One of the most beautiful countries and my biggest challenge

China was quite beautiful, one of my favorite countries of this RTW trip as far as natural beauty and scenery go, but it was very challenging to travel and it kicked my butt!  In retrospect, this was a good thing though!  I was getting too comfortable with this travel stuff and nothing was really keeping me on my toes, sort of speak, until… China!   Here is a recount of my experiences with some of my favorite photos:
I had applied for a 10-year multiple entry visa through the Forever Bright agency. I went to pick it up on a Monday at 12:30pm as they’d requested but unfortunately the Embassy made a mistake with my name and they had to get it changed. I went back at 4:00pm to discover that the Embassy had made yet another mistake by giving me only a six-month visa instead of the ten-year multiple entry that I had requested.  Instead of trying to get it fixed, I just took the six-month visa, and got some money back. I later found out that it was actually not a mistake but the Embassy does not give the ten-year multiple entry to passports due to expire in less than 14 months.  Why didn’t the agency tell me this before we wasted so much time?!  This agency seems to be very popular, it always had a line of foreigners waiting to be serviced. I was not impressed with their service at all.  The attendants at the counter always seemed to be upset or annoyed all the time.  They didn’t like answering any questions.  I would recommend going elsewhere, seriously.  After finally getting my passport back with my six-month multiple entry visa I headed for the metro station to go to Shenzhen at the border with mainland China. It only cost about US$5 to get to China, and only 30 minutes. I must say I am very impressed with the subway system in Hong Kong. It was clean, efficient and organized.
I ended up staying for five days during the visa stuff and through a weekend.  This is not the wisest thing to do for a budget traveler as all prices increase. Getting into the city from the airport was super easy, I just took the express train to the center and then the free shuttle to one of the major hotels.  I just chose the one closest to my budget hotel and walked from there. You can see signs at the airport for the express train as you exit.  “Budget” in Hong Kong means a minimum of US$10 a night for a dorm bed. A tiny single room (more like a capsule) will cost you US$20 to $40.  When I first arrived, I was not a happy traveler… I was still blaming myself for getting robbed back in Cambodia.  My attitude was not the best and I felt like everything was going wrong.  I met some travelers at the hostel that got to hear my story on the robbery and how badly I had been treated at the visa agency… just needed to vent a little and they were willing to listen.  I decided to follow their recommendation to forget the dorm room and just get my own single room.  I was worried about spending too much money but I needed some rest and to be alone for a while.  Unfortunately even with my own room, my neighbors were so noisy that I had to change hotels a couple more times. I finally ended up at the Apple Hostel; which I loved! It is run by a couple of Philipino women who were super sweet and welcoming.  The room was super small, just like all other budget rooms in the city but it was clean and it had cable TV and A/C.  Just the place that I needed to recover from my own misery.
Hong Kong is a great city to visit for a few days. It is definitely crowded, and it feels a bit chaotic at times but the chaos is bearable and the beauty of the city more than makes up for it.  I walked everywhere, tried different local foods, and also satisfied some “western” food cravings that I’d had for a while.  It is very easy to find budget accomodation inside the Mansions- They have these big buildings called mansions everywhere. In the lower (street) level you find tons of convenience shops and cheap food. The rest of the floors are apartments, small offices, or budget hotels (hostels).  I recommend staying in these.  There is always a line for the elevators and they are super crowded but they seem to be the most affordable places in the city.

View of Hong Kong from Victoria Peak.  I spent about US$25 to get this nice souvenir

