A Taste of Asia - 21 Days | CHN
For the past five years I've set out with the idea in mind that I would like to be in a new country for each of my birthdays starting with Japan, then onto Canada, USA, France and finally the most recent... China.
I didn't have a set plan in my head with the most recent and it was quite a spur of the moment purchase when I decided to go for it. It was during the summer of 2016 that I finalized those plans to be there for my birthday, November 18th. In September, I had undergone knee surgery that would sideline any plans for the next six weeks, but with amazing timing and being in the right place at the right time, I was lucky enough to land a BMX stuntman position in the most recent Subaru Impreza commercial before flying to China for 3 full weeks of adventure.
As the date grew closer, I became more and more prepared for my trip but less actually educated on the culture. Back in 2013 when I lived in Japan for six months working at British Hills in the Fukushima Prefecture, my choice was to go based on wanting a culture shock. I didn't quite get it as expected there, but let me tell you, China was totally different! After gathering all the items I would be needing in a new country, I boarded my flight from Toronto, Canada and flew directly to Shanghai, China. The flight totalled 15 hours and I can say with confidence that I was ready to start using my legs again. Once I went through the mandatory customs immigration procedure, I was set free into this giant unknown area of my life.
The airport didn't phase me too much. Airports are typically busy but it was when I first went to buy a ticket for the subway when the culture shock began to take its effect. From seeing the Chinese language in a large environment and understanding nothing being said around you, to the line ups and how fast someone will snake ahead of you if the opportunity arises.
My friend Xuefang or as I like to call her, Fang Fang, met me at one of the connecting subway stations and we proceeded into her neighborhood known as the French Concession. Fang Fang allowed me to stay at her apartment for the night until I found a hostel in the morning.
Day 1 - November 18th
It's now officially happened five years running and it feels great. The sun was shining in the French Concession as I awoke for the start of my epic journey. My first destination was Yuyuan Gardens near the famous Bund of Shanghai. I must have spent over an hour walking the gardens and snapping away amazed by the architecture.
Once I was finished in the gardens, I opted out of going back underground on the subway and decided to walk over to the Bund for some photos of the massive cityscape while the sky was looking blue.
During the afternoon, I met up with a friend that I would be spending the next few days with that I haven't seen since Muskoka Woods back in 2012 when we were instructors at a youth camp. His name is Mark Harrison and what he had in store for my birthday was nothing like I ever could of imagined. Hostels in China were way cheaper than I expected and while some are what you'd expect, this place was tremendous.
You hear the term "rooftopping" going around these days like it's a sport. I've seen the videos of some of the guys who've made it increasingly popular but never really had that drive to go for it. Recently, I've even heard stories of people taking advantage of it and making it look poor to the publics eye because of vandalism. To me, it's an escape above the busy world that we live in and allows us to truly appreciate where we're at and how far we've come as humans.
This is the first time I believe I really faced my fear of heights and although it was a bit tough to work up the courage, I came to the right conclusion that a person can overcome their fears by focusing mind over matter.
After, we went out for dinner with a couple of other friends from Shanghai before going to Le Baron back in the French Concession to celebrate properly.
Day 2 - November 19th
It was a bit rough getting up this day. 27 hit me pretty good but I was determined to wake myself up and make the most out of my time in China. Once Mark had awakened and we had our morning coffee, a plan was put in place. We knew of a structure that was currently under construction but had an amazing view of the Bund. We made that our goal and set out on the subway!
As we went from our hostel to the subway station we could tell the smog was pretty dense and were a bit worried our view would be quite obstructed. When we arrived at our destination, we were faced with the fact that there was no avoiding the polluted skies this day and we had to make the most of it either way.
This building was hands down the most gnarly climb I've dealt with since beginning to go on the rooftops. Not only the 70 something floors would make it difficult but the way out was another level. All in all, mission accomplished!
Day 3 - November 20th
Today was much easier to awaken to. Mark and I had our game plan set from the evening before and headed straight out to the building he had in mind. Mark has been living just outside of Shanghai working as an English teacher for the past couple years and finds himself playing in Shanghai when the weekend approaches so he knows quite a bit of the ins and outs.
The two days prior to this Sunday were an experience to say the least and allowed me to push my fears more than ever but I still know my own limits none the less. Today I found that limit. Mark is a fearless individual and he showed me what is possible when you can overcome that fear.
As the weekend was wrapping up, I decided to venture back to Mark's little village and by little I mean huge in comparison to Canada's population. From here I would be able to adventure out to an ancient fishing village called Zhujiajiao.
Day 4 - November 21st
Mark's apartment complex was right next to a lake and offered me my first glimpse into Chinese fishing. This got me quite excited to head out to Zhujiajiao.
The weather wasn't sunny, but it also wasn't raining so no complaints. At this point during my travels, I hadn't witnessed much sunshine yet and the smog was becoming the regular to me. The taxi driver that Mark put me in touch with asked if he could take me out for breakfast and perhaps walk along side me once we arrived in the ancient fishing village; I obliged.
Zhujiajiao was even more impressive in person than any photo on the internet could have shown. Picking the off-season was ideal since the amount of tourists visiting were completely down. You'd see groups of bright yellow rain jackets mixed in with pink and blue gathering around their travel guides.
At one moment I was bending down to switch my lens on my camera only to lift my head and be the subject of a group photo. I chuckled then posed politely for the group. Was it kindness or a mistake? Little did I know I'd be posing for photos over the next 20 minutes.
A light mist began to come in throughout the afternoon and I was thrilled with my visit so we decided to head back to town. I checked out a bit of the Sino-Canada high school that Mark was currently working at before we went to my first ever yoga class, followed up by a tradition Chinese massage. Epic!
Day 5 - November 22nd
This morning I set out from Mark’s town around noon and found myself back in Shanghai not too long after. The intensity of the last few days had seemed to catch up to me. Feeling a bit exhausted I chose to work on a few photos and relax before venturing out into the night. I made my way back over to Fang Fang’s for the evening to have dinner with her and her niece, Yao Yao. Yao Yao was also into photography and asked if she could come with me to shoot some photos, hang out and practice her English. I happily agreed and we set out into the nighttime for some intersection photos and to see Jing’an Temple.
