China…expect the unexpected.
I now understand the term ‘culture shock’.
All views are my own*
*Though perhaps a little one sided.
Saturday 3rd March 2018
I took a taxi from the ferry terminal in Kowloon to the hotel where we were staying for one night with the G adventures group ahead of our tour starting. A welcome meeting was planned for later in the afternoon but I was able to check in ahead of time and meet Daniella.
The meeting brought much hilarity and after being introduced to my fellow travellers we met our guide, Howard. Helpfully, Howard was Chinese though his real name wasn’t in fact Howard. The poor man was given the name by his company as it is apparently easier for Westerners to say (rolls eyes). We didn’t quite realise at this time just how much of an entertainment (or hero) Howard would turn out to be.
He took us to watch the ‘Symphony of Lights’ multimedia show at Victoria Harbour before dinner, a nice way to break the ice and get to know each other. We had the chance to wander around Temple Street market afterwards before heading back for a fairly early night.
Sunday 4th March 2018
Today we were crossing one of the world’s busiest and arguably most fascinating borders from Hong Kong to mainland China. Howard was noticeably stressed about this whole process, checking and double checking our visas and paperwork were all in order.
We took a metro to the station at Shenzhen. It was our first real taste of what is regarded as completely normal in China, a society where everything you do, say and buy is monitored the authorities. The number of security cameras pointing in all different directions was excessive and quite overwhelming and that was only the ones we could see. Big brother was definitely watching. Thankfully all of our visas were present and correct and we all made it through with little fuss.
From Shenzhen, we were taking a local train to Guilin, our final destination being Yangsho. The experience at the train station was again really quite overwhelming and this was apparently one of the smaller stations. Without a word of exaggeration, there must have been tens of thousands of people lined up waiting at various gates and boards. Yes, I understand in a country with a population of more than 1 billion it is going to be a little busy but this was like nothing I have ever seen before.
I say people were lined up but unlike us Brits, in China it would appear that very few people have any sense of waiting their turn or queuing. Forgive me for generalising, of course there were some polite souls. Lots of pushing and people bumping in to you and nobody seemed to care in the slightest, it is just the norm here. Every train station in China has an airport style security system where all bags and water bottles have to be scanned upon entry which undoubtedly added to the opportunities for pushing.
A fairly painless journey, we arrived in Guilin some 3 hours later before taking a private bus transfer to Yangsho, famous for the most beautiful limestone karts and picturesque riverside villages. Howard gave us a walking orientation tour of the town before going for dinner.
Monday 5th March 2018
A busy day ahead…bamboo rafting in the morning followed by a bicycle tour and hiking in the afternoon. I set my alarm for 6.30am to get my run in, just an easy 35 minutes to do giving 3.5 miles for the day, still being in recovery mode from Tokyo.
Seen on my run…
Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, or so they say. The hostel offerings included oatmeal, toast, fruit and yogurt for a very reasonable price so with no kitchen facilities to prepare our own and little else opened at this time of the day this was the best option. Mistake number one.
Reception was deserted other than for a man who was slowly wakening from sleeping on the couch. The language barrier here was to be a struggle, more so than ever in Japan. Handing Karoline his mobile, she tried to explain to the stranger on the other end that we were trying to order some breakfast.
A lady (presumably the one on the phone) arrived 20 minutes later. The breakfast itself was well… interesting. The oatmeal was unrecognisable. The toast was certainly not toast, or even bread for that matter complete with hidden blobs of the culinary delight that is bean paste. China must have an abundance of the stuff as it is disguised in EVERYTHING. It is also the first time I’ve ever been offered condensed milk to put on my toast. I should stress, I am not at all a fussy. I can eat most things and did my best to be polite. At least the fruit was…fruit.
Bamboo rafting on the River Li was such a cool adventure. Beautiful scenery and the chance to have a short stop off at one of the little villages.
Back at the hostel, we collected what we needed for the rest of the day. Investigating the possibility of getting coffee (seeing as that was not included with breakfast) and obviously not being a coffee drinker himself, Howard said we would have time in the afternoon. The afternoon! Morning coffee at 3pm…good grief. China may know tea, but they do not know coffee!
Howard spoke excellent English but naturally his phrases and words sometimes got a little lost in translation, much to our amusement, and his (once he got to know us). The hostel had bikes that we could borrow for free and in Howard’s words, “you take one with a big seat if you do not want sore ass”. They weren’t quite road bikes, no gears but I was quite happy with my little pink number complete with basket. We stopped at one of the street stalls on route to get some steamed buns for lunch which were super tasty. After the disaster with breakfast, I think we were all ready for them.
Quickly out of the town and off the (extremely) busy roads, we took the most amazing cycle tour (which we had not realised would last close to 7 hours) and finally at 2.30pm we managed to get a coffee, Hallelujah! The route took us past the rice paddies, through local farms and past the water buffalo, with the beautiful limestone karts at every turn, an amazing experience.