The border crossing at Shenzhen was very easy and fast. The officers did not ask for any other paperwork, they just saw my visa and let me through. Luckily the train station to go to other provinces in China was right next to the metro station. I bought my ticket to Guilin for the next day. I took the metro 21 miles north to find my budget hotel. I arrived a little past 8:00pm and had to walk about a mile in the dark but there were plenty of people on the streets so it felt safe. It seemed I was the only foreigner there. I didn’t see any non-Asian people anywhere and NO one spoke English. Thankfully the signs in the metro station were all translated in English. I went to a restaurant near the hotel and ordered what I thought was chicken and rice but instead I got a hot pot with beef and mushrooms. This happened often after that but it is part of the adventure!  Everything I tried was always delicious though.  The room at Take You Hostel was comfortable and with A/C but it had a squat toilet and the shower head was practically on top of it. This is normal throughout Asia but I thought that China would be a bit more civilized when it came to toilets. I quickly found out it was not.
The train arrived right on time at 6:00 am. I’d stayed in a car of compartments with three beds on each side. There were families with many children on the train; which was very entertaining. Some of the kids wanted to practice the little English they had learned in school with me. Apparently the newer generations are in fact learning English. In the city I stayed in a hotel called 68 degrees; which thankfully gave great directions on how to take the bus from the train station and walk to the hotel. The hotel was actually a bit far from the center of town but the public transportation in Guilin is really good and buses are available all day long. The girl at the reception helped with me a map of the city, info on buses and cheap tours. Once again I tried my luck at a local restaurant ordering from the pictures and I ended up with a hot pot of pork and veggies of delicious flavor! There are many attractions to see in Guilin like the 7-starts park, the Pagodas, and the night market.

Sun and Moon Pagodas on Fir Lake

I decided to take a tour of the famous Longji Rice Terraces that every tour agency seemed to sell in Guilin.  It was the high-tourist season for the Chinese so I decided that I wanted to be one of them for a day, as much as possible anyway. I opted for a tour that was only in Chinese where I would be the only foreigner. I also opted for a side-trip to go see the long-hair women from the red Yao tribe. These are women that let their hair grow their entire life (only cutting it once at 16) and wash it only with rice water. The visit to their village seemed very “staged”, like a show at Epcot Center in Disney. We took a little boat on the river and happened to go by a barge where there were some of the tribe women singing, then we saw three of them standing on the embankment brushing their hair together. I guess this is how the Chinese expect their tours, full of shows and entertainment.  There was always singing, posing, photography sets to get a picture with the entire family, etc.  The funnest part of the tour was crossing over the river to get back to our bus by zip line.

women sang every time a tourist boat came by

During the tour, a nice group of three women adopted me for the day. It was a mom, her daughter, and the mom’s best friend. The daughter Xian, had learned some English in school and translated for me throughout the tour. We arrived to Longji and stopped for lunch before entering the park. We had the traditional bamboo cooked chicken veggies and rice; which this region is known for.

Enjoying the traditional bamboo-cooked lunch with my new friends

We walked up the mountain on a nice stone path for about 45 minutes to reach the place where we would stay the night. The views were absolutely spectacular, they reminded me of North Vietnam. There were long-hair women working as porters going up and down the hills carrying luggage for the Chinese tourists. I wish I would have known that they would be here before I paid for the fake tour on the river. I think I paid the equivalent for US$20 for a pretty big room with spectacular views of the mountains. The main activity here is to do the three popular hikes (West Hill Music, Thousand Layer Terraces, and Golden Buddha Peak) to check out the best viewpoints, specially at sunrise and sunset. This place can be experienced in different seasons and it can seem different every time. Based on pictures that I saw in the local restaurants, the most spectacular time to see the terraces is during spring, when the terraces are filled with water and the sunlight is reflected on the water at sunrise and sunset making them look like huge mirrors.

The beautiful Longji or Dragon’s backbone rice terraces
Woman from the red Yao tribe washing her hair with rice water.
The Porters having lunch at the base of the mountain in between jobs. If they are married with children they wear their hair wrapped around their head like a turban with a bun in the front.