*One thing that is pretty interesting about China that many foreigners might not know is that the internet is very reserved. Such social media applications like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are banned in the country. Even a major search engine such as Google simply does not exist unless you use a VPN. I had a heads up before going and made sure I was ready for what was to come.
Day 6 – November 23rd
Waking up this morning I knew I had only a matter of time before I would have to catch my overnight train to Beijing. I opened the curtains to see how the weather was looking, fingers crossed that it was going to be sunny. Of course, just like all the previous days so far in Shanghai, it was cloudy with a good amount of rain coming down. I wasn’t going to let that deter me, so I grabbed my gear and umbrella then headed towards the subway. I had yet to visit the financial district of Shanghai since I arrived and made that my main objective of the day.
The main location I had planned to visit was Century Park which could be compared to Stanley Park in Vancouver, or even Central Park in New York. I got off a few stops prior to the park that way I could grab a coffee, and take in a bit of the daily hustle that accompanies Shanghai daily. I was quite shocked to come out to somewhat empty streets. Could it be the rain? How is a city with 13 million people so empty? None the less, I headed in the direction of the park and kept my camera ready for anything that may happen.
I remember listening to the audiobook “Power of Habit” by Charles Duhigg during this time; More specifically the chapter relating to how to ditch bad habits in order to form new positive ones. A habit we are taught growing up is to never talk to strangers. As a frequent traveller, how does one not talk to strangers? Being my first time in a developing country, I was not fully aware of the consequences a conversation with a stranger can have. A common type of thievery is brought on from citizens who can speak English well and use it to take advantage of unknowing visitors. They ask to accompany you, then show you their favourite restaurant that may be off the beaten path in order to bribe you for money with guards not allowing you to leave without paying. I would have fallen into that particular trap at one point during my first few days in Shanghai but luckily my urge to take photos kept me away as I kindly refused to go get something to eat in order to shoot more photos.
Even though I’ve learned of the situation that could arise with strangers, I can’t hold an entire population accountable for the action of a select few. A young Chinese boy, perhaps around 17 years old approached me while I was listening to this chapter and asked if I could chat with him for a few minutes. I was hesitant at first but he soon acknowledged my camera and did his best to communicate with me. Language barriers can be tough but the appreciation one can have from a simple one to one conversation can go a long way. We chatted for quite some time about photography while we hid out under a canopy to avoid the rain. We had some laughs together as we played mini games of charades at times then parted ways wishing each other good luck.
Eventually I made it to Century Park but was not aware beforehand that there was an entrance fee. I decided it would be best to save some money on this rainy day and just get some shots around the area before heading back to grab my luggage and catch my overnight train.
Day 7 – November 24th
I arrived at the train station in Beijing around 7am. I didn’t sleep well during my first overnight train but that could be in part to the fact I booked myself a seat instead of a bed like all my future trains. Lesson learned! Beijing was a lot different than Shanghai right from the beginning. There weren’t as many skyscrapers and the smog was dense. The weather radar showed it to be a beautiful sunny day but even still, the sun was barely visible.
Upon reaching my hostel (Leo Hostel) nearby to the Forbidden City, I unpacked my bags and booked a mini excursion to the Great Wall of China for the next morning. While I was getting myself organized in my dorm room, another guy by the name of Federico walked in and we introduced ourselves. Federico was from Argentina and spoke English really well but as it was a new name for me to remember, he mentioned I could call him Freddy to make it easier. He had just arrived that morning as well and had no real plans, so I showed him what my itinerary was looking like and asked if he would like to travel around with me. Freddy was more than happy, so we hit the streets of Beijing together and we were pretty much inseparable since that moment.
Since our hostel was so close to the Forbidden City, we made that our mission along with Tiananmen Square. It was surreal to stand in Tiananmen Square after learning about the tragic past that took place there during my birth year in 1989. We spent a couple hours checking out this immense city of the emperors before hiking up to a lookout at a nearby park. The view overlooking the Forbidden City was incredible. Although the sun was hidden by a layer of smog, the glow it illuminated on the city was vibrant. We spent some time at the lookout and like many other places I’ve visited already, we became prime photo opportunities for other Chinese travellers.
We eventually made our way down with the idea of heading to the Temple of Heaven but unfortunately we were met with another scam once again. Locals offer rides to the subway on their electric tricycles for three Yuan which is equivalent to roughly 20 cents. I was already aware of such scams from past experiences and had warned Freddy about it during the day. Lucky for me, Mark had taught me the numbers 1-10 in mandarin during our rooftop adventures. This came in quite handy over the next couple weeks. I made sure to acknowledge the price and repeated the number in Chinese to insure the price was correct. The local nodded while smiling. Freddy and I hopped on the back of his bike and we made our way towards the subway… Or so we thought. In my head we had only a 15-minute walk to the subway so it should have only taken a few minutes but 10 minutes later we were let off next to an alleyway no where near the subway. Not only that but we were now told we had to pay 300 Yuan instead of 3. Talk about an increase in profit. I stood my ground knowing that I negotiated properly, gave the guy three Yuan each and we went about our business.
By the time we got to the Temple of Heaven, daylight was setting and it wasn’t worth it so we headed back to the hostel for dinner and with the intentions of getting a good night’s rest before the Great Wall excursion the next morning. While having dinner, we noticed a couple sitting quietly eating next to us so we spoke up and asked them where they’re from. Turns out they were from England and were doing a bit of world touring, including the Great Wall excursion that I had signed up for as well. Their names were Reece and Naomi. The four of us had talked about the area of the wall we were going to be going to and realized that it was a main tourist spot and perhaps not as extreme as others. After deciding we’d adventure together a bit, I looked into another part of the wall that would have less tourists and that we could get to by public transit instead of through a tour. It was decided! We all cancelled our Great Wall tour booked with the hostel, then drank some Tsing Tao before calling it a night.
Day 8 – November 25th
The Great Wall
We set a meeting time of 7am in the lounge area of our hostel and one by one we slowly but surely made it there and hit the road by 7:30 after some much needed coffee. The subway system in Shanghai and Beijing was very efficient and quick. I’ve been careful to avoid most rush hour times but this time around there was no avoiding it. The four of us were directly in the flood of people crashing in from all directions with no space to move as we headed to the furthest station in order to catch a bus to Jinshanling.
