Several days in Irkutsk saw me doing embarrassingly little. With the end of travels looming on the horizon and the exitement of horse riding in Mongolia over, I was not feeling in the most adventurous of moods. The fact that I had an extremely good book that stole away hours of my time the moment I ventured into its digital pages was an additional diversion.
After a good night’s sleep-my hostel had delightfully comfortable beds-I set out into the city, following the tourist walking route. The hostel desk had a stack of city maps with the route printed on them but when I reached a road on the route, I discovered a green line had been painted to mark the route. Hence I was easily able to wander the city and see each of the 30 sights the line snaked passed, reading the plaques that marked them. Had I been in more of a sightseeing mood I may have also entered some of the museums or churches but as it was, I was content with stretching my legs and seeing a little of the city. The plaques were a tad dry, being of the factual nature but I still enjoyed reading them and discovering the history of Irkutsk, it was interesting to see just how many of them had been damaged in a huge fire that took place in 1879.
At this point I would like to insert an aside to extol the virtues of having a walking route fully marked out on the road in addition to the more traditional “here is a map with a line drawn on it” method or the occasional “signposted when we remember” approach. For starters, tourist maps are notoriously terrible as they have an unfortunate tendency to forget the existence of many roads. Furthermore, they cannot be used if there is even the slightest hint of rain and in both the case of map and signpost, one inevitably ends up feeling lost due to a lack of suitable signage giving directions or road names. On a personal level, I enjoyed the opportunity to walk without having to stop and consult my map every minutes. All in all I think more places should adopt this sightseeing approach though perhaps they could include amusing anecdotes and local lore in addition to who built what and when.
Accompanied the next day by looming clouds and a steady rain, I caught the bus to Listvyanka on the shore of Lake Baikal. For a drive that takes between one and two hours I was happy to discover it cost a mere £1.60 each way. Before I eventually gave up at peering through the continuously steamy windows-somewhere between here and Singapore, condensaton switched back to forming on the inside of windows-I was surprise by how quickly the city ended and we returned to the countryside.
Lake Baikal is the largest lake in the world, containing some fifth of the world’s fresh water, and it certainly gave that impression as I stood on the shore and strained to see the other side. With the low cloud cover, this was not initially impossible but after I had warmed up with some borscht and coffee in a quaintly maritime themed cafe, the clouds had cleared enough for me to make out the faint smudge of land. This was only possible because Lake Baikal’s true size lies in its length of 636 kilometres while its maximum width is only 79 kilometres. Due to my short stay in Irkutsk, I had decided not to visit the more scenic section of the lake around Olkhon Island because of the time constraints involved and given the grey weather I think this was indeed the best option as I doubt hiking around would have been that enjoyable and scenery is only good if you can see it. Instead, I nosed around the small market for a bit and sat on the shoreline enjoying the sound of waves as I delved back into the pages of my book.
My finally day in Irkutsk was spent lazing around the hostel and buying some food for the next leg of my trip along to Kazan. I settled on porridge sachets for breakfasts, instant noodles for dinners and then some bread and cucumber with salami to make sandwiches at lunchtime.
After a few days of recovery from riding and several glorious hot showers, I set off on the next leg of my Trans Siberian adventure. The morning before I left, I stocked up on food. With less than twenty four hours of travelling, I managed to avoid instant noodles, instead opting for a loaf of bread, a cucumber and some tomatoes along with some snacks to stave off any nibbles I might catch.
Boarding the train was easy and I quickly found my bunk. In the cabin of four, I was sharing with a Korean couple and an Israeli. With the couple on the bottom bunks I mostly spoke to the Isreali who had been travelling around Mongolia and China for a few months. Needless to say, I was rather jealous of how long he had had in Mongolia. As we chatted I could hear the distinctive tones of an American and Brit drifting throughout the carriage as they chatted away to their various companions. It is amazing how certain accents carry above others.
Our border crossing was painless in that nothing went wrong but at the same time seemed to drag on forever on both sides. With the late hour (we didn’t leave the Russian side until 0145) everyone got a little grumpy and there was some screaming and crying from the aforementioned Brit although this was quickly stopped with some stern Russian words.
As always, I slept well once we set out from the border, even if it was for far too little time since we pulled into Ulan Ude around 0600 and the Isreali disembarked, sadly waking me up despite his best attempts to be quiet. I think the sun was halfway to waking me up anyway. I dozed fitfully for a little longer before giving up and staring out at what I could see of the scenery from my position on the top bunk.
We eventually pulled into Irkutsk, my first stop in Russia, and I set off towards my hostel ignoring offers of a taxi, instead choosing to walk and see a little of the city.
The past two weeks have been some of the best in my life. I can think of only a few other occasions that have been so full of laughs, 360° scenery and adventure for such an extended period of time. Ever since hearing my grandmother’s description of Mongolia, I knew I would eventually find my way to the Steppes and this summer seemed like the perfect time to go. Rather than a quick foray into the wilds before returning to Ulan Bator in a matter of days, I booked a seventeen day horse riding tour in the Zavkhan Province. Not all of this was riding, the first and last were more bookend days in Ulan Bator with welcome and goodbye meals and we also had a number of days of driving in the ubiquitous UAZ vans.
On the long drive out to Tosontsengel in Zavkhan Province-this took several days-we stopped at the Erdene Zuu Monastery which contains what is probably the oldest Buddhist temple in Mongolia. This was really interesting because-since it belongs to a sect of Tibetan Buddhism-there was a lot of influence from other religions, notably shamanism. In particular the demon statues and paintings were simultaneously mildly terrifying and very cool. The presence of a rainbow and mountainous hills (when does a hill become a mountain?) stretching up beyond the plains further excited me and all I could think was I can’t wait to be riding through this.
