After spending a total of 55 days on our two visits to China I have grown rather attached to this wonderful, yet at times a bit crazy, country.
The first visit saw us dash from Beijing to Datong to Pingyao to Xi’an to Chengdu and then to Shanghai in a mere 25 days. That was a lot of ground to cover in that time.
Our second visit was much more sedate. We started in Hangzhou, lazed our way along the Yangtze and then based ourselves in Yunnan for the remainder of our 30 day visa.
So what have been our highs and lows in China?:
To be honest, there hasn’t been too much we have done that given our time again we would change. The only place we didn’t like was Chongqing.
I booked us in for 2 nights here after our Yangtze cruise thinking it would be nice to cross the river on the cable car, explore a new city and to sample the famous Chongqing hotpot which is renowned for its spiciness.
And we did do all that. The only problem was the city was a bit grim. Two things made our visit not particularly great. First of all they are knocking down lots of the city to rebuild bits of it, no different of course to other Chinese cities we have been to.
What made this bad here though is that the city is based on a hill with lots of narrow stairways and passage ways. Where they were knocking down parts you could stumble into a deserted alleyway flanked by derelict buildings. It didn’t feel great to walk around. Even the bits that weren’t deserted felt pretty shady walking back through after dark. It’s the only Chinese city I haven’t felt comfortable walking around in. I can now kind of see why all organised tours whisk their participants off of the Yangtze cruise onto somewhere else immediately afterwards.
Every cloud though has a silver lining. In Chongqing we met Lloyd, a recent graduate from Shanghai, and Hann, a retiree from The Netherlands. We all got talking on our first night there and agreed to go out the following night to try the Chongqing hotpot. The three Europeans at the table coped ok with the spiciness, Lloyd nearly keeled over! He had tears flowing from his eyes and turned bright red. Afterwards Lloyd showed us the slightly nicer part of Chongqing which did improve my opinion of the city, but only marginally! We had a great evening with both Hann and Lloyd, without which our time in Chongqing might have been a bit miserable.
So Chongqing was the only place we didn’t like. The other lows seem to involve me and my bad luck! From chipping my tooth in the pitch black on the rooftop of a hutong in Beijing to finding the largest cockroach I’ve ever seen taking a rest on my arm where it had crawled up unnoticed by me whilst I ate street food in Shanghai, I have been a bit of a bad luck magnet. Alan on the other hand has strolled through China unscathed. His only bad luck seems to be relating to the speed at which he breaks sunglasses (averaging a pair a fortnight at the moment,,,).
Here are my top three most amusing/weird bad luck moments in China:
The Sweetcorn Incident
As you may recall, when I fist got to China I had a bit of a wobble with food. I didn’t cope too well with finding things to eat and reverted to eating pizza and pasta. When we arrived in Pingyao I was still not coping too well so when I saw a stand selling corn on the cob one lunchtime I immediately went and bought one and set about devouring it.
Soon after I had started eating I saw in my peripheral vision a hand reaching over my shoulder trying to grab my corn on the cob! I was quite startled by this, and without really thinking started to run down the road. Alarmingly my corn on the cob thief gave chase! He desperately wanted my half chewed sweetcorn.
Once I put a bit of distance between him and me I could see he looked pretty out of it as his eyes were rolling all over the place in his head. After all, it made no sense to try and mug me for my food when he could have gone after my purse which would have bought him bountiful quantities of sweetcorn! He kept pursuing me until Alan intervened putting a golf umbrella between him and me and shouting “No!” at him. Then he meekly wandered away, presumably in search of someone else he could snatch food from. That was a very surreal incident…
The Cat Incident
So you all know by now that I am a bit soft on cats. I am missing my own cat, Oliver, quite a lot. This means when I come across a friendly feline I like to indulge in a bit of interaction.
The cat incident also occurred in Pingyao. I was finally sorting my food issues out in a restaurant where I was enjoying some local mountain noodles and Pingyao dumplings. The cat, that clearly lived in the restaurant, came over and jumped up onto the bench next to me. Delighted, I offered it some food which it turned its nose up at. So instead I started stroking it and making friends.
