Time to say goodbye to China – As our China trip draws to a close, we contemplate on our amazing journey that captivated our travel spirits. From Beijing and the climbing of the wall of walls, to the heart of china with the emperor’s terracotta warriors and so much more! In our last leg of our epic journey through China we visited Chengdu, home of the Pandas, Leshan’s 74 meter tall Buddha, the ancient town of Fenghuang, the misty mountains of Zhangjiajie, went bamboo rafting on the Yulong River in Yangshuo and strolled around incredible Hong Kong and so much more amazing experiences in between. Great memories not to be forgotten and of course we want to share them with you!
What an experience: The way from Xi’An to Chengdu by slow-train
We left Xi’An from the distant South Station, which took quite some time and early morning effort to get to. We went through security and were put in the most disgusting waiting room known to men. Stench, food remnants and spitting folk made our hour-wait seem like an eternity! As many tickets were sold out we had bought hard-sleeper tickets. The open compartment comprised of six bunk beds, three on each side. Nothing like the trains we were used to up to now. When we entered the train we found about six chinese people sitting on my lower bunk bed having an elaborate lunch (and had no intention of getting up, even after showing our tickets). Dirty sheets, noise coming from seemingly everywhere, and people dropping by non-stop to “check out the foreigners”, made it an interesting travel experience. After a (long) acclimatization period things started to settle down a bit and we were able to start relaxing (for as much as that was possible). I even managed to take a short nap, so it wasn’t too bad😜. The Chinese folk in our compartment turned out to be very nice. They spoke no English, but with our trusted translate app, we were able to establish basic communication. Loads of people continued to drop by out of curiosity throughout the train journey.
We arrived about two hours later than planned in Chengdu and took a cab to get to the Lazybones Hostel. This place was amazing, a great place with clean spacious rooms! We found out that (Joe) an American traveller, who we met waiting for the train in Xi’An, stayed in the same hostel. We grabbed a drink at the bar and decided, mainly because of the upcoming Chinese holiday, to visit the Pandas the next morning.
Joe joined us the next morning and we grabbed a taxi to the Chengdu Panda Research Center northeast of the city. The center is home to close to 150 Giant Pandas, 74 Red Pandas and 10 cute fluffy baby pandas.
An insane amount of 200.000 tourists visits the center every single day. To beat the crowds we got up at sunrise and arrived at the gate 20 minutes before opening. We bought our tickets at the entrance and went into the park with a handful of other excited tourists. We first made our way to the Sunshine Delivery House, where we saw our first baby-pandas. They are arguably among the cutest things on the planet. They are so incredibly cute, they immediately won over Anna-Lena’s heart.
We strolled past the panda enclosures and saw the Giant Pandas during their feeding-time (to be fair, it seems like it’s either feeding-time or nap-time all day long). During this time they are most active and actually move around a bit. On our way we came across the Red Panda Enclosure, where we got a pretty close encounter with our new curious furry friend.
As we got to the centre early we were able to enjoy the park without having to “elbow our way through”. We spend several hours at the enclosures, getting lost every couple of hundred meters while checking out the pandas. The signs and directions on the boards are very far from correct🤣. When we made our way towards the exit around 10:30AM, tourists really started pouring in. We couldn’t have been happier, we got there early!
In the afternoon we opted to visit the nearby local market. Armed with a far from accurate map we emerged ourself in the crowded snack market. They sold everything from fruit to pig feet and alive fish! Especially tasty looking were the unrefrigerated intestines and skinned rabbit (yummy!😂). As we now ran through the end of the street, we wanted to make our way to the “local crafts market – very interesting” on the map, but even with local assistance, the local crafts market proved to be illusive or non-existent. The combination of us getting lost and the locals trying to help us out ended in hilarious moments!
The following morning we stayed in and went for a brunch at the Aidado Nunnery, where we joined the nuns lunch ceremony. Just before and after we ate our vegetarian lunch in silence, the nuns did some chanting, creating a very spiritual meal. We paid only 70ct each and the food was delicious! As there is not that much to do in Chengdu, we walked through the shopping area in “Little Tibet” and the People’s Park before visiting the Wenshu Temple close to our hostel. This Temple hosts a Tea-house where they hold tea rituals weekly. However, as the Chinese holiday officially started, it was swarming with people and we decided to retreat to our hostel where we had a relaxing quiet evening.
