Landscapes of Yangshuo and the Li River
1. The countryside is as huge as the cities
China tends to bring two things to mind (at least it did for me): dim-lit restaurants with high piles of steaming bamboo baskets filled with dim sum, and huge industrial cities. So starting my trip in Yangshuo took me by surprise. The city, situated in the south of the country, is surrounded by the greenest countryside, with tall mountains to hike up, snaking blue-grey rivers, cool caves to explore and little trails to cycle along. Even though Yangshuo itself is very busy and attracts a massive amount of domestic tourism, the surroundings felt calm and untouched by the pollution I encountered later…
2. To say Chinese history is complicated is an understatement
The Chengdu Museum taught me two main things: first, I know nothing about Chinese history. Secondly: learning anything at all is damn confusing. China has known countless dynasties, emperors, kingdoms, unifications, dissolutions, wars, capitals and invasions in the years since its history started being recorded, circa 1500 BC. I felt like it’s something to look into geographically rather than chronologically, as territory passed from one hand to another so quickly, and the nations of old often covered what is today Vietnam, Mongolia and Russia.
3. Food is much more varied than what we know of Chinese food in the west
No, it’s not all fried rice and sweet and sour chicken. Shanghai is home to the most amazing xia long bao and attracts locals for boiled chicken; Chengdu as capital of the Sichuan province is where spice sings (especially in hot pots) – but its ‘pizzas’ are also worth checking out; Beijing is the home of roasted duck and small dim sum shacks… You’ve got a dozen different styles of noodles per menu (my favourite were spinach sauce with spicy roasted beef, and sesame paste), meat sometimes boiled, sometimes fried, sometimes sizzled, and the best eggplant recipe in the world. No question.
Breakfast in Beijing
4. Trains are great
While The Darjeeling Limited did wonders for romanticising Indian railways, I never associated China with trains. I should have. China is home to the biggest high-speed railway system in the world. Stations are as big as airports with security to match. High-speed trains leave from gates rather than platforms, go up to 300 km/h and have screens that show exercise videos on a loop. Slower night trains are just as popular, with a hot water tap in every carriage for all your pot noodle needs, and men with trolleys walking up and down the trains selling cheap dinners.
5. There are many ways to visit the Great Wall
Like any touristic attraction, I expected the Great Wall to be busy and slightly disappointing. It just depends on where you go. The Great Wall, as per its name indicates, is pretty long – with plenty of semi-abandoned parts without another soul around. We visited such a location and had all the wall in sight to ourselves. It made sunset, sunrise and the Super Moon even more exceptional.
6. China is a well-oiled tourist destination
Domestic tourism is massive in China. What this means is that there are a lot more spots accessible to visit than just the ones you’ve heard of. Beijing and Shanghai, of course – but how about Shaolin, the home of kung-fu, or the roundhouses of Fujian? Although, disclaimer: the Chinese speak as little English as stereotypically expected and I wouldn’t backpack in some off-the-beaten-track areas as conversations might be a bit difficult.
Kung fu lesson at sunset in Shaolin
Xi’an’s city wall
Xi’an’s city wall
The terracotta warriors near Xi’an
A roundhouse in Fujian
7. The Chinese have a very special relationship to the other
There are about a thousand pictures of me on strangers’ cellphones and cameras in China. That’s because everyone, everywhere wanted a picture. Some were polite and asked, giggling, if they could have a selfie. Too many, unfortunately, would simply stare and snap; or worse, grab my arm and drag me in front of the camera without warning. Better be prepared to be very patient, and perhaps learn how to say ‘please stop, this is very rude’ in Chinese.
‘Selfie please lady.’
8. Everything about China is monumental
Cities? Immense. Railways? Kilometres and kilometres. Stations are like airports. Quick train rides are eight hours; long ones are over a day long. Local shopping centres are huge malls. Smaller cities have millions of inhabitants. The biggest one have hundreds of millions. The scale of things in China is difficult to wrap your head around and left me dizzy.
9. China has its own Venices
This particular neighbourhood surprised me so much I wanted to mention it in particular. The town of Zhujiajiao, on the outskirts of Shanghai, is in fact only one of many water towns in China – but this one might be the most famous. It’s known for its many bridges, made up of wood, stone or marble, that criss-cross over the river’s many streams. We got on a boat to discover it, then walked around the narrow lanes filled with pickle stores and cute coffee and porcelain shops. It’s a one-hour to 90-minute bus ride from Shanghai’s city centre, but worth seeing.
10. China is a country of contrasts
That’s the overwhelming feeling I took with me at the end of the month I spent in China. I kept expecting China to be very much one thing (a mistake due to my own ignorance, no doubt), but I was continuously surprised at how it manages to be one thing and its opposite. It’s fiercely traditional with great importance given to elders, history and religion, but also so very modern, with cutting-edge technology, and super sharp fashion. The rural regions can feel so very quiet, peaceful, almost barren; but the urban areas are huge and alive at all times, and the Chinese love a good party. It feels like a society full of taboos, but that’s until you’re in a Chinese club in the early hours of the morning… In short: whatever you think China is, it probably is – but it’s also a million very different, very surprising things, too.