The first couple of nights before we met up with the horses and cook tent we stayed in tourist ger camps and enjoyed the last showers we would be experiencing for a while. The first one held a traditional Mongolian music performance by local students in the evening, which was enjoyable and I am still amazed over the throat singing and the sounds it produced. The second camp was next to an extinct volcanic crater, the rim of which we climbed up to and were rewarded with yet more spectacular views.
The next day was when we finally got to meet and ride some of the horses in what I will refer to as speed dating for riders. This was so Haldi-our trip leader-could assess our riding ability and confidence so he could pair everyone off with suitable horses. I was surprised that one of our group had never so much as sat on a horse before and as the trip progressed, was increasingly impressed with how well they took to riding at all speeds. Trying an ex-race horse was a fun experience as he was very quick to canter which I will confess to letting him do, although I have a sneaking suspicion we weren’t supposed to be going any faster than a trot. Whoops. A couple of other horses amused me with their ability to go in only one direction: towards camp. I mean it is not as if we were going in a fifty metre circle anyway.
As the sun rose, waking up everyone along with it (black out tents should be a thing), we devoured our porridge and finally got to find out which horse we would be riding. My horse was one of the ones that hadn’t been ridden the previous day and as I managed to haul my vertically challenged self into the saddle from the ground (lets ignore that I had the shortest horse and that Mongolia horses are short as it is), I was informed he was “fast”. As we started off a a short walk to become acquainted with our horses, he certainly lived up to this, pulling towards the front of the group. Other than this, everything was fine until we spotted some wild horses on the opposite side of the valley.
I could tell relatively quickly that he was getting excited about something as we kept pulling ahead. My plan of attack was circle back into the group and tuck in behind someone else. Unfortunately for me the soon to be christened Demon Horse had other ideas and we cantered off. Here Haldi’s advice of steer uphill came in handy and we eventually drew to a halt. From this point on I spent the ride trying not to ride off in a cloud of dust. Even if Demon Horse was slightly better behaved after our snack break, possibly we were headed down a steep incline, I knew he was just biding his time… waiting.
And indeed he was as I found out as I tried to mount after lunch. This took multiple attempts as with my less than tall nature and the awkward cushion saddle, I struggled to get on quickly and he kept trying to run off when I was halfway on. I felt a small amount of vindication when even the wrangler had the same issue but after he had proved it was possible to get on Demon Horse I was hoisted into the saddle and we set off. The gentle ride quickly devolved into a battle of wills. With me arguing that staying in the group and walking was a good idea and Demon Horse of the alternate view that a nice trot or canter would be far more preferable. I began to suspect that Haldi and I had a different definition of “a little challenging” (I’ll admit to not miding his definition), despite reassurances that Demon Horse would calm down in a couple of days. That said I was enjoying myself immensely. Not only was the scenery delightfully stunning to ride through but Dagii’s food was absolutely delicious and everyone was blown away by how much she could cook on the wood stove-later on in our trip she made bread on it!
The next day we set out from our base camp and began our actual trek out into the Mongolian wilderness. Demon Horse was very well behaved and by the time we returned to our new camp from the short afternoon ride-cantering and galloping across sand dunes-he had been downgraded to Rascal which remained his name for the rest of the trip.
From then on we changed camp location each day with a long morning ride and took shorter afternoon rides to explore our surrounds. Along the way we experienced the warm hearted hospitality of a number of local families, sharing food and drinking (lots of) vodka. From the Mongolian “quick lunch” to cream and dried yoghurt we were plied with food and sampled multiple batches of home made milk vodka. Something the student stereotype in me was excited to discover was the tradition that a bottle must be finished once it has been opened instead of being dipped into now and again.
In the evenings we tried a variety of games and activities, including archery (I suddenly understood why all the female archers at my club used to wear chest guards) and knuckles which Dagii beat us at thoroughly. Playing white bone one night was amusing as it is also played in Scandinavia (by a different name) and since we had one Swede and two Norwegians, I was left with the distinct impression it is the Monopoly of lawn games, with no one quite agreeing on the rules. There was also cake on a couple of nights as we celebrated two birthdays, a most unusual occurrence according to Haldi as apparently there are normally only a couple every season. The only downside was having eaten so much of Dagii’s food we barely had room for it.
All the support team were wonderfull. I’ve mentioned Dagii’s cooking, I still can’t decide if her noodles or fried bread was best. The drivers transported the camp in the UAZ vans each day, having it set up by the time we arrived. A couple of days off roading at the end of our trip to reach the airport, proved their driving prowess and care for the cars. One of our wranglers was nicknamed the man, the myth, the legend and later on part time wrangler, full time badass for the way he would lounge on the floor of the gers we visited and during snack breaks when he would immediately light up. His brown deel was complemented with a trilby and tinted sunglasses. I am fairly certain he and Haldi had an unspoken contest to lounge in the coolest way and spot at each snack break. Halfway through, the wrangler disappeared from the group in a cloud of mystery and while we found out it was due to an argument, this didn’t stop us inventing stories of his adventures.
After lasting most the trip unharmed, we had something of a massive pile up during a long canter. Fortunately, aside from some nasty bruises and a little shock, there was no lasting damage. This did however, signal for everyone else to start injuring themselves in minor ways and were lucky to have a trainee nurse with us, who really should be given a discount since they patched us up so well. I almost came off in the pile up but managed to cling on. It was only later as we were mounting back up that I came off because my saddle had broken, the cushion partially coming off, and Rascal was feeling flighty so took off before I had got my leg over his back.
