The Great China Roadtrip
A team of six people, three guys and three gals, will leave Shanghai on 31st March for a one month roadtrip covering around 10,000km.
Lead Car: 2010 Mazda MX5
Support Car: A well worn Toyota Landcruiser
• Driver, Lead Car and Photographer : Dean Ashley Owen
• Co-Driver, Lead Car and Chief Entertainment Officer : Cao Li
• Driver, Support Car : Liu Yong
• Guide : Ying Chu
• Team Leader and Medical Consultant : Sinclair Patrick Owen
• Team Videographer, Event Planner, and scapegoat if we get in trouble: Stella T
Impero di Mezzo
As long as I can remember, it had always been a dream of mine to one day live in China, so when the opportunity arose almost four years ago, I grabbed it.
I had only visited Shanghai on business a number of times, but since Shanghai is really a showcase, I never really had the chance to get to know China until I finally moved here in July 2008. Even now, living in the Pudong New Area of Shanghai, I admit I am not totally immersed in real China. So hopefully this trip will allow me to see the real Middle Empire.
The images of China that came to mind before I moved here were of bicycles, lots and lots of bicycles, noodles, Wham on the Great Wall, and PLA soldiers everywhere. Reality could not be farther from the truth. It is rare that I even catch a glimpse of an army uniform, and the police appear to be managing traffic. Bicycles have been replaced by battery powered silent pedestrian quashing bikes, and noodles here are no more prevalent than any other Asian nation although I was disappointed that the birthplace of the noodle really has failed to impress in terms of taste, texture and flavour (think Penang Laksa, Japanese soba, Singapore Char Kway Teow, Indonesian Mie Goreng, Vietnamese Pho, or Pad Thai to name but a few). Even Chinese noodle dishes like Dao Xiao Mian and Sichuan Liangpi seem to taste better outside of China. (1.4 billion people will vehemently disagree with me here)
I truly had no pre-conceived notion that China was a nation of vivid landscapes, beautiful mountains, and vast deserts with over 50 different ethnic groups and a diversity of cultures. I must admit I haven’t visited many places in China. My roadtrips thus far have been confined to neighboring Zhejiang province, and business trips have taken me mostly to industrialised cities. But there is beauty out there as I hope to capture.
And so I embark on a 12,000km odyssey. The schedule will require us to be on the road on average 4 to 5 hours a day. One of return legs is a long stretch requiring a whole 9 hours driving in one day. So I am taking the opportunity to have some sporadic pampering. In Beijing, we'll be staying at The Aman at the Summer Palace, and in Hangzhou, The Amanfayun.
I am a self confessed Aman Junkie. For those of you who may not be familiar with the term, The Aman Resorts have developed a fan base of loyal travellers who may decide their vacations according to the global Aman map of resorts. I am not sure who first coined the phrase, but these devoted fans have become known as Aman Junkies. The typical mis-conception is that Aman Junkies are mega rich well healed travellers who would not think twice about shelling out $1,000+ a night to stay at these uber luxurious resorts. The truth is that many Aman Junkies, including myself, are not particularly wealthy. For those that have stayed at Aman resorts, you know that you are paying for an experience, you are paying for life long memories. We would rather spend four nights at an Aman than 2 weeks at a lesser resort for the same price. What you get from staying at an Aman is a treasured memory. It could be a romantic candlelight dinner at the ruins atop a hill in Rajasthan, or an Aman prepared picnic in the Paro valley, or an elephant ride direct from your doorstep at The Amanjiwo in Java, Aman staff are there not just to provide world class service, but also to give you a glimpse of what it might have been like to be a Sultan or a Maharaja. Fortunately or not, Aman have inspired numerous copy cat resorts and now travellers are almost spoilt for choice. On my last trip to Bali, I chose to stay at both Four Seasons resorts over any of the four Aman's because I feel that Four Season Bali have managed to mirror the Aman experience with some added extras like offering cooking courses at their special cooking school in Jimbaran Bay, and all at a cost slightly lower than that of Aman. I had stayed at the beautiful Amandari back in the 90's, and did return for a dinner this last trip, but I felt something was missing. Perhaps they are becoming complacent or it’s just a case that their competition is getting better. Nevertheless I still remain a devoted Aman Junkie having had the pleasure of staying at Aman resorts in Bali, Java, Morocco, Rajasthan, New Delhi, Bhutan, Cambodia, and now China.
The Aman story goes that Adrian Zecha, the Indonesian founder of The Aman Resorts, was in Phuket looking for a suitable clifftop site to build a holiday home following a successful career in publishing and hotels. Upon finding a picture perfect site, he then decided to build a hotel, but not your typical hotel building with 300 rooms. Instead he planned to build just 40 villas and offer a hotel service. At the time, Adrian found that none of the banks were willing to lend money for this crazy project as they could not see sense in funding a project for only 40 rooms when all hotels during this period had 300+ rooms. Inevitably Adrian called upon his personal friends and his own savings for funding, and the first resort, The Amanpuri, was opened in 1988.
Aman now have around 30 resorts worldwide.
Whether it is The Banyan Tree, Naked resorts, The One & Only, Soneva by Six Senses, or other, I think they all owe their existence and inspiration to the original visionary that is Adrian Zecha.
What sets Aman apart from the rest is location, architecture, and service. Some of the locations are truly spectacular and leave one wondering how on earth could they have secured such a location. One such place is the Amanjiwo in Java, where their lobby hallway is aligned perfectly with a spectacular view of one of the ancient wonders of the world, Borobudur.
For this trip, I will be staying at The Aman at The Summer Palace in Beijing, another spectacular location, and The Amanfayun nestled in the mountains surrounding The West Lake in Hangzhou.
Team Member No. 1
I am very honoured to welcome onboard my younger brother, Sinclair Patrick Owen, as Team leader for Charlie Alfa Romeo 2 (The support vehicle). Currently on his fourth year of studying Medicina veterinária at Universidade de Evora and now the Technical University of Lisbon, Sinclair will no doubt be an invaluable member of the team, especially if we happen to hit a sheep on the highway. It will be Sinclair's first visit to China so I am looking forward to seeing the culture shock and to testing his appetite for unusual gastronomic delights.
I am seriously thrilled that Sinclair is taking a break from his studies to join. My younger sibling will certainly inject a ton of fun into this journey.
Sinclair, before you come out, don't forget to load up your iPod with fresh tunes ! And remember, I am not a big fan of Fado.
