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Our location as of 10/2/2012

Madison, WI, USA
Last updated 10/2/2012
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Lin’an and Hangzhou

We finally couchsurfed for the first time! Our hosts, Huixin and “Ben,” live in Lin’an, a smaller city about an hour outside of Hangzhou. It was definitely off any kind of tourist trail. They had a very nice apartment and made us feel right at home with them. Huixin had to leave for a business trip, but before she left she took us out to a clean, hidden lake to swim (along with a few other naked Chinese men). We also saw a beautiful bridge in Lin’an. Besides that, there wasn’t too much there. With the notable exception of the cab drivers, the locals were very friendly, which was a nice change.

Even though Ben helped us with our commute to Hangzhou, it was still a big pain. The traffic in that city is horrible and we had several long rides in packed, hot buses. And of course we’re back in China, so the driving is absolutely nuts and the drivers honk almost nonstop. When we finally did get to the city center, we had to wait in a long, slow-moving line to book our train tickets. After all that, by the time we got to Hangzhou’s famous West Lake, we were not in very good moods.

The West Lake is a World Heritage Site with many emperors’ homes, temples, pagodas, and gardens. It also has several islands and causeways that were??artificially??made between the 9th and 12th centuries. Over the years many poets and writers have written odes praising its beauty.??The city of Hangzhou borders one side of the lake, and the other sides are surrounded by mountains (which we couldn’t see very well because of the haze/smog). With all the tour groups that visit now, it’s not exactly peaceful, but it is much quieter than the nearby city.??Really, it is a nice place, but we probably didn’t enjoy it as much as others might.

Our Ferry Ride and Shanghai

We took a ferry from Osaka to Shanghai. It was a 48 hour boat ride and I wasn’t quite sure what to expect going into it, but it actually went really well. In fact, it was so nice, we started referring to it as our “poor man’s cruise.” The ship was very big, with three separate levels and lots of lounge space. My shared room was Japanese style with tatami mats. The room could sleep up to fifteen, but only two other women were in there–unfortunately, they each had a baby with them. Brad’s room was much larger and had about twenty guys in it. There was only one other Westerner??on board, a tattooed Canadian guy who spent the entire trip watching episodes of “House” on his Mac Book. The Asians all seemed very curious about us and a few asked us where we were from. At one point, Brad and I were playing Crazy 8′s and a Japanese man, who told us to call him Mr. T, asked if he could join us. I’ve never seen anyone get so into a game of Crazy 8′s.

I’m glad we entered Shanghai by boat because we were able to see the busiest seaport in the world. The entire river from the ocean to the city is lined with shipping ports. We saw thousands of shipping containers all stacked on top of each other, many cranes loading and unloading ships, and an incredible amount of boat traffic. At one point I counted thirty-seven boats around us. The sheer volume of cargo that goes through there is incredible. It was very interesting to see how all that “Made In China” stuff gets sent back to the US.

The city of Shanghai also seems like an interesting place. Walking down the Bund is a fun, but also somewhat odd, experience. One side of the river has beautiful, historical buildings that look like they belong in New York or Chicago. The other side is filled with modern, LED infused skyscrapers that were all built within the last twenty years, making a weird juxtaposition. I thought it was interesting that all the old Western buildings all had multiple Chinese flags up, as if they’re trying to claim those historical buildings and remind everyone that this is glorious China, not the West.

There’s just a really exciting energy in Shanghai. Maybe because of all the people and flashing lights. It’s the economic center of the country and it really feels like it. It’s also where the Communist Party of China started and we saw the room where they held their very first meeting. The propaganda displayed there was so one-sided it was hilarious.??Besides that, we didn’t do a whole lot in Shanghai. We spent one rainy day looking at sculptures, porcelain, paintings, and calligraphy at the Shanghai Museum. Most of the time we just walked around. The downtown area is crazy busy, but the French Concession area is fairly quiet and feels more like Europe. One night we splurged and bought German draft beer. It ended up being the best beer we’ve had on this entire trip. Now I’m more excited than ever for Oktoberfest!