We wrapped up the trip with some bare back riding (extremely painful on a skinny horse) and trying to pick things up off the ground from horseback. Picking things up was unsurprisingly hard and we all practised on Pumba who was the oldest and most steady of the horses. I was amazed to later see in the Mongolian music videos (playing at the front of the UAZ van) people picking things up at a canter. #lifegoals me thinks.
My words are insufficient to explain the magic of crossing open plains, hills looming ahead as birds wheel in a pristine sky. I can not articulate the emotion of standing atop a mountain and gazing across rolling hills of verdant green and realising the only sign of humanity is those who stand with you. Through valleys and over mountains, climbing rocks and ducking tree branches nothing can compare to the uplifting freedom I felt and the knowledge of belonging on this little blue dot to explore and appreciate its beathstealing beauty. Mongolia is truly an amazing place to visit and seeing it from horseback a humbling experience everyone should seek.
The superstitious may consider my trouble reaching Ulan Bator from Beijing a result of travelling over Friday the 13th. However, the real culprit was much more mundane. The Naadam Festival in a Mongolian national holiday which stretches from the 11th July to the 15th July. By all accounts it is a lot of fun to go visit and I know a lot of tours will digress from their normal route to attend for at least a day. Unfortunately for me, the Festival also meant that the China/Mongolia border was closed.
My travels started out smoothly. On the morning of the 12th I had gone to Yongdingmen Bus Station and purchased my sleeper bus tickets for 180 yuan (£20). After lazing around the hostel for the day and enjoying some potatoes and skewers for lunch at a little shop in the Qianmen area, I returned to the bus station and boarded the bus. So far so good. It was smooth travelling the entire way to Erlian on the border and aside from being rather hot (all modes of transit in most of Asia are either roasting ovens or competing to host the next winter olympics) I had a good nights sleep.
This good fortune came to abrupt halt when I returned to the bus stop having got some more cash to be told “border closed. No bus, no car, train tomorrow” via phone translator. Ah. Now that could be a problem. Just a tiny one. Interestingly it seemed that no one realised the border as closed until we arrived in Erlian and there was no mention of it anywhere online. Thankfully I didn’t have to worry about my visa running out – I still had a few days on that front – and I still had a number of days before my Mongolian tour started.
I’d just go to the train station, book my ticket, and find somewhere to spend the night. Simple right? Not so much. When I tried the most obvious ticket office they sent me off, saying that I would have to buy the tickets the morning of the following day at a different office in that direction. Deciding to try and find the office in advance, I went next door but they waved me off further down the road. My exploration of “100m down the road” yielded a couple of maybes but no concrete ticket offices (no English signs here). It was only later in the day when I ran into another foreigner that they were able to show me which building to go to.
I spent the night in a 40 yuan (£4.50) a room night that, had I wanted to use the shower (considering the lack of door, I didn’t) would have cost me an additional 80 yuan). Waking up the next day with a few new bites, I set out to the ticket office two hours before it opened to ensure I was at the head of the queue.
It was just as well I did. Over the next two hours more and more people arrived, many determinedly shoving themselves in the front, until the front of the queue resembled sardines in a tin. This didn’t stop a couple of small fist fights from breaking out ahead of me. Think of the US’s black Friday sales. Eventually the door opened. And I mean door. The entrance may have had double doors but the crush of bodies forcing their way through was so great that the moment one was opened outward, there was no way the other could be opened. After stopping everyone from crushing a small Swiss lady whose bag was caught, against the door frame, I dashed up the stairs and began the queuing process all over again.
Fortunately it wasn’t as tightly packed. Instead there was lots of shouting and even more fisticuffs. Oh joy. Mercifully I was able to buy my Erlian to Zamiin Udd ticket (66 yuan, £7.50) and my Zamiin Udd ticket (233 yuan, £26) with little issue. The only downside was having to leave my passport so I could collect the second ticket later in the day. This was considerably cheaper than I had been expecting as the only online prices I had been able to find were for the official Trans Siberian from Beijing to Ulan Bator so I been expecting the price to be somewhere between £80 and £135. I think the difference was than this train was travelling from Hohhot rather than Beijing so had more local prices.
I spent the rest of the day with the swiss lady I previously mentioned and an American expat who works in Ulan Bator since they were both waiting for the train as well. This was a blessing as not only was it good to have someone to talk to, but the American had a wealth of infomation regarding Ulan Bator. We eventually boarded, my penknife getting confiscated as we went through security. After an interminable wait to get moving in Erlian and an even longer one for passport checks in Zamiin Udd I was ecstatic when the train finally began to move onward to Ulan Bator.
The next day, after three days of travelling I finally made it safely to Ulan Bator, only a few more insect bites worse for wear. Upon reaching my hostel, I luxuriated in a hot shower and treated myself to a nice meal at the Veranda restaurant before catching an early night.
Beijing was an interesting city and even now I can’t decide if I liked it. Here, even more so than the other cities, the continuous security checks were apparent. Perhaps it was because I used the metro, excellently signposted in English, which has a security check at every entrance or that every street corner seemed to have a policeman standing on it. Either way it always felt a bizarre mixture between unsettling and ridiculously over the top. Especially with most security checks being incredible lazy.