Once we exited the subway we were a bit confused directionally and took a second to gather our bearings. The bus station was in sight but everything was in Chinese so we did our best with maps we had gathered and our best google translate impressions. It turned out we just missed the previous bus and had to wait another 20 minutes for the next one. This was a perfect opportunity to gather some food for the trip at the nearby 7/11. I stocked up on a sandwich, a couple drinks and sushi balls that I haven’t ate since living in Japan.
We jogged back on over to the bus and we hit the road for the next couple hours. The Great Wall was a bit further out from the city than I imagined but it was so refreshing to get out of the smog and see the sky again. Once we arrived at the location were the bus drops us off, we needed to find a taxi to take us to the gate as the free shuttles were not currently running in the off season. One thing I learned during my stay in China was that not many locals will go out of their way if it’s not easily accessible. This heightened the idea that there could be even less tourists at this specific location. Naomi did a bit of bargaining with a driver and we were off to the Great Wall of China!
I had some pretty high expectations of the Great Wall. Who wouldn’t? I can safely say all those expectations were met and exceeded. We had four hours to enjoy our time on the wall which was more than enough for this section of the wall. Without a doubt, one can spend countless hours exploring other sections of the wall. Throughout the whole day we must have only came across a handful of other tourists which made the experience even more worthwhile.
Heading back to Beijing was not quite as easy as it was getting to Jinshanling. After arriving back at the location we were told the bus would be picking us up, the first bus that came was completely full. The bus we need comes once an hour and it was barely above freezing temperatures so we decided it’d be best to buy some soup and warm up inside. It wasn’t too long before we were faced with a bit of hostility. Long stares were nothing new by this point in time but being told we had to wait outside for the bus while others were allowed to stay inside was. Being in another country and not speaking the local language makes it difficult to ask questions so we just took our orders and waited for the bus. Once the bus arrived, a couple female passengers got off and started to urinate just outside the bus doors which we had to avoid while making our way onboard. Reece and Naomi scooped up some seats, as well as Freddy but I wasn’t so lucky. The last remaining seat was a window seat but the man next to it refused to let me in. Already annoyed with the whole situation and not being able to communicate I sat on the stairwell leading out the middle doors. It didn’t take too long before I was being scolded in Chinese for not sitting in a seat. Eventually a solution was found. The man who wouldn’t let me sit next to him was swapped out with Freddy and everyone was happy.
We got back to the hostel pretty late that evening and I was flying out the next day so we decided to have a fun night with everyone from the hostel. Reece, Naomi and I went out for the infamous Peking duck for dinner and wow, it was delicious! There were a few French ladies, a group of Aussies, another man from Argentina and couple others from England staying at the hostel which made for quite an entertaining night afterwards. At some point through out we thought it’d be fun to wrestle in the streets. This was quite the spectacle for any passersby to say the least. No harm was done, aside from a sore hand and oh yeah, broken glasses…
Day 9 – November 26th
I woke up early knowing my flight was leaving in the afternoon and I had yet to check out the Temple of Heaven. First thing I had to do was fix my glasses. I was able to rig it up with some tape for the remainder of my journey. While I was finishing up with my glasses, Freddy made his way down to the lounge area barely able to keep his eyes open but determined to make his way to the Temple of Heaven with me. After the ritual that is morning coffee, we were on our way. This time knowing exactly where we were heading and with plenty of daylight on our side, but still… Nothing could have prepared us for what we exited the hostel into.
The pollution was at an all time high this day and you could literally taste it. In just the ten-minute walk to the subway station, I could feel my chest hurting. Therefore, Freddy and I thought it’d be best to get some masks this day. As much as it was disturbing to be in a position like this, I almost wanted it. We hear about the pollution problems all the time in China but it’s hard to comprehend something that devastating until you’ve witnessed it personally.
The pollution would not slow us down and before long we were at the Temple of Heaven. The current condition I’m sure had others deciding it would be best to stay indoors which again makes it a little bit roomier for Freddy and I. We walked around the gardens for quite a while and even played some sort of mix between tennis and Ping-Pong with some locals.
Once we saw everything worth seeing, we headed back to the hostel one last time for lunch and to say our goodbyes. It was a bit sad saying goodbye to these three amazing new friends I had met and spent my days in Beijing with but I know we’ll meet again one day for sure. Once hugs were given, I was off to the airport to catch a flight over to Zhangjiajie.
Airport security is always tight, but I didn’t expect the regulations to be so different from one country to the next. Getting through the security checkpoint in Beijing was tough and a long process. Both my external battery chargers that I had just bought in China were taken from me, as well as my hiking stick. I don’t normally use a hiking stick but thought it’d be wise to bring one with me on this trip as I just had knee surgery a few weeks before. Either way, I was a bit disgruntled at this point because the main reasons I bought all those items was for the places I was heading next. We had to exit the plane for a layover on the way to Zhangjiajie where I met a couple from the Netherlands that also had their external battery chargers taken from them. Turns out they were heading to the same town as me, so we chose to split on the taxi bill from the airport. I couldn’t wait to hit the bed waiting for me when I arrived at the hostel (Wulingyuan Zhongtian International Youth Hostel) in Wulingyuan.
Day 10 – November 27th
Just like the rest of my trip, it was an early morning hoping to make the most out of the day. Upon exiting my hostel room, I noticed a couple cockroaches scattering which startled me. At that point, I knew I wasn’t going to be spending another night there and began to look for an alternative. I came across one directly in the city of Zhangjiajie that looked quite nice and better located for tomorrow’s plans called Qixi hostel.
Once I had my night’s accommodations all booked, it was time to head out into Zhangjiajie National Forest Park for some one of a kind views. I grouped up with a few individuals who were talking about this new glass bridge that had been built over the canyon. It was all the hype and I figured, lets do it! Quickly as we arrived at the Zhangjiajie glass bridge, I knew I made the wrong choice. First off, we were told we couldn’t bring cameras or anything other then our phones because the bridge is not built to withstand the extra weight. That sounds reassuring doesn’t it? Secondly, the amount of tourists even on an off season day was outrageous. I can’t even begin to imagine how packed this place must be during the summer months. And finally, the price; It came to roughly $30 to venture out onto this glass structure stretching over the canyon and that sounds somewhat reasonable for an attraction such as this of course. It was more so the fact that the views were not even that great. On one side and below there was constant construction going on, completely taking away from the marvellous landscape. The other side however did have a great view, but was it worth $30 and the amount of time it took to get to this attraction? I can’t justify it.
