Monday, July 11, 2011

First week of China - Beijing, Luoyang, Hua Shan, Xi'an, And Guilin

Blogging has been a bit sporadic over our first three weeks of this trip so I'm going to go back through the fun events of our first week here. I'll get to the stuff from the past 2 weeks soon!

We didn't spend much time in Beijing since we will be doing a lot more of that when my family arrives. Our first impression was really nice, though. We stayed in a gorgeous Marriott room thanks to my dad's connections. That first night, my dad's friend Ying and her daughter Yuan treated us to an excellent meal of peking duck and showed us around a pretty park. In the morning, Rachael and I took a nice walk around, ate some cheap food, and then met up with Ying and Yuan again for a delicious lunch. After that we were off to Luoyang to meet oir friend Kevin.

I believe I already touched on our experience in Luoyan in a previous post so I'll skip it here. The highlights of the two days there were seeing the Longmen grottoes, hanging out with some kids who wanted to practice thir English, meeting an awesome girl named Cassie who helped show us around town, and then having a loud and fun dinner with a guy we met on couhsurfing. From Luoyang we traveled to Hua Shan which is a town based almost solely around tourism for hiking a famous mountain. I wrote a blog post from an Internet cafe there and remember being tired an in a bad mood. The town wasn't a very friendly place since everyone was pushy and trying to get us tourists to buy stuff from them. But the mountain hike was fun.

We started the hike at 6 in the morning, right after the sun came up. From the base to the top was more than 5000 vertical feet so we had to start early. The most common route was to take a cable car up the first 3000 feet and then hike the final stretch but there is also a trail to walk up this stretch and we opted to do that. It wasn't anything like a hike in a US national park. The entire trail on the mountain was paved with stones and phenomenally maintained. In my opinion, it seemed too easy and didn't feel like nature. However, I understand that their goal was to make it super accessible to everyone and indeed plenty of dressed up girls with high heels or flip flops were able to complete the hike. Rachael and I were super over dressed with our hiking boots :P.

Despite the hoards of people, the hike was still fun and was really good exercise. It felt great to get outside for so long. The first part of the hike where we skipped the cable car had very few other hikers which was nice. Although every 50-100 meters all the way up there was a shop selling refreshments. The view was obscured by a dense fog so we didn't get any photos of what would probably have been an incredible mountainous landscape.

After this hike, we took a bus over to Xi'an. Upon arriving it was pouring rain and we had to meet our couchsurfing friend Meng whose place we would stay at. We had a tough time finding each other at the train station but eventually she popped up with a huge smile on her face and led us to a local bus that cost us next to nothing. We took that for 45 minutes, an when w got off she bought some vegetables for dinner. We then took a taxi another 20 minutes to her home on the countryside. We trekked through some slick mud and finally made it into her home. Quite an adventure!

Meng's home was so serene and nice. It had an open courtyard with no roof over it and under an awning her mom prepared us dinner with the vegetables Meng bought. Meng made up our beds and then served us a fantastic dinner with several tasty dishes. Despite how amazing this stay was, it was about 60 minutes from downtown Xi'an and Rachael and Kevin really wanted to spend the next night somewhere closer. I was a bit disappointed, but it worked out ok and Meng found us a room at a cheap but nice Inn that was close to a bunch of stuff.

The next day, we checked into that inn and then went and saw the Terracotta Warriors which is one of China's most popular attractions. It was actually quite impressive and I think it lived up to the hype. After we got back, we went and explored Xi'an's snack street where there was an endless row of restaurants and snack shops. This street was just amazing! It's some of the best night life I've seen of all the places I've been in the world and the food was even better than the atmosphere. It was full of both locals and tourists but mostly just locals. It was loud but not excessively crowded and plenty of groups of happy youngsters had their tables covered with empty beer bottles as they played their Asian drinking games. Because of this street, I wish we had spent more time in Xi'an. Unfortunately, we already had our tickets booked for the following night down to Guilin.

On the following day, we spent a couple hours biking on the old wall around Xi'an. Our guide book had this as one of the best things to do in China and I can see why. The 9km wall surrounded the entire old part of Xi'an and was maintained extremely well. Because there was an entrance fee to go up and bike on it, it was totally empty. We could see the sights of the old town while also seeing the endless line of huge buildings just on the outside of the wall. I couldn't believe how huge this city was and it was truly a sight to see. It felt so much bigger than Chicago.

That night we flew to Guilin. We were just using Guilin as a convenient entry point to get to Yangshuo so our stay there was for less than 24 hours. We met up with a couchsurfer who runs a youth hostel and he gave us a room for no charge. He also spent a good 30-45 minutes talking to us and telling us what there was to do in the area. Liu Tao, this couchsurfer, is an avid rock climber, cyclist and outdoorsman so it was great to hear his advice. After these conversations and a breakfast at a local noodle place that cost $0.60 each, we headed to Yangshuo. We spent a bunch of time in Yangshuo and I only talked about a little of it so I'll write another post about it soon!