The next day our train only departed at 7pm leaving plenty of time to relax in the hostel lounge where we met some other travellers. We walked to the metro, passing the Wenshu Temple on the way, and arrived at the train station on time. Our comfortable one hour fast train took us to Leshan, home to the tallest Buddha statue in the world. The statue is carved in the rock face overlooking the fast-flowing river below.
The following morning we got up and had a chinese breakfast before making our way to the overcrowded bus-stop. Inside the bus it was even worse and instead of 30 mins it took us over an hour to reach the Buddha’s bus stop. The chinese holiday is a nightmare we wouldn’t wake up from the entire week. At the Buddha we decided to take a boat ride to view the magnificent Buddha from the water-side. We stood in line for an hour before we finally went onboard. Luckily the tourists weren’t too annoying and we were able to see the Buddha properly. We noticed the stairs on the side of the statue clogged up with tourists, unable to move, unable to get out. We therefore decided against climbing up (not worth it!). On our way out we passed loads of stalls selling local dishes and crafts. We ate some fiery potatoes and a sweet type of pancake like dough with bananas and loads of sugar (delicious!). We crossed the bridge into the centre and walked around for a bit before heading back to the hotel. The next morning we woke up to terrible weather, a chilly 15 degrees with pouring rain. As the rain didn’t look like it would cave any time soon, and because of the weather forecast, we decided against climbing up Emeishan (one of the four sacred mountains in China). Instead we wasted our day away on top of the hotel where they had a wonderful traditional tea-house.
After spending close to 20 hours on our way using all sorts of modes of transports we finally arrived at 8AM at our destination.
We took a bus to the LeShan bus station, walked to the LeShan train station, took a bullet-train to Chengdu East station, took a subway to Chengdu North station, had an overnight train to Tongren, where we bargained with locals to get to Fenghuang ancient city early with a regular car (instead of waiting three hours for the first bus, and then swapping to ataxi). As you might imagine we were exhausted when we arrived at 8am. We were picked up by the owner of the guesthouse from the street around the corner. Unfortunately the hotel was booked out and we had to wait four hours before we could get into the room. Not deterred but exhausted we walked around town and noticed we were not alone😂. Heaps and heaps of Chinese tourists complete with matching hats and t-shirts were already out and about walking around town. We had a small breakfast in a cafe before we got back to the hotel were we could check-in and finally get some well-deserved sleep! We slept the rest of the day, only taking a short break to have dinner in town.
The following morning we slept in, had a sandwich and headed out to explore the town. Thanks to the Chinese holiday the town was completely overcrowded. As the town is ancient the streets are narrow making it difficult to move around with many people. Luckily in the side-streets it was a lot more enjoyable. The town itself has a cute centre with old charismatic houses and lots of vendors selling their goods at the waterfront. As we walked around we found this small noodle restaurant, perfectly overseeing the pagoda and the adjacent river, and more importantly selling cheap beer! We sat there the whole evening enjoying the sunset and simply taking in the atmosphere.
In the following days we walked all over town, went into pretty much every small street and ate horrible Chinese food. In front of almost every restaurant in Fenghuang you find cages displaying what is on the menu for the day. From skinned cats, marmots, turtles, bugs to about anything you can possibly think of. For us it has been pretty appalling to see all of these animals waiting for the next order. Finding vegetarian food has been a major challenge for Anna-Lena, even in the big cities. To be fair, at times we couldn’t even find any plain rice anywhere! However noodle soup is basically sold at every single shop. It is especially amusing for the locals to give you noodle soup with chopsticks and laugh at the ensuing show. Its pretty much impossible to eat it like that without spilling it everywhere😂.
We enjoyed our stay in Fenghuang. The last day was even better as the holiday officially ended! This gave us the opportunity to walk around without too much people around. Really relaxing and giving us great pictures!
We made our way from Fenghuang to Wulingyuan by bus. The bus ride took five hours and we were kept up by non-stop sales pitches In the bus. Just when you were relieved that one pitch ended, another salesman grabbed the microphone and started yelling another sales-pitch. Nowhere to run! During our journey we got to experience sale-pitches for tours, dried meat, power strips and anti ageing products!