I started off with two of Beijing’s most well known tourist spots, Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. There is not much to say about Tiananmen Square, it is a square that even with hundreds of tourists still seems empty. I didn’t fancy visiting Chairman Mao’s Mausoleum so after taking a photo of its exterior, I turned round and ventured into the Forbidden City.
Getting tickets was far more work than should have been necessary. Paying by mobile phone using WeChat or Alipay is increasingly popular in China in fact it is so popular that the majority of Forbidden City tickets are sold by scanning a QR code and paying online. This method doesn’t really work for those of us who don’t have either payment method. Instead I wandered around the entrance courtyard with the vague instructions of “go straight turn right” to find the counter that sells tickets for cash. I eventually found it under the title of service counter near the entrance into the Forbidden City proper. While I imagine this method is considerably quicker, I do feel there could have been a signpost showing where to get tickets if one didn’t have the correct online payment methods.
I sped through the Forbidden City, perhaps I would have spent longer if I had decided to rent an audio guide but my patience for them fizzled out somewhere in Vietnam. As it was, I enjoyed looking around and reading the few signs that were up. The shear scale of the palace was truly impressive. I particularly liked the huge man made rock formation towards the back of the complex.
After refuelling with some beef noodles, I ventured into Jingshan Park which offered a marvellous view over the entire Forbidden City complex and, more importantly, a cold breeze. This was doubly precious since, as is generally the case, to get a good view one has to climb up a hill. It wasn’t a particularly challenging hill but the Asian sun makes mountains of molehills when it is pounding down from above. On the way up I ran into half of the Australian family that I had had such an enjoyable time with in Xi’an. This was my first time running into someone I had met earlier in my travels so I was very excited. I had begun to think of such events on an almost mythical level.
I spent the rest of the afternoon in Beihai Park alternating between strolling and reading my book: The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson. The park was lovely and open with a huge lake in the centre and lots of little buildings and temples that one could investigate. This was also my first time trying the Chinese yoghurt which came in a cute little jar and is drank through a straw. It was rather tasty to say the least, although I dread to think how much sugar was in it. I wrapped up the day with Peking duck and a very full stomach.
The next two days were spent on my Great Wall tour, which was absolutely amazing and made my bucket list one item shorter. I spent the afternoon of the second day making friends in my new hostel and wondering around the Qianmen area. This is quite a touristy spot with lots of hostels but the historical buildings (a fair few of which I am certain were just imitations) were very nice to walk among with lots of fancy tea shops and more affordable souvenir shops. As I was meandering I came across a group practicing some kind of dance. This is one thing I like about China; it is common to seeing groups practicing dancing or tai chi together.
The next day I visited the Summer Palace with another lass from the hostel. The weather was horribly muggy and turned to rain just as we were leaving so we cut short the rest of our day. As for the Palace, I much preferred it to the Forbidden City as there were a lot more trees and elements of nature throughout the complex, including a large lake. I also think the buildings seemed nicer: they had more historicity to reference The Man in the High Castle. The aged paint and weathered walls made the whole place feel far more real.
My final full day in Beijing, I visited first the Temple of Heaven followed by the 798 Art District. The temple was cool, I found the towering nature of it quite imposing and the symmetry was please but at the end of the day, I’ve seen a lot of temples and old buildings and sometimes they do tend to blur into one. The Art District of the other had was awesome. It was a lovely change from old Beijing to the quirky, new and upbeat modern Beijing (dare I say hipster).
Stretched throughout the complex of old factories are galleries, cafes and boutiquey shops selling artists’s wares. My eyes hardly knew which store window to stare through as I walked along and my window shopping game was strong as ideas for entire outfits sprung from single pieces of jewellery. The galleries were also amazing. I had two favourites; one which worked with melted copper, turning it into both abstract and more realistic sculptures, including one that just hinted at mountain peaks with trees sprouting from them; the second contained beautiful abstract paintings that again just hinted at an idea of form and shape creating a tranquil harmony. The district, while out of the way from a lot of the main sights, is a must see and perhaps me favourite spot in Beijing, although Beihai Park is a close contender.
In a way it serves me right, I should have known better than to talk of having good weather. However I do think it a tad unfair that the bad weather has pursued me so doggedly since Xi’an. As it was, I rocked up to my two day Great Wall trip with a slight drizzle accompanying me. After everyone had arrived, a German family, two Americans and two other Brits, we loaded into the bus and set off towards a wilder section of the wall.
Arriving at the wall around midday, we had lunch at a farmhouse before setting off. Our guide said flat. This is not a comment I can agree with. Admittedly he did eventually add the caveat that there was an up bit at the start and a down bit at the end but even then the stretch is the middle was, to my eye, by no means flat. This isn’t really a complaint in true form as I suspect walking along a completely flat stretch of wall would get boring very quickly. With the gentleish rolling of the hills along which the wall is built it meant we had a constantly changing view of the wall as it stretched out in front and behind us.
The visibility was not amazing due to the weather but the real downside was that while for most out hike it had been only cloudy, with a storm predicted for the night, we could not camp at the wall and instead had to stay in a farmhouse. This meant that we didn’t get the chance to see a sunset or sunrise (I do acknowledge neither would have been any good with all the cloud) or do any hiking on the second day, instead eating breakfast before returning to Beijing.
As previously mentioned the view was somewhat limited by fog but this did not detract from the walk all that much as we, unlike our cameras, could still see a fair ways into the distance as watch towers slowly became nothing more than silhouettes on the horizon. This section of the wall hadn’t been rebuilt like some of the more popular sections, rather the opposite, as in the 1960’s the Chinese government encouraged farmers to take bricks from the wall to build their homes. Furthermore, our guide tells us that in world war two there was a lot of fighting in the vicinity of the wall so bombs had damaged other sections. Fortunately it was still possible to walk along the top of the wall for the entire way, although there were a few don’t look down moments.