From Guilin you can reach a very beautiful village called Yangshuo by bus. I would recommend spending less time in Guilin and more time in Yangshuo. It is a smaller town but it is surrounded by fantastic Karst mountains. From here you can join cruises on the Li River and see the best of the town’s highlights. I wanted to enjoy the mountains but wanted to avoid the big mobs of tourists that I’d encountered up until that point so I walked around town trying to find a company that would take me hiking or canyoning.  Instead I opted for some rock-climbing with Black Rock. I met a couple of guys from Israel Tom and Tom and we decided to try it out together. Yangshuo is the climbing capital of China. There is only one professional climber there who happens to own the only rock-climbing/canyoning business in town. This is a well managed place by really nice guys who speak very limited English but they had Luke who was visiting from the US and assisting them during the high season. The heat was intense, it gets really hot here during the summer, but the climbing was awesome. The beautiful scenery around us and being on the karst mountains made it all worth it.

popular climbing spot, the Swiss Cheese wall

While having lunch in town we met a man Peter Xu Xiao who ended up selling us on a tour of the most beautiful spots around Yangshuo. We rented two motorcycles (Peter was my driver) and rode through very picturesque farmland made up of hundreds of orange groves. We saw beautiful views of the karst towers and the valley, visited Xingpiang and stopped by the iconic view of the mountains by the river that appear on the 20 yuan bill. Peter was very lively and spoke English very well. He was always very concerned about giving us the best experience for our money. We even got to see the Cormoran fishermen on the Li River from the road. These fishermen take tourists on a bamboo raft and follow the Cormoran birds on the water. The fisherman will put ropes inside their mouths to later pull the fish out, eventually giving them some of their own catch.

beautiful countryside scenery around Yangshuo

After about 24 hours of travel in two buses, two trains, and the metro, I reached Zhangjiajie to see the famous mountains that allegedly inspired the scenery in the movie Avatar. I had to travel through Changsha to get there. The people in this large city had apparently never seen tourists, judging by the way they stared at me. People would stand in front of me and stare me up and down. There were some men that would look at me for a long time until I would confront them and tell them to stop, but they wouldn’t. I’d just look for a new place to sit. It seems they just wanted to intimidate me for some reason. This part of my travels was probably the most challenging of my stay in China. My ATM and credit cards were not working. No one spoke English anywhere and I was unable to get directions to go to a bank to get money. My was not working accurately, first time this ever happened in 14 months of travel. It was very frustrating and difficult to say the least.
The train system is impressive but they have yet to figure out an efficient way to sell tickets. Even if you book online ahead of time you still have to go to the nearest train station and wait two to three hours in line to pick up your ticket. There are self service machines but people don’t seem very comfortable about using these. Traveling by train is cheap and works out well for the most part. I tried out First class once because Second was sold out; which was a very nice experience, a lot quieter, cleaner, and more spacious. The other times I traveled Second class, sometimes overnight on a hard sleeper; which is nice but can get very noisy. The bathrooms are squat toilets and are not very clean. The noise lasts until about 10:30pm and whenever people need to get off throughout the night the noise starts up again, no matter what time it is. People here travel in big groups and they don’t care if others around are sleeping, they will speak loudly. July and August are the months when the kids are out of school and parents take time off to go tour around the country. There are tons of families traveling around everywhere and it is crazy busy!!! I would not recommend traveling here (at least as a foreigner) during this time. The crowds can get very overwhelming, and it can get very frustrating if you don’t speak Chinese.  Lesson learned!
I decided to spend a bit more money to stay in a hotel inside the National Park. I wanted to begin my days early with a sunrise hike and not be bothered with a million tourists around me for at least a couple of hours. On my first day I did this amazing two-hour hike up to one of the best viewpoints- the stairway to heaven.  I later went to see the famous Avatar area, the part known for having inspired the best flying scenes in the movie. Unfortunately when I arrived the fog had covered the entire mountain and there were no views. Tourists kept coming and going, giving up.  I decided to wait for a good two hours to let the fog subside. While I was waiting I met Katarina and Norby, a super nice couple from Germany and Portugal who were also traveling around the world. We had a great day together hiking around the park.