With spectacular views of the surrounding countryside, we made it to Moon Hill, one of Yangsho’s most popular attractions. The hill has a huge hole through the middle that’s shaped like a moon, hence its name. A lot of climbing but we were rewarded with gorgeous views at the top. Dinner was at a local farm and with a little more cycling after our hike, we made it there just before sunset.
The cycle back in the dark and on the shortcut of the main road was slightly less enjoyable, seeing as none of us had lights (or helmets!), but we made it in one piece.
Tuesday 6th March 2018
Today was a free day.
An easy 60 minute run and timed perfectly to finish at Starbucks. Morning coffee in the morning! I stopped at one of the little street stalls and got some steamed dumplings for breakfast. Not your average brekkie food but when in China and all.
Howard explained that massages were pretty cheap here and you didn’t usually need an appointment so thought I’d take advantage. The lady didn’t speak a word of English (bliss) but we managed to communicate successfully via the use of charades. She was brutal but in a good way…knots in the shoulders be gone.
A group meet up was planned for dinner and drinks to celebrate Phil’s Birthday and the owner of the restaurant immediately had us on Facetime to his family. Seeing a group of Westerners together like this was quite a novelty – possibly to the Chinese what endangered species are to David Attenborough.
By chance we found a really fun karaoke bar which Daniella initially wanted to check out thanks to its impressive collection of German beer. Lots of locals, full of fun and they were all for us joining in. Skater Boi will never be the same again and Matt’s uncontrollable laughter at Hebe and Will’s romantic duet with forever make me chuckle when I hear mention of 50 Cent.
All the way to China and they have Brewdog…
Wednesday 7th March 2018
Up, dressed, runners on and almost out the door at 6am only to realise we were in the middle of a thunderstorm. Slight change of plan. There will be no running but I’ll switch today with my rest day later in the week so hopefully not to miss it altogether.
It came as no surprise that a country the size of China made for long travel days. We took the bus back to Guilin to board the overnight train to Chengdu, made famous for spicy food and it’s Giant Panda Breeding Centre. Because the country is so large, the sleeper trains certainly make for a good option for getting from one place to another by combining travel and accommodation costs all as one but I wouldn’t recommend it given the choice. I am by no means a princess and I’d say I cope with basic well but this was tough. I may go as far as ‘Hell on Earth’. Not dramatic in the slightest.
Tickets checked multiple times by the guards, we boarded the train with Howard showing us to our carriage. Overnight trains have up to 1000 passengers on any one journey but it is apparently the most authentic way to travel to get that real Chinese experience. That’s certainly one way to describe it.
There are three options; first, second and third class. Having opted for the ‘on a shoestring’ tour we weren’t surprised to be travelling in third. Each carriage has 12 compartments and ours were 6 berths. Third class offers less privacy as the compartments have no doors so open direct on to the corridor. We didn’t always have the full carriage so would often be sharing with strangers. The lower berth was easiest and we tended to share with whoever had that one to play cards. The upper berth worked best for privacy in that you didn’t have anyone else looking across at you but it is the most difficult to get up to and you cannot sit up as you are super close to the ceiling.
It is safe to say we were all a little, well, shocked at first. I definitely needed a minute or ten to gather myself. Howard recommended taking snacks as we were on board the train for around 16 hours. There is a trolley that comes round and a small restaurant that you can buy food from but I think you’d have to be pretty desperate to go there. Boiling water is provided from a tap at the end of each carriage and this is the only drinking water available. I wasn’t totally convinced so brought my own bottled water but quickly adopted a ‘nil by mouth’ routine whilst travelling on the overnight trains. This helped in avoiding having to use the delightful squat toilet at the end of the carriage too often.
Buffs, hoods and sleeping bag liners for survival…
Because of the sheer volume of people moving through the country, toilets just don’t have toilet roll. In fact, we quickly realised hot water and soap is a luxury. You quickly become used to the toilet situation. I can’t say I particularly enjoyed carrying my little bag with toilet roll around everywhere I went and felt like I wanted to bathe in hand sanitiser most of the time but I guess it could have been worse…maybe.
The ventilation of the different compartments is interlinked. Another moan (I don’t think any other blog post will have been so negative, sorry!). Smoking is prevalent in china (much to my delight) and smoking bans are rare so this resulted in wearing my buff for the most part of the journey in a small attempt to prevent my lungs from thinking I’d started a 60 a day habit.
One positive, it was pretty cool to look out of the window at the passing countryside and watch the sun go down. And thankfully we were all in it together, so there was always that.
Lights out at 10pm. It’s going to be a looooooong night.
Thursday 8th March 2018
16 hours later we arrived in Chengdu with a short walk (phew…fresh air and movement!) to get to the hostel where the facilities were only marginally better than those on the sleeper train.