All in all it was and enjoyable trip with the only real downside being the lack of hiking on the second day. For those interested, I went on China Hiking’s Gubeikou to Jinshanling Great Wall two day camping trip.
While my days in Xi’an were relatively lazy, I did do a number of interesting things. Not least among these was my visit to the Terracotta Army. Getting to the museum was easy: I merely had to get the 603 bus followed by the 306, totalling 8 yuan, which is less than a pound. Finding the entrance however, was more challenging. The exit and entrance to the museum were at opposite ends, so by the time I found a sign to the museum, having to wade through the crowds of the adjacent restaurant and souvenir shop area, it led me to the exit rather than the entrance. After walking all the way back down the side, I eventually found the entrance I made my way in. Sadly my student card did not seem to apply here and I had to pay the full 150 yuan (£17).
Personally I found that while impressive in age and history, the warriors were a little disappointing with all three pits still in the process of being excavated and the lines note that straight. There was also little signage, although I will give credit where it is due and admit I was impressed that, with the exception of the artefacts in the bronze exhibition, all Chinese information boards had a English counterpart. I suspect the limited signs was to try and keep traffic flowing in the big hangers (the air con makes it tempting to linger even with the crowds) and to encourage people to hire tour guides. At 200 yuan (£23) for a guide this would be reasonable if one was in a group but is rather steep when one is alone and as such, was an experience I opted out of. This also meant I could see the museum at my own speed instead of rushing from one spot to the next so worked well for me.
Something I would have really liked an explanation on though was why there was an exhibit all about Pompeii in the exhibition hall. I wrapped up my visit to the museum in the food street with the most amazing cumin meat skewers ever. While they were more expensive than the ones in Xi’an, three for 10 yuan instead of one for 1 yuan, they were absolutely amazing and definitely worth the extra, unlike the one for 10 yuan in the Muslim Quarter which were mostly just fat and gristle on a thick fancy looking stick to make people more inclined to pay.
The next day I relaxed in the morning, making a Guernsey poster to add to the hostel’s collection and chatted with an Australian family before spending the afternoon sightseeing with them. This was an excellent pairing because it was my third day in Xi’an so I had a good idea of where to visit and one of the daughters and her friend both spoke Mandarin so were able to negotiate and ask directions for us. Our first stops were the Bell Tower and its counterpart the Drum Tower. These offered impressive views out over the centre of Xi’an and included a live Chinese music presentation in the Drum Tower. I was particularly amused by the combination of traditional Chinese dress and bright white fashion trainers that the lead drummer was wearing.
From the drum tower we ventured further into the Muslim Quarter towards the Great Mosque. This took a while as we walked through a winding market and it was very easy to get sidetracked by the multitude of souvenirs on offer. When we reached the mosque, we had a peak through the main door but since the majority of what we could see was scaffolding, we decided to forgo paying the entrance fee and looking around.
Instead we walked down the main food street of the Muslim Quarter, enjoying watching the pounding of some kind of cake or sweet that looked a little like fudge and a lady who was pulling noodles before throwing them into her huge pot of boiling water. We eventually settled on buying some flat bread for the next day and a pulled lamb Chinese style burger which was absolutely delicious.
After refreshing ourselves at the hostel we set out again in the evening to cycle around the city wall. This was a lot of fun and it was great to see the city all lit up in the night. We had probably left this trip a little too late in the day as we spent more time cycling in the dark than in the light but honestly I don’t think this was such a bad thing as it was considerably cooler than cycling under the pounding heat of the sun.
The next day we had planned to head up Huashan Mountain together but between getting the wrong train station and disgusting weather this did not come to be. After much deliberation, the family went to see the Terracotta Army while I regrouped at the hostel before braving the rain and visiting the Tibetan Temple. The temple itself was a wonderful splash of colour in a very grey day but with such weather I decided to count my circuitous route to and from it as my sightseeing for the day and retreated to the dry haven of the hostel.
The next day I walked up Huashan Mountain, which I talk about in a separate post. In the evening I was relaxing in the hostel common area-cum-bar when I saw the most glorious words a food obsessed tourist can see, food tour, being written up for the following evening. Needless to say, my name was the first on the board closely followed by the young woman I had been speaking to’s.
The next day I did a little clothes shopping but spent a large amount of time taking it easy in the hostel, unwilling to push my self after the previous day’s hike. There was no way I was about to risk wearing myself out before the food tour. And what a food tour it was.
Instead of going the the widely touted Muslim Quarter for food, we went to a food quarter preferred by the locals that used to belong to one of China’s historic Prime Ministers. This suited me just fine as while everywhere online claims the Muslim Quarter is the place to eat, I found the food not as good as the small local restaurants that are everywhere as well as being supremely overpriced. I expect there are a few very good stalls or restaurants however, I am inclined to believe that there is far more chaff than wheat and that sorting through everywhere to find somewhere good is not worth the effort. By all means go and soak up the atmosphere just don’t bother with the food. The only exceptions are if one wants savoury bread in which case the flat bread is a good option, and the green stall selling lamb Chinese burgers for 15 yuan at the entrance to the main street opposite the Drum Tower.