And finally a small window opens in the fog that allows us to see the magnificent “Avatar” towers

This is by far one of the most beautiful parks I have ever seen in my entire life. Unfortunately though, the Chinese visitors do not seem to care about keeping it clean. I saw a lot of people throwing their garbage everywhere on the ground, even when they had a trashcan right next to them. There was also no respect for personal space. While in line, people will try to cut in front of you (specially if you are a foreigner), they will push and shove hoping to be the next one to go. You pretty much have to fight for yourself and stand your ground. It is “survival of the fittest” out there. Despite the trash and the chaotic masses going around the park, the place was well organized and planned, they did an amazing job in creating stoned paths to go everywhere, even to reach the highest points on the mountains. There are also cable cars for anyone that cannot do the climb up. The signage is poor though and the maps are only in Chinese.

maintained paths through the old tree forest

I took the train from Zhangjiajie to Yichang. Again, I had a bit of a rough journey as I had to beg a passenger to put her big suitcase in the luggage area so I could have leg room but she refused. We had to endure a couple of hours with the suitcase between the four of us, we were four sitting on two benches facing each other with a table in the middle.  The people that had the aisle side of the bench had to travel very uncomfortably. I used my translator to ask her (nicely) to put here luggage away but she would not budge. She later watched her tv shows loudly on her phone. No one ever said anything to her. I’d asked if anyone around us spoke English and no one responded, about an hour and a half later the passenger next to me asked her to put her luggage on the top racks and she agreed. The same passenger spoke English to me toward the end of the train journey. I always wondered why she wouldn’t help me when I asked if anyone spoke English. It seems like they will do anything to avoid looking bad in front of others, and avoid conflict. This same lady and her family stayed with me after we exited the train station and helped me find a taxi. She just wanted to “save face” in the moment but later made up for it… a bit strange.
Other than the small troubles with the mean luggage lady, the trip was nice and offered wonderful scenery. I arrived to Yinchang safely to take my Yangtze river cruise.
This was my first trip on a cruise ship, surely an expensive treat for a budget traveler but I wanted to experience the Yangtze the right way, on a boat. This is the third largest river in the world. My main focus was to see the three gorges dam and learn about the changes that happened in the surrounding villages and the river itself after the construction. I first learned about the construction of the dam while writing a paper about it in college. The dam was a highly controversial project that took about nine years, 2000 workers, and US$26.5 billion to build. The dam was built to produce electricity, increase the shipping capacity (by making the river more navigable), and reduce potential of floods that were affecting the river villages. The major benefit from the dam is that it creates enough electricity to reduce the country’s fossil fuel emissions. Some of the negatives of this project were the destruction of thousands of archaeological sites, the relocation of 1.3 million people, the wiping out of 100 villages, the destruction of plant and animal habitat, and the changes in the landscape. We had the opportunity to do some excursions during the cruise; which included a visit to the three gorges tribe, the people that live inside the first gorge. We got to see the hanging coffins of which hundreds had to be removed during construction. The hanging coffins are an ancient funeral tradition practiced by ethnic groups in the South of China.
We saw a documentary on how the old gorges were before the dam and it is sad to see how nature, village life, and the gorge people’s traditions were so impacted. This region was robbed of streams, giant waterfalls, spectacular ancient towns inside the narrow gorges, relics like the cliff coffins, and their customs.  The one that they tell you about is how the men used to take tourists on peapod shaped wooden boats down the smaller streams and later pulled the empty boats back upstream by using ropes, all while naked (because of the heat). The dam has increased the number of passenger cruise ships, cargo ships and has transformed farming communities whose lands used to get flooded into small industries now catering to tourism. New more modern towns have emerged and the now calmer waters are easily navigated but the scenery through the gorges is not as spectacular as it once was. Chongqing is one of the cities that has grown dramatically since the dam, it sits on the banks of the Yangtze with 30 million inhabitants, filled with High Risers, two very impressive railway stations, and wherever you look, there is some construction going on.

