Day 7: Final Day in Sichuan Province

The day started with a quick taxi ride to the railway station, followed by just under two hours standing on the train back to Chengdu.  It was the only ticket I could buy to get back to the city so I had to go with it.  I stood where the train cars connect and was surrounded by probably about 10 men at any given time smoking cigarettes.  Smoking in China is much more popular than in the US, and almost all smokers here smoke cigarettes and not vapes.  Sharing cigarettes and smoking together is seen as a very important social aspect in China, and it is considered very rude to refuse a cigarette.

When I arrived in Chengdu I went straight to Kuanzhai Alley to grab some street food and got these awesome treats 🙂

Delicious spicy fries, perfectly seasoned!
I’m not sure exactly what this is but the best way I can describe it is balls of fried dough on a skewer

The alley made me think of an upscale, more European version of Beijing’s hutongs.  It was built with grey bricks and there were people everywhere buying snacks or getting their ears cleaned (I forgot to mention in a previous post that in Chengdu you can have a traditional ear picking done in which the ears are cleaned of ear wax in public!)  Others window shopped or had their portraits done by street artists.

A young lady gets her ears cleaned

After Kuanzhai Alley, I made my way to Tianfu Square.  Some say that if you go to Chengdu and don’t go to Tianfu Square, then you didn’t really go to Chengdu.  Tianfu Square is a central point that leads to various museums and lots of shopping.  I found it’s a great spot for people watching.  Though impossible to see from the ground, Tianfu Square is arranged into the shape of a large Yin and Yang symbol.

From Tianfu Square I went to Anshun Bridge, another noteworthy spot in the city.  At the bridge itself there is not much to do unless you want to eat at the fancy restaurant that now sits on the bridge, however in the areas further down the river I watched a women’s dance troupe perform dances with traditional Chinese fans.  I also stumbled into a nightclub area with lots of contemporary artwork.

I was super paranoid from my last time trying to make a train in Chengdu, so I decided to take a taxi to the railway station with PLENTY of time in advance to make sure I wouldn’t miss my train.  I got there with plenty of time to spare!  My original plan was to take a 36 hour train ride back to Shanghai, but I changed my plan last minute and opted to take a 24 hour train to Beijing, spend the weekend, and then take a 4.5 hour train back to Shanghai on Sunday, making up days 8, 9 and 10.

The best way to cook ramen when you don’t have something to hold down the lid? I learned this from watching the locals on the train

Day 6: Summiting Mt. Emei

It takes over a day to hike Mt. Emei, but since I only have a day here, I decided to cheat a little bit. This morning I caught a 9 am bus that took me up a good portion of the mountain in 2 hours, dropping me off at Lei Dong Ping Station. From here, it would be 6km to the summit. 

Since I hadn’t eat breakfast yet, I stopped and bought baozi, my favorite breakfast (or honestly anytime) food for about 3 times as much as I would usually pay. I started to eat while beginning the climb, but I was quickly told in Chinese by another climber – be careful, put those away, the monkeys! Sure enough, I looked ahead and there were about 10 wild monkeys! There is a specific section of Mt. Emei that is specially known for having lots of wild monkeys, however, being so far away from that section, I didn’t expect to see so many monkeys so soon! A little bit further ahead there were signs warning that the monkeys have been known to rob passerby and to keep a good distance from them. The Chinese tourists loved the monkeys and were so excited to take videos of them and get up close with them, but me…I was scared! I got out of there as quickly as I could! 

For the next 3 hours I climbed almost 4 miles of stairs. The higher up I got, the more mystical the journey seemed. Everything around me was so foggy that instead of sweeping mountain views, all I could see was white. I knew that I made it to the summit not by the view but by the smell of incense burning. As I got closer, people praying and lighting incense emerged out of the fog. Then finally I started to make out the giant golden statue at the top of the summit, for which it is named “Golden Summit”. Even standing directly at the base of the golden statue, I still could not see the top because it was so foggy. It was like I was walking in the middle of a giant cloud. Everywhere I looked disappeared into nothingness. I began to notice other travelers walking around the statue in a clockwise motion, all praying. I began to follow behind them when I realized that I could actually enter into the inside of the golden statue, which housed a big golden Buddha (not nearly as big as the Leshan Buddha though!). I took some time to take in what I was able to see at the summit, then began making my way back down to Lei Dong Ping Station. From there I rode the bus 2 hours back to the base of the mountain. 

Starving, I decided to try some authentic and spicy Sichuan food.  I’ll admit it was really spicy! But nothing I couldn’t handle 😉 

Finally, I came back to my hostel to shower and have a chill end to the day. To my surprise, but also an awesome coincidence, one of my classmates from my study abroad program happened to be in the same exact hostel room! A great way to end the day in Emei before my train out tomorrow morning. 