I was pretty much over the whole glass bridge scenario within 15 minutes and eventually the rest of the group was ready to go and we were off. Today was my only day available to explore the real Zhangjiajie National Forest Park so as soon as we entered back into Wulingyuan, I made a b-line for the entrance gate and didn’t look back.
Zhangjiajie National Forest Park is best described as the Avatar mountains to anyone who may have seen that James Cameron masterpiece. The landscape ejects itself into the heavens like an other worldly jungle. There was a complex bus system in place to get people to and from the main attractions and then trails throughout the land for the true adventurers. I arrived at one of the spots that looked interesting and realized I got dropped off right at an expensive elevator ride to the top of the mountain. I should mention that hiking in China typically means taking a cable-car, gondola, or elevator in this case to the top then hiking around above before taking another means of transportation down.
Since I had already killed a bunch of my daylight hours, I decided to pay the fee, get up on top and then hike down one of the trails that leads to a different destination down below. I was basically running around like a chicken with his head cut-off at this point in time. One spot to the next, trying my best to stay ahead of the giant tourist groups that flock to a specific area designated for photos like a heard of wildebeest during migration.
After getting a bunch of photos from the top that I was happy with, the hike down commenced. I jogged lightly whenever I wasn’t taking photos knowing that I’ll come across an area where I’ll stall out for some photos anyway. It was certainly a good decision when I came across an area that was perfect for a quick bite to eat. I rested up for a bit here, watched the wild chickens do their thing and took in the vast landscape of Zhangjiajie.
Before long I was off again but it wouldn’t be long before I was sidetracked by a majestic area offering a full panorama view of the mountains and the river running between them. While I was setting up my camera, a young woman brought her daughter over for a photo with me. The daughter, probably just around two years old was a bit nervous at first. Who knows, maybe I was the first foreigner she’s ever encountered in her lifetime. She warmed up quickly when I started making goofy faces and next thing you know she’s on my shoulders posing with the whole family. It’s moments like these that truly put a smile on my face.
Daylight was getting short by this time, and I needed to get back to an area where buses would bring me back to the gate at Wulingyuan. My job turned into a run as I did my best to stay one step ahead but after what felt like a 10-minute sprint, something sped across in front of me. I stopped dead in my tracks and turned to see a pack of monkeys playing in the trees around me. I let out a laugh accidentally. This is what I’ve been waiting to see all day and it finally came to life just moments before exiting the park.
The spring back to the parking area picked up again and before long I was sitting happily in a window seat watching the sun set beyond the famed Avatar Mountains known as Zhangjiajie National Forest Park.
I met back up with the group from this morning who were planning to take a taxi to Zhangjiajie and helped out with the cost. The search for another new hostel location was on again. China’s alleyways are filled with shops, hostels and all sorts of other markets so it’s sometimes not as easy as one may think to find one specific building. It wasn’t too long when I walked by the front window of Qixi hostel and saw two ladies having dinner together and then a warm welcome by the staff at the counter. Feeling tired from all the running around this day, I was really looking forward to dinner than a good night’s sleep. The lady at the front desk started off by telling me the room I had booked that morning was in fact already taken… Not the best start to say the least so I asked if there was anything available, all I need is a bed or floor space. She laughed and replied with “No no no, it’s okay. We have a private double room for you instead.” Boo yaa!
This place was already getting 5 stars just for that I thought, but then I got to my room and was even more impressed. It was actually a lot more spacious than I could of imagined. It was a bit chilly as I noticed the windows were wide open, so I quickly shut those up, cleaned up and proceeded back downstairs for some dinner. I grew a liking for Kung Pao Chicken during my stay and it turned into my go to whenever I wasn’t sure what to order. After ordering, I went to sit down at the table next to the two ladies having dinner together and greeted them but was met with a confused look on their faces. I slowed down my speech realizing that they may not be native English speakers and it helped. Once I heard their accent, I began racking my brain for where it could be from and the only idea I had was a French speaking area but in order not to offend anyone by guessing the wrong country, I politely asked by switching to French. They were a bit shocked from the switch and I was grateful to remember a bit of French from my time in France. Turns out they’re from Paris, and they’re currently travelling the world for the next year with China being just their third country of many. Introductions aside, Karin and Claudie had the exact same adventure planned the following day as I did. That plan was to go up Tianmen Mountain, so I suggested we go together and they were all for it!
Day 11 – November 28th
The night was cold so I was already tucked deep beneath the covers in order to stay warm and then something landed on me. An animal or some sort of rodent perhaps. I could feel whatever it was begin to crawl up the side of my body until it was nestled right next to my head. I laid motionless contemplating what to do at this moment. AHHHH! I let out one of the loudest yells I could manage as I threw the covers off me, jumping up into the air. I heard what sounded like a screech of a cat completely startled as much as I was. I didn’t see where it went at this moment and the only thing I could imagine was that it snuck in during the day while the windows were open to keep warm but then couldn’t get out once I shut them. I convinced myself that this was the reasoning and even though whatever it happened to be was still inside my room, I snuggled up back under the covers.
I slept great since the cat incident and woke up feeling refreshed before heading downstairs for breakfast. We had given a heads up to the staff the night before that the three of us would be getting an American style breakfast before heading out to Tianmen mountain. Breakfast was ready as I got down and I anxiously awaited for Karin and Claudie to arrive. We stuffed our faces then kick started our morning adventure!
Tianmen mountain was not a mountain you could simply hike up because of the sheer cliffs along the side so the cable car was necessary this time around. I can’t remember off hand how much it was but you were given two different options when purchasing. Option one consisted of taking the cable car up then taking a very lengthy escalator down before having a 30-45 minute bus ride back to the lift station or there was option number two which was completely vice versa. Due to my time constraints having to catch an overnight train down to Guilin later in the afternoon, we decided it would be best to get on top of the mountain asap via the cable car.