Introducing my co-driver and partner in crime, Cao li. Definitely not an experienced driver by any means, but this trip will change all that ! Cao li currently lives in Shenzhen, speaks fluent English, and is a healthy vegetarian, hence the silky snow white complexion.
Since her childhood, Cao li has often dreamed of seeing the world and experiencing the different cultures. During this trip, Cao li will also double as the CEO (Chief Entertainment Officer), performing dances for the native villagers in return not being boiled alive in a white cabbage soup.
I would like to take this opportunity to congratulate Cao Li on the formation of her new company. A real CEO now !
Consider that the distance covered should be the equivalent of driving the length of Route 66 (from Chicago to L.A.) three times over in just one month, this is by no means a relaxing getaway. Also note that driving in China presents unique challenges. Once, driving 110kph on the highway to Hangzhou I encountered an innocent brick laying dormant (as bricks do) in the middle of my lane. Although this roadtrip cannot be considered a sporting adventure, it will require, at the very least, basic driving skills not only to navigate bricks, but also to keep the car roadworthy to the end.
I consider myself a decent driver having avoided any accidents for 20 odd years. I do admit that I do not possess my father's skills (winner of the British Hill Climb Championship in 1962 and finishing third in the first Japanese Grand Prix in 1963). My last few sessions on a track ended in me spinning off said track in a flurry of gravel. But I do like the donuts !
Date: Saturday 31st March
Location: Yi Cafe, 2nd Floor, Shangri-La Hotel, Pudong, Shanghai
Required attendance: ALL SIX MEMBERS OF THE EXPEDITION
Dean, Lily, Sinclair, Stella, Ying Chu, Liu Yong.
Friends and Family welcome to join our breakfast but let me know beforehand.
WE LEAVE AT NOON ON SATURDAY 31st MARCH !!!!!
First day, a 450km drive to Huai'an which could take 5 hours, so we need to depart at noon sharp.
Apologies to Lily, Sinclair and Stella.
I had actually ordered T-shirts for you guys over two months ago at the online Sea Shepherd store in Australia. I would rate the chance they'll arrive on time at zero. But anyways, I am laying down the gauntlet and saying that if they don't arrive by the 31st, the pledge is off and we'll find another noble cause to use our money on during our journey (like a Spa Treatment in Beijing!).
Apologies to the few of you armchair tree huggers who had pledged money to save the whales! Use your well earned dough somewhere else, or you are more than welcome to donate to Sinny's facial and pedicure !!!!
I will attempt to find alternate team T-shirts in time. And any eclectic huggers considering ordering from the Sea Shepherd store, don't! I won't bother you with details but long story short, it ain't gonna happen dude!
The Funny Hat Challenge
Hey team, you are each to purchase a hat of any shape or form for one of your team mates during the trip and on the 14th April, Funny Hat Day, we will all be required to wear our designated hat the entire day! Anyone who fails to comply will have to perform a punishment as ordered by the buyer of that hat. Punishments must be judged to be reasonable and within the boundaries of Chinese law (ie no acts that may cause grievance to the locals). Suggested punishments such as drinking snake blood are totally acceptable. Those that do not comply will have to hitchhike their way back to Shanghai !
Cornflake breakfast with the Irish PM
Yep, An Taoiseach (Prime Minister of Ireland), Mr. Enda Kenny, T.D. and Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Richard Bruton were in town for a day before heading off to Beijing to meet the Premier. The trade mission involving 90 companies convened for breakfast of cornflakes, sausages and eggs at the Shanghai Marriott Hotel. Mr. Kenny's speech kind of reminded me of PM David's speech in Love Actually "We may be a small country, but we are a great one. A country of Guinness, U2, Bailey's Irish Cream and Westlife" (not his exact words, but you get my drift).
This is the second time for me to have the honour of meeting a well known individual hailing from the Emerald Isle during a trip to Shanghai. Rory McIlroy was here to win the Lake Malaren Shanghai Masters last year.
I am all for closer ties with China, but not before you do something about Boyzone!
Day 1 – The Team convenes
Well we couldn't have picked a more perfect day. Went for a swim at the Ritz Carlton and then across the road to meet the whole team for breakfast for the very first time. 10:00pm the night before, I was delighted to receive a call from Xixi, a friend from neightboring Zhejiang, telling me she wanted to join the trip. How could we refuse, although the support car was now full to the brim ! After a wonderful breakfast with team and friends, we departed on our adventure. The first leg, a lethargic 450km to Huaian. To be honest, not much to see in Huaian. And we arrived just in time for dinner. Sinclair, who'd basically just got off the plane from Portugal, was running on reserve caffeine, but still impressed us with his linguistic skills. He’d managed to pick up more Chinese than I’d learnt in seven years in just one day.
Of to Qufu to see the Confucious Temple now, ciao
Day 2 – Qufu – The Home of Confucius
After a hearty breakfast of Wifi and Cappucino, we set off for a traffic free, beautiful sunny day, 430km drive to the Confucius Temple in Qufu. I'll not go into a history lesson on Confucius because, to be honest, I didn't listen to Kevin, our guide for the day. Let's just say he (Kong Zi) seemed a pretty smart fellow 2,500 years ago and still commands a huge following both here and abroad. Lunch was slightly wierd, with dubious looking Cao Li suddenly producing a packet of Oreo cookies just as we were sitting down to eat. Then, going round the table passing cookies one by one, we found ourselves befuddled as to why on earth she would be insisting we eat an Oreo cookie before a beautiful Qufu lunch. Sinclair, in a bid never to offend, accepted the cookie and went on to chow down. For some reason we couldn't figure out why Cao Li was in fits of hysterics until we saw Sinny's face.
Rewind to earlier that morning, Cao Li spent time in the bathroom carefully unpacking the Oreo's and replacing the cream with toothpaste ! It was, afterall, April Fool's !
After visiting the hometown of Confucius and his grave, we headed off for the short 80km drive to Tai'an where we had a dinner of ginseng chicken head, followed by an enlightening round of drinks at Sinny's first karaoke in Asia.
Obviously, not much time to write witty and fluid prose whilst on the road. I can refine the blog in the familiar cuddle of my armchair at home.
Day 3 – Stranded in a blizzard with the rest of China atop Taishan Mountain
I love it when nothing goes according to plan. Today, what could go wrong did indeed go wrong. I have frost bitten fingers and blisters to prove it. I am presently typing this with my elbow.
