Part 1 by Toby, Part 2 by Lis
Thu 5 Aug 2010 - Fri 3 Sep 2010
Suzhou is known for its canals and gardens. We spent a lot of our time on the canals since both of our hostels were situated along a canal. We also visited a few gardens, which were all nice. My favourite area was Tiger Hill, which had a leaning pagoda and some nice paths to walk on. Suzhou was not the most interesting place to spend a week (could be done in two days), but it was pleasant enough. We also took a day trip to a small town called Tongli, which is really close to Suzhou. Although it was a nice town, it was not really that different from Suzhou. The most interesting thing in Tongli is probably the Chinese Sex Culture Museum.
After picking up or new visas from the PSB, we took the first bus out of Suzhou and went to Hangzhou. The reason to visit Hangzhou is to spend time on the West Lake, which is surrounded by tea-growing hills on three sides and the city on the fourth. We didn't see the city, but we drove through it in a taxi from the 'central' bus station, which was a 45 minute drive to our hostel. Our hostel was located in one of the tea hills, and we had nice views of a tea plantation from our window. West Lake was very beautiful. It is surrounded by parks, pagodas, walking paths and a hill that we climbed. The only negative was the heat and humidity, which caused instant sweat when stepping outside.
Next we went to a place called Tunxi. Our primary reason was to visit Huang Shan (Yellow Mountain). However, we decided to stay an extra night and first visit some old villages with unique architecture. They were Xidi and Hongcun. You may recognize them from the movie Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon - the first fight scene was filmed there. It also delayed our climb from a Saturday (crazy busy) to a Sunday (mildly mad). We planned to climb, spend the night on the mountain, and descend on Monday.
We got up early on Sunday (5:00 a.m.) and Lis was feeling feverish with a headache and swollen throat. So we took the cable car up and started to walk around. After three hours of walking, Lis was fading fast with a fever and chills so we checked in to our hotel where she slept for the afternoon while I explored on my own. I did the most challenging part, which is comprised of paths winding around peaks that go down the mountain and then back up on the other side (it reminded me of a Dr. Seuss book). The views were amazing and the vistas are claimed to be the inspiration for Pandora in Avatar (about 7 other sites also claim this). It was a really amazing trek and I was sad Lis was not experiencing it with me. I picked up Lis at 5:00 from her room (unisex dorms meant we had separate rooms) and we watched the sunset together through a thick mist. We met again at 4:15 a.m. to see the sunrise. There was a peak behind our hotel, which was supposed to be perfect for viewing the sunrise, but when we climbed to the summit, it was gated off. So, we descended, unable to tell climbers that it was closed (we were the first to reach it). When we did tell one man, he said, "I know. There's another place. Follow me." So, we climbed again. My left knee was hurting from over exerting myself the day before, and Lis was weak from not eating much in the last 24 hours. We got to the place and saw some red skies, but another peak blocked the actual sun (or so we thought). Thank goodness we stayed for a while, because all of a sudden: Here Comes The Sun! We took the cable car down as well, and didn't get the whole mountain experience we were hoping for, but it was still very beautiful. Lis says that I hurt myself because she wasn't there to slow me down We took the rest of that day to rest and recover, and left the next for Lu Shan.
Lu Shan - In case you hadn't guessed, shan means mountain. It's different from Huang Shan, because there is a large village near the top of the mountain, which was where we stayed. Also, the emphasis isn't so much on climbing as on exploring. We walked along a relatively flat path (not as flat as my knee would have liked) to see views of the mountain (not as stunning as Huang Shan), lakes, geological features, temples, pavilions, waterfalls, bridges and a dam. It was nice, but again, busier than we had hoped. Although it was cooler up there, we still managed to work up a sweat.
When we left Lushan, we took a morning bus to get to the base of the mountain and to a nearby city. On that bus we met a Chinese-American family traveling from Los Angeles. They asked where we had been and where we were going. The mom said, "How can you do that? We find it difficult to travel in China and we speak Chinese!" That felt good - a little pat on the back for us! Anyway, on this bus the driver came around and handed out little plastic bags. For our garbage? I wondered. No, barf bags, claimed Toby. Very funny Toby..... but correct! The puking started once we began driving around the tight curves. In the row of 4 in front of us, 3 were puking. When we got off for a bathroom break, we saw other baggies full, and one person who missed the bag and hit the seat. Even the American lady puked. Grossness. When we got back on the bus, the little girl in our row had puked, so she threw her barf bag out the window. I pity the driver who was following us.
