HONG KONG

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It’s a cliche’ that’s used for a lot of places, but in this case it’s undeniably true – Hong Kong is the ultimate city (or territory) of contrasts. A favourite maxim – ‘where East meets West’- highlights the region’s Chinese roots and the western cultural elements it gained from its time as a British colony. This fusion of cultures can be seen in the architecture, lifestyle, and perhaps most clearly in the food. While sterile, ultra-commercial dining options like Mcdonalds or Starbucks abound, you can also wonder through chaotic market stalls past spiky, strange-looking fruit, desiccated, undefinable fish-things, and dark-coloured eggs that look like they’re boiling in tar.

One of Hong Kong’s most interesting contrasts is its symbiosis of an ultra-modernized lifestyle with traditional Chinese customs. Ancient concepts like Feng Shui – the Chinese art of positioning objects or structures so as to harmonize with nature – has firm roots in the city’s culture. In fact the plan and design of a building in Hong Kong is determined as much by Feng Shui masters as it is by engineers and architects. Often, buildings lack any floor number with a 4 in it, due to its similarity to the Cantonese word for ‘death’.

Hong Kong’s uniquely paradoxical and thus (I think) beautiful aesthetic is forged by determined efforts to reconcile the city’s origins as a humble fishing harbour and its current status as one of the most fast-paced powerhouses in the world.  Flashing skyscrapers tower above immutable colonial buildings like the Old Supreme Court and the ancient-looking junks that timelessly cruise Victoria Harbour. The glittering, glass designer storefronts of the North Shore lie in stark contrast to the dingily romantic, slum-like noir of the alleyways of Kowloon. Kowloon is itself a microcosm of contrasts. Dark, empty backalleys are filled with the discarded trash from business back-exits while thick, tangled electrical wires hang like some sort of urban python. The wires feed the kaleidoscope of neon signs in the chaotic main streets of Kowloon, piercing fluorescent colour onto otherwise dreary, beige-grey towerblocks.

The hard-edged rectangles of these ubiquitous tower blocks are juxtaposed by the graceful, dimly-blue mountain peaks that surround the city. Though it boasts the status of most urbanised city in the world, country parks actually account for 40% of the total area. Hong Kong’s urban planning is necessarily one of the most meticulous and strategic in the world, but the nature around it remains wild, rugged, untamed. The hiking and coastal walks around the territory offer some of the most impressive views in China.

But you don’t need to head to the outskirts to find incredible views. Any high-rise hotel or apartment block will likely offer aerial views of the city and the perennial mist below. Standing amidst the clouds you feel strangely close to nature, at the top of a concrete tower-block, in a room 10 sq metres across.

Walking around at night feels like being in a Sci-fi movie or videogame. Some areas of the city – the functionally named Central and Mid-Levels – connect vertically rather than horizontally, reached by a network of interconnecting outdoor escalators, with drop offs on the way so as to access poky-looking noodle or dim sum stalls with flickering signs. I could picture Bruce Willis eating at his favourite floating noodle joint in Fifth Element. The view from Victoria’s peak on a misty night (almost always) is a scene directly from Bladerunner, with the fluorescent lights of the sprawling city piercing hazily through the inky Hong Kong fog.

It’s surely no coincidence that so much Sci-fi literature is based in Hong Kong. The territory’s various contradictions, particularly the juxtaposition of old and new, allows it to effectively present the message of a utopian, familiar past and a lonely dystopian future. The city offers nostalgia, while simultaneously existing in a shiny, futuristic realm. This uniqueness makes Hong Kong unlike any other fast-paced, commercial city. Singapore, for example, is just as corporate, just as ultra-modern, but it struggles to conceal its corporateness. For me at least, it simply doesn’t feel as exotic or seductive as the inky mist of Hong Kong City.

 

 

 

BEIJING and the Great Wall

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WHAT TO DO IN BEIJING:

We pulled into Beijing after a 20-hour train journey from Zhangjiajie surprisingly refreshed, hopped in a taxi and made our way to the Doufuchi hutong where our guesthouse was. Hutongs are Beijing’s ancient and steadily vanishing residential areas, made up of narrow alleyways and traditional courtyard houses.

STROLL THROUGH THE HUTONGS

The hutongs have resiliently defied the lightning-fast growth seen in the rest of the country, offering a nostalgic window into the old China. Bikes and rickshaws weave precariously through the crowds, shopkeepers peddle their wares, and groups of elderly men gossip and play the ancient game of Mahjong – note the victor’s faces rippling into a sea of creases as they smile. All the while the sundry smells of street-cooking saturate the air – steamed Baozi, fried Youtiao and spicy Roujiamou are common fixtures.

