experience the following foodie highlights:
- Crossing the Bridge Noodle Soup in Yunnan, where you get a boiling hot bowl of broth and add raw veg, meat and noodles to it from a separate bowls.
- A traditional Shanghai lunch at Hai Jin Zi with Rebecca & Darren
- Peking Duck with Bob & Johanna (no photo as I was too busy eating)
- Sichuan Hot Pot with Bob & Johanna (& tour group)
- Shaanxi street food in the Xian Muslim Quarter
In the end, I gained weight, but it was worth it.
Top Tip: Joining a food tour is a great way to try food in parts of the city that might otherwise be intimidating (due to lack of English!). Hostels are good places to find free or cheap tours.
Number Five: New Friends
We met Bob and Johanna at the front door of our guesthouse on the morning of my birthday, and when we learned we were both headed to Cangshan Mountain for a day of walking the trails, we agreed to go together.
Not only did I have a wonderful birthday with a few of my favorite things (beautiful weather, a great walk, dazzling views, dumplings for lunch and cake/really great coffee for dessert), but this Swedish duo became our best buddies in China. We traveled together to Lijiang, met up in Chengdu to swap Tiger Leaping Gorge stories over Hot Pot, and again in Beijing for Peking Duck.
We just crossed paths again in Ulaanbaatar, and when you find yourself in a strange, new part of the world, it's sure nice to visit with 'old' friends over dinner.
Top Tip: Staying in hostels or guesthouses is the best way to meet like-minded travelers. Private rooms are often available if you don't fancy open dormitories.
Number Four: Shanghai
Is an entire city allowed to be a highlight?
Excuse the broad definition, but from our American-style Easter with the Larews and fellow expat neighbors, to the famous tourist sights, to the insider culinary extravaganza courtesy of our friend Darren, our time in Shanghai was an all-around outstanding experience.
There's something about the way Shanghai's old and new worlds blend (collide?) that I love.
We immersed ourselves in Old Shanghai by staying in a traditional alley of Yong'an Mill district and explored nearby options, from Yu Garden to Tianzifang to the Bund.
But the new world of Shanghai, with its glittering financial district and famous skyline of world-class skyscrapers, quickened my pulse. We visited several times, including a trip to the top of the Shanghai World Financial Center, which looks like a bottle opener.
I'm also a huge fan of Shanghai's uber-efficient subway system, and with so much to see and do, hopping on and off the metro made it super easy. Did I mention the fabulous malls? Head to Jing'an district where they delicately scent their malls with yummy perfume.
Even though I just spent ten days there, I would go back in a heartbeat.
Top Tips: Visit the Bund at sunrise or sunset for spectacular photos. Arm yourself with Google Translate and try a local hole-in-the-wall for some Shanghainese specialties. Oh, and if you go, make sure and get the three-day metro pass to save money and avoid having to queue for single-pass tickets each time you use it.
Number Three: The Great Wall
It was WAY better than I thought it would be.
I'm always a bit leery of monster attractions, but in this case, it's all completely justified. Our excursion to the Great Wall was a highlight, but there are several factors that helped put it in the Top Three.
We targeted the Mutianyu section, as it has some of the best views, including an unrestored part nearby. We also liked that there were many options to go up and down, including hiking, cable car, chairlift and toboggan. It was a little bit warm, so we rode up the chairlift (not cable car) to Tower 6, walked to Tower 23 and back (a fairly strenuous 5 miles with a lot of up and down), then ended our day with a surprisingly fun and lengthy toboggan ride to the bottom.
So, what made it such a great experience?
- Wonderwall. The vastness of the structure left me in awe. I mean COME ON, this sucker is 5500 miles long and they just built it right over the tops of mountains. Definitely worthy it's 'wonder of the world' moniker.
- Going Local. Getting there was a proper adventure as we took a regular city bus to Huairou and then a taxi to Mutianyu, which would have been uneventful if not for the bumper-to-bumper traffic courtesy of the Labor Day holiday. Adding to the fun, we were the only Westerners on the bus, and had to reassure an older Chinese woman (who was very concerned that we were lost) that we knew what we were doing.
- Beautiful Day. We lucked out with 75F (23C), a slight breeze and tolerable smog.
- Let's Get Physical. While it was only 5 miles total, the multitude of steps made it a heavy-duty workout, which I need on the road without regular access to a gym.
- Girls Just Wanna Have Fun. The ski lift up and toboggan down combo, in particular, was well worth the 100 yuan price.
All in all, it rates as one of the best days we had in China.
Top Tips: Take Bus 916 from Dongzhimen Station (next to Guoson Center) for the hour ride to Beidajie for only 6 yuan with a metro card. It's an easy 30 minute taxi to Mutianyu from there, around 40/50 yuan. This website spells it out in full detail. Oh, and try to avoid visiting during a public holiday!
Number Two: Terracotta Warriors
I could have flip-flopped one and two on this list, that's how much I loved my visit to see the Terracotta Warriors in Xian (aka Xi'an). Actually part of the larger mausoleum of the first Qin emperor, the army is a collection of terracotta sculptures depicting the armies of Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China. The statues were buried with the emperor around 210 BC with the purpose of protecting him in the afterlife.
Discovered by local farmers in 1974, three pits have been excavated and contain more than 8,000 soldiers, 130 chariots with 520 horses. They are all individually crafted and hand painted with no two alike.
I had been itching to see them in person since I saw a TV show featuring this marvel, and it did not disappoint. I was absolutely blown away not only at the size of the complex and the sheer number of figures, but that much of it remains unearthed, the slow pace of a working archeological site.
If you have even a slight interest in history, get thee to Xian forthwith.
Top Tips: Go as early in the morning as possible, taking local bus 306 from the Xian Rail Station, which takes one hour and costs 7 yuan ($1) per person. You do the same to return and it's a super easy way to save money and balance the relatively expensive fee of 120 yuan ($20) to get into the site.
Number One: Tiger Leaping Gorge
One of the earliest things we did and physically, the most difficult, our stunning two-day Tiger Leaping Gorge hike remains the number one highlight of our time in China.
I did a thorough write up previously, so if you missed it, check it out here.
... AND THE LOWS
While most of my time visiting China was exceedingly positive, there were a few things that routinely stoked my ire.
Smoking... and Spitting
I'm convinced one begets the other. Inside, outside- no matter - count on seeing these two with alarming frequency wherever you are in China.
We arrived in Beijing to crystal clear blue skies and a pollution reading of 25, prompting us to joke 'what's all the fuss about' in reference to Beijing's infamous smog. Never fear, two days later, it was back in the hazardous range again.
Not as bad as Thailand, but still pretty deadly, my advice is to 'keep your head on a swivel' when strolling the pavement in China. Curiously, while the cars, motorbikes and bicycles seem to hurry in their attempt to run you down (even when crossing with the 'green man' light), the people on the sidewalks plod along at a pace akin to the zombie apocalypse.
Lack of Subway Etiquette
It doesn't take a degree in nuclear physics to understand that people exiting a metro train cannot do so if the people entering the metro train shove their way in at the same time, but such trivial matters don't apply when it comes to the 'dog eat dog' mentality of the Chinese underground.
You're rough around the edges, but I still love ya, China.
Thanks for reading!
For more sights around China, check out my photos posted here.
Next time on Gobsmacked: Our Biggest Adventure Yet: Trekking Mongolia