Month 1 (Month 5 overall) of backpacking in Asia: An eye opening month in China!

DISCLAIMER: Bloody long diary entry type post!!

So. Month 1 back travelling. Or is it month 5 continued. Who knows. In some ways it feels like going back to the crazy world we got to know and love. A different bed every few days. New sights, smells and experiences around every corner. But yet it feels so different. Unsurprisingly Asia is very different to Eastern Europe and especially Chinese culture. We expected this and this is why we wanted to come over to this part of the world so much. But China was such an eye opening experience. I do these posts once a month when we are backpacking and I will give a warning now that these are long and unlike our usual round up or guide posts they are more like diary entries. They are intended more for family and friends to update them on our travels but of course we love to keep our followers in the loop too. But be prepared for an unashamedly long post, if you want to read more of our usual style posts about our travels then keep an eye out for new posts every couple of days! 

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China, Overall feelings: Weirdness, rudeness and the down right strange and surreal!

So our first month. Unlike last time we begin by spending the entire month in one country, China. One of the worlds largest countries and as such it required much more of our time and attention that the tiny states of Europe! In many ways china was exactly what we expected and yet it really wasn’t at all. We’ve probably covered almost as many miles in this month as we did in 4 in Europe, we’ve crossed so much off our bucket lists already and see such diverse landscapes and people in just one country. China as a country is a paradox of culture and a complete contrast and contradiction at every corner. The first sign of this has to be the visa process. A draw out debacle that involves sending alongside your application details of your itinerary and your method of entry and exit. And yet once granted you are free to enter multiple times for 2 years for up to 90 days with no one checking you stick to your itinerary. Your exit card isn’t even stamped either. So you can just fill another one out when you come to leave. I mean. I’m not complaining but it all seems a little pointless. It’s like the scanners at all train stations and metro stations. Some of the staff were asleep and when you beep at the detector they just wave you though. It seems something are just in place for appearance sakes or to check boxes. Sometimes it also seems that they do the opposite of what we do in Britain. Create jobs with no real purpose just to employ people who are also clearly incompetent, but they have a job at least. I mean. It is really necessary to employ people to help you onto the train or to swipe your ticket at entrance gates?! These jobs would have been cut years back at home! 

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China is beautiful, full of unique ancient and mesmerising culture. But it’s also dirty, grimy and intimidating. As you look up to the stunning mountains around you people will be spitting on the floor, pushing past you, dropping litter and waving selfie sticks in all directions. As soon as a place becomes know as something you should see people flock. But they don’t see, they just rush around and take a million photos, half the time not even of the thing in question! Manners are at a premium and yet they are sticklers for the rules. They are so often told what to do by authority but so often used to being trampled by those around them. When you stand up and say something often they are really quite shocked, especially when it comes from a western woman! They stare at you, take selfies and photos, often without asking. It can be somewhere between funny to down right annoying and sometimes it makes you feel quite uncomfortable. But in some areas of the country you really don’t see other westerners and when you come from a multicultural country it does seem strange and really makes you realise just how different our way of life is. How much we are exposed to and have access too if just the sight of a westerner makes them stare so intensely.

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Standing out like this often makes you a target. In China there are so many scammers and they are literally at every corner trying to scalp money and time from you. Only to laugh in your face. It really does take the edge off what is in it’s essence a wonderful country. They act like our friend, offer advice and tips just to take you off track and into their scam. It makes you walk around with your guard up. Never quite trusting anyone who approaches you or who speaks decent English. It’s not nice when you feel you can’t interact so much and constantly feel paranoid. But this is what China does. Nothing is free. Nothing is a given. Often parks, lakes and temples. Anything that can be blocked off and made money from has a ticket price. Going for a days hiking for free isn’t really an option. Somehow that mountain that has stood their for thousands of years now requisites a ticket!! If people want to do it, there will be money and scammers surrounding it. And yet there is still much enjoyment in the unique landscapes and culture to be found here. Once you realise the rules and state of play here you know you have to pay and know your stuff before you go. If you do then you can enjoy it. It seems that when you do find some amazing place for free, the lakes in Guilin and the mountain in Xingping, the Chinese tourists aren’t interested. They associate money with value so much they would rather pay for the far less awe inspiring mountain of Yangshou and the massively overpriced peak of Guilin that head up what has to be one of the most stunning I’ve ever seen! Well. At least it wasn’t crowded! 