But once you cross the alleyway and enter the courtyards of the traditional slate-grey residences (Siheyuan), the relentless bicycle bells disappear and a heavy silence reigns, a welcome respite from the chaos of the Beijing’s huge and trafficked streets.

When the Forbidden City was built by the Ming Dynasty in the 14th-Century as an imperial residence, the city was planned so that the palace would sit at the centre while the hutongs expanded outwards in concentric rings. The inner rings would house the luxurious aristocratic residences, becoming more and more basic as they neared the outskirts. The hutongs to the north of the Forbidden City, Qinhai and Gonjian, are some of the most popular to visit.

JINGSHAN PARK

Having heard how expensive it was and how ridiculous the queues were, we decided that instead of visiting the complex itself, we’d view the Forbidden City from Jingshan Park instead. Not only is there a sweeping birds-eye-view of the imperial palace from the hilltop pagoda, but public parks in general in China are a great way to get an insight into the culture.  Go early to catch locals practicing Tai-Chi as the sun rises, or later in the day to witness all kinds of social activities. You’ll see groups of men taking turns to sing traditional Chinese songs into portable karaoke kits, kite-flying, exercising, and even elderly couples ballroom dancing – with or without music.

THE GREAT WALL OF CHINA

To see one of humanity’s greatest ever feats of engineering for the first time was one of the most unforgettable moments of our Asia trip. Having heard so much about this legendary, quasi-mythical landmark growing up I was almost surprised to see that it looked exactly how I imagined.

Originating in Liaonang province, the wall hugs the peaks and troughs of the mountains, winding through Beijing and then across 13,000 miles of Chinese countryside before reaching the unforgiving Gobi desert, where only its crumbling, wind-blasted ruins remain. Contrary to what most people think, the wall is not a continuous entity. Built originally to protect against invading tribes from the North, vast sections of it are formed of natural barriers like rivers or precipitous mountains that didn’t need further defence. Construction occurred haphazardly over 2000 years, and the best preserved sections – built during the Ming dynasty – are easily accessible from central Beijing.

Having done our research on the best sections of the wall to visit (Thrifty Nomads have a great overview) we decided to go with Jinshanling, which seemed like a good compromise between accessibility from Beijing and being relatively uncrowded. It probably would have been a great choice, but we made one cardinal error – we unwittingly decided to go over a Chinese holiday. We also made another major error – we waited at the wrong bus stop…for ages.* By the time we got to Jinshanling and waited in the ridiculously long ticket line, our bus driver warned us that we didn’t have much time to explore before he returned to Beijing. We started off stressed and trying to rush, but when we paused to look around at where we were, at the the beauty of the ancient wall undulating over the hills and disappearing into the hazy distance, we decided to take our time, miss the bus, and figure out a way home somehow or other. We stopped rushing, admired the incredible views and tried our best not to roll headfirst down the steep, timeworn steps. In the end we shared a long cab journey back with some friends we’d made at the mistaken bus stop.

*If you get the bus to Jinshanling from Wanjing West station, make sure to cross the road into the bus depot instead of waiting alongside the road. You’ll know you have the right place as there are loads of buses departing to different destinations all the time.

WHERE TO EAT

Kou Rou Ji

Technically a halal restaurant that specialises in mutton dishes, KRJ has a huge menu with pretty much anything you could want – including the obligatory Peking duck. We ordered the duck, mutton skewers and cold cucumber and chilli salad and they were all incredible. Right on the Houhai lake and nearby the most extensive collection of hutong neighbourhoods in Beijing , it’s also perfectly located for an after-dinner stroll.

The Grandma’s

Located on the top floor of a modern shopping mall, this one seems like a dubious choice for a Beijing first-timer. But looks are deceptive – not only is the interior really cosy, but the food is genuinely some of the best we had in China. To top it off the portions are huge and the prices amazing considering how expensive a lot of Beijing restaurants are. For all these reasons it’s very popular, which is why you tick your food order off on a list while waiting in line to be called to your table. This is where the location comes in handy – order your food, take your number and go shopping while you wait.

WHERE TO STAY

Unlike the food, hotel prices in Beijing are pretty decent, even for some of the more luxury ones like the Four Seasons. But if you’re looking for something with a bit more character and still luxurious, the VUE hotel Hou Hai is in a traditional Siheyuan-style building and overlooks the Houhai lake. Yangfang alley and the surrounding area are fun and lively in the evenings, too.

