While everyone in Australia and New Zealand was talking about the much awaited Christmas holidays, filled with BBQs, beach and sunshine – my family and I were packing our suitcases with all things cosy in preparation for our freezing holiday to China. Off-season was probably a wise decision to go to the most populous country in the world!
Travelling to China is a bold move – it is stepping out of your comfort zone and accepting a challenge. The visa process was long and tedious, with the embassy needing all hotel names and itinerary details. It wasn’t until we landed at the airport and tried to find my brother who had landed at a different terminal that the enormity of the situation hit us. Not one person at the airport spoke English, none of us had a Chinese SIM, and there was no internet at the airport – oh and it was 1:00 AM. However, once you acknowledge and come to terms with the reality that everything that faces you will be new, unexpected and different – China starts to grow on you very fast. If you want to explore a country filled with rich history, delicious authentic food, kind people, and diverse landscapes – you can’t go past The People’s Republic of China.
I was flying into China expecting smog, pollution, pushing crowds and delicious dumplings every single day. Although we saw a little bit of smog in Beijing and Hangzhou, there were no signs of trash/rubbish anywhere (this amazes me to the day!), the pushing crowds only emerged in Shanghai, and dumplings were in fact had every single day. The one thing I learnt about China is that a city is a ‘real’ city, even the ‘villages’ are cities – and it makes infrastructure in any other part of the world look dull in comparison.
I had been planning for this trip for months perfecting the itinerary to the very last minute. I knew no one will speak English and so we came prepared with translating apps and detailed directions. We had a total of 11 full days in the country to explore six different cities. Initially, I had thought perhaps the trip will be too packed and hectic (which is exactly how I like my trips) but it turned out to be perfect.
Give yourself one full day to explore the surrounds of Beijing. Here is what we managed to squeeze into the day – with the main modes of transportation being the subway and our feet!
- Tiananmen Square – Enormity becomes a motif in this trip and Tiananmen Square was no exception. There isn’t too much to explore here and if you keep walking you will eventually reach the Forbidden City. We missed Mao’s Mausoleum as we didn’t check the timings so make sure if that’s on your list – check the timings! Also note, most things in China are closed on Mondays so we couldn’t come back the next day either.
- Forbidden City – now this is absolutely incredible. The vastness of this ‘city’ is apparent the minute you walk through the doors. Now, if you love history and know a lot about the city and the various areas, I’d say you could spend a few days here. However, to be quite frank, we were satisfied with around 3 hours here.
- Temple of Heaven – The temple itself is nice to look at but after a few photos you’re ready to go. The gardens that surround the temple are filled with senior citizens playing various card games often with some sort of gambling involved. If not for the temple, I’d recommend going here for the people watching.
I had arranged a taxi for the day to take us to the Mutiyanu section of The Great Wall and then to the Summer Palace – which again was just too large to fit in half a day but gave us a good taster.
The Great Wall of China is obviously a must-do when in China and walking around you realise the enormity of it all. More than this – you realise human potential, and it almost takes you back a bit. We are unstoppable, nothing is too big a feat for the human spirit – and that realisation leaves you in awe whilst walking on this wonder of the world.
Some other must-dos in Beijing
- Stay in a Hutong – while in Beijing, we lived in a hutong – a traditional courtyard residence.
- Peking duck – we went to Da Dong Roast Duck Restaurant and would highly recommend it. This was the most expensive meal we ate while in China, but not more than what you’d pay for a good meal in Australia.
- Donghuamen Night Market – if you don’t try a weird insect whilst in an Asian country, have you really been there?
We took the overnight sleeper train from Beijing to Xi’an where we spent one night. You only need one day in this city. I highly recommend the following:
- Terracotta Warriors – possibly the only reason most people come to this city in the first place. This is the one site in all of China where I literally had goosebumps as I walked into the shed containing thousands of warriors.
- Cycle the City Wall – I can’t think of any place in the world where you can literally cycle on a wall! We hired a few bikes and spent the evening cycling around and seeing Xi’an from above.
- Muslim Quarter Markets – I hadn’t realised there was such a large Muslim population in Xi’an – not something you’d expect coming to China?! We spent the night walking around the markets looking at the different foods. Pork is so predominant in China that it was odd to come across a whole section where no pork was served.
A place known for its drastic karst mountain landscape and picturesque countryside and one that I fell in love with the minute we landed. The city had built itself in the nooks and crannies of these magnificent limestone mountains and all I want to do is go back and spend a full week here. Here are the must-dos:
- West Street – this is the busiest street in Yangshuo and one worth visiting only if once.
- Hire a scooter and explore the streets – we hired a scooter and rode to the river to do some bamboo rafting. On the way back, our scooter ran out of battery and we were stuck on the streets where no one spoke English. We dragged the scooter up to a random house and gestured that our scooter was out of battery and if we could please charge it. Not only did they let us charge it they cut up some grapefruit and gave it to us to eat while waiting.
- Bamboo rafting – just you and the mountains (minus ten other bamboo rafts) and no noise. Now, take out a 20 RMB note while cruising – flip it and see the exact same scenery on the back of the note!
- Stay longer – stay longer than you think you should or if you have planned more than a day in Guilin, cut it short and stay here. This is paradise!
Unfortunately I planned to stay too long here (2 days) and it was more than we needed. We did find a gem though (thanks to a local) – The Old Man’s Hill. The morning hike was strenuous but the view from above made it worthwhile! There are many other sites to visit (as says trip advisor) but the locals told us that none of them are really worthwhile and so all we did was the trek up the hill to view the city, eat, and then get some massages (you must try cupping whilst in China)!
This is the getaway town for those who live in Shanghai and you can could see why. I’d advise a day (or a day trip) here to see the West Lake – take a boat and visit Three Pools Mirroring the Moon. Now, take out a 1 RMB note and you will see that it the same exact picture on the back!
We spent New Years eve trying hot-pot and then returning the hotel to get some much-needed sleep (yes – we slept through midnight).
Shanghai was the only city where we didn’t have trouble with the language barrier – which was probably a good way to finish the holiday. It would have been a shock to the system if we started off here and then discovered that no one really speaks English in the other cities.
Shanghai was the least interesting city for me – too westernised and similar to the rest of the world. However, there were some pretty neat things:
- The Bund – the pearl tower is nice to look at from afar and so are the enormous ships that pull into the port.
- Visit a water town – we were short on time and opted to visit Qibao Ancient Town which was awfully crowded but gave us a taste of Old Shanghai.
I left China with a smile – what a wonderful country! But more than that – what kind and beautiful people. Family is an important concept in Chinese culture and one that is so very evident in every place you visit. Elders in the family are well-respected and families work together to make a living. In the western world, it is a rarity to see families live together as more couples make the move away from their families, and so it was beautiful to see that this part of Chinese culture remains unscathed.
The more I see the world, the more I learn that it is filled with kindness and love, and all humans really want to do is help each other. At a time where the news is filled with hate and acts of violence, it is refreshing and nice to be assured that amongst all this pain – there is love. Thank you China – I will be back!