The cable car was lengthy and said to be one of the longest in the world but the views you obtain during the ascent completely made up for its length. It took about 30 minutes to reach the top and our legs were just itching to get moving.
We stopped for lunch and had some soup filled dumplings with a bit of a snack before checking out the Tianmen Temple. Today was also Karin’s birthday! Thought it was awesome that she was in China for her birthday as well. We stuck close to the edge as much as possible as we ventured back around to our starting point. It was here where I had to depart away and start heading down the mountain using a ridiculous amount of escalators. I said my goodbyes to Karin and Claudie then carried on with my journey.
After the second or third escalator ride, the sensation grew weak and I was just ready to get down the mountain and quickly over to the train station. Eventually I made it to the bottom of all the escalators and caught the 30 minute bus back to the cable car station. I fell asleep pretty quick on this ride even though the road was twisting and turning left and right as it switch backed down the mountainside.
Without a moment to lose, I caught a taxi over to Qixi hostel, picked up my belongings and jolted over to the train station just in time to catch my first over night sleeper train of my life. I had a bit of trouble reading my ticket at first but other passengers were more than helpful getting me to my bed. Looks like I would be staying on the top bunk of three beds during this ride. There was something that annoyed me about this situation. It wasn’t the fact that I couldn’t even sit up in the bed, or the fact that I had no battery pack to charge my electronics. It was the smell of cigarette smoke that rose to my level and stuck around like a cloud throughout the night. Passengers had a designated smoking area and it just so happened that I was right next to it. I stuck my headphones in, ducked my head under the covers and called it a night hoping to be well rested for the next morning in Guilin.
Bang! My bed shifted with the sounds of a toddler crying underneath me. The young one was throwing a tantrum at 3am… and the only thing the mother could do at this point was to yell back? It’s one of those situations you know exists on almost all public transit but you hope that it’ll never happen to you.
Day 12 – November 29th
I awoke to a train attendant giving me back my passenger card. On the overnight trains in China, it is custom to exchange your paper ticket for a plastic card with a train attendant so they are aware which stop you’ll be getting off at and be sort of an alarm clock in the case you didn’t set yours or don’t have a means of setting one. Knowing that my stop would be coming up shortly, I gathered my luggage together and waited by the door.
It was about 4:30am at this point and I was only getting off to switch onto another train that would carry me the rest of the way to Guilin. My next train wasn’t coming for another hour and a half so I thought it’d be a good idea to get some sleep in the train station as I waited. Roughly 10 minutes went by before I was questioned about my sleeping habits. I did my best to explain, but the English language would not get me far wherever I was at this moment. The station attendant directed me to the waiting area of my train and therefore I decided to try and get some more sleep since I still had an hour to wait. Another 10 minutes went by and I was awoken again, this time by a different station attendant. I was having no luck at this whole concept of sleeping. I chose to get up and buy a snack in the meantime until my train arrived then just go back to sleep once I was on board.
Made it to Guilin, and even managed to get a few more hours of sleep. While I was exiting the train station, I heard my name get yelled out. Who could it be?! I’m in China and just came to a city I don’t know anybody. I turn around with a confused look on my face and see a Korean man that I had shared my bedroom with back in Wulingyuan. I smiled and greeted him happily saying what a coincidence to see him here. We caught up for a bit and then split paths towards each others chosen hostel.
I have to brag about the hostel I stayed at here in Guilin. Wada Hostel. It’s tough to put a #1 on any hostel I stayed at here in China because there were a few that I was blown away by, but Wada Hostel is without a doubt one of my favourites and highly recommended. As soon as I arrived, the level of English throughout the staff was noticed. I asked about a hill called Laozhai that was on my bucket list and they happily gave me some options. One of the options was to take a bamboo raft ride down the Li River to the village of Xingping and then bus back to Guilin. Bamboo raft ride down the Li River? No hesitation needed on that one. Booked it for the following morning, ordered some Kung Pow Chicken, and prepared an afternoon mission.
Wada hostel was conveniently placed next to all the main bus routes so I headed over to Liberation bridge and began my walking journey from there. First stop was the island of Zizhou. There was an entrance fee to be paid, but by now I’ve become accustomed to having to pay for any kind of green areas. Zizhou island was also located just across from Elephant Trunk which allowed me to kill two birds with one stone.
I spent quite a bit of time checking out the islands many little parks including the mini bamboo forest, the floating islands and finishing it up along the beach with a view of Elephant Trunk.
While I was at the beach getting some shots, I noticed a couple of newlyweds making their way for photos. I stuck around for a bit shooting some photos of the beautiful couple. At first I was a bit hesitant getting some shots because I know very well how uncomfortable it can be for a complete stranger to be taking photos of you, but I knew deep down that if they didn’t want it, a simple gesture would be enough and I’d be on my way. A good ten minutes went by as I ate an afternoon snack and snagged a couple shots of the newlyweds I was happy with. Before leaving the beach I decided to write down “Congratulations, you both look wonderful” on my Google translator, and got the attention of their personal photographer to show them. Everyone’s face lit up with joy and so did my own.
The sun was almost at the point I was waiting for. I headed north towards Diecai Hill which would offer me a panoramic view of the entire city. Of course, another entrance fee was awaiting my arrival. I took my time as I walked up the steps leading to the summit. Tourists were making their way down already and I kept thinking to myself how can they walk away when the sunset is going to be happening in just a few minutes.
The view that lit up the sky in front of me overlooking a mix between karst landscapes and cityscape was breathtaking. This was my first real sunset I got to witness in China and the contrast of the city winding its way into the mountains made it seem so surreal.
Once the sun had disappeared behind the mountains, it was time to head back down. Originally, I was going to catch the first bus back to the hostel but then the phrase that Karin and Claudie shared with me popped back into my head. I’ve walked this far, why not walk some more? I walked the main strip heading south taking in the sights and sounds. Before long I had come across the infamous sun and moon pagodas that Guilin is known for. They were lighting up in the night sky and reflecting off the calming lake.