We stayed in a traditional courtyard house in Doufuchi hutong which cost us about $15 dollars a night. I can’t for the life of me remember the name but there are hundreds of these rooms about. Download the Trip app (previously Ctrip) and go through the myriad options. This app will be your lifesaver in China. Since a lot of Western sites are banned in the country, Ctrip has a lot more options for both transport and accommodation, and they do everything for you (provide schedules, rates, availability, bookings etc) so you don’t have to go through the terrifying experience of attempting to speak mandarin over the phone.

 

 

 

 

 

 

ZHANGJIAJIE

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Thousands of towering sandstone karsts jut precipitously from the park floor towards the sky, where the evergreen forests that cling to the karst-tops merge ethereally with the clouds. You have to wonder about the wildlife on these tiny forests in the sky – do they know that they live on top of the world?

Armed with our beautifully hand-drawn map of the park, we entered Zhiangjiajie on our first day from the main Southern gate at the Loguta ticket station, and started on the Golden Whip Stream trekking trail. The trail starts out as a gentle riverside walk through the forest, following a crystal clear stream framed by the magnificent stone pillars on either side. Just after the Zicoatan peaks, we turned onto a steep, scenic staircase that 2,000 steps later had us eye-level with the tip of the karsts. This is where we came across two of the most popular sights in the park (and accordingly the crowds). The first, Lianxinqiao bridge, looks across to what is probably the tallest and most impressive karst in the park – Hallelujah mountain. At a dizzying 3,500 feet above ground, you just have to see it to believe it’s possible. If you’re scared of heights you might have trouble here as the bridge is made of a metal grid which lets you see all the immense way to the bottom. Hallelujah mountain is often referred to as the ‘Avatar filming site’ but I’m pretty sure this isn’t true.

Just after Hallelujah mountain is Tanxia Diyi Quiai (the bridge across the sky) – an incredible gravity-defying bridge that you can cross over to visit a small temple. At 1,230ft above the ground, it may be the highest bridge in the world.

From here we took the free bus to what is essentially the centre of Zhangjiajie park – Mcdonalds. (Yes, a huge Mcdonalds, slap-bang in the centre at Tianzishan) By this time it was getting late and the buses had stopped running. We weren’t keen on getting the ridiculously expensive elevator back down so we approached some shopkeepers and in some heavily app-assisted Mandarin managed to ask if there were any available rooms they knew of in the park. As it happened the owner of the shop owned some guest-rooms near his home, which he assured us were very comfortable. By comfortable, they had a bed, a hole in the bathroom for the toilet, and no heating. Since we were in the middle of nowhere and our breath was condensing in the arctic cold of the room, we snuggled in the single bed, popped some sleeping pills and listened to music until we fell asleep.

The next day we woke up to find there was a trail that started right from our guesthouse. If you’re keen to avoid the crowds then this is the route for you – we must have have seen about three people the whole time. The cliff-hugging trail meanders through beautiful dripping wet forest with small detours that lead to viewing points on the tips of some of the karsts. The most memorable was Yibu Nanxing – One Dangerous Step – so named because to get to it you have to walk on a metal grate across a void between two pinnacles. We continued past small waterfalls and streams with rocky stepping stones until the path got too crumbly and dangerous to follow and we had to turn back. We figured this explained the lack of people.

But we hadn’t yet had enough of Zhangjiajie for the day, so we took the shuttle back to Tianzishan and started the long hiking route to the east of Wolongling that would eventually lead us down to one of the park exits (Sansuo fire station). The map describes the surrounding area as ‘three miles of enchanting nature’, and it’s not wrong. We walked down what must have been thousands of stone steps through dense, verdant forest, past waterfall bridges and natural gravity-defying archways. We hardly saw a single other person except for a group of hikers at about half-way who, to my amazement, were making their way up. My legs were in agony from walking down the incredibly long, steep stepways so I can only imagine what they were feeling. I wonder if they ever made it all the way up.

The third day was the mistiest. We took the trail that started right from Loguta ticket station to the Huangshizai scenic area (you can also get a cable car). Not seeing any people on our way up and looking relatively underwhelming from the map, we were wondering what to expect, but the views from here ended up being the most breathtaking in the park by far. An easy walking route once at the top, the walkway leads you past various different lookouts, each one more spectacular than the last. The views reminded me of ancient Chinese drawings I’d seen in museums and galleries, where the dark, decisive outlines of the mountains in the foreground gradually fade into the faint, delicate outlines of the distant peaks, until they  eventually disappear altogether into the mist. With only the tip of some karsts visible through the clouds, I could see why people think Zhangjiajie is the inspiration behind Avatar’s floating mountains.