We ended up in a city called Nanchang, and took another bus to Changsha. Neither are tourist destinations, so we got to see real transit in China. Real = a nasty on-board toilet that we didn't see/use but could smell, and nasty men who spit and smoke on the bus. To top it all off, our bus was 2.5 hours late. Changsha had some Chairman Mao sights, but nothing for us except a bed in a hostel and a grocery store for some late night ramen noodles.
We left the next morning for Zhangjiajie, the "real" Avatar inspiration. We went first to the city, which was not very tourist friendly, and got info and a booking in the national park for two nights. Toby tried Mao family-style pork and said it was mostly fat. I tried the spiciest tofu I have ever had in my life and nearly spat it back up. It was really good! Hunan province is known for spicy food.
We went back to the bus station to go to the park with only a map in our hands. We were called over in Chinese to a bus with only Chinese writing on it and we matched the characters to know it was right. However, instead of taking the "tourist" bus to the park, we took the local bus, which made many stops where farmers got on with their crops and it was standing room only. Then we got a flat tire so we were herded to the next bus. Overall it was one of those experiences that you don't plan for, but make life interesting!
The national park was GORGEOUS! What a rare sight for Western tourists, as they don't tend to come this far. We were so happy to be staying for two nights to really explore the walking trails and see the peaks. The first day was the best, in hindsight. We took a cable car to a peak and did a circuit around the peak. We had some rain on all three days, but even that wasn't enough to ruin the day. The only frustrating part was that some of the trails weren't marked well, and some were lines rather than loops, so you end up walking back on the same path.
On our third day we woke up to find a millipede in our room, which had spent the night with us! This day was really foggy, so we just quickly walked the path to a village. On the way we ran into some monkeys. We have seen wild monkeys several times now, and we are becoming increasingly frustrated by the fact that some tourists feed them and spoil them for others. What I mean is, the feeding tourist gets a good photo and a funny story, but the next tourist to walk by without food gets harassed or frightened by the increasingly brave monkeys. This pack of monkeys blocked our way and when we psyched ourselves up to walk by them, one lunged at me and grunted at me. It was scary because we were alone on the path. Even though there are signs everywhere not to feed our taunt them, some people still do. I really wish wild animals would be left wild, to watch from a distance. The other side of the coin is that other people tie up the wild animals to keep for photo-ops. This really breaks my heart to see a monkey/peacock/camel/etc. without space to walk and just BE wild. It's not natural. But people love those photos so they will continue to offer them.
Dehang - At the bus station we met three Israelis also heading that way. The five of us were the only ones on the bus entering the village, just as the mass of Chinese tourists left the village - I guess they visit in day trips only. The bus lady made the "sleep" signal (two hands under your tilted head) and we said "yes!" so she took us to an inn that we had heard of and had a good reputation. I seriously think the five of us were the only tourists in the entire village staying the night. It was so quaint and lovely there. We stayed for two nights. We also ate at this inn and had great local, fresh, vegetarian food. We spent our time walking around the trails around the village, to waterfalls, through rice terraces, farms, and along rivers, taking in the scenery of the surrounding karst mountain peaks. All was well.... until..... we took a shower. The inn had one shared washroom. It was in the basement. It looked like a scene from a horror movie. There was the shower head, a squat toilet, a faucet that went into a bucket, and a chair. It was lit by bare light bulbs. When we went to use the washroom late on the second night we noticed a shadow of a creature... a spider/grasshopper hybrid it seemed. It was huge. That sparked, "I wonder if there is anything in our room?" so just for kicks we lit every nook and corner with our flashlight.... and found the largest spider I have ever seen, resting 3 feet above my bed!!!! It had eyes that looked at us! With the wood paneling and dim light, we wouldn't have noticed it. I got the creepy crawlies, and even Toby was too freaked out, so we called the innkeeper and she killed it for us (she hit it, it fell ON HER SHIRT and she threw it in the river. We had just witnessed her kill a chicken, so we knew she was up for the task). Needless to say we had a terrible sleep that night and got the heck out of town the next morning!
