It’s rare that I meet people who travel to China, or much less want to travel to places in China outside of Shanghai or Bangkok or Hong Kong. It’s one of those places that just feels so different that it’s hard to imagine what it might be like to visit. Even as a person who wouldn’t ever write a country off for any reason, I certainly didn’t think I’d be visiting China before all of the other must-see places at the top of my list.
When our friend Max suggested we meet him there during his travels, Alex and I knew it would be an amazing opportunity to explore China in a way we might never be able to again. Max spent a year living and studying there, and his knowledge about some of the more off-the-beaten-path spots, along with the food, the culture, and — most importantly — the language, was something we knew would make this particular trip even better.
China is one of those places that’s particularly tough to explore as a backpacker. The cultural differences and language barriers are stark, and tourist infrastructure for non-Chinese-speakers just doesn’t exist in the way that it does in other Asian countries like Thailand and Vietnam. Outside of the big, more modern and western-influenced cities like Shanghai, Beijing, and Hong Kong, we found that travelers in China are mostly Chinese people, with a few European and South Asian tourists sprinkled in. All of these factors make visiting China very difficult, but also very rewarding.
After leaving warm, sunny, smog-free New Zealand, Alex and I landed during winter in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan in southwestern China, and one of those Chinese cities that you’ve never heard of, but boasts a population of more than 14 million people. We met up with Max and Jake, who had arrived earlier that day from the U.S., and Max showed us around his old home in those first few days. We wandered the streets, ate some of the cheapest and most delicious food I’ve ever had, and drank green tea while playing dou dizhu, a Chinese card game that took up a pretty hefty amount of our time in China.
China was a big transition from New Zealand. We went from summer to winter, from peaceful to chaotic, from clear skies to constant pollution, from avocado toast and craft beer to hot pot and baijo. It was an adjustment, but it was also Asia, and that made me happy. I’d missed the chaos and the color and the unpredictability since I had been in that part of the world a year before.
Our first stop after Chengdu was Leshan, where we would climb Mt. Emei, one of four sacred Buddhist mountains in China, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Reaching the top requires a grueling two hour ascent up icy stairs among throngs of Chinese tourists — some very young and some very, very old — wearing heels and loafers and dresses — their best for this sacred place. Our hike started out cold, wet, and clouded by pollution, but near the top we saw sun and felt crisp, clear, somehow warmer air. I was stunned by the massive buddha statue at the top. We spent hours in this beautiful place, taking in the scenery, watching people pay their respects, and feeling grateful that we were lucky enough to see it.
That night, we splurged and spent $20 each on a four-star hotel room. We were preparing ourselves for many nights in sub-par hostels, but ended up being pleasantly surprised by how comfy, clean, and cozy nearly every $4 hostel we stayed in was. The following morning, we made our way to Lijiang, where we’d be spending a few days before embarking on our big trek through Tiger Leaping Gorge. Lijiang felt quaint and lovely — and by Chinese standards, it is “quaint” with a population of 1.2 million. It was a relief to escape the pollution, and we loved wandering the historic center and trying all the street food we could manage to eat.
Finally, it was time to hike. And this was the part I was nervous about. I’ve gone on plenty of multi-day treks, but they typically haven’t involved ascending a mountain range at an elevation of 12,000 feet, next to dangerous cliff edges and a roaring monster of a river. I’m less than athletic (as if I needed to tell that to anyone who knows me), and I was worried I wouldn’t be able to keep up with the boys and that I wouldn’t be able to make it the 60-some miles we’d be hiking over three days. That said, there’s one thing I’ll do pretty much anything for, and that’s a good view. This trek was full of good views. So good that I think I’m desensitized for life by how beautiful the mountains were in this part of the world. And even though my feet were sore and I was more than tired by the end, I managed to hold my own.
