We arrived for our third time in China with little fanfare. Our bus from Hong Kong arrived in Guangzhou, China’s third-largest city. We had several hours to kill in Guangzhou as we waited for our night train to Zhangjiajie, in the Hunan province, so we got some noodles and coffee and walked around a bit. Guangzhou was surprisingly multicultural, and seemed fairly nice, if not a bit spread out.
We secured our sleeper bunk with an hour or so to spare, and relaxed our way to Zhangjiajie.
We arrived in the morning and headed to our hotel. Zhangjiajie was atypically cold for November, and the city felt fairly dead because of it. Our German travel buddy from Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan happened to be in the area around the same time, so he planned to meet us in Zhangjiajie and was having a nap in the room when we arrived. We were all pretty beat due to incomplete sleep from our respective trains, so we took it easy for most of the day.
The next day we planned on heading to the main attraction of the Zhangjiajie region, the national park area near Wulingyuan. We took a bus out to Wulingyuan to discover that it’s actually quite a nice town and located right next to the park area, had we known that we probably would have booked accommodation there instead. The town had a similar feeling to Emeishan, and was clearly desgined to handle huge amounts of tourists in the summer. Being off season, it was comfortably quiet.
We walked about 10 minutes to the park entrance and paid the exorbitant entrance fee (some 250 yuan per person). Again, typical of Chinese parks to charge you an arm and a leg for an entrance ticket in addition to hefty sums for any service once inside the park. Hardly worth it, but something you need to pony up if you want to see the sights.
The park is beautiful, and the landscapes are quite otherworldly. This is the location they used for much of the backdrop for the movie Avatar, and that’s fairly clear once you catch a glimpse of the quartz-sandstone pillars reaching towards the sky. This park, like Emeishan, is crawling with tourists, even in the off season. Although evidence of much higher loads was visible everywhere, we were happy there were no more people than there were.
We tried to find a secluded area of the park to explore, but again, communication difficulties prevailed as nobody spoke English, and we ended up hiking a section of trail that was fairly busy. The park is also designed to wring you for all you’re worth, and the free shuttle buses run only on limited routes. Want to visit Tianzi? You’ll need to shell out the coin for a train ride. Yangjiajie? Of course no bus runs there, but we’ve got this handy elevator for only $10 a head! Said elevator happens to be the tallest outdoor elevator in the world, but it’s not all that impressive.
All this infrastructure is there because of the nature of tourism in China. Hordes of Chinese tour groups from all over China head to these places and expect everything to be easy. No need to walk more than several hundred meters when every peak has already been conquered by a gondola. Likewise, some form of paid transportation is ready and waiting to take you to every corner of every park. With this in mind, it’s extremely difficult to find solitude or natural beauty unsullied by the evidence or presence of huge groups hoping to check an item off their list or snap a selfie in front of every major landmark China has to offer. This was a fact we learned at Emeishan, and it became more solidified after our visit to Zhangjiajie.
At any rate, we managed to find ourselves alone and able to check out some beautiful scenery a few times on our hike. Unfortunately all the confusion and wayfinding left us with little time for anything else before night fell, so we were limited to a pretty central area of the park. Nonetheless, the views were spectacular, and the ever-present monkeys caused only minimal problems for us (they were mostly concerned with the plastic bags full of goodies the other groups were carrying).
We bade farewell to Timo at the train station as he was headed west to Chengdu and we were headed east to Shanghai. Our transport situation was slightly more complicated than his though…
We found ourselves on yet another plane to get out from Zhangjiajie. At this point it would be wise to acknowledge the fact that we’re flying about as much as anybody else, regardless of our intent. Such is the nature of modern budget traveling, though, as flying is oftentimes the cheapest and quickest way from point A to point B, or at least we thought so at first. Our next destination was Shanghai on the way to meet Oona’s parents in Beijing, and the path overland was to take at least two days and cost nearly $100 per person, this pain point was exacerbated by the constant filling up of all feasible options, so we were left looking for any and every alternative. Oona checked the flights and found some for only $80. Cheaper and orders of magnitude faster? Objections be damned, we were going to fly! Well, it turns out that we booked tickets for December 26th, not the current month of November. We discovered this upon reaching the airport and not seeing our flight on the monitor. With few other options we canceled the booking for a month later and spent an upwards of $200 per person for tickets on the spot. So, not cheaper at all. Tack on the cab fare from the airport to the city in Shanghai since our flight lands long after public transport has stopped and we’re looking at a major expenditure. So, yeah, not cheaper at all. Definitely still faster though, which gives us some more time in Shanghai and Suzhou.
The flight itself was an embodiment of misery. Nothing particularly bad, but a panoply of mild annoyances instead. We were delayed by a not significant amount of time, there was a lot of turbulence, there was a crying toddler in front of us for the whole trip, and we were parked on the tarmac in Shanghai while waiting for the most mundane of prerequisites to be fulfilled in that the bus to the gate was nowhere to be found. Thirst and exhaustion was getting the better of us by the time we made it to our hostel.
We got to our hostel at around 2am and promptly went to sleep. The following day we did a bit of exploring, checking out the main sights like The Bund, Nanjing Street, and the Yu Gardens. This involved a whole lot of walking, but the highlight of the day was probably the gardens. They were graciously not overcrowded –another perk of traveling in China during the off season– and so we spent some time wandering through the ornate pathways among the trees. It was a wonder that such a relaxing spot was secluded right in the middle of one of the world’s largest cities.
After much exploring within China we’re still sure that the Sichuan province has the best food. Shanghai isn’t particularly known in the west for having great food, and they have a penchant for putting sugar in everything, so even savory dishes are sweet. The pan fried dumplings common in Shanghai, however, are a definite highlight, even if they’re sweeter than most. Shanghai is certainly the most cosmopolitan of the mainland Chinese cities, though, and we spent a lot of time hanging out in the expat-frequented western style bars and restaurants. After much googling, we also compiled a list of popular cocktail joints, and visited a smattering of them on our third night in town. Barules in the French Concession was a standout, serving up some of the best cocktails we’ve had in a long while.
The afternoon before our cocktail tour we checked out the Jing’an Temple and Tianzifang. The Jing’an Temple was another relaxing jewel inside the city, but perhaps not worth the 50 yuan price tag. Apparently there are numerous other temples inside the city, lesser known yet just as nice and cheaper, if not free altogether. Tianzifang was a fairly interesting place as well, an old neighborhood repurposed into an arts and crafts center decked out with tons of independent stores.
On our last night in town we met up with an old friend of Ian’s from years ago. She has been living in Shanghai for the past several years. We had a few drinks and discussed the relative merits and drawbacks of life in China. All told, it sounds like spending years here can be pretty draining, and she’s definitely looking forward to moving back to the West in a few days.
On our last day we packed up and headed to Hongqiao railway station for our high speed train to Suzhou. A mere 30 minute trip with hundreds of trains per day made the whole procedure quite painless, we didn’t even have to buy tickets in advance!