It was getting late by this point, but there was one more thing I’d like to check out before retiring for the night. I headed down the street adjacent to where I was standing. The street was small, and could almost be considered an alleyway by most standards but it opened up into one of the most extravagant street markets I’ve ever seen. I walked along checking out all the different artifacts, memorabilia and souvenirs that were offered. My feet were certainly getting tired of walking by this point so I caught the next bus and headed back to the hostel for the night.
Day 13 – November 30th
Do you ever have those mornings where no matter what amount of sleep you have, you tend to have all your energy right from the start? Maybe it was an amazing trip you were about to start. Maybe it was Christmas day. For me it was today. I was about to take a bamboo raft down the Li river before climbing Laozhai hill and crossing one off my bucket list.
I met at the reception with another man who would be taking the trip with me. We had a short car ride that dropped us off at a coach bus that would bring us to the starting point of our raft ride. The coach ride was just a little over half an hour and as we arrived, we were told pretty strictly that if we don’t have four people grouped together for the raft, we would have to pay extra. I turned around to the couple sitting behind us and asked if they would like to group up. Just a simple question at the time led to the beginning of another new friendship.
The bamboo raft ride lasted an hour and a half and during that time the four of us got to know a little bit about each other. The couple that I had asked on the bus to group up were from Finland, Tukka and Johanna. They were on quite the expedition of their own. We swapped places around the raft and the lady steering us would often times pipe up with facts about the landscape. I’m sure these were very interesting facts but my knowledge of Mandarin wasn’t up to the task. Either way, we all smiled and had a good time floating down the Li River together.
Eventually we arrived on the outskirts of Xingping where we were picked up by an electric taxi and dropped off in town. Without hesitation, we were bombarded by locals looking to sell all sorts of souvenirs including toy ducks and hats. I don’t know if I could ever get use to the feeling of being a foreigner. Coming from Canada, it’s tough to tell who’s immigrated or who’s actually born in the country. In China however, a curly haired white man like myself surely sticks out like a sore thumb.
The group I was on the raft with stuck together while checking out the stalls of Xingping until it was time for them to say goodbye. I would be staying back as planned in order to hike up Laozhai Hill this evening, as well as tomorrow morning. The four of us chatted outside the bus terminal for quite some time, sharing laughs and stories of our China adventures before their bus came to get them.
Back by myself yet again, I headed to the local market, grabbed some food for the hike then made my way up Laozhai Hill for sunset. It was amazing! I don’t even think the word amazing is good enough for the view I had at this point of my life. How was I the only one up here witnessing this spectacular sunset!?
Day 14 – December 1st
My alarm went off the next day at 6am and I jumped out of bed, grabbed what I needed and made my way over to the trailhead to begin the ascent for sunrise. I was surprised that I never passed anyone on the way up. I made it to the top in just under 30 minutes giving me some time to setup my shot of the rising sun.
I knew from the day before that climbing up the tower was an option that I was going to pursue once again once the sky was right, but for now I was sticking to the ground. The groups of people started reaching the top over the next twenty minutes all pushing for that perfect spot.
There it was. Just as I had imagined it would look like yet even better. The colours of the rising sun lit up across the landscape. I proceeded to climb the tower in order to get the best vantage point I could and within moments I began to hear the awes and whoas from the crowd beneath me.
Careful not to waste too much time soaking up the magnificent scenery in front of me, I made my descent. Upon reaching the bottom, I made my way around the village checking out the nearby shops before heading out to another somewhat unknown lookout. As soon as I got to the trailhead of this one I knew it was going to be different. This was the first path that didn't have stone laid out before me, and felt more like the trails I was use to back home.
I spent a good amount of time taking in this view by myself and ate lunch before heading back to catch the bus towards Guilin. Catching a bus in China once again proved to be more difficult than expected. I used a bit of match making in order to get on the right bus hoping that it was to the destination and not the departure location.
The bus was a bit delayed getting back to Guilin due to construction so my plans to head over to the rice terraces had to be eliminated. With the terraces out of question I headed back to the hostel for some more kung pow chicken, got my stuff together and made my way to the train station for another overnight sleeper train.
Day 15 – December 2nd Huangshan
My sleeper train this time around was much more enjoyable. I got the bottom bunk with no one sleeping above me and plenty of room to secure my luggage. The only downfall may have been in the morning when the bathroom located not to far from my area started to see an increase in activity.
I arrived at a station that I needed to switch from sleeper train to the high speed bullet train to Huangshan. This was completely unexpected as I was unaware that I had purchased this ticket at the time. Unexpected but well worth it since at this point I was super eager to get to my hostel. Coming into Huangshan in just under an hour, I caught the city bus and used my maps on my phone to get off where I saw fit.
Even with maps open, I somehow missed the bus stop where I intended to get off and had to back track a bit from the next. I crossed an old bridge and made my way into the Tunxi district of Huangshan where my hostel was awaiting my arrival.
The rooms at this particular hostel (Huangshan Daylight International Youth Hostel) were quite large, occupying two floors and catering to over 12 guests. After taking a quick shower and unwinding a bit, it was time to check out the Tunxi district before sunset.
Day 16 – December 3rd
Huangshan (Yellow Mountains)
Waking up this morning, I could feel my body telling me to continue resting but big plans were happening so I'll have to postpone the rest until another night. I headed down to the foyer to meet up with someone for the next couple days. That someone was none other than Mark Harrison yet again. Huangshan isn't too far away from Shanghai, so Mark gratefully decided to spend his weekend exploring a new mountain range with me. We grabbed a coffee together then headed out towards the Yellow Mountains.
Mark's been living in China for a few years and his knowledge of the Chinese language was well above average. To say he came in clutch during these next couple hours would be an understatement. I have to take the blame on our first detour as we boarded the right bus, but in the wrong direction. Neither Mark or I was too concerned about the direction and just somehow assumed we were going the right direction for about 20 minutes. It wasn’t until the driver asked where we were going did we realize we went the wrong direction. We ended up getting a giant tour of Huangshan via public bus for about 25 cents. Eventually we made it to the bus station that was actually only a 5 minute drive from our hostel, had a scrumptious bowl of noodles then caught the proper bus to the Yellow Mountains. As we came to the base of the Yellow Mountains, our path became a bit more complicated. This is where Mark’s Mandarin really came in handy. The bus dropped us off at one location and before long we were hoping on another and making our way towards the trailhead.