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Ancient culture in China is something that is celebrated but I feel only as a tourism ploy. It still exists in pockets but often feels that it has survived in spite of China’s rapid development rather than being preserved. Towns like Pingyao have become protected by UNESCO and the government have declared it a tourist destination in order to keep its Ming dynasty era streets intact. People seem to have complete disregard for the environment or indeed others. The level of grime in places is unbelievable especially when you contrast it with the sheer beauty of places such as Zhangjiajie.

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Unlike Japan who seamlessly connects the old and the new worlds in a Yin and yang that works to perfection. China is still very much a country in translation and one struggling to make these two worlds work together. Probably due to the speed of it’s growth. There are the super rich and the super poor. High rises next to slums where people still have no running water. Bullet train tracks weave between the slow overnight trains. People still walk around carrying their belonging on sticks whilst others roll past them with their carbon fibre suitcases! Many traditions do exist but many also feel commodified to make money. Little villages sell the same souvenirs and make you pay to enter. Women follow you shouting money for anything, not even the bamboo rafts of Xingping are bamboo anymore, instead cheap plastic! 

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But what is China. This is the real China. The one we have now that exists as a result of a strange mix of communist control and propaganda and yet an insatiable appetite for money and a better life. Yet there are many places that once you look past the exterior offer you a look into the China you always dreamt of visiting and the longer we spent here and the further we explored the better we could look past the spitting and pushing and into the beauty and culture of the place! 

Beijing:

Beijing was our first stop on our Asia adventure and it was jumping in at the deep end for sure. I am not sure quite what we expected. We knew it would be a crazy, old fashioned and grimy city but nothing really prepared us for the sheer culture shock! In someways starting here was amazing and got us right into the crazy ways of China, in some ways we might have been better easing in and heading to Shanghai or Hong Kong first. But jumping in at the deep end means one thing… you find out if you swim or not!

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Our first day was a rude awakening that is for sure. We ended up getting scammed by a group of young women who took us to a rip off tea house. In the end it as for only £30 and it really was an eye opener to the different culture in China and Asia compared to where Tourism is still very much developing in the Balkans. It was pretty annoying but after 24hrs awake and a combined 14 hours on a plane really we weren’t at our most aware.

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To make matters worse we got to the hostel and they cancelled on us. After the fiasco in Milan on our first night last time out we decided to go with a hostel with decent reviews and get a private… backfired again! This seems to be a theme. They basically told us the room was now 3 times the price we had reserved it at! So now we had to walk almost 2 miles through this strange city that we now pretty much hated to a hostel that we had “kind of” heard of and hoped would be ok. Turns out we found an amazing place right in the centre of the city and got a private for the first night before going into the dorms!

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So now we were on guard in Beijing and add to this all the people shouting money at you, spitting, staring and generally being rather obnoxious we were in two mind whether or not to just jump on another plane and head down to Thailand. But China had been a dream of ours for a long time and there were so many amazing things we wanted to see here. We got some well needed rest and reflected on our first 24 hours as a learning curve and a culture shock. Both are things we had been after but maybe not in this fashion! We decided to head off to the Great Wall of China and make one of our dreams a reality… this was the start of us beginning to thaw over our original hatred of China!!!

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Doing our research thoroughly this time we learnt again about all the scamming tricks associated with making your own way to The Great Wall, its pretty bad really, basically people dress in bus conductor uniforms and direct you to the wrong bus. It really annoys me actually, more than the money, that they just ruin people’s dreams like that. Really sometimes the people here can be awful but we had to just take the attitude of rising above it. It is a bit sad really because unlike in many of the other countries where we have visited where we have felt like we could ask local people for help, in China it is most often the case than when someone approaches you speaking good English they are trying to scam you. You end up putting your guard up and having to be paranoid to protect yourselves.

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However The Great wall proved to be amazing and nothing could ruin it and by this point we just kind of laughed off those who approached us to get us on another bus!! We met a lovely Chilean family who shared a taxi with us (a necessary part of getting to Mutianyu!) and bartered it down to really cheap. They even lent us some money when it turned out to cost a little more than expected to actually go in… In China they charge for every little thing, like, even if its cheap, you have to pay something! We took a little cable car up to the wall, hiked on both the restored part and also climbed through a wall and onto the old part which was deserted and really quite amazing, then we took a toboggan down the side! I mean, what a crazy and surreal day!

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Beijing in the end was actually a city that I really enjoyed exploring, it is much more like the old China than the super modern other cities that dominate the country and often look pretty much exactly the same! Beijing is Peking in many ways, it has a modern side but you can still clearly see the history here. Tiananmen square is as expected a strange mix of typical communist style architecture and traditional Chinese style. China in general had much less typical communist architecture that I expected and instead even the newer buildings seemed to be often built using the old Chinese style and decoration.

