I’m sitting on a flight from Chengdu to Ningbo in China midway through my first trip here this year. What an amazing experience it has been so far! I’ve spent time getting up close and personal with the Giant Pandas at the Research Base outside Chengdu in Sichuan Province. I’ve visited Daocheng-Yading on the border territory between China and Tibet. Whilst in Daocheng-Yading I visited the Yading Nature Reserve and saw the Holy Mountain of the Tibetans, as well as climbing to an altitude of 4400m (14,400ft). I had high altitude sickness, which comprised insomnia for 5 days and a headache for the first couple of days. I was humbled to be taken to visit several Buddhist Temple’s but the one at Garze-Daocheng in the photos was the most beautiful and awe inspiring place I have ever seen. I stood eating the spicy street food, which was delicious, and had my arms and legs stroked by local Tibetan guys who’d never seen a “foreigner” like me before! I have drunken Chinese tea at tea houses including at the People’s Park in Chengdu and had my ears cleaned out! I was put “on show” in a hot pot restaurant at the Wide and Narrow Alley’s in Chengdu, for everyone to see, as I sat on my own in a glass dining room eating spicy hot pot much to the locals delight and amusement!
Arriving in China
I spent the first two weeks in China, mainly in Shanghai and Ningbo (on the coast of the East China Sea), and in Kaiping and Shuikou (in the southern region, Guangdong). Whilst staying there Duncan and I were taken out by his company’s suppliers for very lavish, very fine banquets. There was so much food! There is a heavy drinking culture in China, which mainly revolves around wealthy men, with far too much money, lavishing out on banquets. Drinking (mostly very good imported European red wine) and playing drinking games known as “Gānbēi” (translates as dry cup). This mainly involves a toast and finishing whatever is in your glass. This “game” can happen over and over and over. The lavish banquets are often finished with a visit to “KTV” which mostly involves more drinking, more Gānbēi, playing dice games, karaoke singing which is all “hosted” by “girls” who are there for the men’s entertainment. On the times I asked if there were any “boys” available I was met with quiet amusement and politely told “there are no boys available”. The worst part is when the young women are lined up at the front of the room and the men are required to choose one. We did not take part in this part of the evening.
Duncan tended to leave KTV quite early, after enough time to seem polite and not to appear rude to our hosts. I stayed until I’d had enough dice playing and karaoke singing and tended to drink water or tea so if I was invited to Gānbēi I could easily and happily do so.
Adventures in Sichuan Province
My adventures in Sichuan Province started in Chengdu, which is a vast city in the east of the province. I stayed in the Crowne Plaza hotel in the city centre and used this as my base to explore the city. I arrived late in the day so my first venture was to go out and get dinner. I took a plunge and using the amazing language translation app I negotiated a really traditional Sichuan hot pot meal. You get your hot pot which is full of stock, chilli oil, fresh Sichuan peppers, spices and fresh ginger put into the middle of the table on a gas or electric burner. This is then heated to a rolling boil. You go and choose your sticks, each stick has some kind of vegetable, tofu, mushroom (meat if you eat it), plus you choose your own blend of spices as a dip. The meal, which was lavish and delicious, cost the equivalent of about £8 and included bowls of rice and plenty of bottles of water.
On my first full day there I spent hours walking the city streets, trying to find the People’s Park and the Wide and Narrow Alleys. Both, famous places in Chengdu. I hadn’t, at that point, realised that my mobile phone map app worked in the city and I could have used it easily to find both places so I used the map the hotel had given me, asking directions and using sign language! I eventually found my way to the People’s Park and I loved it. I spent a good long hour drinking tea in the tea-house and chatted to a lovely woman called Chenxxa who was also visiting Chengdu and was an English teacher and so she had really good English. After I told her all about my work, which she thanked me for doing, she told me of a young person in her school who had come out as gay when he was aged 14-15 and how he had been bullied. I told her that it probably wasn’t too different in (many) schools in the U.K. We both had our ears cleaned: which is a thing in Chengdu, and my therapist was a very smiley, cheerful chap who was happy to have his photo taken whilst he worked.