Oh, and be sure to take the cablecar either up or down, it’s terrifyingly stunning.

 

 

Yunnan

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While most of our South East Asia trip was on the quintessential backpacker route, our next leg, through Yunnan, was decidedly not. In fact it was probably the first time on all my travels where we were the only western tourists for days on end, making us feel like intrepid explorers. Even in the most remote of my travels to date I had some basic foreign language skills to get by, or I’d find someone who knew a tiny amount of basic English. At the very least, the street signs and menus were in characters I could recognise. South-west China provided none of these options, and it was exciting.

We were determined to travel overland from Sapa into Yunnan on the train to see the beautiful mountain scenery and avoid flying (which I hate with a passion). More importantly, the more remote, undeveloped towns we wanted to see were on the train route and nowhere near a major airport hub. While we eventually managed to arrange a train from Sapa (Lao Cai) into China be warned that if you’re keen on doing the same, China DOES NOT make this easy. It’s much easier to travel into the country if you have dated entry and exit plane tickets. But I’m going to have to do a whole other blog post on how to get a Chinese visa as it’s a total ballache.

Jianshui

Our first stop in Yunnan was Jianshui. This was where we most clearly witnessed  modern and ancient China side by side. Cobblestone streets and beautifully faded frescoes intermingled with shiny sportswear and gadget shops. I’ll never forget a crinkly old lady who looked like she was pushing a hundred sitting proudly in front of her sex toy shop.

It’s obvious when travelling through China that it’s a massively booming country. When the taxi from the train station to our hotel was taking forever and seemed to only be going past huge deserted fields, I remembered reading that it’s common practice in China to build train stations miles away from city centres, as planning authorities expect such a huge population boom across all cities.

The landmark of Jianshui is the first sight you see upon entering – the ancient city gate (Chaoyang tower). Built in 1380 during the Qing dynasty, it’s just older than Tiananmen in Beijing, and looks remarkably similar. The imposingly red three-story building is made up of tall wooden pillars and those quintessential hip roofs with gilded tiles. We went exploring in the evening when we heard music and saw dozens of elderly couples ballroom dancing underneath the lit-up gate 🙂

Another main attraction in Jianshui is Zhu’s family garden. This Qing-era private mansion is made up of 218 intricately decorated dark-wood pavilions separated by a maze of 42 pillared courtyards covered in blossom trees. The main courtyard features a beautiful, over-the water outdoor theatre. You can actually stay in one of the rooms in the extensive garden grounds.

Jianshui also boasts China’s third-largest Confucius temple. With it being relatively expensive and us becoming objectively poorer, we decided to skip it. However if you’re not on a backpacker budget it’s said to be well worth a visit, supposedly being the best preserved Confucius temple in China.

Shaxi

As it was with us, a trip to the Yunnan countryside is often seen by tourists as a chance to see China as it once was, and Shaxi was the one place we travelled to that’s remained relatively pristine. For this reason the town sees a lot of Chinese tourism, but while new guesthouses continue to mushroom in the outskirts, the centre remains pretty much untouched.

Shaxi is most well-known for being the most intact horse caravan town on the ancient tea route leading from Yunnan into Tibet. With its cobblestone streets and ancient, crumbling alleyways, walking around town felt like stepping back in time. Shaxi consists largely of four alleys and a central marketplace, both lined with little cafes with low roofs and charming courtyards. A crystal-clear stream runs down the length of the main street towards the Ming-era Sideng theatre, which was probably the most beautiful ancient building we saw throughout China. On our only evening there (the town is tiny) we listened to traditional Chinese music in one of the marketplace cafes. Walking back to our room in the rain under the light of the ubiquitous red lanterns hanging from the trees made us feel like we could have been back in the days of the tea trail.

Dali

In the shadow of the Cangshan mountain and on the shores of the Erhai Lake, Dali is a popular destination for Chinese city-dwellers desperate for some blue skies and fresh air. Even though there were plenty of people, knowing that we were at the very border of mainland China and the furthest extremities of the Himalayas made Dali feel mysteriously remote, like a pit stop en route to the mythical Shangri La.

Dali is beautifully uniform, with characteristic white buildings with slate grey rooftops that stretch for miles. One of my favourite memories is hanging our laundry on the rooftop of our lovely Dragonfly guesthouse, where we could see the looming Cangshan mountain on one side and the endless rooftops on the other. The ancient town is amazingly well-preserved, with a typical water-stream that tumbles peacefully down the treelined streets that lead into the old town, where the buildings are framed by the surrounding mountain range.