After a far too long bus ride we arrived in Wulingyuan and walked to the nearby 1982 Chujian International Youth hostel, which is just beside the entrance to the National Park. We had a couple of hours of daylight left and wanted to do something. The reception recommended us to take a boat ride at Baofeng Lake. We took a taxi not to waste time, only to find out the entrance fee was 10x higher than the hotel receptionist told us. We decided to go anyways which turned out to be a mistake and a waste of time. Best way to describe the experience is “Chinese Tourist Trap”. You are put in a small mini van to the (of course artificial) lake. There you are stuffed into a small boat with a “guide”. This woman only spoke chinese and put the microphone so loud you couldn’t really enjoy the ride at all. To make it even more “authentic” they put flower rafts everywhere with hideous fake flowers and opera singers to entertain the crowd. This tour couldn’t end soon enough. Back at the hotel we quickly sat down and had a beer to try to forget the experience.
The next day we got up at 5am to go to the park. We couldn’t have been more excited! When we planned our trip we couldn’t leave out the famous floating mountains of Zhangjiajie. Nicknamed as the Avatar mountains it is not difficult to see the resemblance to the mountains in the movie. Usually towering above the clouds these mountains create the illusion of floating mountains. We took the cable cart which was a frightening experience for me, as I am terrified of heights. 20 minutes it took us to reach the summit. On the way you are close to a thousand meters above the ground. Nothing but the tiny cart separating you from a long way down. On our way up we got our first views of the mountains, which are simply stunning! Unfortunately the moment didn’t last as the clouds were far too thick, impairing our view. At some point we did not even see the cart in front of us anymore!
Once we arrived we immediately saw we wouldn’t view anything but clouds from on top of Tianzi Mountain. Luckily my anxiety hasn’t been in vain and a McDonalds at the top provided us with a great breakfast and coffee😂.
As we moved from viewpoint to viewpoint, we found it impossible to get a view anywhere. We headed for lower altitude and hiked down and back up to Tianbo Mansion. Quite an exciting climb down with beautiful nature. At the end you have to take a rusty old staircase embedded into the mountain, which was pretty cool! (Or terrifying – Anna-Lena). The clouds cleared for a moment, finally giving us an incredible view of the canyon below. Although it lasted only a couple of minutes before the clouds caught up with us, it was worth the two-hour hike! The next stop on our tour would have been the Avatar mountains, but due to the clouds and rain we couldn’t see anything. This did not prevent hordes of chinese people taking selfies in front of the “white wall” 😂. Defeated by the weather we took the impressive Bailong Elevator 362 floors down, instead of hiking for hours through the rain.
The following morning we got up at 5am again to make our way to the longest Glass Bridge in the world. As they work with time slots we had to be there between 07:30 and 10:00 or we would have been denied entry. The bridge stands an impressive 360 meters above the canyon floor. Nothing but glass separates you from the depth. A scary thought that crossed my mind more than once😜. We walked back and forth taking in the scenery and some pics before making our way back. We decided against hiking the canyon below to have more time to retry our luck at the Avatar Mountains as the weather cleared a bit. This has definitely been the right choice – Finally giving us the view we wanted so badly the day before! We hiked our way down along the mountains, giving us even better views of the impressive peaks. An amazing experience and definitely among our Top 5 of China. We couldn’t have been happier with our planning! We walked our way down through the dense monkey infested forest to the bus station to get back to the hotel. Exhausted after an activity filled day we fell into our beds to get a short nights rest with a train to catch at 6am the next morning.
Two trains and a bus ride later we made it to Yangshuo, a lively town famous for its natural wonders. The town sits on the bank of the Li River and is surrounded by lush green mountains. We stayed at a fancy hotel called “Coco’s Garden” which Anna-Lena had picked before we left. It was a place that really exceeded our expectations. We got a free upgrade on arrival and ended up in luxurious room with bathtub overlooking the mountains and the garden.
We woke up the following morning to wonderful weather and hired a pink Hello Kitty scooter to make the most of our day. Our hotel arranged a bamboo raft on the Yulong River for us, starting just a stone toss away. The two-hour ride with small rapids and stunning views was nothing short of amazing! On our little raft the boatsman steered the boat into the rapids and around obstacles with ease. Halfway we made a pit stop to buy beer to enhance our rafting experience. Lots of fun!
