How does one explore a great country called China for three long weeks and maintain momentum? You don’t! Because it naturally flows, like a stream running through its watercourse steady, serene and sure. China’s ethnological diversity alone is enough to keep you on your feet. Add to that its magnificent natural scenery. Each place is uniquely endowed with the earth’s riches, each city proud of its living tradition and contribution to history, and striving to keep up with the modern-day world.
So here’s how I kept my experience in the Red Dragon Land low-key but incredibly packed with memorable takeaways. Honestly, my 22 days flew by swiftly! Three weeks wasn’t long enough after all.
First Leg : Shanghai
Arrival at Shanghai Pudong International Airport and check-in at Ming Etour Youth Hostel
Had an early start strolling around the neighborhood, familiarizing landmarks and the subway map. After breakfast at McDonald’s (my safest bet on a first day), I went straight to Shanghai South Railway Station to do the most important thing first: claim the train tickets booked online for Guilin, Xi’an and Beijing. Then, I went back to People’s Square (closest station to my hostel) and explored the streets that led to Shanghai Museum. Spent the afternoon in the museum. Took an evening stroll along Huaihai Road and enjoyed the sight of locals dancing in the park.
This was a full day that kicked off with a visit to Xujiahui Cathedral. I then followed my Arts and Galleries itinerary: Tian Zi Fang late in the morning, China Art Museum after lunch and Xintiandi late afternoon. Walked through Nanjing Road at twilight, checked out the shops at a mall, grabbed a bite and walked towards The Bund. There I lost track of time practicing my night photography skills.
Spent the entire day exploring the Yuyuan Area: The Yuyuan Garden, the Classical streets lined with shops and the Mid-Lake Pavilion Tea House with the Zigzag Bridge. I had Nanxiang crab and pork steamed buns for lunch. This is the most famous steamed bun in the area and for a reason – they’re delicious!
On my last day in Shanghai, I went for a quick walking tour of the People’s Square Garden. I also checked out the stalls in the underground shopping arcade before heading to the South Railway Station for the overnight trip to Guilin. It was my first long-distance train travel and I was somewhat culture-shocked. It was a different experience.
Second Leg : Guilin
Upon arrival, I immediately checked in at the Green Forest Hostel and headed out to fill my hungry tummy and study the city map. Then I decided to go to Jingjiang Prince City first because it closes at 5pm. On my way back, I stopped by the Catholic Church, and spent the early evening by the lake, taking pictures of the Twin Pagoda.
I went up the northern part of Guilin where the famous Longji Rice Terraces are located. The hostel staff helped me book a bus ride on that day, as I neglected to book a day earlier. Dragon’s Den hostel was a good 45-minute hike up the mountain from the bus stop. So I had an excellent warm-up before the actual hiking exploration of the Tiantou Village. After a short rest at the hostel, I made my way to the Golden Buddha Peak for a magnificent view of the fields.
My Korean roommate and I planned to join the Sunrise Viewing walking tour but it was cancelled due to the heavy downpour at dawn. Fortunately, it stopped just after daybreak and I was still able to scale the dirt roads and wet paddies to the ‘Seven Stars Chase the Moon’ Viewing Point before heading back to Guilin. In the afternoon, I visited one of the city’s popular attractions, the Elephant Trunk Hill.
This day was a bit relaxed, with most of the day spent at the Reed Flute Cave. From there, I took a leisurely stroll along the Two Rivers and Three Lakes. There was even time to rest at the hostel before heading out again to watch the “Dreamers Between Landscape” show.
Thanks to the hostel which provided storage for my luggage, I was able to enjoy the Cruise to Yangshuo hassle-free. After checking-in at Yangshuo Green Forest, I joined a bus tour to Shangri-la, Yulong River Bridge and Cormorants fishing show. We came back to the town center in time to watch “Impressions Sanjie Liu”.
It rained the entire day and I felt lazy. So I stayed in the hostel in the morning bent on finishing a book. It was still wet hours later when I explored the streets on foot, checked out the various shops along West Street and the Bar Street, tried some local food and walked to the docks watching the locals’ everyday life unfold.
It was still gloomy and wet but I decided against loafing around the hostel. I rented a bike and followed the route up the hills. The sky cleared in the afternoon so I went on to the southern strip where many attractions are located such as rock climbing, butterfly museum, ancient totem path, gold water cave, assembling dragon cave, moon hill and bamboo raft docks.
Had an early start as this was my last day in Yangshuo. Went to the park and enjoyed another episode of the locals dancing. Then I cycled to the northwest villages, passing by a lotus plantation to the rafting docks, and finally took the bamboo raft ride (I’ve been meaning to do since I arrived) with a Chinese university student I met there. Went back to Guilin by bus late in the afternoon, collected my luggage from the hostel and got on the train for Xi’an.
Third Leg : Xi’an
It was a long trip from Guilin to Xi’an. Fortunately two of my cabin-mates spoke a little English so it wasn’t completely boring. Arrived late at night and checked in at Ancient City Youth Hostel located a few minutes ride away from the railway station.
On the first day, I visited the The Drum Tower and The Bell Tower. There were long queues for both attractions so I decided against entering the towers and explored The Muslim Culture Street instead. Then I took the metro to Xi’an Wall South Gate and toured the entire wall by bike. I went back to the hostel in time for the “Tang Dynasty Song and Dance” show meet-up arranged by the staff.
Explored the Qin Terracotta Army Museum together with my Iranian roommate, perused the exhibits and bought a real jade bracelet as a souvenir. Then we rushed to Huaqing Hot Springs to watch the dance drama “A Song of Everlasting Sorrow”. From the bus drop off point, we walked back to the hostel fascinated by the day’s experience and the city’s evening illumination.
My last day in Xian started late. My roommate and I chatted away during the hour-long bus ride to Han Yanglin archaeological sight. There we met a couple of European globe-trotters and had an interesting exchange of travel experiences. Went back to the city courtesy of a local Chinese family who had us pay them for the ride. Missed the train for Beijing (putting the blame on traffic) and had to rebook for the following day.
Fourth Leg : Beijing
The travel to Beijing took the entire day. It was uncomfortable as I was on the ‘standing only’ car. Got some conversation going with a few of the passengers which was the only thing of interest on that trip. Arrived just before midnight and checked in at Peking Yard located around Hutong area.
A day spent exploring Chinese culture and tradition at the Temple of Heaven, Lama Temple and Hutong area. By sundown, I was at Wangfujing window shopping. Had an early dinner before hitting the subway to the Olympic Park for a chance to capture evening shots of the Bird’s Nest and Water Cube.
The Great Wall adventure: Traveling to Badaling by public bus was time-consuming because of the madding crowd, long queues and heavy traffic. I only had less than 3hrs scaling the wall and headed right back to the city. Had a bit of time to rest at the hostel before heading out to watch Beijing (Peking) Opera.
This day’s itinerary included visits to more world heritage sites which happened to be some of the most crowded attractions in China: Summer Palace, Tiananmen Square and Palace Museum (Forbidden City). On my last night, I went to Chaoyang Theater for an Acrobatics show. And that was the final event of my trip!
Departure from Beijing Capital International Airport
Train Tickets: http://www.chinahighlights.com/china-trains/
Li River cruise: http://www.guilinchina.net/guilin-seat-in-coach-tours/glsic-1.htm
* I also booked a ticket for ‘Impressions Sanjie Liu’ with them
Acrobatics Show: http://www.chaoyangacrobaticsshow.com/
Beijing Opera Show: http://www.liyuantheatre.cn/
Kung Fu Show: http://www.redtheatrekungfu.com/