We arrived at the trailhead and realized we still had to pay an entrance fee no matter if we were hiking up or taking the cable car up. Without choice we paid our fee and began the hike. The path was laid out with concrete steps taking us to the top. About halfway in, the view really started to take shape and we were blessed with clear skies the entire time. These mountains in particular are known to be draped in clouds over 300 days a year which makes it extremely difficult to catch a major landscape view, let alone a sunrise or sunset. We ventured off the concrete path laid before us and into the forested area to a pile of boulders that overlooked the valley below.
After roughly three hours we made it to the top and the reward was so worth it. Of course, Mark and I couldn't help ourselves by once again getting off the tourist path and making our way through the forest over to the cliff edges for an unobscured view of the landscape.
Sunset wasn't too far away so we checked out the map of the mountaintop in order to find an ideal location to shoot. As we got closer and closer to where we wanted to be, the fog that I mentioned earlier began to roll in. We were eventually lost in the clouds...
With the clouds completely obstructing our view and the night bringing in the cold temperatures we began to head to the nearest hotel. That may sound weird so let me explain... I mentioned before that hiking in China is quite different. The Yellow Mountains lived up to that by having five hotels scattered along the top of the mountain for an expensive nights stay in order to catch the sunrise. Mark and I weren't about to spend an excessive amount of money for a quick night so we thought we'd take our chances and see if we could get some floor space somewhere.
We scoped out the hotel floors looking for a good place to post up for the night and one of the stairwells looked to be most promising. Our first location would have been great but within an hour we got the boot and it was starting to push midnight by this point. While we were doing one more quick lap around the building, we came across a couple mattresses tucked in a corner. We dragged those mattresses to the darkest points in the stairwell we found earlier and prepared for what would be the coldest night of my life. Going to sleep fully clothed, I was already regretting not bringing my thermals. I was able to get a couple hours sleep before I was awoken by a light kick to the side. I leaned my head up to see who it was and noticed it was the hotel security. He spoke in Chinese but I couldn't comprehend and just stared blankly at him before he moved up the stairs towards Mark who was sound asleep. I watched as the security guard nudged Mark in the side saying something similar to what he said to me. Mark didn't respond and the guard just swiftly waved his hand and carried on leaving us to sleep.
Day 17 – December 4th
Yellow Mountains Descent
Not sure if Mark and I got much sleep this night, as we awoke again around 5am torn between trying to get more sleep or venturing out to catch the sunrise. We knew this opportunity may only come once in our life time so we chose to make the most of it choosing the latter. As we exited the front doors of the hotel, we were quickly met with a downpour of rain. We decided at this point we’d lay down in the front foyer for another hour or so in hopes that the rain would pass. Upon sitting down, I came to the realization that the entire front foyer floor was heated! Could this of been what the guard waking us up in the middle of the night was trying to tell us? There were six to nine others sprawled out around the common area as well. Perhaps they also couldn’t manage a room for the night.
Surprisingly, the heated floor made an enormous difference to our sleep and what felt like seconds after shutting my eyes came the voice of Mark telling me that the rain had stopped. I managed to get myself up and away we went. Even though the rain had let up, the dense fog that accompanied it was clearly still there. Our visibility must have been maxed out at only 10 feet in front of us. The paths were lit which made our ascent to where we wanted to be for sunrise much easier.
At this time, it was probably around 6:45am and we were ahead of schedule but then we could begin to hear the sound of chattering in the distance. Of course… Did somehow I forget that we were in a country with a population of 1.3 billion? I’m going to roughly estimate that there was about 40-70 people gathered around this tiny little outlook overlooking “The Monkey Watching the Sea”. Just like we did before, we decided to brave the mountain, go off the trail and find the best vantage point we could outside of all the tourists. We did a bit of scrambling to a higher outlook but we were not the first. When we reached the top, we were met with happy smiles from a few other individuals who had also made the climb.
The clouds were still very dense and it was already going on 7:30am by this point. We stuck around till 8am before the thought of heading back down the mountain came. Just as we started to descend, I noticed a clearing that we couldn’t see before. We chose to continue descending back to the Monkey Watching the Sea lookout and what do you know. There was only 4 people remaining out of the 40-70 that were there before! Just as we got there the clouds were dispersing and the view we had imagined began to broaden our horizon.
It didn’t take too long before the clearing started to bring back tourists so we went back to our higher vantage point for some once in a lifetime photos. We had missed the sunrise but the panoramic views that we were witnessing at this point was totally worth a night without any sleep!
Once we were both content with what we had, the descent down the mountain was underway. Due to the night’s rest before, we took the Chinese hike down via cable car. I can’t really remember the bus ride back to Huangshan, only waking up just in time to get off. We took a moment at our hostel to let our adventure over the last couple days simply sink in. While we were there, a young man had just walked through the front door. A little introduction later, and I learned that this man named Angus was from Melbourne, Australia. I mentioned to him that I planned to go check out a different mountain, one less touristic just for a day trip tomorrow if he was interested in tagging along. He was all for it, so we set a time to meet up for coffee then headed to one of the local night markets for some well earned grub before having to say goodbye to Mark so he could catch his overnight train back to Shanghai.
Day 18 – December 5th
Turns out Angus ended up being in the same room as I was, so almost in unison we rose out of bed and made our way down for a good morning coffee to get the day started fresh. After a quick briefing from the hostel front desk in order to make sure we took the right buses we headed out. This time there was no mistake about which direction the bus station was. We both just basically kept pointing at the name of the place we wanted to go and before long we were shown onto a bus heading for Qiyun Mountain, one of four sacred Taoist mountains in China.
The bussing system in China is… interesting. There is three people involved the whole time. You have the driver, a person who sits or stands next to the driver as a spotter and then one person who collects money and makes sure you find your stop alright. If that wasn’t enough, I guess now would be better than ever to mention that stop signs do NOT exist in China. Even stop lights are merely suggestions for the most part.
It wasn’t too long before the lady collecting our money was ushering Angus and I off right where we were hoping to be. Using directions that we found on the internet to get to the base of Qiyun, we ended up sidetracking through a small village nestled on the mountain side. We were surely not from the area, nor on the typical tourist path judging by the amount of confused stares we endured on this side trip.