The ship behind ours, as we went through the locks for three hours

Once again I got lost trying to find my hotel, does not seem to be very up to date in China as all locations are off by a few blocks. I asked the guard at a park to help me and he signals that I am in fact far from my destination, he laughs, and does not offer any other help. I sit at the park for a while trying to figure out my next move. I start walking again and find a policeman who signals me in one direction so I follow it. After walking for a while, I miraculously happen to stop on a side street, right in front of a hostel that happens to be the one I booked.
Seeing the pandas was the highlight of Chengdu, the breeding and research center open since 1987 has worked on saving these beautiful creatures from becoming endangered by helping the giant pandas reproduce and take care of the offspring with the hopes of later reintroducing them into the wild.
Pandas are very selective when finding a mate and the selection pool is not very wide so artificial insemination is done. It is common for twins to be born in captivity but the mother’s instincts are to choose the healthiest of the two and leave the other one to die. The staff at the reserve will take the abandoned one and hand-rear it. They have also found a way to swap the twins so that the mother can nurture both of them without noticing they are not the same. The center is a big natural area full of bamboo groves. The pandas and other animals roam within their assigned areas and are separated from the tourists by a moat. This is the first touristic place in China where I saw people respect the no-litter rules.

These cute little cuddly things will melt your heart

I wanted to go to Leshan and visit the Giant Buddha. You can take a bus from Chengdu to Leshan. When I got off the bus instead of following the crowds towards the park, I decided to make a stop at a local noodle place to have some dumplings.  From my table, I noticed a ticket window which had no lines; which is rare in such a popular place so I walked over. There was a tour guide there who spoke English and told me all about the different options to visit the park, showed me everything on a map, helped me buy a ticket and put me in a car to go to the park’s entrance. Once in a while I am pleasantly surprised by some people like her, so willing to help.  I would recommend staying in Leshan and making a day trip or an overnight in Chengdu for the Panda center (instead of the other way around).  I did Leshan as a day trip but wish I would have planned for a longer stay there. It is a beautiful city with lots of trees and three rivers running through it. I visited the Oriental Buddha capital before visiting the famous Giant Buddha that everyone comes to see. This was a mesmerizing complex of statues of Buddhas and bodhisatvas inside caves and carved on the sandstone mountains. I think one of the most beautiful places that I’ve seen honoring the Buddha. For some reason it was not crowded with tourists, not sure if people know about this impressive place or if they just don’t want to pay the price to see this and the giant Buddha; which together cost about 700 yuan (approx. US$25).

beautifully carved walls inside the caves at the Oriental buddha capital
And the Giant buddha that Leshan is famous for.  The line to go down the stairs from the top to the bottom of the mountain to get full views of the buddha are 2-3 hours long

I took a 16-hour train to Xi’an; which began at 7:30 am. I took turns eating, sitting by the window to watch as we passed by beautiful country scenery of mountains, rivers and rice paddies, reading, and sleeping. As I walked around the different coaches, people stared me up and down in amazement, as if they had seen a peacock with fluorescent feathers.  I wished they would at least smile or say hello. Back in my area, one of the crew members decided to give me a long speech about something. I tried to signal to him that I could not understand him but he kept talking. I finally interrupted him and asked my neighbors who watched attentively if anyone could speak English. Finally a shy teenager peaked his head out from his third tier bunk and said “he wants you to tell him if you need anything, he can help you”. I thanked him for translating as I knew that it had taken some courage. It was so nice and completely unexpected, both the teenager speaking English and the train worker offering his help. It was the first time this happened to me on a train. The teenager later joined me at the seating area by the window to try to practice a little English. He had just spent a month in India where he felt out of place himself so he could understand how I felt.
I had a lot of time to think about the difficulties that I had faced in China and how I had felt so unwelcome most of the time, like in no other country. Even as I sat there alone, surroundeded by hundreds of Chinese, but still alone (the nice teenager went to sleep), I realized that this also is part of the experience that I was looking for. This was China and I was not there to judge or take things personally but rather to observe and learn. I was there to try to understand a little about the country’s people and culture; not just site-see. Even if the Chinese didn’t try to interact with me, I was still able to watch how they interacted with each other. To be honest though, I was not prepared for the culture shock that I experienced there, it reminded me of when I first migrated to the US and I had to go to school not knowing a word of English. I felt uncomfortable and out of place but I liked the challenge that it offered.
I visited the impressive army of terracotta warriors built in the 3rd century BCE to protect Emperor Qin Shi Huang in the afterlife. This army remained undiscovered underground until 1974. The army includes life-size 8,000 soldiers, hundreds of horses, chariots and cavalry, all with different features. I enjoyed walking around the three pits that have been excavated and are part of the mausoleum museum. I had another surprising invitation by my hostel neighbor to join her for dinner at the Muslim Quarter where we ate the local lamb specialty dish. This city was also full of tourists everywhere, foreigners and Chinese. We took a night walk around the famous sites of the drum tower and the bell tower. This city is very beautiful and of great historical value, not to be missed if you go to China.