Next stop was Fenghuang, a city with an old-town city centre along a river. Unfortunately, most of my memories of this town are negative because we had the most unhelpful staff at our hostel. I don't get angry with many people, but I wanted to shake her. Our conversations went like this: Do you have a bar here? (pointing at sign that said "bar") No. Okay, where can we eat? Eat. (shrug) Do you serve food here? No. But you have a menu on the wall. It says dinner, 10 yuan. No dinner. Okay. How can we get to Guilin? (shrug) Can you call the bus station for us? No. Can you call the train station for us? No, go to the ticket office. Where is it? Down the street. What is it called? Train ticket booking. Is the sign in English? No. THEN HOW ARE WE SUPPOSED TO FIND IT?? And guess what, it was in English. We have been so spoiled by the most helpful hostel staff ever that this chick was like a splash of cold water. We did end up finding places to eat, first at a local Chinese restaurant with yummy spicy tofu, then at a Western cafe with views of the river, then at a live music bar with a Chinese cover band that was way into Guns n' Roses. The only adjustment needed in Fenghuang was that they display their menu in cages in front of the restaurant - live fish, chicken, duck, rabbit, pheasant, hedgehog, mussels, you name it.
Our overly optimistic "we can get to Guilin - look, it's right there on the map, so easy!" travel day did not go as planned. We took the earliest bus out of Fenghuang to Huaiha, where we had no idea what to do next so we taxi'd it around to bus/train stations to find something heading south. We got a bus to Jingzhou, where we just had to take out our phrasebook and everyone ran for the one person they knew spoke English. She was so lovely and helpful, and it gave us hope! She led us to a bus to Tongdao, and then politely asked how the heck we arrived in Jingzhou. Our bus to Tongdao took terrible back roads that were under construction, so we were late arriving. We got in at 6:30 and the bus station closed at 6. We were the talk of the town - backpackers, here! We relied on a girl with limited English to give us the low-down, "You stay here tonight." NOOOOOO...... so we quickly decided to make a major splurge, and hire a private taxi to take us the remaining three hours to Guilin. The driver was so unprepared for this, so we waited while he grabbed a friend for the ride and some gas money from his boss, and we were off. $75 CDN later, we arrived in Guilin.
The city of Guilin appeared to be like Vegas when we arrived at night - lit up, flashy, huge karst peaks in the background. But by day it was dingy and not well taken care of. We spent day one touring the parks, peaks and "attractions" (This peak looks like an elephant! Pay us money to look at it!) and were very underwhelmed. I think that we have truly seen some of the best spots in China and so if you're not up to par, we notice. Day two was a day trip to the Longli Rice Terraces - winding slopes of mountain side with layers of rice crops. It was really nice to spend the day at the rice terraces, and very quiet treks were just what we needed. In Guilin we tried bamboo rice (rice cooked in bamboo), local noodles (so good and cheap) and a vegetarian restaurant in a Buddhist temple.
Next stop was Yangshuo. To get here we took a bamboo raft for 6 along the Li River, to see the Karst Mountains sloping into the river (and water buffalo!). We decided to stay outside of the city, in what felt like a retreat. We really loved our hostel. It had a huge patio with great views, great menu, and a super friendly staff member who hooked us up with everything. (When we'd come in we'd hear her say, "Toby! How was your day?") The first day we went to a folk show which was cool because it was on the river. The next day was Toby's birthday so he got to choose what we did - and he chose bike riding. If you know me at all, you know I am not a cyclist. But with a little bit of coaxing and a minor hissy-fit, I did it. I even (against my will and better judgment) cycled through the city. And I did not die, nor kill anyone else. So it was a success. We biked to a water cave where you can go in a mud pool and sit in hot springs. Yangshuo is MUCH nicer than Guilin we wish we stayed here another day instead of Guilin. It might be our favourite spot so far.