China as a Travel Hub

Great Wall of china

*We entered and exited China four times in the last two months, so I waited until the end of our China visits to post this.

* I wrote Taiwan, Hong Kong & Macau, and Tibet as separate posts because of their unique cultural or geographical identities, even though technically they are part of China.

On April 4th we walked over the border between Macau (which I wrote about that in this post) and Zhuhai, and boarded a bus to go north to Guangzhou, China. We spent the night there, and then took a train to Yichang.  We chose that as our first stop because we wanted to see the Three Rivers Dam and the beautiful gorges and rivers in the area.  I have wanted to see that area ever since seeing the movie The Painted Veil, which was filmed in that area in 2004- the last film that was made in the area before the dam was built. We went on a tour of the dam- the largest in the world- and took lots of pictures.  Unfortunately our tour of the dam was not in English. But we figured out most of it anyway.  In Yichang, we stayed in a nice hostel, which thankfully had heat, which was good because it was super cold there. So cold, I had to break down and buy a jacket, even though it’s April already.

Three Rivers Dam

From Yichang, we took an overnight train to Xi’an, home of the terra cotta warriors.  I happen to love overnight trains. The best duration is 12 hours. You board the train around 7 or 8 pm, settle in, read for an hour or two, then pop a sleeping pill, put on your eye mask and earplugs, and sleep for 8 hours. Wake up, have a cup of coffee, and an hour later you’re there.  Drop your bags off at the hotel, and you’re ready to go sightseeing. It’s way more comfortable than a long bus ride, cheaper than a plane ride, and you save a night’s accommodation costs. Plus you get to see some scenery.

My train companions

Although I do have to say that I like the Thailand trains better than the Chinese trains. Thai trains, in 2nd class, have long rows of bunk beds, that convert to table and chairs during daytime hours.  All the bunks have a privacy screen.  Once you’re in it for the night, you’re pretty cozy. Chinese trains, in 2nd class, have three tiered bunks, which means you basically can’t sit up right in any of them.  No privacy curtains.  Alongside one wall of the train are tiny pull-down tables and chairs. Tiny. We did two 2nd class Chinese trains (called “hard sleepers”, even though the beds are fairly soft), and two 1st class (called soft sleepers, not actually any softer). In first class, they have two sets of bunk beds inside a private cabin, with a small table in between them. The door closes for privacy and you can control the lights, and they have a tv in them, although I never used it.

Chris on a Thai Sleeper Train/ Chris on a Chinese Sleeper Train

Aaaaanyway, we arrived at the home of the Terra Cotta Warriors, Xi’an. They were made  2,200 years ago, to celebrate the first emperor of the Qin Dynasty, considered to be the unifier of China. Discovered by farmers digging a well in 1976, so far over 8,000 warriors, including archers, infantry, cavalry, and horses, chariots, acrobats, strongmen, musicians, and generals have been uncovered. About half are on display; the rest are still under cover until the preservationists can figure out better techniques for preserving the delicate polychrome lacquer painted on the statues. They were quite a sight, and a lifelong goal of mine.

A bucketlist item checked off: The Terra Cotta Soldiers of Xi’an

Afterwards we walked around the walled city of Xi’an, sampling some food and seeing their Bell Tower and Drum Tower. The city is pretty far west, so we saw some of the Uigur, Chinese Muslims, with their big bee-hive head scarves all wrapped up around their hair.

From Xi’an, another sleeper train to Beijing.  There we explored Tiennemen Square and the Forbidden City, both not far from our hotel. Tiennemen Square is pretty boring, really, just a big square, but The Forbidden City had all kinds of courtyards, palaces, apartments, alleyways, etc.  Afterward, we climbed a hill just north of the Forbidden City, and got a look at it from above.  There you could really see Beijing’s pollution. Kind of sad.

The Forbidden City
The Forbidden City

We had Peking Duck for dinner, and of course we went to the Great Wall.  Talk about another lifelong dream! We went to the Matianyu section, about 70 km from Beijing, chosen due to it generally being less crowded than other sections closer to the city.  We took a cable car up to Tower 14, hiked up and along to Tower 26, then returned back to Tower 6 and took a ski lift back to the bus park. All in all, about 8 km of hiking. It was amazing seeing the wall curve and wend its way along the mountains, and all along the cherry blossom trees were just beginning to bloom.

The Great Wall of China; Peking Duck
The Great Wall of China; and Peking Duck

In Beijing, we also visited the Temple of Heaven. It’s located in a beautiful park, and used to be reserved solely for the emperor as he made an annual sacrifice. One temple there is the oldest wooden temple in China. The blue, circular wooden buildings are really amazing examples of Chinese architecture and cosmology.

The Temple of Heaven

We met with our DPRK group, and flew to N Korea. When that trip finished, we had one day and night back in Beijing- more Peking Duck.  Then we flew to Mongolia. When we returned from Mongolia, we had one night in Beijing before our trip to Tibet. No time for more duck.

When we left Tibet, we took the train from Lhasa to Lanzhou, a medium-sized city pretty much in the middle of China.  We chose the train because we wanted to see the scenery as we left Tibet.  It was amazing. We went over some pretty high mountain passes. I could feel it in the air as we tried to breathe. The Tibet trains have special glass windows to block out UV Rays, because the atmosphere is so thin. Each cabin has special oxygen hook-ups in case you need it.

Western Tibet/ Eastern China

Last stop in China was Lanzhou. The city was considered the beginning of the Silk Road for all goods leaving China and heading west. The plateau that the province sits on was also probably one of the first settled parts of China, and has an amazing number of potsherds, early bronze items, etc. Even a large number of dinosaur bones have been found here. They have a pretty good museum with several rooms, so we went to it. The Silk Road, Han Buddhism, fossils, and Neolithic Pottery were all nice exhibits.  And it was free.  I wholly approve of free museums.

Lanzhou Museum

After crossing The Yellow River, we headed to the airport.  We will fly via Shanghai and arrive in Seoul on Saturday, May 9.  Country #84!

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