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Of course, Beijing is also full of so many grimy and dirty 1960’s era buildings and of course the Hutongs, at times basically squats down tight alleyways full of little three wheeled motorbikes flying passed, washing and dried fish hanging on every available surface and often no running water! It is hard to imagine people living like this in a capital city and in a country as big and powerful as China. As we visited more of the country we found many more of these self built squats in other cities, some of which had been levelled as cities were becoming a little gentrified. An example of this is the train stations, everyone is designed the same and it can be a little disorienting!

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We also met some great people in Beijing and picked up some good tips for the rest of the country. By the time we came to leave the city we were feeling much more upbeat about China and the adventure that this challenging place was. Beijing is a crazy place and like nowhere else we’ve been, even in the rest of China, it seems like its own strange time warp place. If there is anywhere else with a resemblance it might be Tirana in Albania, for a capital city seeing people selling old electronics out of lock ups on the dirt streets was a real shock!! But just like Tirana, Beijing was pretty cheap and despite having to pay for pretty much everything in China is was cheap and food even cheaper… but like most things it wasn’t quite the same as the, what we now refer to as “Chinatown Chinese” we grow up with back home… Chinese cooking is actually much more insane, they pretty much use everything, chicken feet also seem a favourite! Not great for vegetarians! We luckily had a woman at the hostel write down for us a note to tell places we were vegetarian! In the end we found a lot of street food stalls selling fried rice, dumplings and other amazing veggie dishes!

You can read more about Beijing and the Great Wall here:

A guide to Beijing

The amazing Great Wall of China!

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Xian:

Really we only went to Xi’an to see the Terracotta warriors and if truth be told there ins’t much here. The city itself is pretty grim at times and is either very industrial or super modern and very gentrified. However towards the end of our time here we did explore the Muslim district and its crazy street markets, this area of the city is the most traditional and also has a fascinating mix of cultures. From our really social hostel in Beijing we ended up in what was basically a hotel with hostel prices. The room was nice and all but it felt a little sterile and add that to the fact that the internet didn’t work here we felt a little isolated. This was the first point really that we felt a little tired and the initial stage or missing home came to us. It’s almost like running and getting your second wind, you have a high at first and then comes the first low, after that once you setting in you are ok!

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But Xi’an wasn’t all bad. The main reason we were here was to see the ancient terracotta army just outside the city. It was pretty easy and cheap to get out here only taking an hour on a public bus. But again you have to watch out for scammers trying to get you on their bus and take you somewhere else for a crazy fee! They are literally everywhere in China! But we made it there and managed to visit this amazing place without any trouble. The place itself is a little surreal, almost in the middle of nowhere is this oasis of shops, McDonalds, stalls all surrounding these pits that were discovered. As with many things in China they do manage to take the edge off it with their lust for money and disregard for authenticity and atmosphere. But in China you just have to learn to look passed that! We also had the best dumplings ever off a street stall, 6 each for around 60p and the guy was so nice too!

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The warriors themselves were impressive and really amazing to see in person. The detail on them is so stunning and just thinking about how long they’ve been here, hidden away from the world, is pretty mind blowing. I liked that they had some in glass cases too that you could get up close and really look at, its then when you can really appreciate the effort that has gone in to each and every one. We also got to see more of the process too, seeing the still covered up areas and the parts of the pits that are still being excavated. They have a whole lab set up to reconstructing these figures in painstaking passion, really fascinating to see.

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We also nearly missed our train in Xi’an, this was the moment we realised that each Chinese city, apparently no matter the size, usually has at least 4 train stations. An east, west, north and south. We went to the wrong one and the high speed station we needed as 6km outside of the city… they usually put the bullet train ones further out! We had to take a wild taxi ride through the traffic and sprint for it, given you go through passport control and baggage search at these stations we made it with seconds to go! Then it was on to…

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Pingyao:

Literally just after buying our train tickets in Beijing we got talking to a guy from Berlin in the hostel that told us about Pingyao. Basically between Beijing and Xian this ancient city is the China you hope and dream of visiting when often you are confronted by the smoggy industrial juggernaut it has become. Pingyao is a ming era walled city that has been kept in its original form for over 1000 years, the narrow cobbled streets are home to wooden shop fronts, lantern adorned houses and ancient temples. Pingyao has to be one of the most wonderful places we have visited, it really is like stepping back in time and well worth making the decision to go back on ourselves and visit this place. With coal burning in the now chilly evening the smog here was a different kind and almost added to the old world atmosphere here. Many had told us it was worth visiting and this is so true.