Day 5: Part 2, Seeing the World’s Largest Stone Buddha

Once on my way to Leshan, all was well! I made friends with two locals on the train ride who gave me an orange. One of them told me this was the first time in his entire life talking to a foreigner. I tried to imagine what it would be like to go my whole adolescent life only talking to people of my own race. How would my perspective be different? 

My orange from a new friend!

After about an hour ride, I exited the train in hot and sunny Leshan! I hopped on a public bus that took me through the city and all the way to the entrance of the Leshan Buddha. The Buddha is within a larger park, so I bought an entrance ticket to the park and began to make my way. There were many other smaller Buddhas along the way, with locals praying and burning incense in the air. 

I wasn’t quite sure how far of a walk it would be to get to the Buddha when all of a sudden I stumbled upon it….my jaw dropped for a second time. At first I could only see the Buddha’s head, and it was SO much bigger than I had imagined. I caught myself whispering “oh s**t, oh s**t” to myself for about a minute. 

Getting a closer look, I found the Buddha to be absolutely magnificent. It looks out at the water below, and in the very far distance, Mt. Emei. Legend has it that a monk built the Buddha in hopes of calming the turbulent water below. Allegedly, when the Buddha was built over a period of 70+ years, so much stone was dumped into the water that it did in fact calm the waters! 

After staring at the Buddha in awe for quite some time, wondering how I would measure up to it, I decided to get another view of it by descending to its base. There is a set of stairs built along side the wall of the rock which can be used to get to the base. Alongside the stairs, small figures are carved into the side of the rock. 

At the base, I was shocked all over again. Here I could see more clearly details like the Buddha’s foot (just one toe alone seemed huge!). Again I stood here in awe for quite some time, trying my hardest to take in every detail with my eyes. 

I spent the rest of the afternoon getting awesome mango tea and talking to more locals. Then in the evening I boarded another train to take me to Emei. After only 20 minutes I arrived in Emei, ate some of the spiciest dumplings I’ve ever had, and checked into my hostel for the night. 

Day 5: Part 1, The Worst Subway Experience of My Entire Life

Unlike the day before, day 5 was crazy! I planned to leave Chengdu in the morning to head about an hour away by train to Leshan, which is famous as the home of the world’s biggest stone Buddha. Seeing the Leshan Buddha had been a goal of mine for some time now, and with the thought of it finally happening, I had a spring in my step when I left the hostel at 7:45 am to make my way to the Chengdu railway station. As Chengdu is a much smaller city than Beijing or Shanghai, I didn’t think rush hour would be that bad, so I opted to take the subway. 

I was crazy wrong! Riding the Chengdu subway at 8 am was 100% the worst subway experience of my entire life. I grew up in the city and rode the train to school every day, so I’ve seen it all: fights, sexual assault, over intoxication, mental breakdowns…literally everything. But trust me when I say I’ve never seen a rush hour so bad. 

The train was packed to the point that no one could move, with other people’s entire body weight weighing heavily on you. At every single subway stop, passengers were screaming because people on the platform were running and trying to push their way into train cars that were already way over capacity. Finally when it came to my stop…no one budged. I pushed so hard but could not make any progress before the train doors closed. I was frustrated but planned to just get off at the next stop. However, after I had worked so hard to make my way to one side of the train, at the next stop the doors were opening on THE OTHER SIDE. Now I tried to push my way to the other side, but right when I was one arms length away from exiting the train, the doors slammed closed again. I felt trapped. Finally at the next stop, now 2 stations away from where I needed to get off, I was able to get off the train. At this point I called a Didi (China’s version of Uber) to take me for what was supposed to be a 10 minute drive back to where I needed to be. This was the only way I could catch my train in time. But of course, Chengdu’s rush hour traffic was so bad that by the time I was able to get to the railway station, my train had already left 20 minutes before. 

Momentarily, I was extremely frustrated about missing my train. I felt angry that I had planned out more than enough time to get there but because of Chengdu’s subway system, I was inconvenienced. Not to say that it’s worse or better, but China’s subway etiquette is just different. China’s subway etiquette is that there is no etiquette. You can push people out of the way to get where you need to be. You can cut people in line. You don’t have to wait for people to exit the train before you start to board. Basically do whatever you need to do to get where you need to go. It has been one of the most frustrating cultural/societal differences I’ve had to come to terms with while living here, until I realized that the only way to live here is to play by these rules. 

After a couple minutes, I realized it was pointless to be frustrated about something in the past that I didn’t have control over. What I did have control over was going to the ticket counter and praying that I could exchange my ticket and still get to Leshan at a reasonable time. 