We set off for the short drive to Taishan at noon. We'd all decided to take the bus and cable car to the top and then walk the 7000+ steps down. Little did we know that the rest of China shared the same plan. It was, after all, the start of the Tomb Sweeping Holidays. We reached the misty top and took pictures and hunkered down on onion pancakes whilst Cao Li nibbled a cucumber. All of a sudden the cold front moved in from Siberia, and after a couple of hours at the top, we decided that the cable car down was the better option. I must say this is the first time I have queued in the clouds. The queue was supposed to be 150m long, but a whole freezing hour later, whispers of the cable car being shut down due to strong winds caused a mini stampede of about a hundred thousand Chinese rushing down the 7,000 steps. It took us 2 hours to get down, Sinclair stopping for pot noodles on the way down. We finally reached the bottom and our cars at 6:30pm. It is only Day 3, and what was supposed to be the "support vehicle", a Toyota Landcruiser, failed to start it's engine. Fortunately we'd parked on the bridge of a hill, so the team got out and pushed.
Anyway, not a good sign that the support car breaks down and we havn't even gone off-road yet !
20 minutes later we arrived for dinner at a Mushroom Hotpot restaurant, which was actually pretty amazing. We ordered 10 different kinds of mushrooms, many of which looked extremely poisonous. If you don't see any more blogs, you'll know why....
Tomorrow, 9am, we are off to Beijing !
Day 4 – The Summer Palace
Today was a relative breeze in terms of scheduling. We left Taishan at 9:00am following a simple continental buffet breakfast at The Four Points Hotel, Tai'an. We were desperately in need of some deep tissue calf massage from walking down 7,000 steps in blizzard conditions the day before. I can hardly walk today, but managed the 470km top down drive to Beijing in 6 hours and 30 minutes. Yesterday was a freak winter day, but today I managed to add to my right arm and facial tan on what seemed like a perfect summer day. After checking in to the Aman at The Summer Palace at 4:00pm, the Aman staff led us to their "secret gate" to the Palace. Unfortunately although the gate was exclusively for Aman guests, once inside, we were once again amongst the whole populace of China strolling around the beautiful Kunming Lake. Not sure if anyone in our party took any good pictures despite the beautiful sunset, but the Aman staff have kindly agreed to let us through the secret gate tomorrow morning at 7:00am. The Summer Palace opens to the general public at 8:30am, so we'll have the whole place to ourselves for 90 minutes! And after breakfast it'll be off to see The Great Wall.
This evening we finished with a mostly vegetarian dinner with the exception of Peking Duck in Peking (Beijing).
Day 5 – The Really Great Wall of China and Donkey Dumplings
Got up early to test our "secret gate" to the Summer Palace. Upon entry we were a little surprised to see that other Chinese may have had there own method of early access. Still, there were not many people and our smaller team of Stel, Sin and me took advantage of the perfect blue sky weather and shutter-clicked our way to the entrance of the palace itself where we patiently waited for the ticket office to open. We certainly beat the crowds and were the first sprinkle of nomads to get to the top.
Back to the hotel for a hearty non-Chinese breakfast of granola, blueberry pancakes and eggs florentine, and then off to the Great Wall. Stel had done the Wall before, so decided to take the opportunity to use the day to catch up on her studies.
It is the last day of the holidays here in China, so Ying Chu, our guide, decided on a less visited but picturesque portion of the Wall, the Moshikou Pass. Lao Liu (support car driver), Ying Chu and I were still suffering from serious calf damage and this portion of the Wall was certainly a test of strength and stamina. Lao Liu was the first to turn back, whilst we pressed on higher and higher up the mountain and the extremely steep steps. About 70m from the top, the Wall finally got the better of me and I gave up, turned around, and proceeded to climb down. The team pressed on finally reaching the top of the mountain before turning back. For those of you skeptics who can't fathom how a wall could be effective against an enemy, not only is this wall a marvel of human achievement (originally covering 8,000km), but any Mongol army would have reached the wall exhausted and hungry, to face a fresh Chinese army shooting arrows and pelting rocks from above. I am proud to say that I was defeated by the Great Wall of China although my younger, fitter, rugby-playing sibling took the wall in his stride.
On the way back, famished from yet more climbing, we stopped off at a roadside restaurant for some local food. Much to the horror of budding vet, Sinclair, I ordered "donkey dumplings", a local favourite. I'd promised myself to be adventurous and open minded on this trip. Donkey meat is reverred in China as one of the top land meats, and comparable in quality, taste and texture to the top sky meat, that of the Dragon. They brought us about 40 dumplings, and between the three of us (with Sin abstaining), we must have finished about 15 of them. They tasted like normal pork/cabbage dumplings that had gone rotten. Still, job done and exhausted we returned to our hotel rooms, and I finished the day, knackered and in pain, with room service Tuscan bean soup and a club sandwich.
Tomorrow, The Forbidden City, Bird's Nest and The Water Cube....
Day 6 – Illegal Parking at the Forbidden City
Another exhausting day as the intrepid China explorers did Beijing's symbols of the past. We did the quick tour of the Forbidden City before getting ripped off by the bike taxis taking us the short trip from the back gate to Tianenmen Square. Despite the generous tip, the three drivers still chased us out of the drop off area for more money. All in good fun, we headed off for a typical Beijing lunch of refreshing pizza at a Belgian bar. We reckon the food will get more and more localised as we head West, so pizza was a hearty time-out for us. The afternoon we went our own seperate ways, with Stel and Ying Chu heading off to a shopping mall and a Korean movie, myself off to the new and first Lotus showroom in China to dream of the day I'll be able to doll out $120,000 for a tiny Elise for the next road trip. Sinclair headed off to the "art district" to meet with destiny, and Lily met her old school friends for lunch and afternoon tea. One team member, Xixi left us today to head back to her job in Hangzhou, and the rest of us convened for a weird and wonderful pure vegetarian dinner at the Lotus Restaurant.
We are all extremely exhausted today despite the fact that tomorrow we have a 4 hour drive to Datong to see the Hanging Temples and the Grotty Grottos.
Day 7 – Hanging Temple at Cuiping Peak
Woke up at 7:00am and decided to go for a quick dip in the Aman pool before setting off on the 400km hop to Datong. This particular perfectly manicured Aman pool must be one of the most spectacular underground swimming pools in the world. I know that, as far as hotels go on this trip, and as we head West, the hotels are going to be more and more localised.