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Pingyao indeed lives up to all your maybe naive and unrealistic expectations of China and its ancient wonders. Here that world has been miraculously preserved and many of the important buildings in the city turned into protected museums. But even here many of the other buildings and homes are still owned and lived by generations of the same families that have lived here literally for centuries.

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A really quite magical place to spend a few days and also nice in the fact that unlike many other places where you have what you might call “big things” to go and see, like the Great Wall, Terracotta warriors. Things you have to organise or work out that mean a long day and maybe spending a little more that you wanted. In Pingyao though the city is the attraction and just spending a couple of days casually strolling around and exploring all the side streets, back alleys, nooks and crannies is wonderful and a great change of pace!

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Chengdu:

So now it was back on to our planned route and over to Chengdu… the home of the Giant Panda, insane spicy food and the giant Buddha. Only thing now is that from Pingyao our only option was another sleeper train, we didn’t mind this, but for this route it would be a huge 27 hours in “hard sleep”. By now we had already done a far few hours on the Chinese railways and actually were quite impressed. We took the bullet train from Xian to Pingyao which was really high class even in economy. But where the bullet train might be the height of sophisticated travel in China, the hard sleep section of the train is where you will see real life for sure. In all our journeys through hard seat and hard sleep we have never once seen another westerner, which honestly makes it more appealing. On these journeys our presence has certainly gained some attention, we’ve been stared at, had selfies with so many people we’ve lost count and caused untold confusion. But after 27hours in the same carriage I think most people got used to our presence!

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Selfie with a random Chinese guy!!

Hard sleep is basically 3 beds on top of each other in a 6 bed compartment. The end of these compartments is open into the hall way of the train. If you are on the bottom then you can sit up on your bunk and use it as a bed, these are a little more expensive. If you are on the top or middle then you can’t sit up, which is a real pain. However the top bunk does feel pretty private as so one can really see you and it was our choice for all our journeys. The beds are actually not “hard” and that just refers to the class as there are more private and higher class “soft” sleep compartments too…but we never got in one of these.

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The beds are pretty comfortable in general and there are seats you can use in the gangway of the train when you come down. All these trains have boiling water available too, wash stations and squat toilets, pretty basic but it means you can make the ever popular noodles on the train and a coffee in the morning. Travelling overnight on these trains is far more comfortable than on night buses as you can move around. However many people do smoke in the train, spit on the floor, eat chicken feet at 6am and slurp like you’ve never heard before. On top bunk the announcement system feels like it is next to your head and the hot and smoke filled air rises! But all in all 27 hours on a train wasn’t too bad, I even managed to get some blogging done, read a whole book and wrote my diary!

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Chengdu itself is a lovely city and probably our favourite actual city we visited in China. It still had a bit of smog… few places in Eastern China are free of this floating curse. But it had a bright and youthful feel to it with lovely parks and modern building. It also seems to have kept many of its ancient and older areas too with a huge section of the city being taken up by old streets and temples where monks still live.

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It feels to me like the model modern Chinese city, where the country has learnt to bring together its history and its future in harmony like over in Japan rather than those two element feeling like they are in battle like some places. Our hostel here was also really great, Lazy Bones was probably one of the first “proper” hostels we stayed in in China where they actually got the concept. It feels a little like a developing area in China and many hostels do as a result feel a little strange and like a confused hotel! This place was pretty perfect though and they even did cheap food and had a kitten that became my best friend… so really what’s not to love!!

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Visiting the Pandas was one of the things we really wanted to do here. Now a days you can’t just go and “hug a panda” unless you are willing to shell out a few hundred pounds. But really we didn’t mind and the more we thought about it the more we felt it wasn’t really right anyway to use these beautiful and so endangered creatures as a prop. Visiting the Panda research centre is more than just a zoo, it is a place created in the very province that these animals are originally from dedicated to researching, breeding and eventually releasing Pandas.

 backpacking, travel, travelling, traveling, Asia, South East Asia, Beijing, The Great Wall of China, mUTIANYU, Sleeper train, Hard sleep, Hong Kong, Pingyao, Traditional, modern, what is china really like, monk, mountains, Zhangjiajie, Guilin, Yanghshou, Xingping, li river, Xian, Chengdu, Panda, Buddha, Leshan, Terracotta warriors, visa, how to backpack in china, explore, adventure

They create the most natural environment that they can and you can really see the love that the workers here have for these amazing beasts. Seeing these Pandas in the closest possible place to the wild was really wonderful and even more special than I could ever have imagined. They are so gentle, clumsy, lazy and endlessly entertaining. Just watching them laid there on their back eating, tumbling around and pulling faces is something that kept us entertained for literally hours. Most people spend half a day here, we were here 5 hours!!! The Red Pandas are also so cute and so much faster and more agile than their monotone brothers and sisters! They run all around, even on the path, leaping to and from trees and fences!