We paid a sweet old lady two bucks to take our motorbike to the end-station so we didn’t need to go back and collect. We then drove to the nearby Banyan Tree and Moon Hill to explore. The weather was an amazing 26 degrees with sunshine. After a sweaty thirty minute hike uphill we made it to the viewing platform. The view was nice but nothing prepared us tor the amazing views we were about to have from on top of the mountain. A short walk later through dense bushes on a “Do not enter” path, got us to the top. Incredibly mind-blowing views ensued. As the weather was great we could see lush green hills as far as the eye could see. As we sat up-top taking in the view more people arrived. Two friendly fins (Ossi & Riku), an unknown Israeli and a German (Richard) also made it up. In this company we spend an hour on top of the hill, chatting and enjoying the surroundings.
We slowly made our way down, trying not to fall down the abyss. We hopped on the scooter to make it to a nearby bridge to watch the sunset before heading to the hotel for a late dinner. We had a couple of beers at the hotel bar before heading in.
The next day we woke up late and opted to rent an electric motorbike again. We took an easy drive next to the Yulong River passing rice fields and local fishermen on the way. We had a lovely picnic with beer and cookies, while overlooking the river. In the evening we had arranged a tour to watch a cormorant fisherman. We met a guide at 7pm in town who took us to the right place at the river. After a short walk down to the riverbed we boarded a motorized bamboo raft. With six other tourists we headed out on the dark river. We followed our fishermen for about half an hour. The incredible birds dive and catch fish in front of your eyes. The water is clear so you can see them hunt. The fishermen takes the fish from the bird and puts it in a basket. After the hunt is complete he feeds the birds as a reward. This ancient practice goes back thousands of years but is declining rapidly. It was really interesting to see this tradition close by. After the hunt, on shore we even allowed to hold the bird on our arm. Amazing animals.
We made our way back to the hotel over dim-lit roads and ate something across the street from our hotel. At night we drove our scooter into town and joined the Fins, German and other travelers in the DMZ bar. Advertised as the only bar outside North Korea that is North Korean themed! The owner, Garreth, a crazy Englishmen, and the amount of beers made it a very interesting night.
The following morning we had a nice breakfast at the hotel and simply relaxed all day. Really necessary after the night before but also after the busy travel schedule we made for China! The next few days we focused on relaxing and planning the next steps of our journey! It was great to simply unwind overlooking the undulating river, the mesmerizing rice-paddies and the sheer friendliness of people. Yangshuo really captivated our hearts and is definitively one of our favourite stops in China.
We opted for the Shenzhen-route to cross the border to Hong Kong, which meant having to switch from train to the MTR metro. The whole thing went down pretty smooth and we made it to our tiny hotel located in the heart of Hong Kong.
We spend our few days in Hong Kong enjoying the local markets, the amazing McDonald’s😂 and of course its iconic sights. We crossed to Central using the famous StarFerry. It was great to see the urban skyscrapers against the face of the green hills. We went up the hill to Victoria Peak by taking a wrong bus that got stuck in traffic for close to an hour😂. But we did get to see lots of the city on the way! We strolled around at the viewpoint enjoying the sight of the gigantic city below. Very different from our last stops, but impressive nonetheless! We went down the mountain using the iconic tram and made our way back to the bay. We spend our evening overlooking the bay, looking at the light show with a cold drink.
On our last day in Hong Kong we send a package with souvenirs and some clothing home as now we should only encounter warmer weather 😎
We finished off our China trip sitting on small broken stools at a tacky souvenir-market, enjoying a cheap cold beer, contemplating the amazing, crazy, interesting, horrible, incredible times and things we encountered. We met so many amazing people and saw so many beautiful sights that it was really a trip we are not going to forget any time soon!
Goodbye China – I will never forget how annoyed I got with noodle soup and security checks. Without McDonald’s and Google Translate I’m pretty sure I would have starved. We got lost so many times I lost count, but I couldn’t be happier as we constantly met amazing people making getting lost so much fun! I will always remember biking the Xi’An wall on a crappy rusty bike, motorbiking to Moon Hill in Yangshuo, climbing the great wall at Mutianyu, and our moment of silence with a century’s old terracotta army. Travelling in China is hard work, but small simple moments on the way made it the most rewarding work I’ve ever done. Once in alifetime experiences – Timo
Bye bye China – it has been incredible! Looking past the continuously spitting people, the reinvention of mass tourism and the impossible dining options for vegetarians, it has been an amazing experience! I will never forget the solitude of the high peaks of Wulingyuan national park. Getting splashed and drenched on a bamboo raft with a crazy chinese boatsman in Yangshuo and having a local draft beer deep in the Beijing Hutongs under the setting sun. What a diverse and colorful country – What an incredible adventure! – Leni