Five minutes later, I had a whole new mindset. My ticket was exchanged with ease, and in my hand I had a new ticket for the next train leaving in half an hour. My journey would only be set back by an hour! I was extremely happy with the way things worked out and excited about the next leg of my journey. 

Day 4: Major Transition to Chengdu

 Day 4 was long and not too exciting. I reserved a taxi the night before, then woke up early to take a relaxing hour long drive through the countryside to Yangshuo Station. It was so bittersweet taking in Yangshuo’s beautiful views one last time before my departure. I thought a lot about the lives of the people of Yangshuo.

At 11 am I boarded a train that would take me all the way from Yangshuo, southern China to Chengdu, in western China. Chengdu is in Sichuan province, which is basically on the border of Tibet and famous for spicy food! After almost 8 hours I arrived in Chengdu, exhausted from doing absolutely nothing all day. 

Chengdu is famous for its panda research center – even this Chengdu subway card has a panda on it
Some spicy peppers for sale in Sichuan Province

However, I was determined not to waste any time and decided to check out Jin Li street. Now well after sunset, Jin Li Street was lit up with tons of red lanterns.  Chinese tourists walked around all the alleys that sell street food and little trinkets, mostly related to pandas because Chengdu is famous for its panda research center. It was fun to walk around, but it didn’t blow me away like Shanghai’s YuYuan Garden. I feel like once you’ve seen one street market in China, you’ve seen most street markets in China.  It was still fun to walk around and enjoy the night before checking into my hostel. 

My hostel had a great vibe, with jazz music playing in the lobby and foreigners and Chinese together chatting and drinking beers. I reflected for a bit before getting to bed early in preparation for a big day the coming day.

Day 3: Part 2

After some time in Xingping village, I was determined to get to a more central part of Yangshuo so I could climb Moon Hill. I boarded another bus which dropped me off in the heart of Yangshuo. Here was like nothing I had ever seen before. The busy roads were filled with people on scooters and motorbikes while the roads were lined with shop after shop. But most shocking to me was directly behind this backdrop, stood great green mountains that seemed to emerge from nowhere. What I liked most about the village was that it seemed largely untouched (so far) by Western giants like McDonald’s and Starbucks. Each shop seemed to be family owned, and a quick search on Baidu Maps (the Chinese equivalent of Google maps) showed that there was only one McDonald’s in the nearby area and it was over 30 minutes away. 

Unfortunately at this time it was too late for me to make it to Moon Hill before it closed at sunset, so I opted to walk around and check out the local shops until I finally made my way to West Street.  

I never expected West Street to be so full of life! The street split off into many little alleys, all full of local shops, bars and restaurants. There was live music on every corner, and pedestrians walked in the street. At times there were so many people it was hard to walk! I spent hours here, eating dinner, drinking bubble tea and watching the sunset. Finally after nightfall, I walked about 20 minutes to make it to my hostel for the night. 

Day 3: Part 1

If yesterday’s views were breath taking,  the views of Yangshuo were jaw dropping! 

I started the day again with an American breakfast, and said goodbye to the hostel staff, one of whom gave me a piece of cloth she had dyed to create a traditional flower print. As Yangshuo, my next stop, is right down the river from Guilin, I decided what better way to get there then to float down the river on a bamboo raft! So to get to the pier, I was picked up in a small 8 person bus which then took me to a larger bus which would supposedly take me to one of the Guilin piers. 

At the pier I made friends with a group of three Chinese girls and we decided to all ride on a raft together. If you can speak Chinese, making friends here is not hard at all. In my experience in Beijing and Shanghai, life is fast and it is expected that foreigners would know at least a little Chinese to keep up. But in southern China, life is much slower and encountering other foreigners is way less common. It seems like most people expect that foreigners here don’t know a word of Chinese, to the extent that when I am able to communicate with them in Chinese, I receive almost instant respect. Once you earn a local’s respect, they will do anything to help you out. 

The four of us boarded the raft together in the 80 degree heat and with our driver began to make our way down the river. As I mentioned earlier, my jaw literally dropped. The karsts that lay ahead were magnificently beautiful. Once we made our way past one, another one seemed to rise out of the water. They aligned so nicely against the skyline with a light mist that dangled in the air. 

We rode the bamboo raft about an hour down the river until we made it to the pier of Xingping Village. Here we stepped onto land and began to make our way through the well preserved ancient village. Everywhere you turned there was someone selling street food or hand crafted souvenirs. 