Howard took us on a walking orientation tour of the city which included a stop at the museum before heading to the park. It was fascinating to watch the locals in the various tea gardens, playing games, having chats, doing Tai Chi and dance. Unbelievably, there was a section of the park set up for parents to advertise their children. Not for sale, but for marriage. We looked on as people took turns at painting calligraphy on the group with a large mop and water. Apparently it is a common activity here to help with memory and coordination.
Friday 9th March 2018
Another day off itinerary with a free day. Given the logistics of the tour activities and the time spent on the overnight train, it has been a bit tricky to juggle the training this week. I decided this was one of the few opportunities to get a longer run done. I set off in the morning for an easy pace 90 minute session and with so much to see along the river, it just seemed to fly in. Lots of people meditate in the morning. I saw lots of people doing various styles of yoga and Tai Chi and believe it or not I even saw a man killing a snake at one point. Unfortunately the theory about eating dog in China is not a myth in many parts. Perhaps after what I just witnessed with the snake I will stick with the veggie options from here on in…just in case.
Code for hello in Chengdu among fellow runners seems to be the obligatory strong nod of the head. I only passed about four, but quickly learned the set up and joined in with the protocol on the passing.
We went as a group to visit one of the temples we didn’t see yesterday and then the most important pursuit of the day…some semi-normal food. We found it in the form of delicious fresh salad and fruit. Without being too dramatic, I feel like for the first time I my life I knew what it really felt like to be hungry and after a week of ‘surprises’, food never tasted so good. Amen!
Saturday 10th March 2018
The highlight of today was the Giant Panda Breeding Centre. We had to make the trip early in order to visit at times when the panda bears are typically awake. It was a special experience. The bears themselves are unbelievably cute and hilariously clumsy. We got to see adult pandas and the panda equivalent of toddlers in their ‘kindergarten’ but no babies at this time of the year though we did get to see the panda ‘nursery’ which was super cute and had a little stop to see some of the red panda bears too.
After what felt like possibly the most uncivilised lunch in the world’s noisiest restaurant we made our way back to the station for journey number two on the overnight sleeper, which this time would take around 20 hours. We are making our way to The Holy Mountain of Shaolin Temple, home of Kung Fu, I just hope it is worth it.
I guess the saving grace is this time at least we have full tummies and know a little more of what we are in for. Twenty hours nil by mouth starting from now…
Sunday 11th March 2018
One loooong ass travel day.
After what felt like forever, we left the sleeper train and got straight on to a local train for another 3 hours. This was by far the toughest travel journey of the tour, not so much in terms of duration but by conditions. I am finding the smoke in these confined spaces to be a real struggle. For someone who can usually sleep on a bed of nails, it is impossible to get a good sleep and I’m starting to feel pretty tired and I’m sure the others would agree a little irritable (sorry guys!).
One of the most unpleasant things here (other than the long list I have already mentioned) is the spitting. I understand for some, it is part of the culture and I am by no means being anti-Chinese so hope this will not sound too disrespectful but it is just unbearable. In the West, spitting is considered rude but here whilst in an attempt to help the problem, there are often no spitting signs displayed in public places, there are more often than not puddles of spit all over the place; on the floors, in toilet cubicles, pavements …everywhere. Just yuck! The crackling crescendo of someone hacking up phlegm from their big toe has got to be the vilest of all sounds and unfortunately I seemed to have developed a radar for recognising and tuning in to it from record distance. Here, there is no shame in spitting in public, sometimes politely in to the bin and if not, no problems, the floor will do. Is it any wonder viruses spread so quickly?
After being on a train for over 24 hours, we had a delightful bus journey to get to Longmen Grottos, a UNESCO World Heritage Site full of various carvings of Buddha statues which to be fair were very impressive. We were glad of the walk to stretch the legs and Howard had some interesting myths to tell us about the carvings but truth be told we were all feeling pretty horrible from the journey, ready for showers and some food.
Heavens above…another two hours of slowly losing the will to live and one slightly terrifying journey in the dark up the mountains later (thanks to Phil’s commentary), we had finally reached The Holy Mountain of Shaolin Temple.
Food never tasted so good. An amazing dinner with £1 beers (much needed after the epic journey) in what can only be described as someone’s back room….thankfully that someone that knows how to cook. Howard introduced us to the family as they watched on as we ate with intent and scoffed the lot…delicious!
Monday 12th March 2018
This morning we visited Shaolin Temple, home of Kung Fu.
‘Everybody was Kung Fu Fighting’…
Howard took us on a tour around the temples where we saw many of the monks walking around the grounds. We got to watch the most impressive Kung Fu performance performed by professional team from Shaolin Tagou Wushu School.