We set off on the journey, and for the first time on the road I found myself totally in awe of the rugged beauty of the China landscapes. Heading through the mountain passes and catching glimpses of The Great Wall, it was the first time I truly felt we were on a roadtrip like no other. We’ve covered 2,000km in 7 days of leisurely driving. The weather has been picture perfect, and the sights breathtaking.
I was really looking forward to seeing the Hanging Temple, and as we left the highway and hit the dirt roads to Cuiping Peak, I began to wonder if my car would make the whole trip. We’d been easily outpacing the Landcruiser on the express way, but off road, the underbelly of the MX 5 suffered some minor grazing and progress was reduced to a snails pace. Upon reaching Datong the team satisfied their hunger on bowls of freshly cut Daoxiaomien.
One of the many highlights of this trip, The Hanging Temple was simply spectacular.
At over 1,500 years old on a cliff face that is constantly exposed to harsh weather, I cannot fathom how this intricate structure of wood still stands strong.
On the way down from the temple, Sin stumbled on a witch's broom and we each took turns testing our flying skills.
Back to our new haunt for the night, a dubious stereotypical business hotel in Datong. We regrouped after checking in, and headed of for an unremarkable dinner of vegetables and breads before stocking up on snacks for the car at the nearest 24hr convenience store. Dang, no internet in this hotel so I’m typing this on Word to post later. And the room smells !
Day 8 – Incredible Pingyao
The 380km drive from Datong to Pingyao should have been a relative breeze, but the whole team is exhausted and driving started to transform from pleasure to pain. Still, we reached the Ancient City of Pingyao at around 2:00pm, and the pain was soon forgotten once we saw what an incredible place this was. We checked into the Pingyao Yiguan Guesthouse within the Ancient city before heading down the colourful streets. The guesthouse has all the warmth and charm of “Old China” at only $52 a night.
As for Pingyao, I would probably say that any visitor to China should make the effort to put this wonderful city on their schedule. We spent 4 hours walking the streets and sampling the street foods and then headed off for a wonderful dinner at the Tian Yuan Kui Restaurant.
We are 2,300km into our journey now and thoroughly exhausted, but I myself feel honoured and extremely fortunate to have this opportunity. Tomorrow, another tough 310km drive to see the Hukou Waterfalls.
Day 9 – The Houkou Waterfall
Got up this morning at 5:45am to get some shots of the sunrise over Pingyao only to find out that we’d been locked in the guesthouse. Finally the innkeeper came and let us out and we set about walking the beautiful empty streets. After a hearty breakfast of Chinese buns, tofu, millet soup and pickles, the team set off on the 310km ride to the famed Hokou Waterfalls. After about 150km we got off the highway and hit the mountain roads. I had no idea that these roads were ideal twisties for my trusty MX 5. The car was in it’s element, and I’d not had so much fun driving since the trips up to KL from Singapore. About an hour into driving the twisties, one of the tyres got a puncture. We decided to press on, and finally arrived at our digs for the night. The guesthouse was little more than a sparten cave with beds and a water outlet, but at $25 a night we could not complain. The hotel was right at the gate to the Houkou Waterfalls, and we headed straight there only to discover they were more like rapids than a waterfall. It was the dry season, but still we were semi satisfied, and who could complain after seeing so many wonderful sights in such a short time. No dinner tonight as we had a late lunch in the playground of what looked like an empty school. No internet here so the blog will have to wait.
Day 10 – The Road to Huashan
Not much to report. After a debate on whether or not skip Huashan and head straight to Xian, we put it to vote and decided to stick to the original schedule as Huashan has some of the best views in the whole of China. First things first, we headed straight for the nearest mechanic to fix the puncture on my back right wheel. Turns out a one inch nail had found it's way into my Yokohama. Deciding to save the spare wheel for the road ahead, the mechanic patched up the small puncture with paraffin and a tyre bandage. Then off again through the mountain twisties to Huashan.
It was drizzling with rain when we arrived at 3:00pm, so we decided to put off the daunting climb up the mountain until the next day. Sin, Stel T., and Ying Chu have decided to do the climb before sunrise, so after a quick meal at the nearby food markets, a stop by the local pastry shop, and our daily routine of getting ripped off by locals (this time Stel showed amazing bartering skills by buying three pairs of rock climbing gloves for 10 kuai from an elderly lady only to find the same gloves in a supermarket for sale at 1.5 kuai each) we all headed back to our hotel for an early night. Lili, Lao Liu and myself are skipping the climb, and will take the bus and cable car up to meet the brave young souls near the top. It is said that this is one of the toughest climbs in China and involves hanging off a tiny cliff face ledge. Not only am I petrified of heights, my calves are still burning from the Taishan trek, so I am gracefully (or intelligently) wimping out of this one.
The three brave souls have set their alarm for 3:00am ! Mine is set for 6:30am.
Please note that the photos thus far on this blog are from my trusty Leica DX 5, but I am sure that both Sin and Stel T have even better photos waiting to be posted. We will be posting them at the end of the trip.
Day 11 – Stairway to Heaven, Huashan
They actually did it. Stel T, Sin and Ying Chu our guide got up at 3:00am to do the whole climb. The rest of us left the hotel at 8:00am, got the bus, and another bus, and then the cable car to the drop off point about 1,000m from the top of Huashan. I cannot imagine how exhausted the early birds are. The climb from the cable car drop off to the top was absolutely exhausting, so much so that our support car driver gave up half way. Stel and Sin did the first part of the climb in pitch black armed with an LED torch and rock climbing gloves. I've not seen their pictures yet, but they must be amazing. And by pure chance, the five of us actually met up at one of the five peaks at noon. The early birds had been climbing for 9 hours ! And to top it all off, they decided to do the cliffhanger experience at the top, which involved a harness, a tiny ledge, and clouds whisping into view. Kudos to the team for spending more than 13 hours in total on one of the most beautiful mountains on the planet. Each day seems better than the last.
Late afternoon we drove the 120km to Xian, the old capital of China. Cao Li and I arrived early and hit Muslim street, a colourful concoction of street foods vendors selling everything from goats feet to noodles on a stick.
Tomorrow, the Terracotta Warriors !!!
