The adventure continues!
I’ve not written much lately, as I’ve not had the time, energy and inspiration at the same time. The idea of writing a blog post always seems like too much effort and I can’t be bothered, but deep down I know that once I get started I actually quite enjoy it and a lot of stuff suddenly comes out of nowhere. Don’t know that it’s particularly interesting to read, but hey – it’s there! And a confession, I never can be bothered to proofread it so I’m sure all posts are full of errors! Sorry! The professional version of me would be horrified with me publishing stuff full of errors. eek!
So, let me cast my mind back a few weeks…
I left Beijing on a fast train to Xi’an – about 300km/h for 4.5 hours, arriving in the evening. I had a quiet night with dinner and a few beers in the hostel bar and an early night. The next day I decided to tackle the Xi’an City Walls – the most complete city walls of any city in China. The walls have a total circumference of 14km, and from my own estimation are about 15m wide and 20m high, with much higher towers regularly along the walls.
To start with, my plan was to walk from the North Gate right around to the South Gate, so about 7km – however I only made it about halfway, to the East Gate. OMG it was hot!!! It made Beijing seem cool! On top of the wall there was no shade, just the sun beating down on me – no breeze, and high humidity and plenty of smog. As much as i enjoyed the view and the experience, there was only so much of the heat I could take.
I exited the walls and sat in the shade with a bottle of cold water for a while to recover, and plan my next move. I decided to walk towards the Muslim Quarter of Xi’an, which turned out to be an amazing area – one of my favourite places that I’ve been to in China. Lots of small laneways, full of people and markets, street food and small restaurants. Quite a different culture too, still definitely Chinese, but also clearly Muslim – you could see that from the people, their behaviour, their clothes, the architecture – everything.
I went into the Great Mosque of Xi’an, which is the biggest surviving Mosque in China – and it was beautiful. Unfortunately a lot of the areas within it were closed and I couldn’t see everything, but what I could see I thought was amazing. Again, it was clearly Chinese AND Muslim – a mix between a Mosque and a Temple,with people dressed clearly in Muslim clothing and praying in Muslim, not Buddhist ways.
Xi’an is also home to (well, a couple of hours drive from) Mount Huashan – I’m sure you’ve seen the photos, even if you don’t know the name. It’s regularly in email and Facebook forwards and billed as the scariest/most dangerous hike in the world! You know the one, with people walking along planks of wood sticking out of a cliff face with a huge drop below them. Well, Tom who I met earlier in the trip had mentioned to me that it was there and he was going to go – so I’d planned to join him. The plan was that he’d meet me in Xi’an and we’d go for a day trip out there – I was excited and nervous – the more I thought about it the more I didn’t want to, but the more I HAD to. Tom was meant to arrive in Xi’an at about 8pm and we’d planned to get up early the following day and go, unfortunately it was not to be, as his train was delayed and he didn’t get to the hostel until 2am – so clearly wasn’t going for an early hike. He went the next day, however I couldn’t join as I had a 5pm train to Shanghai and wouldn’t be able to get there and back in time.
The day that I was going to hike Mount Huashan, instead I went to see The Army of Terracotta Warriors. It was about an hour bus ride from Xi’an and I recommend you go if you’re ever in Xi’an (it’s the main reason most people, including me make the stop in this city). I’m glad I went and saw them, but was kind of underwhelmed by them – at the end of the day, it’s just lots of men made of terracotta standing in a hole in the ground, with hundreds of rude, pushy, sweaty Chinese people trying to push you out of the way so they can get a better look! I feel this way about a lot of major tourist attractions around the world though – the more I know about them, the longer I’ve known about them and the bigger “must do” they are, the more disappointing they seem to be to me. I think it’s because you have built the expectations up so much in your mind, that of course reality won’t live up to your expectations. Travel is much better when you don’t have any expectations, and just experience things for the first time when you get there. This is why (as well as laziness) that I do little research about a place before I go – I just find out when I get there. Down side to this is that sometimes I miss things that would have been awesome, but overall I’m happier with this sort of travel.
After Xi’an, I got another overnight sleeper train to Shanghai, this time in Duluxe Sleeper rather than a soft sleeper – only 2 people to the cabin instead of 4, an armchair, private toilet and a power socket. Very fancy! I spent 5 nights in Shanghai, and was in a private room for the first time since I left the UK 2 months earlier – I was very excited by this! Most of the time I was in Shanghai I had the flu, so didn’t actually do much – worked out well that I had the private room and could just lay in bed, sleep and watch tv until I felt better.
I did go out a bit and see some of Shanghai, although it doesn’t seem to have much in the way of tourist experiences and tourist sites. Which is good and bad – it’s good to see an actual working city without the tourist hype, but it also makes it harder to work out what to see and do – especially when you’re sick and tired and don’t have the energy to just walk for hours and see what you see like I normally would. The highlight really is going to ‘The Bund’ and looking across the river to the city skyline of all the skyscrapers of the business district of Shanghai. I recommend seeing this view both during the day, and at night as it’s a totally different experience. Also, you should use the tourist sightseeing tunnel to get from one side of the river to the other – clearly a tourist trap, not cheap (in Chinese standards anyway) but worth it as it will be the weirdest experience of your Chinese adventure! It reminded me of Willy Wonka’s boat ride – weird sounds, lights etc all through while you’re in a small glass pod thing that drives along tracks in the tunnel. Very strange – glad I did it! You can then just get the metro back (or get a return ticket, but I don’t see the point really)
From Shanghai I got another overnight train to Guangzhou, which was interesting to see – it was such a mix of real Asian, developing world feeling districts and areas of modern high rise buildings. I spent hours walking around the city, seeing different, strange mixes of cultures – Chinese, Buddhist, Muslim, Western… All getting along seemingly harmoniously.
Next was Nanning, which is the gateway to Vietnam. When I’d booked everything in advance before leaving the UK, to secure my Chinese visa I’d decided to stay 3 nights here – figured if I was going to be in a place, I should see it. In hindsight, really 1 night would have been enough! As the train arrived early, and the train to Vietnam left quite late I still would have had 2 full days to see the city. There didn’t seem to be much to bother seeing really, though it could have just been me being tired and lazy and couldn’t be bothered. There was a nice park that I went to one day, an interesting market where I saw dog meat for sale, and some spectacular monsoonal thunderstorms.
So, I must make a confession at this point… While in Nanning I was reading about travelling from Hanoi to Luang Prabang, Laos and then down to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia – and decided that I would break my rule of no flying until Singapore! After travelling approximately 20,000km in the last 2 months I was exhausted and honestly could not think of anything worse than a 30 hour us ride from Hanoi to Luang Prabang! So, I’ve booked two flights… Hanoi, Vietnam to Luang Prabang, Laos and Vientiane, Laos to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
I got an overnight train from Nanning to Hanoi, Vietnam – I had finally reached South East Asia!