Pit 1 at the Terracotta Army site
The beautifully lit bell Tower under a full moon

I flew to Shanghai for my birthday, a city I always wanted to see since my days working for an ocean liner (APL). Shanghai is the busiest container port in the world. For my birthday I just wanted to take it easy, have a quiet night, cook a meal and watch movies. This is the stuff I never get to do while traveling so it is a big treat. I splurged on a US$50/night serviced apartment with a view of the Bund, my room was located on the 36th floor. Shanghai is as beautiful, busy, and bustling as I ever imagined. It was great to spend three days there just walking around the city and enjoying my apartment.

The Oriental Pearl and other buildings at The bund
Performers at the Pudong riverside promenade

I flew from Shanghai to Osaka, Japan and later came back to Shanghai from where I took a train to Beijing.  I spent another month in Beijing mostly due to the fantastic experience that I had at the Kung Fu Zen center, read my post on this:
A great place to spend at least one week, with magnificent structures everywhere built during the Ming and Qing dynasties. You find palaces, temples surrounded by beautiful lush gardens, big avenues, big parks, people everywhere. I enjoyed the popular attractions of Tiananmen square, the Forbidden city, Wangfujing street, the Temple of Heaven, a night at the theatre watching the Legend of Kung Fu, the beautiful Beihai and Jingshan parks, the Summer Palace of the emperors, hiking and camping on the Great Wall during a full moon.  By the way I recommend going to the less visited parts of the wall where you can get away from the crowds and see unrestored parts.  I went with Sonya from; which I highly recommend for her great service and knowledge of the wall.

Mao’s mausoleum across from Tiannamen Square and right before the Forbidden City
The snacks at the night street market at Wangfujing
Forbidden City grounds
Backpacking for an overnight stay on the Great Wall- spectacular experience
The magnificent Great Wall of China that curls up and down the mountains like a snake

China is a very beautiful country but unfortunately the most challenging for me to travel so far. This is mostly due to the language barrier as it is hard to find Chinese people that speak English. There are a lot of cultural differences and behaviors that were hard for me to understand and that I had to learn to tolerate. It definitely took a while for me to feel comfortable as an independent traveler there, and a great experience like staying at the Kung Fu Zen Garden Retreat to gain a new perspective on China. There is definitely a lot to learn about this huge country, about its very rich culture, and interesting traditions. I am definitely more intrigued than ever and can’t wait to go back and discover more. My only advise for when you travel to China (if you do it independently) is to get a sim card to be able to call hotels, download a good VPN to access any website you may need (FB, Google maps), and download a good translator app. When traveling by train, carry your own soap, toilet paper, and snacks. Pre-book train tickets on or ctrip and pick them up at any station, all at once as you will have to stand in line for a while.  China is very interesting and beautiful country, please don’t be discouraged by any of my personal experiences there.  They are my experiences and yours will be your experiences.  Hope you enjoyed this long post and it will help you plan your trip to China a bit better.


1 thought on “One of the most beautiful countries and my biggest challenge

  1. What a beautiful and interesting experience and very well redacted, continue enjoying and making us participants of your great adventure around the world. Love mama😘

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