After I visited the People’s Park I found the Wide and Narrow Alleys. I found them after sitting in a taxi asking the driver to take me to them and him pointing across the road opposite to where they were! There were so many people in the alleys that I decided to go and sit in a restaurant, and that’s when I got put into the glass room and stared at a lot. This was my second most expensive meal (£21) and I had my own dining room and waitress who cooked my hot pot and served it for me.
Chenxxa had suggested I go and visit the Temple of the Marquis Wu in Chengdu which was also very interesting but full of people, many, many Chinese tourists. I got some good photos and found a Starbucks inside the temple, which was a little weird, but it had air con and coffee so I didn’t complain. The main part of the temple was charged for so this meant there were less people wandering around and I found a few points of calm and quiet. After being in the inner part of the temple I found a tea-house where I got to have tea, I took my current favourite selfie, and had a great, simple bowl of spicy noodles with peanuts for lunch.
The next day was my trip to the Giant Panda Research Base. I was really excited to go and see the panda’s and the research base houses 120 giant pandas. I took a taxi from the hotel to the base; taxis are so cheap in China, an average trip across a city will cost between (equivalent) of £3 (average). The most I have paid was a taxi to and from the airport, which was about £6. On arrival I saw the thousands of people also visiting the base. It didn’t put me off and I found my way to the ticket office and joined the queues to enter the base. It was quite a warm day and so half of the panda’s were inside their air-conditioned houses and the other half were out and about and some of the small red panda’s were up in the trees. I enjoyed seeing them but there were so many people it was difficult to get a respite from the crowds. This was mainly due to the fact that it was the summer holidays so there were a lot of families with children visiting the base.
Adventures in Daocheng-Yading-Garve
The next day I took a flight from Chengdu to Daocheng-Yading. The airport at Daocheng-Yading is the highest in the world at 4400m (14,400ft) and so I was lucky to have prepared some high attitude sickness medication whilst I was still in Chengdu. If I ever did this trip again I would go by land and arrive gradually. It is a grueling 12-hour drive from Chengdu to Daocheng but at least you wouldn’t get sick. The high altitude sickness hit me as a headache for the first couple of days, with a slight nausea for the first 24 hours but I had 5 days of insomnia whilst I was there which for me was the worst part. Luckily I had chatted online to a guy called Leo from Tibet, whilst I was in Chengdu, who knew the area and advised me to get the medication. Making connections with local people really has made this trip for me.
Duncan’s wonderful colleague Jean at “Team China” had helped me to make contact with Mr Liu who ran the hotel I stayed at in Daocheng (cost £35 per night). Mr Liu met me on my first trip and asked me to let him know where I wanted to visit. He arranged for my trip through the Yading Nature Reserve and my trip around Garve-Daocheng. The hotel was in the centre of Daocheng so I could easily walk around the small town. I describe this as the wild-west, as it really is. It is officially in the “Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture” of Sichuan Province, China. In my language it is in Tibet! It certainly looked and felt like Tibet and the people looked like Tibetans, which was quite different from seeing only Chinese faces.
I arrived late into Daocheng so I spent the late afternoon and early evening orientating myself with the small town. I found the main town square, which was very close by to the hotel, and a small shopping centre, which had people dancing in the centre. This seems to be a tradition in most Chinese and Tibetan towns and cities I have visited. Mr Liu also owned a coffee shop directly opposite the hotel managed by a lovely young guy who had quite good English so I was able to make plans with him and Mr Liu for my trips around Daocheng-Yading-Garve.
The next morning I had a very early start. I was met by the cheeky Mr Catch and the lovely Wilu. I would be travelling with them by car and a driver to Yading Nature Reserve. I had no idea what lay ahead of me, but wow just wow. Mr Liu had recommended I get breakfast and take some food for lunch with me but I was confident I wouldn’t need it, how wrong was I! Catch and Wuli had some English, enough between them for us to communicate, and Wilu happily shared some of his food and drink with me (thank you!). We stopped at a small town on route for me to get breakfast (noodles) and then we went on to the nature reserve. I am not sure I can say too much about the experience, I will let the pictures tell the story.
