A place of mystery, vast spaces and friendly cultures that change with every village. Southern China is a beautiful place to explore, watched over by mountains, glazed with a rich history to discover. A special place.
Horizon Lost by James Hilton, the book that broke the story of Shangri-la. We can't think of a better book to read whilst travelling, a mysterious fable to match the land its written for.
Southern China was the first place we ever backpacked, back in old 2011, and therefore has a very special place in our hearts. The places we visited were so diverse from province to province so we wanted to summarise the experience. This is a round up of our three week trek into the mountains searching for Tiger Leaping Gorge and Jade Mountains.
Hong Kong - Once in a Lifetime
Hong Kong is a place everyone should visit in their life. It has so much to offer from the epic lights, suits to barter for and a great intensity in its atmosphere. From flamboyant Kowloon to the slick corporate buildings of the island's 'city'. All of this on top of a timeless historical backdrop.
Travelling around the city is straightforward, shuttle coaches run from the airport to the city centre and a solid underground connects all places of interest; even the subway underpasses are air conditioned. This place is fancy! Throw yourself in with some urban living in Kowloon, which is far more like traditional China than the (Hong Kong) islanders. By day you might experience a rather ordinary looking place but by night neon lights create an absorbing atmosphere, you feel like you might be in a HK action movie! Nathan Lane is the place to start.
Some cultural spots to visit are the HK Science Museum, the HK Museum of Art and HK Museum of History, all in the Kowloon area, the latter was particularly interesting to us, being British, to discover the history between our two countries, much of it regrettable! As well as culture, you will find many places to eat, shop and temples to enter. The mainlands' Stanley Market offers the chance of a bargain, which rose to fame in the 1840s when the British first arrived.
HK Island feels very different to the mainland; years of financial backing (HK dollar 13th most used currency) means it towers over the authentic Chinese culture below. But this creates some interesting juxtapositions as a visitor; one street is slick concrete the next is old men selling caged birds!
There are many sides streets to explore on the island as you make your way to the Man Mo Temple, which is a beautiful and sedate experience. On our last day we visited a Turkish restaurant that turned out to be owned by a former Londoner who moved to HK for work, he started the restaurant as side project. Later he drove us around HK in his open-top Mercedes. We can't guarantee the same treatment but it was definitely a superb way to see the city!
Guangzhou A Growing Giant
Guangzhou is a sprawling beast, the third largest city in China, a modernised urban space where heritage sits next to progress. To cut to the chase, we found the extensive markets and the Victoria harbour the most interesting. Why the locals buy caged cats, dogs and turtles is still a mystery to us. We just hoped they weren't destined for the kitchen! Either way, as Westerners, the markets showed us normal Chinese people going about their lives, what travelling for us and many is all about!
Getting a train to Guangzhou from Hong Kong was very accessible and we were able to book tickets the day we travelled using the high speed line that took only 2 hours. Other, slower routes, are available but include many changes. Guangzhou underpins China's unprecedented rise as a superpower; the city screams investment, change and forward thinking. In the city centre expect a bustling urban environment.
Life in China doesn't stop for tourists like it might in other countries. We spent our first days days in Guangzhou watching normal Chinese life unfold. One tip, when you see the locals queueing up for street food you know its good. As you might expect we had really tasty food from authentic street vendors, no stomach problems at all!
Cities are best seen as a flaneur, walking the street and breathing its culture. Guangzhou is the perfect place to acclimatise to Chinese life before jumping headfirst into the inner provinces. Before we grabbed a night train to Nanning, Mark decided to indulge in some of Asia's hottest chilli. The lesson learnt that, Immodium is a worthy drug to have on such a trip!
Trains through China really give you the opportunity to see how vast this place is. We spent many days on sleeper trains, some on chairs others with beds. We would recommend booking 2nd class beds, they offer good value for money and still have a nice social element as you share the bunks with 6 in total. The slightly unsociable part of the top bunk is that it doesn't allow you to sit up, unlike the two beds below. Because we don't speak a word of Chinese, we found a good way to specify is to draw a picture of a bed on a train to show ticket sellers at the stations. We used pencil and paper quite often to communicate many things, from city names to foods orders. These days a good dose of Google-translate will help solve most problems. We love a little sketch, so we chose to solve problems using old school tech! One sleeper train we could only book a chair, that was a tough old night but it was great to see whole Chinese families using the services to get around the country, such a farcry from home.
Kunming - A City Of Delights
Kunming is the capital of the Yunnan province, a province that borders with Lao, Thailand, Myanmar it's also a stones throw from the base of the Himalayas. Travellers are really well connected from Kunming, where trains and coaches transport travellers to and from these popular destinations. Kunming was undergoing serious development when we visited, I'm sure it looks great now if a little similar to other cities. If you feel a sense of dejavu on arriving at a city centre in China you might well be right as many of their skyscrapers are identikit, meaning the same buildings are erected in many different cities. That said we found some real visual treats to feast on. One such feast, the Xishan Mountain that overlooks city. A cable car can be used to scale the 2km beast. We got there late in the day and after a couple of hours of scrambling over rocks we returned to the mountain chairlift for the descent which unfortunately turned out to be closed, but luckily for us a local driver took us back to the main city.