Country Recap: China, Part 1

China’s a big place. Even though we covered a lot of ground, we only saw a small fraction of southern China. But it was quite an experience. The rugged scenery of Yunnan and Guangxi is simply stunning. The food was great as well.

It did feel like just a short time in the country, but we will be coming back to China in the near future. After South Korea and Japan, we’ll see the north of the country from Shanghai to Beijing. That makes this recap the first of two for China. We’re also excluding Macau and Hong Kong from this recap, but don’t worry, those will be coming in separate posts.

Top three experiences?

Nikki:

  1. Hiking in the Tiger Leaping Gorge. Just breathtaking.
  2. Seeing the town of Yangshuo and its beautiful surroundings.
  3. Meeting fun backpackers in Dali.

Brad:

  1. Tiger Leaping Gorge. It was such an amazing hike.
  2. Yangshuo and surroundings. The town has a good feel despite the number of tourists, and the scenery is out of this world.
  3. Dali. I wish we would have stayed here longer.

Bottom three experiences?

Nikki:

  1. Zhuhai. I’m glad we were only there for the night before we crossed into Macau. I had read some good things about it, like it’s China’s cleanest and greenest city. The little bit I saw didn’t seem clean or green.
  2. Lijiang. The buildings were cool, but the whole place just felt like Disneyland to me.
  3. Dealing with the language barrier, especially when trying to find something or order food. We had to do a lot of comparing Chinese characters as well. “Do you think this box with two lines is the same as on that sign?”

Brad:

  1. Lijiang. Besides being impossible to find anything, it was overrun with tourists, and the fact that most of the buildings aren’t authentic took away from the feel of the place.
  2. Language barrier. Unlike Southeast Asia, there’s really not much English spoken here. However, armed with our massive two phrase vocabulary (hello and thank you) and some Internet resources (Wikitravel, Seat 61, oMaps) we got by.
  3. Crummy weather in Guilin, Yangshuo, and Zhuhai.

Best meal?

Nikki: Many great meals, but the best were the family-style dinners at Mama Naxi’s Guesthouse in Lijiang. Plate after plate of stir-fried meats and veggies. It’s worth going to Lijiang just for those dinners, really.

Brad: Mama Naxi’s dinners! Especially the spicy beef, chicken, and broccoli dishes.

Worst meal?

Nikki: The mysterious claypot dish I ate in Zhuhai. I thought it was meat and potatoes, but it ended up having a strange, jello-like consistency. I’m hoping it was just bad tofu, but it was probably cow stomach or boiled pig fat or something. Really, I don’t ever want to know what it actually was.

Brad: The first dinner when we arrived in Kunming. We ate at some respectable-looking 24 hour shop, but the soup had an extremely strong taste I can’t describe, and not in a good way.

Favorite person we met?

Nikki: Julie in Dali. She was so fun, I didn’t even mind when her bike tire explosion stopped us in our tracks.

Brad: Julie in Dali. We had a great day biking!

Worst disaster?

Nikki: Not getting to the Dragon’s Backbone Rice Terraces. We could have gone, but with the rain and poor visibility, we decided it wouldn’t be worth our time and money. Too bad, because they’re supposed to be incredible.

Brad: Not getting to see the Dragon’s Backbone rice terraces because of the crummy weather.

Favorite place we stayed?

Nikki: The Jade Emu in Dali. It didn’t have the very best facilities, but it had a great atmosphere and was a good place to meet people.

Brad: The Jade Emu in Dali had a great atmosphere and lots of really nice extras, which made this an awesome place to stay. The Nicest Facilities award would go to the Secret Garden in Kunming though.

Worst place we stayed?

Nikki: The No Kidd Inn in Yangshuo. It probably would have been fine if other people had been around. As it was, it was always damp, dark, and empty.

Brad: I wasn’t a fan of Ming Palace International Guesthouse in Guilin, mostly because of the staff. They were pretty disorganized.

Best thing we didn’t blog about?