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Another highlight of Chengdu was actually not in the city! But an hour or so away by bullet train in the city of Leshan. The giant Buddha here is the biggest pre modern Buddha in the world and it really is quite an impressive sight. What’s really nice is that it is set in a large park full of other temples, gardens and monks just wandering around. The Giant Buddha itself is carved out of the sandstone rock and pretty imposing to stand right below.

 backpacking, travel, travelling, traveling, Asia, South East Asia, Beijing, The Great Wall of China, mUTIANYU, Sleeper train, Hard sleep, Hong Kong, Pingyao, Traditional, modern, what is china really like, monk, mountains, Zhangjiajie, Guilin, Yanghshou, Xingping, li river, Xian, Chengdu, Panda, Buddha, Leshan, Terracotta warriors, visa, how to backpack in china, explore, adventure

Another memorable evening was trying out the famous Sichuan hotpot, the province is famous for its super spicy dish which is essentially a boiling pot of liquid full of chilies and the signature Sichuan pepper. You then take tour ingredients and cook them yourself in the molten pot. Honestly I have never tasted something so hot in all my life, I literally had hallucinations and nightmares that evening and Shorty had tears in this eyes! We went to a really local place, probably a mistake as it meant this dish was tailored for the hardened locals, we got nowhere near finishing it all and after a few mouthfuls could no longer feel our faces! It was insane!

 backpacking, travel, travelling, traveling, Asia, South East Asia, Beijing, The Great Wall of China, mUTIANYU, Sleeper train, Hard sleep, Hong Kong, Pingyao, Traditional, modern, what is china really like, monk, mountains, Zhangjiajie, Guilin, Yanghshou, Xingping, li river, Xian, Chengdu, Panda, Buddha, Leshan, Terracotta warriors, visa, how to backpack in china, explore, adventure

Zhangjiajie:

Next up was a long and convoluted journey to Zhangjiajie, this “small” city is the gateway to the amazing avatar mountains, a completely unreal and magical landscape made up on sandstone columns that seem to float hundreds of feet above the valley below. We had to travel for over 24 hours from Chengdu via a night train to Yichang, then a 5 hour wait at 5am in the train station before getting another 5 hour hard seat train to Zhangjiajie city.

 backpacking, travel, travelling, traveling, Asia, South East Asia, Beijing, The Great Wall of China, mUTIANYU, Sleeper train, Hard sleep, Hong Kong, Pingyao, Traditional, modern, what is china really like, monk, mountains, Zhangjiajie, Guilin, Yanghshou, Xingping, li river, Xian, Chengdu, Panda, Buddha, Leshan, Terracotta warriors, visa, how to backpack in china, explore, adventure

From here you have to take the small mini buses, which have no numbers and only Chinese writing to Wulingyuan village, where the national park entrance is located! We ended up in a rather run down youth hostel in the village but in the end it was rather lovely. Ran by an old teacher called Mr Ning, he could speak no English and yet we had some great conversations and he was one of the warmest and loveliest men we have ever met. He even did us some amazing calligraphy spelling out our names and some sayings. We also met some really great people here from all over the world, it was a real meeting place for people on crazy adventures around the world!

 backpacking, travel, travelling, traveling, Asia, South East Asia, Beijing, The Great Wall of China, mUTIANYU, Sleeper train, Hard sleep, Hong Kong, Pingyao, Traditional, modern, what is china really like, monk, mountains, Zhangjiajie, Guilin, Yanghshou, Xingping, li river, Xian, Chengdu, Panda, Buddha, Leshan, Terracotta warriors, visa, how to backpack in china, explore, adventure

The park itself was insane, from the relatively warm climates we had experienced in China during so far here the temperature dropped sharply. We bought a 4 day pass to explore the park and decided to basically hike a mountain a day to get up to the top of the park which would otherwise have needed expensive cable cars. Our first day was pretty clear and we managed to see some completely amazing views, like nothing we have ever seen before.

 backpacking, travel, travelling, traveling, Asia, South East Asia, Beijing, The Great Wall of China, mUTIANYU, Sleeper train, Hard sleep, Hong Kong, Pingyao, Traditional, modern, what is china really like, monk, mountains, Zhangjiajie, Guilin, Yanghshou, Xingping, li river, Xian, Chengdu, Panda, Buddha, Leshan, Terracotta warriors, visa, how to backpack in china, explore, adventure