Before long we were at the base of the mountain. The usual ticket entrance was there but there wasn’t anyone on duty so we quickly bypassed that before someone came and started heading up. We came across one fellow definitely getting in touch with his chi. We paused for the moment, careful not to interrupt his meditation. He was unaware that we were there but within a few moments he took notice, smiled and carried on with his routine. We thought it would be a good time to scoot by him and continue up the mountain.
Qiyun mountain was magnificent! I really felt at peace here compared to the Yellow Mountains the days before. Not peace in the form of tranquility but peace in the sense that we’ve actually come across an area uninhabited by tourists. We took our time discovering every inch of the mountainside without any outside pressures. One fellow Taoist monk did his best to communicate with Angus and I while we were petting his dog outside an amazing temple built into the side of the red rock. I had no idea what he was trying to say so I repeated out loud the same thing he had said to me. We both just laughed knowing that neither one of us had a clue on how to communicate.
We headed to the tallest peak of the mountain and this is where Angus got to put his fear of heights to the test. During these past few weeks, my own personal fear of heights has changed a lot and the confidence that I’ve gained from these experiences has given more meaning to the phrase peer pressure. I spotted a chain leading directly up the side of the mountain and knew that was the way up. I strapped up and proceeded to climb up with Angus watching intently. Angus had searched for an easier way up the peak but wanted to brave the situation anyway. I gave him my full support and without hesitation he climbed right up to the top. There we were with one heck of a view to boot!
By the time we eventually finished seeing as much as we could, we headed down the mountain a different way then we came up but little did we know this way wasn’t quite finished. We dodged sparks, jumped over cables and cleared out of the way as workers continued to build up this section of the mountain. It’s honestly sad, but I imagine before long this sacred Taoist mountain will soon be like all the others one day.
Angus and I hurried back to Huangshan so I could get onto my final overnight train back to Shanghai. I convinced Angus to get back onto Instagram so I could follow along with his adventures and hopefully meet up again one day. A great bloke my new Australian mate was! Was that too much?
Day 19 – December 6th
I arrived back in Shanghai around 8am knowing I had one full day left ahead of me before I hop on the plane back to Canada. This time around in Shanghai, I had already knocked off everything on my list from my previous visit so I decided it would be a good day to relax and perhaps see if any rooftops could offer a sunset view. After catching up with Fang Fang one last time, I made my way back into the hustle and bustle of city life.
While I was wandering the streets, I got a message from Freddy saying that him and a few others from the Leo Hostel are in Shanghai but were currently recuperating from a rough night previous. No way! I got their hostel information and decided to check myself in a floor below them so we could enjoy one last night together. Since they weren’t quite up to speed yet this morning, I took the time to go rooftop exploring. I only tried a handful before the sun was beginning to set and none were giving me what I had hoped for unfortunately.
Upon crossing a bridge leading back to the hostel I was staying at, I stopped to shoot some photos of the local fisherman netting off the dock below. An older lady approached me, and without hesitation I said “Ni Hao”. The lady was kind of taken aback not expecting to hear Mandarin I’m sure. She replied to me “Oh, you speak Chinese?”. We chatted a bit about how I only know a few simple phrases and before long she was explaining to me how she now lives in Los Angeles, California but owns property in Shanghai. We continued conversing, then got onto the subject of photography. She asked if I’d like to go on top of her building for a sunset view overlooking the bund. Could I seriously turn down an offer that great? Not a chance!
Turns out the last building I had attempted to get onto the roof was thee building she owned. Unbelievable I thought. She led me onto the rooftop terrace with the biggest smile across her face, and we watched the sunset one last time in Shanghai.
After being blessed with one of the most magnificent sunsets of my journey, I headed back to the hostel to meet up with Freddy and the guys. They were interested in seeing what it was like on a rooftop so we tried a few that would offer a decent view of the bund at night but with no avail. We chose to wander down the main shopping street of Shanghai – Nanjing. This place let me tell you turns into a whole different ball game at the turn of 9pm. That’s something I’ll let you all find out on your own when you decide to travel to China.
We grabbed a few brews for our venture, had one last big dinner all together then headed back to hostel for a good nights sleep. It’s seriously amazing how many great people you can meet on one simple trip and then continue to keep in touch as days, months and even years go by.
The Final Day – December 7th Flying Home
This had to have been one of the longest flights home I’ve ever experienced. My first flight brought me from Shanghai to LAX (Los Angeles) where I’d be stuck on a layover for the next ten hours. I used this time to catch up on a bunch of photos from the trip and also just to unwind. By the time the sixth hour hit, I was becoming restless. If anyone has worked with computers before, you understand what it’s like to stare at a screen for hours on end. A few hours before my takeoff, a woman sat next to me clearly looking upset and felt that I’d express my concern. She had mentioned that she had booked a flight with an airline, but the airline had given up her seat and therefore becoming semi-stranded in LAX. We chatted for quite a while, and even got on the subject of hockey. I was estatic! I just went three weeks without being able to talk to someone about hockey. What kind of Canadian am I!? Luckily, she was able to get everything sorted with the airline and she got on her way back Las Vegas.
With just a couple hours to go, I took the time to get some food and prepare to board my flight towards Chicago. It was a mediocre 4 ½ hour red eye (flight through the night) flight over to Chicago where I’d be sitting for a couple hours more before heading to Toronto. I honestly prefer red eye flights because I’m able to sleep on planes fairly decent. By knocking off my accommodations for the night and also knocking off a few thousand km’s, I feel as though you really get ahead that way. I arrived in Toronto about mid-afternoon and caught my train back to Windsor from there. It was still another four hour ride but the main part of my travel home was finished. I was able to completely relax at this point knowing all my luggage was with me and I was homeward bound.
Spending three weeks in China was not even something I would have dreamed of a few years prior. The experiences I went through throughout those days are some I’ll never forget about. The friends I’ve made alone during that time make it all worth while. There is truly something about travelling that brings people together from all over the world. We all tend to attract others who have similar interests as we do, and anyone you meet in a foreign country obviously has that interest of travel.
I’ve learned a lot over the course of 21 days and want to wish anyone else thinking of going to China the best of times!