Day 12 – Xi’an 2,200 year old Terracotta Warriors
Happy to see the team recovered from yesterday's trek up Huashan. We left the hotel at 9:30am to drive the short 40km to the Terracotta museum. I'll not go into history lessons here but let's just say that aside from the Great Pyramids, this has to rank as the greatest tomb for a single person, Emperor Qin Shihuang, ever discovered. Discovered by a farmer in 1974, this army took 720,000 artisans 38 years to build. Unfortunately, or fortunately depending upon your point of view, the general public can't get up close and personal with each distinct figure, so it was hard to capture in photograph the incredible detailing. Amazing though that so far, about 1,900 warriors have been unearthed, and each one was modelled after a real person.
Unfortunately we are all saddened to hear that our dear Stel will be leaving for Shanghai tomorrow morning as she needs to get back to the U.K. to resume her course. We are gonna hit the town tonight and leave the cars behind. Hopefully she get's totally wasted and misses her plane !
Anyways, we had a blast, and she covered 3,200km of China. We are now conceptualizing our next trip,hopefully next year. "The Great Silk Road Off-Road Bike Trip" !
Day 13 – Twin Blowouts in Sichuan
I'll spare the details of last night's farewell for Stel T and just mention that I don't think we have ever laughed so much in our lives. The night involved a number of China junkies from around the world whom we met in this hip Terracotta themed pub, and a Japanese import by the name of "Ping Pong Pang".
I think we finished around 3:00am and said our farewells to Stel who needed to catch a plane this morning.
Woke up at 8:30am and headed to Antique Street to see if I could find a 1/4th scale replica of the Emperor's charriot like the one we saw a day earlier at the Tomb shop.
Then the team grouped up at 10:30 am for the 580km drive to Jiangyou in Sichuan province. This road is through gorgeous green mountain passes and involved a huge number of tunnels and bridges.
About 300km into the journey disaster struck with the Landcruiser having a blowout at 120kph. A deftly quick tyre change and we were off again. Just 5 minutes later the MX 5 suffered a blowout. Although I had a spare, the support car had to take the spare and the rim to the nearest town garage to be fitted. During the wait, the police stopped to check out Lily's “uniform” which they seemed to love. Two hours later we were back on the road only to have the headlights fail on the support car. We spent 11 hours on the road today, and I enjoyed every minute.
Anyone thinking of a roadtrip across China should seriously consider having a support car. I'd probably be sleeping in my car tonight if I hadn't had one.
We arrived at the hotel and headed straight to the nearest restaurant to have the real Sichuan Mapodoufu which fullfiled my expectations.
Fun day, but we all miss Stel.
Day 14 – Mountain Drive to Jiuzhaigou Valley
Today was a driving day so we started off with a hearty breakfast of hand-pulled noodles with black bean sauce. We had to cover 400km of mountain roads in order to get to the Jiuzhaigou Valley. It was for refreshing to not have had to climb mountains on foot since this time we drove up with the open top down, to the border between Sichuan and Tibet and a maximum height of 3,100m before heading down to our destination. As luck would have it, we only had one puncture today, in the support car. The Landcruiser is supposed to be an ultimate off-road vehicle, but with two flat tires in two days compared to the MX 5’s one, I am beginning to think that the MX 5 might just be the ultimate roadtrip car. We’ve covered 4,100km in 14 days, and aside from yesterday’s blowout, the car has not once skipped a heartbeat.
At Jiuzhaigou, I checked into the cheesy Intercontinental which kind of reminded me of the tacky hotels in Hawaii with Tibetan dancing and singing in the lobby. Had dinner at the hotel, and an early night for tomorrows trek into the valley.
Day 15 – Jiuzhaigou Valley
We had the whole day to spend at Jiuzhaigou. The pictures speak for themselves. Who could have imagined such scenery existed in China. What is not captured in the photographs are the throngs of tourists. Jiuzhaigou however, is a massive valley, and the system of regular buses shuttling visitors up and down the passes to the scenic spots is very organized.
The weather was perfect. This first photo of the beautiful lake was taken over 4,000m above sea level. This photo, and the photo of the sunrise over Pingyao and the "Road to Datong" have to be my favourite photos so far on this trip.
Jiuzhaigou was simply breathtaking despite Spring not being the best season to visit. I might consider coming again in Autumn. Stel T, you missed something real special.
We had a local Sichuan dinner with Tibetan beer and retired early to sleep for the long drive to Chengdu tomorrow.
Halfway through the trip now and we’ve covered 4,200km with still so much more to look forward to. The list of highlights just continues to grow, and all of us are looking forward to spending time on the panda reserve. We all can feel the pandas must be close by since pictures of pandas adorn many houses here.
Day 16 – Road to Chengdu
Woke up this morning to find it snowing ! We needed an early start today. Even though we only needed to cover 400km, unfortunately due to the low road height of the MX 5, we decided to go back to Jiangyou the same way we came, electing the better of two evils, as the planned route back still has some unrepaired damage from the big earthquake.
On the way, we stopped to have a snow ball fight, and then further down the road encountered a couple of nice Baima tribe folk. They were walking to hospital, so Sin and Ying Chu offered to give them a lift. Apparently the elderly couple left the Landcruiser smelling of pot, which kind of explains the wonderful smiles they had on their sun dried faces.
On the way to Jiuzhaigou, I was extremely cautious due to large chunks of damaged roads. On the way back, I gunned it down the twisties. Although the speed limit was restricted at 30kph, I was topping out through the twists and turns at 120kph. The MX 5 was really in it's element, and I had a weird feeling that the sensation I felt must have been similar to what our Dad had felt winning the British Hill Climb Championship all those years ago.
We had a local lunch, and then hit the highway for the short hop to Chengdu, the hometown of our guide, Ying Chu, and the support car driver, Lao Liu.
We had a Chengdu favourite, hot pot, for dinner, and then retired for the evening. It is 11:30pm right now, and I am debating whether or not to hit the town. Chengdu Lan Kwai Fong is just around the corner from the hotel. Hmmm
Day 17 – Giant Pandas and Giant Buddhas
We left our hotel at 8:30am for the short ride to the “Chengdu Research Base for Giant Panda Breeding”. Chengdu Monday morning traffic and Chengdu drivers are just as bad as in Shanghai. Actually the thing I noticed so far was that drivers all over China are much the same and totally insane, except for in Beijing. In Beijing, drivers stick to their lanes, indicate, and generally do not try to cut you up into small chunks of metal. Apparently this is a well known fact, but I diverge. Back to the Pandas.
