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! 

Up High in Ninghai

After writing and learning about Chinese artwork in the independent research project I conducted in Beijing, I found that much of Chinese traditional art depicts the beauty of China’s vast and magnificent mountains, as well as bamboo, rivers, etc.  Even on the back of China’s Renminbi currency, one can find sunrises etched over mountain tops and water rushing between karsts.  I feel that it is a traditional image of China that many Westerners hold a preconceived notion of, yet have not experienced, as many expats find themselves living in major cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, etc.  I feel fortunate to have been able to see some of this natural beauty for myself last weekend when I went hiking and kayaking in Ninghai, which is about a 4 hour drive outside of Shanghai.

We began our hike following a trail surrounded by waterfalls and lush greenery (and of course about 50,000 mosquitoes that all wanted to bite me).

As we continued to ascend, the trail opened up to see more of the surrounding mountains, but we were not nearly at the top.

We passed by an area where locals grow tea.  I was even surprised to see how many wind turbines were built in the surrounding area.

As we continued on our way, the luscious trees became less and less prominent and the trail opened up into a steep and very rocky environment with bad footing.

We persevered to make it to the peak, only to witness one of the most satisfying views I’ve ever experienced!  Mountain came after mountain, seemingly infinitely folding behind each other until reaching the touch of the sun.

Descending the mountain, we passed through a forest of bamboo.  This was one of my favorite parts of the hike, as I’ve never had the experience of hiking through bamboo before.  To me, it felt like a very distinct “China experience”.  The bamboo was so green, and much thicker and stronger than I expected it to be.

The next day we had the opportunity to go kayaking, which was both beautiful and an absolute blast.  The sunburn I received was 100% worth it!

While I will always consider myself a city girl, having opportunities in China like those of the past weekend, or climbing the Great Wall, have really helped me realize an underlying interest I have had in hiking.  I love the exercise aspect of it, but even more so getting to see beautiful parts of China that I feel can be so often overlooked.  I am looking forward to pursuing more opportunities in this regard when I take off for my spring break travels this week!

Almost One Week in Shanghai!

Tomorrow will mark my first full week in Shanghai!  As some of you know, after completion of Fall and January semesters in Beijing, I will be spending the spring semester in Shanghai.  This semester includes components such as Chinese language class, two elective classes, and a part time internship.  While I’m still settling in, I wanted to share some pics from my first week here below:

Soup filled dumplings with rice 🙂
Visting the home of famous Chinese author Lu Xun
The Lu Xun Memorial and Museum was about an hour and a half train ride outside of Shanghai in Shaoxing
Street food such as stinky tofu and lotus seed
Time for a boat ride!
My awesome new roomie

Just outside my new campus
Views from Shaoxing
More views from Shaoxing
Even more views from Shaoxing