On my last full day in Daocheng-Yading Mr Liu took Luxin, who was volunteering at the coffee shop, and I on a road trip around Garve-Daocheng. I thought the day before had been one of the most epic days of my life thus far. Climbing to 4200m and seeing the Yading Nature Reserve and the Holy Mountain of the Tibetans but oh my days this road trip was also something else. We started the day by going to see the horses and horse riders out on the plain. The visit to the Buddhist Monastery at Garve was just simply amazing: to meet the monks, even getting silly selfies with them; walking around and seeing the amazing art works; to see inside the temples; getting to eat spicy street food and have my arms and legs stroked, all quite something else.
Zhuhai – Hong Kong – Shenzhen
Duncan and I travelled together from Shuikou to Zhuhai. We stayed in the Crowne Plaza and had a beautiful room overlooking the city at the top of the hotel. I loved Zhuhai and we enjoyed the first few days there together. One of the best aspects of the hotel was the roof top outdoor pool which I absolutely loved and spent as much time in as possible. It gave respite from the heat! Duncan and I travelled to Hong Kong by ferry from Zhuhai. The ferry trip took about an hour and you basically exit the ferry in to a shopping plaza (they have air con and give much needed respite from heat and humidity). Hong Kong was good to visit but in summary I would say it is a condensed version of Fifth Avenue in New York City or Bond Street in London. Think “shopping” and money and you have it in one. Every where you looked there was Gucci, Tiffany, Cartier, Armani, the list goes on… My take on Hong Kong is if you have to ask how much it is you can’t afford it. It is clearly a tax haven for the very rich. When Duncan spotted a watch the same value as our house, well you get the picture. We did get to walk around Kowloon Park and spend time watching pink flamingos and an amazing array of parrots, which I absolutely loved because I can speak “parrot”.
On my last night in Zhuhai, after Duncan returned to Shuikou, I was taken out by a guy called Hanson for a meal; he was originally from Harbin in the far north east of China, Hanson wanted to let me experience food from his hometown, so we went for a lovely dinner together, it was delicious!
From Zhuhai I took a ferry to Shenzen. I went for luxury again and had a good hotel and easy transport by taxi from the ferry to the hotel. The hotel was right in the city centre and so I could easily walk everywhere I wanted to get to. My first venture out of the hotel I got some street food noodles for pence and walked around to aclimitise and orientate myself. I found an amazing multi-storey shopping mall which even had a pizza restaurant and air con so I could get respite from the heat. The weather in Shenzen turned to rain so I decided to do some indoor things like getting my hair cut and beard trimmed, going for a Chinese massage and generally hanging out in coffee shops. There are many Starbucks places in the cities in China and some Pacific Coffee which I preferred so I tended to gravitate to them. I even found a Costa Coffee in Chengdu.
I spent the my last day in Shenzen with Stella from “Team China” and we visited a tower which was the tallest building in China but has since been overtaken by a few other taller buildings. I took the train and the metro to Guangzhou airport and met Duncan. We made our way back to Ningbo together for a final night in the apartment together before my return in December.
For anyone travelling in China here are my top tips…
Top Tips for Travelling in China
- Use a translation app if your language skills are limited. I used the Google translate app and found it invaluable in all sorts of situations: Especially in restaurants and taxis. Young people that work in restaurants, often have the equivalent app on their phone and so you can have a conversation.
- You can use your bankcard to withdraw cash from an ATM. Use Bank of China, which is what I used.
- Be prepared to see what looks like a pet fish shop be a restaurant menu. The fish will certainly be fresh!
- People are friendly and helpful the world over. I travelled on my own in both Guangdong and Sichuan Provinces and met some lovely people. Many who wanted to practice their English.
- If you visit a high altitude place like Daocheng-Yading-Garve, as I did, you should take altitude sickness medicine as the airport is at an elevation of about 4400m (14,400ft). Or travel overland which is probably more sensible!