Day 2: Hiking the Dragon’s Backbone

 Today was incredibly rewarding despite the ups and downs. My morning started with coffee and an American style breakfast provided by my hostel, but quickly turned into minor chaos when no one could seem to tell me where to board the bus they had helped me book tickets for the previous day. Ultimately I ended up missing my first intended bus and just barely making the next one, but once I was onboard I was strapped in for a 2.5 hour drive outside of Guilin to the Longji Rice Terraces. On the way I met a new friend Sun Ai Ling, and we decided to hike the terraces together. 

Once off the bus in Dazhai, we walked through a small village that sits at the bottom of the terraces. One of China’s 56 ethnic minorities live here, and it was fascinating to watch the women walk around in their traditional clothes. This particular village is known for the women all having incredibly long and beautiful hair that goes down past their waist – I’ve never seen hair so long. I honestly didn’t believe that it was real, so I asked one of the older woman. She said if I paid her she would show me herself. I laughed and started to make the way up the mountain with my new friend. 

The hike itself was steep but not too challenging. We followed a path that at times winds through the rice terraces, other times through bamboo, and even other times through hotels and little shops built up on the mountainside. I could smell fire burning with a hint of incense in the air as we passed through the structures built in the mountainside. 

Finally at the top of the mountain, looking down at the rice terraces cutting into the mountainside, as well as the village that lay below, the view was nothing less than breath taking. Mist hung over the mountains in the distance. Sadly the rice terraces were not filled with water yet; some say that when they are filled with water and reflect the sky, they look like the shimmering scales of a dragon, hence the name the dragon’s backbone. 

The terraces are just beginning to fill with water
Sun Ai Ling leading the way

I’m so happy to have conquered the dragons backbone and to have made a couple new chinese friends, from a friendly traveler on the bus to the rice terraces with me to a 19 year old kid eager to practice speaking English with anybody who would take the time to listen. As it’s now starting to rain, I’ve decided to call it an early night and get some rest in preparation for my travel to Yangshuo tomorrow morning!

That little black speck is me – thanks for the pic Sun Ai Ling!

Day 1: A Day in Guilin

After getting off a 20 hour sleeper train, my back was slightly aching and I was ready to take Guilin! My first steps into the fresh Guilin air was the perfect remedy: clear pale blue sky, like a robin’s egg, and about 75 degree perfect weather. I could almost smell summer. 

View from the train

The only foreigner at the train station, I was bombarded with taxi requests, but I decided to hop on a local bus for $0.30 and ride it 13 stops downtown to make my way to Elephant Hill. Elephant Hill is considered to be one of the pride and joys of Guilin, and is called Elephant Hill because from the side it looks like an elephant trunk dipping into the water. Riding the public transportation through the city’s downtown area, I found that it is full of life but nowhere nearly as big or developed as Beijing, Shanghai, or even Harbin or Xi’an. There are no skyscrapers, which is great because it allows perfect views of the surrounding mountains. There is no air pollution, and no one here wears masks.

From the top of Elephant Hill I could see these mountains looming in the backdrop of the city. They looked so mystical yet inviting at the same time. I made my way down to the base of where the “elephant trunk” meets the water, and made sure to get views of it from land across the river as well. Everything was so green and luscious! 

At the base of Elephant Hill

After Elephant Hill I walked to the Sun and Moon Pagodas that stand in a nearby lake. With absolutely stunning traditional architecture, they reminded me a bit of my old home, Beijing! I sat and observed fisherman catch fish in the lake and watched the funny dynamic between them when one caught fish after fish and the other couldn’t catch any at all! 

I strolled around the beautiful rivers at sunset, ate street food at a local market, got attacked by a perseverant fish that jumped out of its tank, checked out the Twin Pagodas again at nightfall, and finally made my way to my hostel for the night. Being my first hostel experience, I wasn’t sure what to expect, and needless to say, it definitely delivered an unexpected experience, making me seriously question what I had willing signed myself up for. However, I’m going to tough it out; it’s all part of the experience.  As for now, I’m looking forward to what Day 2 of my travels brings. 

Day 1: Overnight Train to Guilin

Boarding my overnight train marks the first step in my journey over the next 10 days – solo backpacking through Southern and Midwestern China! First stop: Guilin! These are my quarters for the night, pretty tight but all part of the journey. 

Traveling today has been especially crowded because today marks the start of the Chinese Qingming holiday, in which many Chinese travel to their home towns to celebrate deceased relatives and clean their graves. It is also traditional to eat this, which I tried in both black sesame and red bean.  I am not entirely sure what is is made out of but almost seems like some type of grain ground into a paste with a filling inside. A bit of an acquired taste, but again, all part of the experience!

As of now I feel pretty restless on the train, but the steady rock back and forth is soothing. The other inhabitants of my cabin are very polite, offering me sunflower seeds and fruit (the Chinese are so hospitable and generous). I am so excited to pull into Guilin tomorrow and finally see the beautiful mountains!