After nine hours of hiking on day one, we reached our home for the night: Tea Horse Guest House. We’ll always remember it for many reasons, like the fact that getting there meant we could stop walking. Or the fact that they had beds for us to sleep in. And a “real” bathroom (by Chinese standards, this means behind a wall, but not necessarily private). Tea Horse also provided us with what was certainly the best meal we had in China. We still talk about how good that meal was. And yes, I’m aware that it might have been that good because we were exhausted and in need of nutrients, but regardless, it was glorious. We ordered far too much and ate every last bite.
That night we watched the sun dip below the mountains and were warm in our beds by 9pm before waking up the next morning to grab some coffee and breakfast fuel before heading off for day two. We started the morning off well: by walking down the mountain the wrong way for about an hour. After one too many strange looks from locals who were clearly thinking, “what are these tourists doing here?,” we realized we were, in fact, not supposed to be there. We hiked back up (while grumbling and swearing), and found our way back onto the trail.
We spent the majority of our second day hiking on a small dirt path next to cliff faces that promised death if you took the wrong step. Although none of us are particularly afraid of heights, we all were feeling a little nervous as we made our way to our next sleeping destination. After our second night on the mountain, it was time to go down. We descended down, down, down to the roaring river that we had been watching from above for the last two days: the Yangtze, a river that has taken the lives of many, and will make your stomach churn if you get too close. We dared to cross rickety bridges and to climb down next to the river before making the long, exhausting journey back up to the main road.
I’m not sure how we decided or when we decided, but at some point after Tiger Leaping Gorge, we thought we might as well go to Hong Kong. It wasn’t in the initial plan, but ended up making sense for us, and besides: it’s Hong Kong. We all wanted to see it. We flew to Shenzhen, which is possibly one of the grayest, ugliest cities I’ve ever been in, but is the gateway city to Hong Kong from mainland China. We spent an evening there eating surprisingly delicious Italian food and sleeping in a weird hotel before crossing the border to Hong Kong. Going from mainland China to Hong Kong is an experience on its own. It reminded me of when I’d come back to Thailand after weeks in Myanmar and it suddenly felt so familiar and modern compared to where I’d come from. Hong Kong feels nothing like mainland China, and we were thrilled to indulge in certain comforts we’d been without in mainland China. We spent our few days there wandering the colorful markets, people watching, and eating all the dim sum we could get our hands on before making our way back to the mainland.
From Hong Kong, we took the train to Guilin, an area in the southeast, near the China/Vietnam border. The ride was beautiful and we slowly saw glimpses of what we’d be immersed in for the next few days: beautiful greenery and an otherworldly landscape.
I had seen mountains like this in Vietnam, but there they were spread out, rather than squished together in a single place like they were in Guilin. We climbed them, we marveled at them, we motorbiked through them, and we watched the sun set behind them.
We spent our first few days in the area in a tiny town called Xingping. It rained nearly every day we were there, and we spent a lot of time playing dou dizhu on the covered patio at our hostel. When the rain let up, we explored the tiny town, which didn’t take much time at all.
From Xingping, we took a short bus to Yangshuo, a bigger, livelier city more catered to tourists. We soaked up sun there and rented bicycles and motorbikes to further explore the mountains and the countryside. I only got lost once.
In the end, we made our way back to Chengdu, where we’d started. We, of course, found some pandas and watched them sleep and be lazy. We ate as much hot pot and momos as we could before we couldn’t any more, and somehow, our three weeks were over, and we went back to the real world.
Alex and I were so ready to go home after China. We had traversed three different continents over two months, and were ready for familiar comforts in the US. I described our experience in China as “a lot” for a while, but it’s become one of those places that I’ve grown more and more fond of over time. I rave about Sichuan food to anyone who asks (aside from Japanese and Mexican food, it’s probably the best food I’ve had in the world). I’ll never get over the hike through Tiger Leaping Gorge. No matter how exhausting and difficult it was, I’d do it again and again. And Hong Kong took the place as my favorite Asian city, with its bustling markets, color, and fascinating clashing of cultures and people. I’m not sure I’ll be back soon, per se, but I do know I’ll be back. Until then, I’ll dream about hot pot and Tibetan momos.