The food at this market we went to was absolutely sublime. We paired up for each dish to ensure we wouldn’t become full too soon. We started out sitting at a long table and digging into some excellent noodles. Fortunately my buddy and I both prefer a less spicy genre of food so were both content to pass the chilli bowl along without adding any to our bowl. It was very amusing to watch all the locals walking passed while filming and taking photos of us. To me, it is an experience of China that only other people experience as with my relatively dark hair and a tan that makes me darker skinned than half the locals, I make a very uninteresting foreigner.
While still at the table we tried a pulled pork bun where the pork is first cooked for hours and the bun was a wonderfully light and flaky pastry. This was so good that when a spare one was going free, I quickly volunteered to take one for the team and split it with the other guy who was interested. It was at this point that the bottle of Jack Daniels, produced by an American guy in order to celebrate the 4th July, made its first round of the group.
We then moved onwards, in amongst the buildings of the market and tried some roast potatoes, and a beef and cabbage bun similar to the pork one. The potatoes were good and I was surprised when the chilli covered ones weren’t actually too spicy. The only downside was I was hesitant to fully enjoy them, worried I would fill up before the end of the tour. We took a quick break from eating to pound mash potato with a giant hammer which was absolutely hilarious. The gentleman running the stall had a hat with a potato attached to it.
Our next stop also wasn’t food, instead being a drink of some kind of local wine. While the alcohol wasn’t bad the real joy was smashing the small earthenware cups it came in after we had finished. Next stop was a variety of grilled vegetables, the aubergine of which was my favourite and mushrooms least favourite. This was last of our savoury dishes and next we had was skewers of hard toffee coated fruit. The selection of fruit was a little odd with tomatoes, grapes and strawberries. The old adage that it takes intelligence to know a tomato is a fruit but wisdom not to put it in a fruit salad did spring to mind. The final stop was some nut paste filled pastries but these were sadly rather dry and our guide reckoned he would find something new for the next tour.
The evening wrapped up with a drink in the hostel and lots of full stomachs. Given the number of paragraphs I have devoted to food related topics in this post, I think it is safe to say that Xi’an has some excellent food on offer and I could quite happily go back and continue eating my way around town, especially with the number of places selling cumin seasoned skewers for 1 yuan.
I seem to have a slightly masochistic streak in that, despite a deep seated fear of heights, I love finding sheer precipices to visit. Perhaps it is an addiction to the adrenaline that sees me seeking new heights (literally), or maybe my fear of missing out is greater than my fear of heights (unlikely). However, I suspect the true reason is my Guernsey donkey stubbornness in the belief that enough self inflicted exposure therapy will eventually overcome a fear that is only exceeded by my fear and hatred of wasps.
Enough rambling prelude, let’s start painting a picture of what has got me chattering on about heights and my fear of them. Imagine a mountain which has a (somewhat misplaced) reputation as being the most dangerous hike in the world. Bloggers love to repeat the old wives tale of 100 deaths a year on these precarious slopes and no post is complete without a photo of the notorious plank walk: a plank of wood bolted to a sheer cliff with a 5000 foot drop should one slip.
When first researching China, I stumbled across photos of the plank walk and just knew that I had to try it. It was 90% of my reason for visiting Xi’an, the other 10% being generously allowed for the Terracotta army. Imagine my disappointment (and I’m not too proud to admit, miniscule spark of relief) when I arrived at the entrance of the plank walk to find it padlocked closed.
Admittedly I had known from the start that there was a reasonable chance of the plankwalk being closed. Of the three days I had pencilled in for a day trip to Huashan Mountain, I had picked the one with the least bad weather but conditions were still far from good. When I had set out from Xi’an that morning, it had been in a fine drizzle which accompanied me halfway up the initial six kilometre climb from the Jade Temple. That climb in itself had been rather nervewracking. The first three kilometres had been a deceptively pleasant upwards gradient followed by some slightly tougher stairs over the next kilometre. The two penultimate kilometres before the north peak were continuous steps of evil which saw me using my hands on the steps in front of me for various stretches or clutching firmly to the chain hand rails.
At this point my Guernsey donkey stubbornness once again reared its equine head. I had read that the walking time for the “One Way up Huashan Mountain from Ancient Times” path took between two to five hours with an average time of three and a half. Hence I had decided that I would do it in under two and a half hours. Nevermind that I would never classify myself as particularly fit, there is something about being given a walking time that makes me strangely defiant and determined to be quicker. This meant that I took no respites on my upwards sprint beyond a few five second breathers on the longer stairways. Given the heavy cloud cover, I had no fear of missing out on the any views and was able to devote myself fully to the hike.
I made it panting and sweating to the top of the North peak in two hours and fifteen minutes without falling down any of the ladders masquerading as stairs, so a definite win on that front. There were two precarious feeling climbs that I wanted to complete on the mountain. The aforementioned plank walk and the climb down to the chess pavilion. This latter was on the eastern peak and it was to here that I headed first.
Sadly for me, the northern peak upon which I was standing was the lowest of the peaks and instead of getting a break from all the up I had been doing, I found myself immediately having to climb up yet more stairs. Mercifully these weren’t nearly as steep as the more terrifying stretches of the One Way path. There was a ridge I crossed which was fine as I was crossing it but when I looked back, the clouds to each side had momentarily cleared revealing the sheer drop to either side of the path.
Walking through the clouds was very enjoyable with the tantalising glimpses of mountain tops they occasionally revealed. In amongst the peaks there were far less sheer drops to set my heart beating above what could be excused as a severe case of excessive stairs. This of course changed as I reached the queue to climb down to the chess pavilion. Even after being given my harness I had a long wait to consider just what I was about to do. Only a certain number of people could climb down at a time and it was clear that the operators were letting that number down each time rather than opting for smaller, more efficient groups.