The second day the clouds rolled in and most of the views were obscured, but there were still adventures along the rivers to be had. Our third day was where the snow began and the monkeys that live in this forest came out to play, what an amazing sight to see and a little scary too as they prey on tourists for food, an boy do the Chinese tourists like to taunt them!

 backpacking, travel, travelling, traveling, Asia, South East Asia, Beijing, The Great Wall of China, mUTIANYU, Sleeper train, Hard sleep, Hong Kong, Pingyao, Traditional, modern, what is china really like, monk, mountains, Zhangjiajie, Guilin, Yanghshou, Xingping, li river, Xian, Chengdu, Panda, Buddha, Leshan, Terracotta warriors, visa, how to backpack in china, explore, adventure

The best day was our last in the park, the clouds cleared to reveal a beautifully icy and crisp day. We took the epic cable car ride up to save time and explored the length and breadth of the upper sections of the park. The views were just unbelievable, like something from another planet. You can see how the amazing scenes of Avatar were influenced by this wonderful place.

 backpacking, travel, travelling, traveling, Asia, South East Asia, Beijing, The Great Wall of China, mUTIANYU, Sleeper train, Hard sleep, Hong Kong, Pingyao, Traditional, modern, what is china really like, monk, mountains, Zhangjiajie, Guilin, Yanghshou, Xingping, li river, Xian, Chengdu, Panda, Buddha, Leshan, Terracotta warriors, visa, how to backpack in china, explore, adventure

There were natural bridges, pinnacles over 1000ft high free standing with forests growing on top of them, a mountain covered in red prayer flags and all with a dusting of snow. We even got interviewed for a Chinese travel show! It was such a surreal and beautiful day to end our explorations of this unforgettable place.

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Guilin area:

Yet another long journey down to the south of China and a province that borders Vietnam. We had to stay a night over in Changsha before then staying over night in the city of Guilin before our ultimate destination of Yangshuo. Guilin is a nice city in itself and was one of the first developed for Chinese tourism back in the 20’s, so it can get a little crowded but most of the tourists stay away from the free place such as the beautiful lakes in the centre of town that surround two beautiful pagodas. But really we came to head out to the town of Yangshuo, a bumpy hour long bus ride away and into the stunning landscape of the karst mountains, the Li and Yulong rivers and extensive farm lands.

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Out here life is much more rural and basic and the people are so much poorer and yet so much more friendly. This region was probably our favourite in China as it was just so beautiful, the weather was great, our hostel again was insanely good, the atmosphere was really relaxed and there was some epic climbing!

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Yangshou again can be a little touristy in the centre but we stayed out in a village on the outskirts of the town where home made “smokers” would trundle passed at all hours and were were surrounded by rice paddies, it was one of the most stunning spots to wake up to. Our hostel, Sudder street, was really modern and well thought out. Curtain on bed, a huge kitchen, garden area, bikes to rent for almost nothing and a pool!!

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We almost didn’t want to leave. In the town it is easy to escape the tourist route, rent a bike and explore the surrounding countryside, riding through farms, along the rivers and through the amazing and unique mountain formation. As if we hadn’t seen enough beauty in Zhangjiajie this place was just as stunning but in a totally different way. We even went out climbing on some of the amazing limestone crags, the crazy formations here were like nothing we had ever seen before or climbed on. It was tough going on this new terrain but really so fun experience.

 backpacking, travel, travelling, traveling, Asia, South East Asia, Beijing, The Great Wall of China, mUTIANYU, Sleeper train, Hard sleep, Hong Kong, Pingyao, Traditional, modern, what is china really like, monk, mountains, Zhangjiajie, Guilin, Yanghshou, Xingping, li river, Xian, Chengdu, Panda, Buddha, Leshan, Terracotta warriors, visa, how to backpack in china, explore, adventure
The view from the hostel!

We also headed over to a smaller village called Xingping another hour on from Yangshuo and right in the countryside and amongst the farms and tiny villages. Here there was an absolutely stunning mountain to climb, the view from the top over the other peaks and the rivers is simply indescribably beautiful and really something that will stay with us forever. We also saw so much of the local life cycling through the villages here, people drying fruit on the road, taking buffalos out for a walk, picking rice and selling oranges on the side of the street. We even saw some of the traditional fishermen on their bamboo rafts at sunset before we took a raft of our own the day after, such a cool thing to see.