Nikki: Our bike ride in Yangshou. Sure, we ended up lost in the middle of some farmer’s field, but it was still a beautiful ride.

Brad: Our tandem bike tour through the countryside in Yangshuo. We hiked up Moon Hill, ate a great lunch at the Giggling Tree, and saw the Yulong River and amazing countryside. The roads were really bad and we got lost, but that didn’t stop us from having a great day.

Weirdest thing?

Nikki: It’s funny, China is such a strange place, yet I can’t think of just one thing that stands out. The bottom three feet of most trees are painted white. I guess that’s a little strange. And the bathroom stalls with no doors are also weird.

Brad: Especially in Dali, we ourselves were a Chinese tourist attraction. We were just sitting at a restaurant eating outside, and the Chinese tour groups passing by took photos of us eating and drinking. “And to the left, you’ll see two Westerners in their traditional costume, conversing and attempting to use chopsticks. You can take photos, and don’t worry, these two appear friendly so it’s safe to get close.”

Statistics for China

  • Days in the country: 22
  • Places we stayed: 9
  • Rainy days: 5
  • Blog posts: 3
  • UNESCO World Heritage sites visited: 3
  • Photos taken: 1,092
  • Photos uploaded to SmugMug: 240, 22% of all photos taken
  • Geocaches found: 4
  • Hours on bus and train: 71
  • Overnight trains: 2
  • Distance travelled on train: 2,666 kilometers, or 1,657 miles

Statistics for the Trip

  • Countries visited: 9
  • Days on the road: 229
  • Places we stayed: 105
  • Rainy days: 37
  • UNESCO World Heritage sites visited: 15
  • Photos taken: 8,650
  • Photos uploaded to SmugMug: 2,006, 23% of all photos taken
  • Geocaches found: 12
  • Hours on bus, train, or ferry: 324
  • Overnight buses, trains, ferries, and planes: 9

Guilin and Yangshuo

We had two very long train rides out of Lijiang and into the Guangxi Region. I was picturing a cramped car filled with smoking and spitting Chinese men, but fortunately the trains here are really nice and comfortable. They are clean, modern, and even have a few decorative touches like rugs and lacy curtains. Even in the hard sleeper class I felt like I had plenty of room and I slept much better than I did in Vietnam’s trains. If you have more time than money, I definitely recommend traveling by train in China.

The landscape in Guangxi is just as beautiful as it was in Yunnan. Tree-covered limestone karsts jut up from the earth all over the place here, making it yet another World Heritage Area. It’s very similar to what we saw in Thailand’s Phang Nga Bay and what we would have seen in Halong Bay if the weather had cooperated. What’s neat here is that we’re inland, so these huge peaks randomly stud the cities and countryside. They also line the Li River, making boat and raft cruises very popular.

That scenery is what makes Guilin fun to visit. It seemed like a huge city to me, but I guess the population is only 1.3 million, which is kind of small for China. The city itself isn’t that interesting, but it’s built around all the karsts. We climbed up a couple of them and saw some pretty cool views of the surrounding area. And, for five yuan, we got our picture taken with peacocks in Seven Star Park!

Yangshuo is about an hour south of Guilin and is much smaller and prettier. It’s also much more touristy. But since all the tourists are on West Street (the pedestrian-only area with most of the bars, restaurants, and??souvenir??shops), they’re pretty easy to avoid. We found some really yummy dumplings and an awesome, cheap claypot place that we’ve been eating dinner at every night. The weather has been gray and rainy, again, but we did go for a nice walk along the Li River between the villages of Yangdi and Xingping. This area is quite famous and is even featured on the back of the twenty yuan bills. There’s a big rock climbing scene in Yangshuo as well. We’ve heard there are good climbs for beginners, but I think we had enough heights in the Tiger Leaping Gorge.

Pretty soon we’ll be leaving China. Our time here has gone by very quickly! I’m going to miss this stunning scenery and delicious food. We are coming back to China in May, but the areas we’re planning on visiting will be very different than anything we’ve seen in the south. This country is so big and diverse, I think you would need a year to??thoroughly??explore it all. It really is a fascinating place that I like a lot more than I thought I would.