Even though the group before me had all descended when I arrived, it was a forty minute wait before they all returned and we could begin climbing down. This left plenty of time for the clouds to clear for a few scant seconds at a time. Each time I became a little more nervous as I saw the distance to the pavilion. My nerves were not improved as, when it was finally time to start climbing, two of the girls ahead of me quickly backed out and retreated back up the steps.
Once I got started, the initial climb down, the only stretch deemed risky enough to need a harness, wasn’t so bad although my knees shook a little from the pent up nervous energy. The remainder of the walk out to the pavilion was quite pleasant and I took great amusement from a couple of bits that didn’t have a wire to clip one’s harness to but still had a sheer drop patiently biding its time to capture the unwary at the bottom. I guess one must laugh or cry in that situation. Heading back to the top was very frustrating as I had been near the front of the queue going down so had to wait for everyone else to finish climbing down – another half hour wait.
When I finally made it back to the top, safely away from all sheer drops into cloudy oblivion, I walked as quickly as my exhausted legs would allow to the south peak and the infamous plank walk. Each step saw a coil tension winding tighter in the pit of my stomach. My nerves were a delicious crescendo as I walked along the first, safely railed section of the walk. As I realised the walk was closed, the locked gate looming before me, my turbulent emotions deflated like a balloon into a hard little ball of disappointment. Admittedly there was a pin prick of relief that softened the sharpest corners but I enjoy pushing my limits too much for that relief to be overarching.
With nothing left to see on the mountain – I saw no benefit in climbing to the very top of each peak with so much cloud concealing the view. I made my way to the western cable car. While the drizzling fog made climbing to the peaks an exercise in futility and was most likely the cause of my disappointment over the plank walk, it did create some eerily beautiful backdrops, especially where the ubiquitous padlocks were joined with rippling red prayer ribbons on their fences and railings.
The western cable car was ridiculously overpriced, 126 yuan (£14.39) plus 40 yuan (£4.57) for the compulsory bus (unless one wants to pay even more for a taxi, since walking along the road is forbidden) back to the tourist centre. In Europe this may seem reasonable but considering that my student entrance fee to the park was only 80 yuan and that the 120km bus journey back to Xi’an was also only 40 yuan, the cost did rankle somewhat. In hindsight I should have walked around to the northern cable car which is cheaper and from the bottom of which one can walk back to the tourist centre. However, the weather seemed to be closing in even more and all the mini cafes were closing even though it was only just after five so I was worried that the northern cable car would be closed by the time I reached it.
If I let go of my irritation over the cost, the cable ride down was a lot of fun. I had the whole car to myself and there was a breathtaking moment when I emerged from the base of one cloud layer and could see all the mountains poking their heads from the layer below. Even sitting suspended in a box, surrounded in all directions by a white void was a surreal experience, making me feel like I had entered the nothingness.
From the tourist centre, I circumnavigated the cries of taxi taxi and caught the bus back to Xi’an in time to devour a late dinner of a lamb Chinese burger and some excellent 1 yuan beef skewers. The only difficulty was that sitting still on the bus allowed my muscles to seize somewhat and my walk back to the hostel was more of a very slow penguin waddle.
A final note I would like to make for anyone who travels from Xi’an by train to Huashan Bei station is that the taxi drivers will pounce on you as you leave the station and tell you that the free shuttle bus to the tourist centre is closed. No matter how many times you tell them no they will keep following you trying to get you to get a taxi. Ignore them. Walk across the square, passed the statues of musicians, to the carpark. There is a small bus stop. Wait there for the bus and continue to ignore the taxi drivers. Ideally get the number one shuttle bus as it is quicker than the number two. Some websites imply the shuttle doesn’t run outside of peak season but given the level of continuous misinformation, I shall leave it up to the reader to decide if they want to try waiting for the shuttle in the winter months.
After a tediously long but otherwise uneventful series of trains up from Hanoi, I finally arrived in Wulingyuan Village. I am not going to go into detail of my border crossing but for those who do intend to cross the Lao Cai Vietnamese China border, I highly recommend this excellent article by The Asocial Nomad. Arriving in the evening I sought only some food and a bed that was not situated in a fog of cigarette smoke.
There is one reason and one reason alone to go to Wulingyuan and that is the amazing rock formations that surround the area. Perhaps the most famous of these is the Zhangjiajie National Park’s Hallelujah Mountains, more commonly called by the moniker of the Avatar Mountains: it was these gravity defying columns that inspired the floating mountains of Pandora in the Avatar movie. After some confusion about how to get to the ticket office for the park (one has to pass through security first), I played guess the bus to head to the bottom of the Ten Mile Natural Gallery. What I didn’t realise is that the shuttle bus only stopped when the driver was shouted at in Chinese rather than at each stop. This actually turned out to be a blessing in disguise as I discovered upon my descent later in the day.
As it was I found myself disembarking at the Water Winding Four Gates stop. Just inside the entrance was the Golden Whip path and a list of rules to follow in the park. In addition to the Google translate English, what I found particularly amusing was that as I walked around the park, I saw every single rule being broken at least once by the domestic tourists, including the rule not to photograph foreigners. The only possible exception was the final rule which spouted something incomprehensible about poisons and was rather open to interpretation in its meaning.
