10 Places Not To Miss In China (Part 1)
Mysterious, fascinating, and undiscovered.
During a year abroad teaching in China one has lots of opportunities to travel. Where to go? China is so vast, bursting with possibilities, it can be difficult to choose where to go. There are some well known destinations that are incredible and completely worth it to fight the crowds, and then some lesser-known gems that don’t get much press (thankfully) and are less touristy (and therefore more difficult to get to).
There are a lot of people in China, everybody knows this. But you’ve never had to deal with them before until now. Here’s what you don’t realize: they are absolutely everywhere, all the time. You can’t escape them. Try to think about somewhere you’ve been or seen on TV where were insane crowds. Not like a sporting event; too organized, too orderly. Not inconvenient enough. Imagine a really big, crowded event outside like, say, watching the ball drop on New Year’s Eve in Times Square where thousands of people are crowded in with you jostling and squirming.
Or like one of those music festivals in the countryside where it’s people wallowing in the mud like happy little pigs (on psychedelics). Or like when a Walmart in America has a two-for-one sale on Cheetos and every redneck in the city storms the place dragging all their screaming kids along. Combine those three experiences and you have- ta-daa! – visiting any touristy place in China. Minus the mud, Cheetos and psychedelics, but add in everyone wearing matching tour group hats.
Time to come clean; I hate people. That sounds harsh, but it’s true. To say I dislike crowds is like saying the Pope occasionally goes to church. I loathe crowds with all my heart. Unfortunately, even in the off-season these places are teeming with people. During my time in China I learned a lot about patience, internalizing rage, and trying to save face by smiling instead of expressing my exasperation at the people around me. Everyone else is waiting in this three-kilometer-long line and I’m the only one not having fun. Looks like I’m the one with a problem. The key is distraction. Focus on something else. And alcohol helps. Oh, god, does alcohol help. It’s important to focus on the positive things going on around you instead of the things annoying you. This is difficult, but it can turn an awful situation into a fun experience.
So now that you are prepared for the crowds and you’ve stocked up on your stealthy booze of choice, let’s get into some of the 10 places not to miss in China. There are some well-known places and some more off the beaten track spots, and all should have at least a little something on my favorite travel information site, Wikitravel.com. Here goes…
#1 The Great Wall of China
Let’s just get this one out of the way. It is too obvious, but this list just wouldn’t be complete or honest without it. It is easily in the top five coolest things I have ever seen/done. Is it touristy? Oh yes. Is it worth it? Absolutely. It is largely unspoiled and is one of the Seven Wonders of the World for very good reason. It will take your breath away, assuming you have any left after climbing up and down the millions of stairs.
It’s what you expect, but somehow more. The sheer effort it took to build it defies comprehension. It’s a masterpiece.
It is not, however, in one continuous piece. A lot of it is just rubble, but they have restored quite a bit of it and there are many different places you can go to and access the restored areas. The most well known areas are near Beijing, so it would be a crime to visit the capitol and not see The Great Wall. The areas that are the easiest to get to are Badaling, Mutianyu and Juyongguan. A bit further away are the much less touristed parts, and they are supposed to be great for hiking freely without the crowds, the most notable one being Simatai. We chose the closest location to Beijing the least likely to give me PTSD flashbacks to Yellow Mountain (see #2), Mutianyu.
My wife and I were in the north of China spending the Chinese New Year with our Chinese teacher’s family and we capped off our trip with five days in Beijing. On the bus to Mutianyu, conveniently arranged by our amazing hostel, I was mentally preparing myself for the crowds. I was so excited about seeing The Wall, I had wanted to see it for myself ever since I was a little kid. It was gorgeous out; crystal clear blue skies and no clouds at all. Not a hint of Beijing’s famous pollution! With each mile I became more and more excited. I was in a great mood.
Did I mention that this was in late January? Beijing winters are cold. Cold, as in a hellish frozen apocalypse cold. Breathing needles and knives. It was -10 degrees Celsius out.
In other words, it was perfect! There was virtually nobody there! We had the entire Great Wall of China to ourselves! Instead of thousands of people infesting the wall there were maybe 100! I was so elated I could have just floated away. It was amazing! We hiked around and had to take off our coats because the sun was providing a lot of warmth despite the actual ambient temperature. I felt like a kid at Christmas who had just opened up his presents and they were good beyond his wildest expectations. This wasn’t the Red Ryder BB Gun, this was a nuclear rocket launcher.
It was like stepping back in time in a way I have never experienced before. The structure and the scenery were absolutely beautiful. There was nothing commercial about it, besides a few souvenir vendors (who also sold beer!). Instead of hiking down off the wall, we chose the toboggan sled ride route, which was wildly fun as well. All in all, it was a fabulous day that I will never ever forget.
So heed my advice: go in the winter. It may be cold but you’ll have more space for hiking, which will really warm you up.
#2 Xitang/ Hongcun
These are two of China’s most well preserved ancient villages. As in, these were thriving water towns when most people still thought the world was flat. China has a number of these little preserved gems, and these are said to be among China’s top ten. Xitang is just outside Shanghai, and Hongcun is in Anhui province on the way to the famous Yellow Mountain (or as I like to refer to it: HELL). Although going to Yellow Mountain was our goal, Hongcun was the highlight of the trip. Hongcun and Xitang are both very relaxed places to walk around and admire the ancient buildings, the canals or rivers, and let your mind slip back in time and imagine life without the internet. It is pretty basic, there really isn’t that much to do or see, so you don’t need more than a day.