Kunming centre had a hustle and bustle atmosphere with old folks playing mahjong, ladies doing group dance and restaurants on every corner. We spent days chilling in the parks, a spot of shopping in markets and drinks in the evening. It was great to see families that are so closely knit, the photo below shows families fishing together in the city centre. The locals are super interested in foreigners! We met new friends in most places; either testing their English, seeing what our plans were or asking for a photo with a tall white guy or small red haired girl, there were often queues!
Dali - A Hippy Haven
Dali was the first time we tasted China's beautiful landscapes and escaped the cities. We travelled there via train which took around 4 hours. From the station you will need to grab a cab, coach or bus to the old town which is at the base of the Cang mountains. Dali is beautiful; a hippie retreat where the mountain streams run under their houses to the fields below allowing the locals use the fresh natural water. The mountains loom over Dali creating dynamic changing views. One can get very close to the Cang mountains, walking routes from the north of Dali across to a series of waterfalls around 5km away. Unfortunately we visited during monsoon season and it was recommended foreigners didn't cross the mountain paths due to mudslides.
There is plenty to do in Dali; the town centre provides shops, food, temples and hangout spaces. It also sits on the edge of one of China's largest lakes, the Erhai Lake. We took the chance to rent bikes and cycled around the edge of it for a day. Away from the roads it was a transcendent experience where we could see the Chineses' close relationship with their environment. Fishing, farming and arts & crafts were widespread. Beautiful hand carved chairs that were fit for a king could be bought for less than £1000. Farmers tend to their crops and children fish in the lake, their simple lifestyle were serene and idyllic, what we Brits would call the 'good life'.
Make sure you check out Dali's three Pagodas, they are some of tallest in China for their age and looking stunning against the Cangshan mountain. Equally, every quadrant of the old town walls have a temple, you can see one at night in the video. Chinese tourists flock to see the many wanders of rural China, you're more likely to queue with the Chinese the other travellers. After a couple of fantastic days in Dali we took a mini van to Lijiang on a scary high road across the mountains. We witnessed some of the most accurate spitting we've ever seen, a metre in length, across guests, and straight out of the minibus window. Disgusting but impressive!
Lijiang - A Town On Water
Lijiang is a UNESCO world heritage site due to its sublime blending of nature and infrastructure; cleverly built over mountain streams the whole town has fresh water running through, think Asia's Venice. UNESCO awarded Lijiang as a site for the ancient systems of powering, cleaning and maintenance that still drive the town today. The architecture is also exquisite, you must see Yufeng Temple. We got up at 6am to see Lijiang awake for the day from the temples highest platform, it was so serene and peaceful.
Lijiang was meant as stop gap before trekking Tiger Leaping Gorge, about half an hour away. Unfortunately the weather had been terrible and sadly a couple of trekkers had perished in the gorge due to mud slides. Disappointed and a little scared we spent a couple of days soaking up the vibe, Dali beer comes recommended.
After a week and half of adventure we ensured we had enough time to get back to Hong Kong. Being creatures of habit, we thought it easier to retrace our step, which was the most direct route.
We really enjoyed devouring authentic Chinese food. In general, we found city food to be quite slimy but food in the provinces was far more rustic. A common style of cooking in Yunnan is to use a broth as a base and then select the ingredient of your choosing. The ingredients are displayed outside every restaurant and street vendor in plastic buckets and you can literally pick from tens of different vegetables and live animals such as tortoises and scorpions! We opted for vegetarian most of the time and were a little wary when it was explained to us that the mushrooms we'd chosen were highly poisonous when eaten raw! They had to be cooked for at least 20 minutes to be safe to eat. Google the mushrooms if your unsure.
The pic below shows a standard Chinese meal, rice features heavily in their cooking, so we hope you like rice! Street food was also epic. Chefs prepare your chosen ingredients on a BBQ, stock or stir fry. When its finished you take your grub to dine on a upturned beer box on a side street watching the sunset, its also very cheap!
Towards the end of our trip a lady oversaw us being ripped off by a shop vendor. This lady stood up to vendor and then explained to us that we were about to pay 10 times the original price! This still equated to only a couple of UK pounds for a beautiful handmade necklace. it was clear that we had been overcharged for much of our trip. We weren't sure how to take this, be happy that we were supporting local trade or disillusioned that locals would take advantage so often. Either way we found our money went a long way but if you want to pay true Chinese prices you will have to haggle.
We had booster jabs for Tetnus and Polio and took a course of Malarone, which is an anti-malaria drug. As we travelled in monsoon season mosquitoes were widespread so we used a deet-based spray and also mosquitoe nets. Dengue Fever is also a risk but our travel nurse said we didn't need it for the parts of China we were travelling to.
When to go
Monsoon season created quite a few issues for us in regards to mountain walks and trekking. If you're looking for treks we would recommend going outside of the peak Monsoon months of July and August.
We packed pretty light for this trip:
Backpacks (65L / 40L) clothes for 5 days / mosquito nets / walking boots / sandals / sunglasses / digital camera / SLR camera / warm jumper / guide book / toiletries / first aid kit.
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