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It was so relaxed here and laid back, there was a real backpacker vibe and it had more of a cafe culture too which was a nice break from Chinese food… even if we do love it a month of only that was getting a little old!  Xingping and its beautiful scenery was such an amazing way to end our month in China, seeing stunning landscapes and getting to see real local culture up close made it really unforgettable.

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Hong Kong:

Now it was time to head out of real China and go to the theme park that is Hong Kong!! It is a city we have always wanted to visit and despite it being expensive we knew we had to make the effort to get over there. After how much hard work China was, the food, the language barrier and the rudeness Hong Kong felt really quite surreal! It was totally amazing though and we really did fall in love with it straight away and began figuring out how we could come back from longer and maybe even live here for a while.

 backpacking, travel, travelling, traveling, Asia, South East Asia, Beijing, The Great Wall of China, mUTIANYU, Sleeper train, Hard sleep, Hong Kong, Pingyao, Traditional, modern, what is china really like, monk, mountains, Zhangjiajie, Guilin, Yanghshou, Xingping, li river, Xian, Chengdu, Panda, Buddha, Leshan, Terracotta warriors, visa, how to backpack in china, explore, adventure

Hong Kong was to us almost like the perfect city, with the amazing skyscrappers, the grime, the mixture of cultures: The best of China mixed with the familiar sprinklings of home, the chaos and of course, the mountains and the beaches! What more do you need!

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We only spent two and a half days here but we saw so much. Following in my parents footsteps 29 years ago we explored the amazing views from Victoria peak, the stunning lights from the skyline over the harbour, took the star ferry to Hong Kong Island, hiked the epic Dragons Back ridge over to Big Wave Beach and almost fainted with the incense inside Man Mo temple!

 backpacking, travel, travelling, traveling, Asia, South East Asia, Beijing, The Great Wall of China, mUTIANYU, Sleeper train, Hard sleep, Hong Kong, Pingyao, Traditional, modern, what is china really like, monk, mountains, Zhangjiajie, Guilin, Yanghshou, Xingping, li river, Xian, Chengdu, Panda, Buddha, Leshan, Terracotta warriors, visa, how to backpack in china, explore, adventure

There was also so much that we didn’t have time to do and we felt quite sad the be leaving after such a short amount of time but backpacking we really couldn’t spend much longer in such an expensive city, but we know we will be back!

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In general:

If you want to read all our posts then check out these links here: China posts Hong Kong posts

(At the moment not all our posts are online and part of the reason for this post is a round up before they come out, so bear with us!)

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What were our highlights:

It is hard to pick just a few out of such an amazing month, being in China itself was unreal and felt like such an adventure. But finally seeing bucket lists places such as The great Wall and the Terracotta warriors has to be up there and real pinch yourself moments.

 backpacking, travel, travelling, traveling, Asia, South East Asia, Beijing, The Great Wall of China, mUTIANYU, Sleeper train, Hard sleep, Hong Kong, Pingyao, Traditional, modern, what is china really like, monk, mountains, Zhangjiajie, Guilin, Yanghshou, Xingping, li river, Xian, Chengdu, Panda, Buddha, Leshan, Terracotta warriors, visa, how to backpack in china, explore, adventure

The scenery of Zhangjiajie and Yanghuo are just breathtaking and really incredible places that don’t even seem real they are so mind blowing. It is seeing places like this that really makes you realise just how lucky we are to have this chance to explore the amazing world we live in. Meeting so many lovely and interesting people too was wonderful and really inspiring and yet another reason we love hostels, but to get some calligraphy done for us by Mr. Ning was a stand out experience.

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Climbing for the first time in over a month was pretty epic too and amazing to get out on the rock, similarly hiking in the mountains and biking was great to get active in stunning surroundings. The history and traditions of Pingyao also sticks in the mind as well as the local ways of life we observed down in Xingping. Hong Kong itself was a highlight too and to really fall for a place pretty much as soon as you step foot into the city is quite a special thing, it was also nice to have some little pieces of England too and also some good western food! Overall our month in China has been challenging but a real adventure!

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What were our low points:

Most of our low point this month came as a general result of being ground down by the Chinese culture and rudeness. You have days where you can just look beyond it as a cultural difference, but then others when you are tired it really does bother you, getting pushed around, spit everywhere and people staring right at you, chewing and slurping louder than anything you have ever heard… you just reach a point where you’ve had enough! Our first day was perhaps our biggest low point given we were scammed, shattered and the realisation of how far from home we were, how different China was to our expectations and how vulnerable we felt at that moment all came at once!!

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This was my face when yet another person spat on the train!