What can I say? They are cute, cuddly, and extremely lazy, pretty much spending the morning eating bamboo on their backs, and the afternoons sleeping. They’ll sleep anywhere. Up trees, on the ground, making makeshift sofas out of bamboo trees. So cute were the Pandas that we were all convinced that they were really just people wearing “Made in Guangdong” panda costumes. I’ve decided that I want to be reincarnated as a Giant Panda in the Research Base for Giant Panda Breeding. All they do is eat, sleep, and breed. Did I mention the luminescent green poop?
Happy with the morning, we headed for a bowl of famous noodles at the famous noodle shop next to the other famous noodle shop that had been made famous on CDTV. Then off to the car shop to load up on spare wheels, two for the Landcruiser, and one for the MX 5.
In the afternoon we headed for Leshan, a couple of hours away, to see the Leshan Giant Buddha. This Buddha is the largest “sitting” stone Buddha in the world and was carved in the cliff face over 1,200 years ago. I’d had enough of climbing for now, so we just took the boat out into the middle of the river and took photos.
Then back to yet another smelly hotel room in a smelly hotel. There really is no other reason to stay in Leshan than this Buddha, which can be done on a day trip.
Sin and my stomachs needed a time-out from Chinese food, and we caught a glimpse of a KFC on the way to the hotel. So after checking in, we walked the 3.2km down the main street, catching fake donuts on the way, finally arriving at KFC. I’d not had KFC in 10 years, and after that meal, I don’t think I’ll be having it for another 10.
No Wifi in this room, and the window won’t close. The noise from the traffic below is gonna keep me up tonight. Dang.......
Day 18 – Leshan to Xichang, Changing landscapes, changing seasons
What can I write about today. Well, for one thing, we spent ten hours on the road. And like most days, we experienced winter and summer within a twelve-hour period. We woke up early, wanting to check out of our smelly digs and hit the road by 8:00am. We knew it was going to be a tough one today. Thus far, I must say that China has created one amazing network of expressways, second to no country I know of. That said, there are numerous provinces that have yet to be reached, and access is typically through what they call national roads. Today's national roads reminded me of the roads through the Atlas mountains. The poor little MX 5 was tossed about like one of those American salads. One stretch of road, about 20km long took me about 90 minutes to navigate. But as is typical of this trip, the effort always has a payoff, and today’s payoff was once again me gunning it down the twisties. I don't think I know any sportscar that is as much fun to drive through twisties than the honest little MX 5. Yes there are all sorts of exotics, but you are always going to be worrying about inevitable scrapes and knicks. On the other side of the Sichuan mountains, we entered a village full of restaurants selling one thing, yellow beef hot pot. I'm not actually sure what yellow beef is, but it tastes like beef that might have been jerkied before being stewed. We left disappointed.
By now we'd entered the land of the Yi Tribes, and suddenly found ourselves on one of the most beautiful highways in the world, the road to Xichang. Unfortunately by the time we arrived at Qionghai Lakeside Hotel, it was already dark. We had a great dinner though, and exhausted from the day's drive, we retired early. Apologies since the photos on this blog pale in comparison to the past blogs. Most of these were taken by me while driving.
Day 19 – Ground Control to Major Pong & Luguhu Lake
Woke up early to catch the sunrise over Qionghai Lake, then hit the roads. I'd remembered passing a sign for the Xichang Satellite Launch Facility not far from Xichang, so I proposed to the team that we visit it before heading for Luguhu Lake. About 30 minutes out of Xichang, through Yi farmland, we reached the facility. Unfortunately the launch site, which is nessled in the mountains, is not open to Laowai (foreigners), but the soldiers at the gate did say we could visit the museum 4km away. What can I say about the museum except that every item looked like a school project. They even had Astronaut suits which you could put on to have your photo taken next to a tin can resembling a rocket. Unfortunately, the suits were not real, and the helmet they provided was a motorbike helmet, but who'd know. Anyways, the pictures here make the site look kind of professional, but trust me, it was tacky and extremely low tech. So much for being spontaneous.
Once again we hit the mountain roads, and once again, the road conditions were horrendous, but we ploughed on, finally reaching the stunningly beautiful Luguhu Lake before sunset.
We are staying on the tiny peninsula jutting out into the lake, in a cute little wooden cottage on the waterfront. $25 dollar a night rooms with Wifi and lakeviews ! What more can I ask for.
Getting up tomorrow for a boatride on the lake to see the sunrise at 6am. Bon soir !
Day 20 – Lugu Lake and the Mosuo Tribe
Our home for the night was a nice little wooden guesthouse run by a family of Mosuo. Almost half of the people living around Lugu Lake are of the Mosuo ethnic group.
We woke up 5:45am to be greeted by a Mosuo lady who took us in pitch black to her row boat. Then out on to the still calm of Lugu Lake we were led to a small islet in the middle which we climbed to see the spectacular Yunnan sunrise. Back down again we sat round a fire talking to the Mosuo family. If you have time, do watch the video of the Mosuo boat lady singing. She had an absolutely amazing voice and the song matched the still calm of the lake perfectly.
Back at the guesthouse we had a light breakfast of buckwheat pancakes, noodles and fried rice, and then had a walk around our peninsula before setting off for Lijiang through the mountain roads.
Arriving at Lijiang at 4:00pm we hit the Ancient City. Lijiang definitely has a distinct charm, especially after sunset when the streets come to life with music, street foods, and vendors selling everything from Naxi fabrics to silver or jade jewelry.
That night we went to see a concert performed by the Dayan Naxi Ancient Music Academy, a troupe of very colourful musicians, many of whom were in their eighties.
Day 21 – Tiger Leaping Gorge and Yulong Jade Dragon Snow Mountain
Sin got up early today to hit the gym. Surprised he has energy left in him as I am completely exhausted. I woke up to find almost 400 e-mails on my Blackberry that had not reached me these last few days in the mountains. Following a Western breakfast, and leaving my car behind, we headed for Tiger Leaping Gorge and the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain with it’s 9 peaks. What can I say about Tiger Leaping Gorge except it has a great name that raises expectations only not to deliver. The Snow mountains surrounding the gorge however are breathtaking. We took the Landcruiser up the valley to a secluded farmroad that led us to the start of our trek. Apparently this particular trail takes 3 whole days to complete, but time was not a luxury we could afford, so we hiked up a couple of kilometers, then had a fight over whether or not to continue to the top using donkeys before ultimately giving up and returning to the car. On the trail, we found a table that I adopted as my own. I could have spent a whole day on my table just gazing at the breathtaking 9 peaks of Snow Mountain. On the way back, we stopped to view the first bend in the Yangtse River, a bit of a non-event aside from the rare white Yak that was being handled at the site.