Whilst yesterday I perhaps questioned the journey to get here, this experience of staying in the mountains is totally unique and despite my moaning, totally worth it, for sure a once in a lifetime. The few streets there are in the village are filled with boys of all ages from the surrounding Kung Fu boarding schools. We got to watch the boys doing their training from flexibility practice to drills to group runs. Boys can attend from the ages of 3-18 and Howard explained the monks can use whatever form of discipline they see fit.
After lunch, we walked to the Pagoda Forrest, a cemetery of 248 brick pagodas, quite before we hiked to Wuru Peak to see the cave. A bit of a climb at 4km uphill. We caught some boys at the top doing drills and the monk explained to Howard that many of the boys would have to run up this peak as daily training, doing sometimes extra as punishment.
Tuesday 13th March 2018
We took the Shaolin Cableway cable car to the peak before hiking to neighbouring Sanhuangzhai following a route around the cliffs. The scenery was superb and quite dramatic in parts. It was around 6km one way crossing over a rope bridge in the final section. Although I’ve been active, I haven’t been training properly this week so I wanted to get a good effort in on this hike and try to go at a bit of a pace to get the heart rate up. I set off on my own and it certainly made for a good workout. I waited on the others at the pagoda and we all hiked back together.
After lunch it was time to get the bus back to the train station to board the third and final overnight train. Now that’s something worth celebrating!
Security was super tight because of Government Session taking place in Beijing so every bag was hand searched before boarding in addition to the usual scanners.
Wednesday 14th March 2018
We arrived in Beijing at around 5am. If I thought it was busy back at Shenzhen, this was next level. Waaaaay more people to join in with the pushing, bumping, filming and photographing! Eek. And in to the mix, ridiculous levels of pollution. I have seen for myself that China has some stunning natural landscapes but it also has a severe issue with pollution. Weather apps indicated unhealthy levels of pollution in Beijing for the next few days. Those regarded as ‘healthy’ were advised not to exercise outside and anyone suffering from chronic health conditions, particularly those with lung conditions were advised not to go outdoors at all! I guess I’ll be keeping those buffs handy.
The negativity did soon pale in to insignificance though as today some of us were literally getting the experience of a lifetime. A trip to the Greatest of all the walls. Thought of as the greatest human feat in history and one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern Wall…The Great Wall of China.
Every sleeper train, every awful breakfast, every morning coffee in the afternoon, every moan, groan and ridiculous complaint was absolutely worth it for today.
We arrived at the ticket site and took a bus transfer to start hiking the umpty hundred steps up to the wall as the anticipation to get there was almost all too much. There are no words I can use to describe the feeling when we finally reached the top…just breath taking. Me…Kimberley King, was actually walking along The Great Wall of China.
I couldn’t resist having a wee run…only a half mile or so seeing as contrary to what the signs said, I don’t actually think you are supposed to be running there. We relished the viewpoints, took galore of photographs and made plenty of stops to soak up the memories.
Tonight we had the most amazing ‘farewell’ dinner, the last time we would all sit around the table together. Beijing’s speciality is Peking duck and it did not disappoint.
A few toasts to celebrate ‘survival’ and adventures shared together with a few Chinese beers and some blethers back at the hostel. It might have been hard going at times, but it is unlikely that we will ever have some of these experiences again.
Thursday 15th March 2018
My last full day in China.
Daniella and I made the most of the day in an attempt to make it round the popular sights of the city. First up, we visited Tienanmen Square and although it was on ‘lock down’ due to Session, it was still fascinating; watching the soldiers march between the crowds and patrol the surrounding areas. I couldn’t actually believe the size of the place. We had to go through airport security scanner as we left the metro before we were even able to enter the vicinity of the square. Robots moved between the queues of people, complete with video recorders and scanners.
Forbidden City, the largest palace complex in the world is a truly amazing sight of an unbelievable size. We spent most of the morning wandering around there, trying to take it all in before we went to visit the Summer Palace in the afternoon.
It was going to be cutting it fine to go for dinner with Matt and Phil when they returned from their Wall tour, so a little ahead of schedule, I made my way to the airport. Truth be told, I was feeling exhausted. My body has been through the mill these last few days. I am definitely a little sleep deprived. Food hasn’t exactly been nutritious or delicious (with the exception of dinners) and it has been days since I have trained properly.
It will come as no surprise but I have found it really difficult to connect with China and it hasn’t been my favourite of places. I don’t think I will feel the need to rush back here, except perhaps for the Great Wall Marathon which is one on my bucket list!
With all of this said, I am not being ungrateful for the truly unique experiences I have had over the last two weeks. I have been very lucky to have had such a fab bunch of humans to share the up, downs and inbetweens with. Without them, I’m sure I would have bailed long ago. I know I wouldn’t have made it to the Wall had I been travelling here solo.
Thank you keeping me sane, for putting up with me; my moans, my caffeine withdrawal and my sleep deprivation.
“Ladies and gentleman… you made this trip”