Dali was also where I happened to get the worst food poisoning of the whole Asia trip. If that’s what it even was, as it was the strangest food poisoning I’ve ever had. The smell of anything that wasn’t artificial would make me unbearably nauseous, even boiled rice or fruit. Chinese food is my favourite in the world and I couldn’t eat a bite of it. This meant that when it came to our most looked-forward to activity in Dali – trekking the Cangshan mountain, there was no way I could humanly do it. We tried for the funicular that goes up to Zonghe temple, but it was closed for renovations. Disappointed, we attempted to start the trail, but about three steps in I was close to passing out. We aborted and decided to admire the mountains from our rooftop, J with a Dali beer, me with a green tea staring enviously at his beer.

Lijiang (UNESCO heritage site)

With it’s 12th century Cobblestone streets, canals, alleyways, and old Naxi houses, Lijiang is undoubtedly beautiful, but this beauty has also ensured that it’s incredibly crowded.  I’d never come across it before in any of my travels, but in Lijiang there’s an entrance fee just to get into the old town, and it’s not cheap. The stores that line the beautiful old streets all sell the same stuff and blare out quite literally the same song, over and over. I couldn’t get it out of my head for days. At specific times of the day the underwhelmed shopkeepers do a ‘traditional’ dance. I actually quite liked the surreal, theme-park edge that all this lended the place, but if you’re looking for authentic China, this is not it.

The most popular walking route in old Lijiang leads to the Black Dragon Pond Park, with its spectacular view of the region’s highest mountain, Jade Dragon Snow mountain. The backdrop of the mountain against the white marble bridge and Moon-Embracing pavilion is particularly stunning to see.

Seeing the Jade Mountain from Lijiang town was somewhat bittersweet, as we’d intended to take the cable car to the snowy peak at Glacier Park and the next day begin the 3 day-hike to Tiger-Leaping gorge. As it was, I was way too ill to do either. The air is so thin at Glacier Park that it’s recommended to take oxygen cans to the top, and I could barely climb a few steps without wheezing my lungs out. This meant that we spent most of our time in our traditional courtyard guesthouse, which fortunately had a terrace view of the beautiful Naxi rooftops against the snowy Yulong mountains.

Missing out on the gorge is one of the many reasons that I know I’ll be travelling back to China in the very near future. Carved out by the raging rapids of the Jinsha river, the Tiger Leaping gorge massifs peak at almost 4000m above the river, making it one of the steepest canyons in the world. If you intend on doing this incredible-sounding trek then Nomadasaurus have a great review of their trip here.

Chengdu

Chengdu is actually the capital of the Sichuan province, slightly outside Yunnan, and is one of China’s fastest growing mega-cities. Despite this, the city has a relaxed, laid-back vibe. One of the most traditional things to do here is to go to a teahouse, many of which are set in peaceful, lush courtyards. On our first day there it was typically grey and damp (there’s a saying that in Chengdu you’ll see more teahouses than sunny days), so we went to the Lao Dianying Tea Garden, where we drank Bamboo Green Tea and listened to the the steady beat of the rain on the teahouse rooftop. Locals chatted, read the paper and played cards.

On our second day and last day in Chengdu we went to the region’s most popular attraction – the stiltedly translated Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding. It’s popular for a good reason – these animals are just as adorable and ridiculous as you expect them to be. We were told that since Pandas are super fussy eaters that refuse to eat anything other than bamboo, they don’t get enough energy from their food, which explains why they eat lying down and quite literally roll their furry selves from place to place. They have high standards for their food too – not only does it have to be a specific species of bamboo, but it also has to be super-fresh. They’ll turn their noses up at wilted leaves or stalks that are the wrong kind of green. They are essentially ridiculously spoiled bundles of cuteness.

If you want to see the pandas when they’re not simply rolling from one snoozing spot to another (we saw one that was contentedly sleeping with half its body on a wooden slat and its lower half just dangling below),  it’s a good idea to go in the morning when the handlers bring out the first meal of the day.  You’ll see them happily munching their breakfast, playfully wrestling, climbing trees and especially falling off them. You’ll also have a head-start on the crowds.

Another major highlight of Chengdu is the food. The famously spicy, oily Szechuan food isn’t for everybody, but it has to be tried at least once. We went to Tian Tian restaurant in search of the most traditional fare. Already huge fans, we decided to go for the weirdest options possible, which is really not difficult when it comes to Szechuan cooking. Some of what we ate was a revelation, some was borderline stomach-churning (I’ve discovered I’m not a fan of food served in bowls of cold, previously cooked oil), but it was all definitely a unique experience.