While in Australia in February, we were visiting with my brother and sister in law, Paul and Susi, and talked about doing a trip together. All of us agreed that China sounded good. Since we were about to head off sailing again in April, we would have to go within the next month. We discussed an itinerary, checked out visa requirements, booked flights, hotels and inland China travel, and within 5 weeks we were winging our way to Guangzhou to begin our adventure together.
We wanted to spend our time seeing rural China, spending as little time as possible in big crowded smoggy cities. We traveled from SE to SW China, our main stops being Guangzhou, Guilin, Yangshuo, Kunming, Dali, Lijiang, and Shangri La, up by the Tibetan border.
We only spent a short time in Guangzhou (population 14 million), Guilin (4.7 million) and then in Kunming (6.6 million). But once you have got the hang of crossing the roads without getting bowled over, we found that, even in these huge cities, there are large open spaces, parks, pedestrian precincts and of course the old districts, where we would mostly be staying. Mornings and evenings you could join one of the Chinese Shuffle or Tai Chi groups that are a happening all over town.
After a few consultations with our Google translator, we discovered that everything was so efficient that finding our way onto trains (along with the tens of thousands of travellers using the railway stations at any given time), was so logical that when you got your head around it all, it was quite simple, despite our lack of Chinese language, and lack of English signage. You need to give yourself heaps of time to be at the right place at the right time, as once the train pulls in to the platform, you get a 20 minute notice to board and be seated before it takes off again, along with the thousands of other passengers. The Express trains travel at speeds of between 250 and 290 kms per hr. I have taken the Bullet Train from Tokyo, but I didn’t have to deal with so many trains, leaving from so many platforms, at the same time.
I should mention here that the Chinese don’t seem to have the same awareness of personal space. No stepping aside to let others pass, no excuse me, either on the pavement or on the road and especially getting on and off trains. When a train pulls into a station, dozens of waiting people just push their way into a carriage before anyone has had time to disembark. What a fiasco!! Cultural differences, I guess.
We decided to travel alone without hiring a guide or translator. So, armed with our local Sim card, Xpress VPN in order to access our Google maps, Google translate, and emails, we got along just fine. Not always easy, but we managed. There was always someone to assist if necessary, either to practise their English, or simply wanting to help.
We used the underground (MRT) in Guangzhou but also used taxis as they were so cheap, like 2 to 3 dollars for a half hour ride from the airport to our hotel. Our few taxi rides gave us a taste of the traffic mayhem. Thousands of motor scooters, some with up to 4 passengers, or towing trailers, push bikes with trailers, super fancy cars, and Smart cars. China talks of being all electric vehicles by the year 2025, but when you see the old jalopies still on the roads, they still have a long way to go. It was very interesting to learn that laws require new motor bikes and scooters to be electric already. The dangerous part of this is that when you are on a main street you can’t hear the electric bikes coming.
It was spring, one of the prettiest seasons, not the busy tourist season, and we found that by using local boats, trains and buses we could enjoy the countryside as we travelled. One of the highlights was a full day cruise from Guilin to Yangshuo on the Li River, which wends its way through the impressive karst mountain landscape. Unfortunately, the famous clear blue waters had turned muddy brown due to the recent heavy rains.
I can only comment on the small part of China that we visited, but everything we saw and experienced far surpassed our expectations in so many ways. Apart from the natural beauty, the Chinese people take enormous pride in maintaining all the many established parks and gardens throughout the cities, keeping the streets impeccably clean and trash free, and the malls and railway stations kept shiny to a mirror finish.
And the food! Everywhere we found a huge variety of beautifully presented fruits and vegetables, fresh fish, and everything from yak meat, bugs and insects served in the hundreds of restaurants. It was hard to choose what to try next. In all honesty, we weren’t that adventurous, but we ate incredibly well.
We hear a lot about the huge building boom in China and we certainly saw huge areas of demolition and construction sites everywhere. Even out in the countryside, as seen from the train windows, there appeared to be farming villages just left abandoned, and at the same time surrounded by well cared- for vegetable gardens. Hard to explain where those people have gone to and who tends the gardens. We also saw huge tourist developments being built along the shores of Lake Erhai, in Dali, for the many Chinese who flock here in summer.
The ancient cities of Dali, Lijiang and Shangri La, were all important trading centres on the southern silk road beginning in the 4th century BC. The main goods from here were tea, silk and silk embroidery, marble, yak meat and medicines. Although many of the original buildings have been destroyed or damaged, through earthquakes or during different times of revolution, much effort had been made to restore these cities to their former glory.
From Lijiang we took a day trip up to Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, to the Blue Moon Valley and cable car up to Spruce Meadow, to an elevation of 3,200 mtrs (10,500 ft). The photos barely do it justice.
Our last stop was the Tibetan city of Zhongdian, in the foothills of the Himalayas, now part of China. It has been re-named “Shangri La” after the book by James Hilton “Lost Horizon”, written in 1933. This was done in the early nineties to try to attract western tourists to the area. The architecture and the people, their clothes and the food, were decidedly Tibetan. The long, colorful history that has taken place in this area, was well displayed in the Museums.
We awoke to Minus 2C degree temps with snow on the rooftops all around. It was magical and did nothing to stop us from visiting the famous Songzhanlin Monastery, a half hour drive up towards the mountains. This place used to house around 2000 monks, but is now home to just 700. It was so holy and magnificent. No photos were allowed inside the Monastery, and there was always someone watching.
Every one of our hotels was a typical old inn, usually with about 8 to 10 rooms, situated in the old towns. They were full of charm, very clean, and the owners/hotel staff overwhelmingly helpful and friendly.
There were quite a few Chinese tourists, but we saw barely a dozen other white faces in the 3 weeks we were in China, and most of them were part of a French group in Shangri La.
This trip was made particularly special, sharing all these wonderful places with my brother Paul and Susi. They were great travel buddies, so we look forward to more adventures together.
We are now back on-board Mai Tai getting ready to head off sailing again in 2 week’s time. This season we will be exploring the islands of the South China Sea and returning to Borneo to see more if this spectacular island. We should be in Thailand sometime in October.
It’s a tough life but somebody has to do it!.