Walking around at night is particularly cool, as they have every waterway lit with red lanterns and you feel like you’re in an old kung fu movie. In fact, both towns are frequently used for filming movies. Hongcun was the site of some of the amazing fight scenes in the film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, in fact. If you’ve seen the movie five times like I have, you’ll recognize the places easily. Extremely cool. You can take boat rides, see the museums and temples, wander down the ancient alleyways, taking in all the beautiful history.
Visiting sites like these is always a welcome respite from other cities where there are Starbucks and McDonald’s on every corner and all the same shopping as everywhere else. I mentioned that we were on our way to Yellow Mountain when we planned a night in Hongcun to break up the trip. While I recommend visiting Yellow Mountain for the incredible scenery, I highly advise not going on a holiday weekend. It was so crowded, I was in a state of apoplectic shock. I was trying so hard to suppress my frustration at the ridiculous lines of people everywhere and the sardine-like conditions, that I ground my teeth into nubs. After five hours of waiting semi-patiently in line we arrived at the top. It was a beautiful sunny day, so none of the misty majesty we had expected. No matter, it was so crowded we wouldn’t have lasted long up top anyway. We fled, frantic for some breathing room. When you are feeling miserable like that, there is only one cure: whiskey. Lots of it. It all worked out in the end, but I would rather dip myself in honey and visit a village of cannibals than relive that day again.
When we visited Xitang it was winter, and the crisp clean air lent a special something to the magical setting. Both Hangcun and Xitang are well worth a special trip and an overnight stay. Try the local cuisine, you won’t be sorry.
And if you go to Yellow Mountain on a holiday weekend you deserve what you will find. I have no sympathy for you! Well, maybe a little. Let’s move on, shall we?
You might be saying to yourself, “Self, have I ever heard of Yangshuo before?” You would then answer yourself, “Why, no, Self, you haven’t.”
That’s why this is one of my all-time favorite spots in China! Most people find out about Guilin, a sizable city known for its Karst landscape. What’s a Karst landscape? I’ll try to put it in layman’s terms, and since I am an experienced layman, you know that I know what I’m talking about. Basically, rain and weather erodes the limestone into giant hills jutting out of the ground. Guilin is well known for it, and that’s about it. I think the city is pretty uninteresting, honestly, so I’m not sure why everyone goes there when they could go to Yangshuo instead! It’s only about an hour south by bus, or a few hours if you take the boat, which I recommend. I love boats!
Yangshuo is everything that Guilin isn’t. It is beautiful, there are a lot of things to do outdoors, it is quiet and relaxing, it’s small, and though the Chinese know its value, it is not as touristy (thankfully) as it probably should be. It was recommended to me by numerous friends who had been in China a lot longer than myself. “You have to go, it’s fantastic, trust me,” my boss said. For someone who had been in China for seven years and already visited Yangshuo six times, it convinced me. I finally took his advice and planned a 9 day anniversary trip to the area, which was a complete surprise for my wife, by the way. She wasn’t disappointed.
What’s so great about Yangshuo? There are a lot of amazing hostels to choose from, some affordable ones in town, as well as some more high-end ones outside of town, a brief cycle away. I could write an entire article on the fun hostels available and the wonderful people we met at them. Sitting on a rooftop having a drink while the sun sets and the lights go up and the river lazily floats by is definitely a highlight. There are a lot of natural formations you can hike to or rent a bike and cycle to. Yangshuo has a good night market. The local dish that has garnered a fair level of acclaim is called Beer Fish. It’s great. If you like both beer and fish, that is. Also, unless you’ve gone completely native, you’ll want to have some western food occasionally. Yangshuo has a lot of western restaurants and they are better than you’d expect for a small place in the middle of nowhere like this. But by all means don’t miss out on the local eats.
There is a show that is absolutely worth seeing called Impression of Liu Sanjie. It’s a light show designed by the fellow who designed the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics where the local minority tribes participate by singing and boating around in traditional garb. Let me tell you it is absolutely worth it, even if you usually don’t go for that kind of thing (like me). There are Kung Fu classes and cooking classes available. There’s another ancient preserved town in the area called Huangyao.
Yangshuo just has a cool, laid-back vibe to it. That, and the scenery are the reasons people love going there. Sure there are a lot of foreign tourists, but it is a backpacker town, and a lot of the backpackers are rock climbers, and they are generally a decent lot. If climbing rocks is your thing, then definitely don’t pass this place by. Climb up a Karst landscape, I dare you!
On our way back home we took a bus into the mountains a few hours to the east of Guilin to the Longsheng Rice Terraces and stayed two nights. This was incredible, and as we left we promised to come back and spend a lot more time there someday. It was just a few days before the rice was to be picked, so the terraces were very lush and beautiful. What’s so cool about a bunch of rice? Well, the terrain is excellent for hiking and photography, the locals make dishes with locally grown veggies that are fantastic, and every single household is making bootleg rice wine. Plus, the locals are from the Zhuang and Yao ethnic minority groups, so they have a lot to offer in the way of special local flair. The ladies of the Yao minority group traditionally never ever cut their hair, and have a special way of wearing it and they’ll unwrap it for you, sing, and wash it even for a small fee if you want to photograph them doing any of those things. They wear their traditional outfits as well, which is nice and authentic. Now, if you’d said to me, “Hey! I have an idea! Let’s go pay a woman to sing and wash her hair that is 7 feet long!” I probably would have bought you a straitjacket. Actually, it was pretty interesting. Overall it’s a great cultural experience. And I might buy you a straitjacket anyway.
OK, we’ve made a good beginning! Stay tuned for our next installment of 10 Places Not to Miss in China!