It was all going well, and then there was a city wide blackout. I think the restaurant plunging into darkness startled the cat, who not only grabbed my lower arm with its paw, but then sank its teeth into my arm too, before running off at high speed never to be seen again.
I immediately let out a squeak of alarm at Alan and started worrying if I was now a rabies risk. Normally at this point I would have turned to Google to do a bit of research to find out what rabies risk a cat in China presents to people…. But we were in China and Google is blocked so we had to turn to far inferior search engines for information, even having to search for the term “search engine” as we racked our brains for what websites we used pre-Google!
Fortunately, after an anxious period of time, it turns out cats present a relatively small risk, and given that this was an urban pet cat we reckoned it was ok. This incident though has made me far more cautious approaching other cats, once bitten twice shy! I now stick to fairly safe specimens like the one above who was being hand reared in our hostel in Kunming.
The Toilet Incident
In China the squat toilet is king. Western toilets are considered to be more for the old or infirm so quite often you will not come across them when out and about in China. That’s ok though, I have kind of got used to them and even have a whole system set up to get me in and out as quickly as possible!
When we arrived in a Kunming though we encountered the next level of toilet below the flushing squat we had got used to. The channel squat. This delightful specimen has a channel running the length of the bathroom which runs underneath each cubicle. This means you can see your neighbours waste flow past beneath you as you position yourself over the channel. Doors are optional, as is any sort of meaningful partition between each one. They aren’t pretty and I only use them when desperate!
Upon returning from Lijiang to Kunming, which is about an 8 hour drive, we were both desperate because the coach toilet had been put out of action enroute and the driver hadn’t stopped for many hours before reaching Kunming. Reluctantly I went to use the toilet in the coach station, which is a channel squat although fortunately it does have a door and a full height partition.
Once done, I went to do my trousers up but to my horror couldn’t locate the button! I looked down just in time to see the button from my trousers float away into the neighbouring section. That button was a goner, there was no way I was going to retrieve that! I then had to get across the city back to our hostel making sure my trousers stayed up properly.
You know how you get a spare button sewn onto your clothes, usually on the label? I attached that onto my trousers to fix them. Two weeks later, in the toilet at Shilin coach station, the same thing happened again! I appear to be cursed with squat toilets and my buttons.
There have been so many great things in China that I have struggled to narrow it down into a short list, so I shall try to keep it brief and not waffle on for too much longer!
After I gave myself a stern talking to in Pingyao and decided to be more brave the food situation improved. This got better still after we downloaded Waygo and I could then decipher what on earth it was we were ordering.
Please allow me a moment while I reflect on all the yummy stuff we have eaten… Mmmm!
Most food has been excellent and really fresh. Particular favourites include steamed buns, cabbage cooked with chilli and garlic, anything involving noodles, dumplings. The list goes on and pretty much includes most things we have eaten! The sad thing about leaving China is knowing that we can’t get Chinese food this good back home.
Overwhelmingly our experiences with people in China have been positive. They always try to help, even if you share no language with each other. Many times we haven’t needed help but are still approached and offered it. This openness and friendliness we have encountered has made travelling through China enjoyable.
Being able to navigate our way across a city using the buses, making ourselves understood or simply learning how to order two strawberry ice creams in Chinese and actually receiving two strawberry ice creams in return! All the little challenges we have faced and overcome has been a highlight for us.
One of favourite cities because of the wealth of things to do there.
Chengdu & Kunming
Our two other favourite cities, not because there was anything particularly of note to do in them, but because they both had a good vibe and felt like quite liveable cities.
Every city we have been to the park in has given us a similar experience. There is a hive of activity with people singing, dancing, playing games, doing their exercises, flying kites, having their wedding photos taken. A Chinese park is a vibrant and interesting place to kill an hour or so in.
We really did save the best until last on our trip. We had just over 2 weeks there but could have quite easily had a lot longer there. The scenery was beautiful, the cultures diverse and the food delicious. This is somewhere I could see us going back to in the future to do all the bits we missed because we simply didn’t have long enough to do it all there.