Returning to home base in Lijiang, Sin ordered a hamburger and some roast chicken in our hotel restaurant whilst I had a Dijon Carbonara. Yes we are wimps taking timeouts on local food, but I think Sin is suffering a little from Yunnan Tummy. He says that this was the best hamburger he’d ever tasted.
Day 22 – Impressions of Lijiang – Dali Ancient City
We had the whole morning to ourselves as it was a mild 3 hour drive to Dali which we decided to do after lunch. Following a chill out breakfast overlooking the Snow Mountain, we went back to our rooms to pack and ready ourselves for the drive. Looking through the small booklet on Lijiang in the room, I thought it might be fun to check out the hot air balloon ride just 10km away. Suffering from vertigo, I would abstain and take pictures from the ground, and Sin and Lily would do the ride. Unfortunately, although the weather was picture perfect, we had to make other plans as the place told us that the winds were too strong and it was the wrong season for hot air ballooning. Back to the booklet and Lily found a show she'd been wanting to see. "Impressions of Lijiang" is directed by Zhang Yimou against the stunning backdrop of the Jade Snow Dragon Mountain. I must say I have become a bit of a fan of Zhang Yimou's work. He is especially known for directing the opening and closing ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics, but I really liked his most recent movie, "The Flowers of War" starring Ni Ni and Christian Bale. We were in luck as the show started at 2:00pm. So we hopped in the cars and drove the stunningly beautiful road to the show near the foot of the Snow Mountain. We purchased tickets, which were free seating, and managed to get perfect seating at the front row of the second tier. I won't go into details, but the show was an amazing concoction of fabulous music, hearty dancing from the boisterous ethnic minority clansmen, and dainty footsteps from the womenfolk. So good was the show that we bought the CD and DVD set, and I have adopted the music as the theme tune for the rest of our roadtrip.
The show romaticises the myth of the Jade Dragon Mountain, a peak that has "never been conquered". I must say that I am a little disappointed to hear from my old friend the net that Yulong Shan was actually conquered by an American expedition in 1987.
On the way to Dali we stopped off to get my car checked. I was getting some rattling noise, and it turned out that the exhaust was rattling on the protective metal undersheet, which had been damaged due to chunky rocks that littered the mountain roads. With the metal sheet flattened, we headed off for Dali, a mere 180km away.
Arriving just before dark, we checked in, and hit the streets of yet another ancient town. So far, I think we all feel Pingyao was hard to beat, but each ancient town or city we visit has it's own unique characteristics. Dali is nice as the streets are a lot wider. We had a mostly vegetarian and very tasty local dinner as a 200-year-old restaurant, and then walked the streets on reserve battery power.
Tomorrow's going to be a rough one as we need to cover 630km to Xingyi as we start back toward Shanghai.
Days 23 & 24 – Dali to Xingyi to Kaili, Huanggoushu Waterfall
I’ve combined these two days, as really, our 23rd day was spent on the road doing the 630 km to Xingyi. Really not to much to report. The landscapes were not so spectacular, but I guess that thus far we have truly been spoilt. We passed through Kunming, which on the surface looked like just another grimy big city. Then heading to Xingyi where we observed the numerous pyramid type hills dotting the landscape. Nothing to report from Xingyi, yet another new town that is popping up in the valleys.
The following day started off with a piano recital by two team members on the hotel lobby’s baby grand, then we hit the road to Kaili stopping to see the Huanggoushu Waterfall, said to be in the top six in China. Beautiful, yes, but after Jyuzhaigou it’s a bit of a case of “been there, done that”. We headed for Kaili and arrived at dust. Checking in to our hotel, we headed for the night market, a bunch of food stalls selling all types of animal innards. We ended up having an excellent Miao food at a nearby restaurant.
We headed back to the hotel, stopping by the bustling Kaili Ethnic Minority Museum which we planned to visit in the morning. The elderly were practicing their Latin dancing in the square.
Day 25 – The 1,000 Family Miao Village
Today was truly a special treat. As fate would have it, the Kaili Ethnic Minority Museum was closed for refurbishing. Leaving Kaili we headed into the mountains to visit the secluded 1,000 Family Miao Village. Access to the village required some real off roading, but fortunately we befriended a govt official who allowed us to drive through the villagers entrance to this magical place. If you ever visit China and could only see one place, I would choose this village. I could easily spend a week here, chilling out with the warm Miao villagers. The Miao women are known for their spectacular costumes and headdresses. Their houses and bridges were very intricate in design compared to the Baima, Naxi, Yi and Mosuo and Bai ethnic minorities we had encountered. And this village of just over 1,000 families was a welcome oasis of culture and beauty, managing to elude the throngs of tourists due to its isolation from the world. Yet another highlight, I am sure I will come back someday to spend more time amongst the wonderful Miao.
Reluctantly we left the Miao village and headed through the mountains to Rongjiang.
On the way we stopped by a roadside celebration for the birth of a daughter. The Yao ethnic minority townsfolk invited us to join the celebrations, and how could we refuse. We were sat at the roadside table with one inch benches with whom I guess was the leader of the group, and they kindly offered us a small feast of foods and what seemed like homemade rice wine. Kudos to Sinclair, who, when offered a pigs toe to chew on, graciously accepted and chowed down. We offered them the traditional Hongbao, and in return they gave us gifts of yogurt drinks and red eggs.
Nearly 7:00pm, we said our farewells and started off down the road to Rongjiang. This stretch of road was truly off roading conditions and in pitch black, so we finally arrived at our digs for the night at 10:00pm.
Exhausted but truly honoured.
Day 26 – Basha Miao, The Last of the Gunner Tribes
Woke up this morning and headed staight for the nearby Dong Village. The village seemed deserted, so we hopped in our cars and drove through the mountains from Rongjiang to Sanjiang, stopping off at the Basha Village in the Qiandongnan Miao-dong Autonomous Prefecture of Guizhou. The 499 households of Basha folk live in harmony with nature, worshipping the tree and the sun. They believe their race was born from the stem of the maple tree. They are distinctive from other Miao cultures with the men bearing shaved heads except for the top middle piece which is grown long and twisted into a "Hugun" knot. These are the only people in China aside from the police and military that are allowed to carry guns. More like muskets, they were readily willing to discharge their firearms to the sky for a modest 10 kuai from any passing tourists. The scene reminded me of "The Last of the Mohicans", and it was hard for us to believe we were still in China. Following a light lunch amongst the Basha folk, we hit the roads again and headed for another Dong village on the outskirts of Sanjiang. We'd not booked a hotel, but our guide found us a quaint little guesthouse in the pitchblack night, next to a river at the entrance to the Dong Village. At $20 dollars a night for a room, this little guesthouse, aptly named the Dong Village Guesthouse, was to prove to be one of the nicest places we'd stayed in so far.