Hiking the Tiger Leaping Gorge

Hiking in the Tiger Leaping Gorge was an incredible experience. The Tiger Leaping Gorge is the canyon where the Jinsha River flows between the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain and the Haba Snow Mountain. It’s deeper than the Grand Canyon, but not as wide. The name comes from an old legend about a tiger jumping across the gap to escape from a hunter.

The views along the trail were??unbelievable. In a way, it was like being in New Zealand again. Sometimes we would stop and just look around at the endless mountains surrounding us. Occasionally we had to step aside for other hikers or herds of goats, but for the most part it was just us. The path itself was well maintained and average difficulty, except for the climb at “The 28 Bends” and a loose, gravelly, steep descent to Tina’s Guesthouse towards the end. Because there are guesthouses along the way, the hike is perfect for people who (like me) enjoy the outdoors, but prefer a warm meal and a roof over their heads at night.

Most tourists only spend two days and one night in the mountains, but we wanted to take our time, so we spent two nights there. The first day we took a two and a half hour bus ride from Lijiang to the beginning of the trail in Qiaotou. From there it was only a couple hours hiking to the Naxi Family Guesthouse, where we spent our first night. Despite our dinner order getting lost in translation (which has happened more than once in China), we really enjoyed the food and scenery there.

The next day we left before it got too hot out and did the most challenging uphill part of the hike. At the top, there was a lady in a “toll both,” charging eight yuan to walk down a short??side-path??to a lookout.??We almost skipped it because of the stupid fee, but I’m glad we decided to go check it out. The path led to a ledge overlooking the thundering river thousands of feet below us. The wind was whipping at our clothes and the sun was shining right in our eyes, messing up the visibility, but even so, standing there was a fantastic, surreal moment.

After enjoying lunch (the food here is amazing; I could write a whole post about it) at the adorable Tea Horse Guesthouse, we continued on to the Half Way Guesthouse, which is actually more than halfway to the end. Our room there looked out on the mountains and that night we drank with a Dutch couple and a few Germans. (The best quote from the night: “I was talking with a Chinese man and he asked where I was from. When I said Germany, he asked, ‘Oh, do you know Hitler?’”)

The next day we came across the hairiest section of the trail, the downhill section to Tina’s Guesthouse. Like I said earlier, the path was slippery and we both fell, but not off the edge of the cliff, luckily. Along the way we passed a couple of waterfalls and Brad told me all about some interesting rock formations. Finally we made it to Tina’s, but our day wasn’t over. We still wanted to hike down to the river where the tiger (supposedly) leaped.

I didn’t think much of this extra hike until we started it. We decided to take the “Sky Ladder” trail made by the locals. It was a long, long ways down to the river and my legs were getting sore just going down. At one point we reached a fork in the trail. The sign gave us two options: “Ladder” or “Safe Path.” We went with the Safe Path and eventually made it down to the river. I couldn’t believe how powerful the river pounding through the gorge was. We sat there for a while, getting sprayed and listening to the gushing water.

On the way back up we decided to take the Sky Ladder. We haven’t been able to figure out exactly how high the Sky Ladder is. It starts quite a ways up from the river and is at least “as tall as a silo,” according to Brad. I went first and didn’t have any problems, besides getting winded by the time I reached the top. Brad, however, is afraid of heights. He started climbing the ladder, but at about the halfway point, he was shaking so much he had to stop. Then he faced the??dilemma??of continuing up higher or going back down. He decided going backwards would be even worse, so he kept climbing, wrapping his entire arm around the ladder and clinging on for dear life as he went. Finally he reached the top, safe and sound, but we had to wait for him to stop sweating and shaking before we kept walking.

There were a few more guesthouses further along the trail, but by then we decided we had done enough hiking, so we took the bus from Tina’s back to Lijiang. My legs were sore for days afterwards, but I’m so glad we were able to see the Tiger Leaping Gorge. Taking in its enormity and majesty was one of the best parts of our trip.