As a child, I was obsessed with China. I adored everything about it – the elegant women with their powdered faces, the beautiful countryside and it’s pointy-hatted farmers, the palaces and temples, the legends of warriors and dragons, the emperor’s with cracking beards. Basically, I loved the simplistic, imperial China I’d seen in the Disney classic Mulan. Wear silk gowns all day and have a pet talking dragon? Yes please.
Then, in February 2014 I finally visited my land of dreams…and didn’t particularly like it.
Mark and I had spent one way-too-brief week in Suzhou and Shanghai visiting a good friend who was teaching for the British council. Despite a happy reunion, some great food and our hosts ever-impressive tour guiding talents, our impressions weren’t glowing. It was grey. And noisy. Everyone smoked, everywhere. There were too many people and too much rubbish. People dropped food on the floor in restaurants, and shouted at each other constantly, Cars wouldn’t stop beeping, and the biggie: thanks to the overwhelming pollution, you couldn’t even see the sky. Coming from the idyllic beaches of the Philippines to Shanghai was like getting slapped in the face with a dirty towel. For someone who is slowly sliding down the OCD scale and at the time worked for a book publishers who specialised in sustainability, China outright upset me.
I wasn’t alone, Mark didn’t rate it much either. Which is why, when I suggested about a year ago that I wanted to give China a good and proper chance, he balked. But a few convincing arguments about the merits of not judging a very large book on one tiny page, and a couple of photos of the Great Wall and some nice National Parks, and he was in too.
After spending the last 3 weeks in China, I can honestly say, thank fuck we did come back. Because, China – messy, dirty, frustrating, noisy, capitalistic and communist (baffling, really) China – was worth it. I can’t pretend I’m on board with everything (for one, their smoke-filled trains are full-on disgusting) and I certainly couldn’t live here, but we’ve had a cracking time, and, thanks to our insanely overpriced 2 year multi-entry visa* we’re definitely coming back again.
Now, I’m sure if you’ve bothered opening my self-indulgent prattle you probably want to know what we’ve actually done here. So as a very brief overview, here goes:
We did: Hung out and got drunk with Mark’s brilliant old school chum, James. Visited the Summer Palace, Forbidden City, The Bird’s Nest, Great Wall of China, Jingshan Park. Walked a ton and ate a lot of great cheap grub.
We thought: Really enjoyed our 6 days in Beijing, hated our overpriced and somewhat damp Airbnb. James was a cracking host and we had a couple of days of perfect weather to see the Forbidden City and the Great Wall – the latter of which was very deserving of it’s bucket list status. Found Beijing very affordable and accessible, though our first introduction to trying to order off a Chinese menu was borderline traumatic. (Luckily it was all super tasty and didn’t resemble dog one bit). When we were there the Communist Party Conference was in full swing, which was both positive (a lot of factories were closed for the week so pollution was much lower than usual) and negative (crazy amounts of security – we couldn’t even get in to Tiananmen square, and all the bars had been closed for the week). Coming from an – at least allegedly – very liberal country like the UK, into prime Commy stomping ground was a little bit of a shock though.
We did: Visited Quinchengshan Mountain and the famous Panda Sanctuary. Walked a lot and killed our stomachs with spicy Sichuan food.
We thought: We really, really liked Chengdu. For a city that makes basically every Chinese holiday itinerary, it was surprisingly unspoilt by tourists. Our hostel was almost half the price of our Beijing Airbnb and absolutely beautiful, the food here was the best and cheapest we’ve found, and the Panda Sanctuary and day trip we made to Quinchengshan Mountain were both super affordable and great fun. We could barely deal with the cuteness of the baby pandas. Smaller and much easier to navigate than Beijing, Chengdu felt very liveable.
We did: Only spent 2 days here and came solely for the Terracotta Army and the history of this ancient city.
We thought: Honestly, the Terracotta Army was a little overrated and a lot overpriced. Coming from lovely cheap Chengdu to a city getting its teeth well into exploiting the millions of tourists who visit every year was an unpleasant shock to the system. Everything in Xi’an cost more than anywhere else. A pagoda in the middle of a busy roundabout called the Bell Tower – nice but really nothing amazing – cost more than the Forbidden City in Beijing. The Terracotta Army, very overcrowded and slightly underwhelming, cost more than the Forbidden City, the Great Wall and the Panda Sanctuary combined. Essentially, our two days in Xi’an were very expensive, but we would have felt something amiss if we didn’t see the famous Warriors on our tour of China.
We did: River cruising, partying, motorbiking, swimming and enjoying the ludicrously beautiful countryside.
We thought: One of our favourite places we’ve been to on our entire trip, but one we most likely will never return to again. Yangshuo is becoming unbelievably popular, largely with Chinese tourists, and is on the tipping point or being ruined by it’s own success. If we thought Xi’an was expensive, Yangshuo is a bit of a piss-take. If we’d visited even two years ago, prices were literally ten-fold cheaper, according to blog posts from the time.
In spite of all of this though, Yangshuo has captured our hearts. It is breathtakingly pretty and in the Autumn it harbour a near-perfect climate. A bamboo boat cruise down the Yulong river was a highlight, and a motorbike adventure to the mountains through the weirdly Mediterranean-looking countryside was stunning, if a little scary to contend with Chinese driving. If you’re planning a Chinese adventure, get your arse there now, or better yet, get it there five years ago.
We’re leaving for Hong Kong on Saturday. Part China, part independent and a weird cross between British and Cantonese, not to mention unrestricted internet access! We cannot wait.
*Be warned – Brits can now only choose this £180 option. Thanks China, you big meanies.