The further I walked along the path towards the Golden Whip, the less people there were. However, this did not equate to a nice peaceful walk through the breathtaking scenery because for the final stretch before I turned off the path, a gentleman some distance behind me was continuously yelling, I presume to try and create and echo. This chorus was occasionally accompanied by screams and shouts from other individuals. As someone who purposefully leaves all forms of communication behind when they are going on a walk, I was also baffled by the number of people I passed who were facetiming on their phones as they walked. Each to their own I suppose.
Had a sedan chair not been parked at the turning off to climb up to the arching peaks of the Avatar Mountains, I most likely would have missed the narrow staircase that branched off from the main path. Fortunately, I didn’t as this climb was perhaps my favourite part of the day. It was certainly one of the most peaceful sections. Ascending the stairs, I was rewarded with occasional glimpses of sheer cliffs and rocky spires. There was a brief moment of nervousness when I heard monkeys overhead as like in all tourist stops they have a reputation for grabbing bags and trying to steal food. Happily they seemed content to leave me alone and I continued upwards as their calls faded into the distance.
As I got closer to the top, I passed a few small groups descending and a large tour group who were also climbing up to the top rather than having taken the easier and more popular options of bus, cablecar or elevator. To my amusement, they had hired porters to carry their bags for them on long shoulder poles. These were most difficult to overtake without getting knocked on the head. Finally emerging from the trees and realising I had reached the top was a glorious moment. With the famous towers of rock arranged before me, trees clutching to their tops, I once again found myself thinking “I should have studied geology”. Of course that would have involved a chemistry A-level so it is probably just as well that I didn’t.
The increasingly wonderful views were so enchanting that I quickly found myself able to ignore the heaving tides of tourists and the clamour they created. I did however take great (and slightly immature) amusement at the main walkway’s name of Ecstasy Terrace since one rarely hears the use of the word ecstasy outside of drug use and excessively amorous writing. Each corner rounded left a new vista stretching before me and my camera was working overtime. Looking back at my photos there is an element of same same but different as the grandeur of the magnificent, gravity defying karsts is lost on a 2D screen and one set of rocks begins to look much like any other. I am supremely lucky that for me the photos are only a spark to light the true fire of memory.
From the Avatar Mountain section of the park I caught the shuttle bus around to Tianzi Mountain and began my descent back to the exit of the park, passing a McDonalds near the top. This returns us to the topic of my blessing in disguise with the bus not stopping at the bottom of the Ten Mile Natural Gallery. When I had missed the stop earlier in the day, I had shrugged my shoulders and decided to do my planned route in reverse. Seeing the Avatar Mountains first would be no hardship on my part.
This meant that I now descended the path. And by descend I mean descend it seemed the stairs would never end, each time I checked my location, I felt like I hadn’t moved at all. Had I already passed that rock? Was I going round in circles? The whole ten mile description suddenly seemed very accurate. I later met some guys at the hostel who had climbed up the path and they confirmed that the ascent was just as brutal as my descent had suggested it would be, so I most certainly had a narrow escape there.
Dinner that evening was acceptable but I later found out the province is known for it’s spicy food which would explain a lot. It was also tourist prices since Wulingyuan Village seems to comprise solely of hotels and restaurants for the huge influx of tourists that come to visit the Zhangjiajie National Forest Park. Though I can’t deny most the buildings are very prettily designed to include more traditional looking architecture.
Feeling that I had seen everything I wanted to in the National Park, despite the ticket being valid for four days, I headed in the opposite direction to the Grand Canyon and the glass bridge that spans it. I was fortunate to run into a couple of other westerners, one of whom spoke Mandarin, on the way which made the day all the more enjoyable for having someone to talk to. We had a little difficulty at the entrance as tablet computers weren’t allowed in the park (’tis a mystery why) so I had to check my bag into luggage storage.
Normally this wouldn’t be an issue but the lockers could only be open by scanning a QR code and paying with WeChat, an extremely popular payment method in China. There were staff on hand who could pay for people who don’t have the requisite 4G and accoutrements. However, the initial two gentlemen at the desk seemed rather untrustworthy, trying to get me to buy entrance tickets off them for an extra fee rather than just waiting until I was through the security check. Luckily, another staff member turned up and was much more helpful opening the locker for me and asking only for the five yuan it actually cost.
After that hassle we made it through the ubiquitous security check and purchased our tickets (yay for 50% student discounts). The bridge was amazing and, as someone who is generally terrified of heights, I was very surprised that I did not have any issue with walking over the glass sections. I suspect the ground was so far away (300m) that my brain just tricked itself into thinking I was walking over a painting rather than a terrifying drop into nothingness.
We then descended into the gorge we had just walked over. This tragically meant even more stairs and my legs, having not recovered from the previous day’s vigorous walk, complained bitterly. I really should stop moaning so profusely given the charming view but I suppose us British do enjoy a good whine. The walk along the bottom of the gorge wasn’t nearly as taxing and we had a good time discussing our various travels and laughing at the signs with such phrases as “No smoking, the mountain shall be forever green”.
For my third and final day in Wulingyuan I had initially planned to visit Tianmen Mountain in Zhanjiajie before catching my train on to Xi’an. However, looking over the costs it was rather expensive and looked suspiciously like everything would have to be paid for separately from the initial entrance fee. Furthermore, I could not find any information on what could be walked and what could only be reached by bus or cablecar, making me reluctant to visit. Instead I wondered around the scenic Xibu Street in Wulingyuan Village and down along the river with other hostel guests before giving my legs a well deserved rest at the hostel until it was time to leave and catch my flight onwards.