Xian was perhaps the place where we felt the most down and really couldn’t wait to move on, thankfully Pingyao came away to blow us away and really allow us to belatedly fall in love with China is a weird and possibly twisted way, almost like an abusive relationship where you take the lows and the awfulness because of the incredible highs and intense emotions! In Xian we were tired, the city was drab and our accomodation was isolating, but the terracotta warriors pulled us through! Often what strikes me on the low days is that I feel a little guilty for leaving Dooku at home and that I have left him for such a crap day! But travelling isn’t just about the good days, those bad days teach you a lot too about yourself and the world!

 backpacking, travel, travelling, traveling, Asia, South East Asia, Beijing, The Great Wall of China, mUTIANYU, Sleeper train, Hard sleep, Hong Kong, Pingyao, Traditional, modern, what is china really like, monk, mountains, Zhangjiajie, Guilin, Yanghshou, Xingping, li river, Xian, Chengdu, Panda, Buddha, Leshan, Terracotta warriors, visa, how to backpack in china, explore, adventure

Stats from our first month:

Countries visited:

China, Hong Kong.

Transport methods used:

Plane, bullet train, hard sleeper train, hard seat slow train, subways, buses, mini bus, taxi, ropeway, Tobbogan, Cable car, Bikes, Yulong ferry, bamboo raft, Electric cart, star ferry, Peak Tram.

Miles covered and time travelled:

12447.9 Miles including our initial flights /  4132.9 Miles since we landed in China

136:50 hours including our initial flights /  122:50 hours since we landed in China!

These are of course only estimates but it gives you an idea!

Beds slept in:

14, including sleeper trains, but mostly dorms!

Where next: 

After China our next stop was Bangkok, Thailand before we headed over to Siem Reap in Cambodia where we are now. We plan to spend Christmas on the beach in Cambodia before heading over to Vietnam for around 3 weeks. After that it is Laos and Myanmar before coming back to Thailand and seeing more of this amazing country. After that we travel further south!

 backpacking, travel, travelling, traveling, Asia, South East Asia, Beijing, The Great Wall of China, mUTIANYU, Sleeper train, Hard sleep, Hong Kong, Pingyao, Traditional, modern, what is china really like, monk, mountains, Zhangjiajie, Guilin, Yanghshou, Xingping, li river, Xian, Chengdu, Panda, Buddha, Leshan, Terracotta warriors, visa, how to backpack in china, explore, adventure

Keep in the loop!

If you want more regular updates be sure to check out our facebook page: www.facebook.com/Hilditchshortexplore as we will be uploading photos more often and shorter updates as to where we are. We also update Instagram: www.instagram.com/the_roaming_renegades/ daily too. Keep an eye out in the next few weeks for more detailed posts about the places mentioned here!

Read about our first 4 months in Eastern Europe here:

A round up of our first month backpacking! The highs, lows and unforgettable moments!

Monthly backpacking round up: Month 2 (kind of). Exploring more off the beaten path balkans!

Backpacking through Europe: Month 3! A detour, holiday, jumping off a mountain and a new love affair!

Month 4 of Backpacking around Eastern Europe: A change of pace and surroundings!

Post for each country are under these links (most are not online yet as is why I did this post!)

CHINA

HONG KONG 

See more from our backpacking adventures:

ASIA LEG

EUROPE LEG

Pin for later:

backpacking, travel, travelling, traveling, Asia, South East Asia, Beijing, The Great Wall of China, mUTIANYU, Sleeper train, Hard sleep, Hong Kong, Pingyao, Traditional, modern, what is china really like, monk, mountains, Zhangjiajie, Guilin, Yanghshou, Xingping, li river, Xian, Chengdu, Panda, Buddha, Leshan, Terracotta warriors, visa, how to backpack in china, explore, adventure

Nicola Hilditch-Short

Nic is one half of the Roaming Renegades, a passionate traveller, climber, adventurer, photographer and artist who has a B.A in Fine Art and M.A in Design & Art Direction.
  • 2TravelDads

    Wow, such a journey. You explored much more of China than we have (just Shanghai, Beijing and most of Shaanxi province) and you found some incredible sites. Our experiences with the people varied so much from yours though, like, a ton! And Xi’an too, such a different impression. It’s funny how we all experience things in such a different way. 🙂

    • Thanks guys! There is also so much we want to go back and see too! They weren’t all that bad of course, but generally speaking we found it hard with the people. I think 27 hours in a carriage with people honking up being balls of snot has that effect!! ha ha! I think with Xi’an it was at a point where we felt a little down and we stayed in a bad hostel in an awful part of town. If we had discovered the Muslim district straight away, the weather would have held off for the hike we wanted and we were in a social hostel it might have been very different!