Day 27 - Dong Village and Longji Rice Terraces
Our $20 dollar rooms with balconies overlooked the river and rice paddies that fed on the river, and it was a perfect summer morning in the deep South of China. There is nothing quite so refreshing as waking up to the sound of running water. With a simple bowl of noodles for breakfast, we walked across the Dong bridges to the village. I was almost contemplating staying at the guesthouse for a year to simply clear my head of decades of city life.
After a light lunch we drove to the Longji Rice Terraces, said to be amongst the most beautiful in the world. The lighting and timing prevented us from being able to capture the beauty as well as in the numerous photobooks that you can purchase on the way up. It is hard for me to compare the terraces with those in Bali as the times I have visited the Bali fields were also not ideal lighting conditions. Both, I am sure, can be equally breathtaking if you are lucky. In the midday sun, Longji looked good, but we could not afford to wait for yet another sunset or sunrise.
Late afternoon we headed for Guilin and the Yangshuo Resort Hotel. On the way I was told that we are now only a few hundred kilometers from the border with Vietnam. In just over three weeks we have traversed North and South, East and West, through freezing winters and tropical summers.
We are at the tail end of our amazing journey, and everyday is an adventure we will cherish for years to come. China may not have been quite ready for a trip of this nature. Roads are half finished or damaged, and very soon, the entire country will be connected by the stunning expressways we encountered in our first two weeks. This is why our timing could not have been more perfect. I expect that in the very near future, there will be a new road to the Miao, Basha and Dong Villages, and the trickle of tourists will become a flood. The lifestyles of the ethnic minorities will be reduced to feeding the tourists hunger for diversity.
Day 28 – Yangshuo Li River Boat - Guilin
It was refreshing to wake up in a tropical resort in a tropical rain shower. The previous night we went for a swim after the hoard of 80+ Shanghai American School students had their pool party, so we felt somewhat energised. I am not too sure who runs the Yangshuo Resort Hotel, but it is a foreign style Banyan Tree wannabe type hotel with all the amenities but none of the expertise. It seems to be the Shanghai expat weekend retreat, which is probably a good reason to avoid it. My room has an amazing bath in the center of the room, but I am missing my $20 dollar room at the Dong Village with its single water faucet and riverside views.
We headed for the lovely Yangshuo West Street, and got on a river raft down the Li River, passing the glorious Karst Peaks on the river bank. I felt as if we had crossed the border into Vietnam and were drifting along the Mekong. The locals here had Vietnamese features and in the rain, the atmosphere was bathed in Sepia.
We had lunch at West Street, Yangshuo, at a place called Meiyou Cafe, and then hopped in the cars for the short journey to Guilin. Checking into the Guilin Inn, we headed for the night cruise on the Two Rivers and Four Lakes in Guilin Central, a tacky and almost tasteless ride that reminded us of "It's a small World" at Disneyland.
Stocking up on snacks at a local supermarket, we retired for the night early in preparation for the 820km drive to Nanchang tomorrow. Our journey is coming to an end, but we still have a few tricks up our sleeve.
We have covered over 8,200 km in just 28 days, the equivalent of flying from HK to London. I feel I could just keep going, and do the whole world. If only I had the luxury of time and money... Still, the dream will come to and end next Monday when I'll have a National Day Holiday to formulate a plan for next year's roadtrip. Ideas include "In search of Shangri-La", to "Tibetan Odyssey", to "Mongolian Mojo". I'll welcome any reader ideas.
Day 29/30 - Heading for Shanghai and miserable
Day 29 - Happy to leave Guilin, we hit the road for the marathon 820km leg to Nanchang. Someway into our journey I was saddened to have seen a sign to Shanghai, the first in over three weeks. The landscape is also gradually becoming more familiar now and I am cherishing every single kilometer clocked as I know the dream is ending soon. On route we are hopelessly looking for signs to tempt us into a detour, anything to break the finality of the schedule. A sign for a hot spring has us pouring over maps to see if we can accommodate the detour and still make it back to Shanghai in time. Alas, no choice but to stick to the schedule and head for Nanchang. After 9 hours on the road we finally hit Nanchang, a big, filthy city with worse traffic than Bangkok. Ying Chu has found us a nice restaurant to eat dinner in. Takes us one hour to cover the last 5km to the venue. I don’t know if my anger stems from the long drive, or from sadness that I’ll be back in Shanghai in a couple of days. Tensions rise amongst all remaining team members.
I check into another mega hotel chain wannabe. I think it’s called The Inter Galactic Peace International Hotel. I’ve decided to avoid all big Chinese cities on my next trip.
Day 30 – Hong Kong Dim Sum breakfast before hitting the expressway to Jingdezhen. This town is famous for Chinaware. Museum is closed. Hit the streets hoping to find small treasures. Not in the mood for bargaining, we leave and head for our final stop before Shanghai. Shexian Hongcun village, I’m told, is the real thing. A village with houses dating from the Ming and Qing Dynasties. We arrive, tired, angry, confused, and hungry. Shanghai is ever closer. A simple purchase and I get change in coins. I’ve not seen coins since I left Shanghai. Is it just me, or am I right in saying that they don’t use coins anywhere else? We have discovered the 5 Jiao note has a picture of a Miao lady on it. That is my souvenir for the trip. Sinclair gives me a fresh note. Nice.
Check in to our rooms. This is an ancient Anhui home. Double price tonight as it is the May holidays.
It’s been raining all day. We hardly notice. Hongcun, the ancient village, is weeping tonight.
We hit a trendy drink shop and Sin talks to the locals. He is fluent now.
We manage to muster a smile for the cameras, but it hurts.
Midnight and I refuse to sleep. This blog is my postcard, to me. To keep the journey alive.
Day 31 – Hongcun to Shanghai, The Final Leg
We discovered a new phrase these last few days.
“A tree is a tree, a flower is a flower.” I think Cao Li coined the phrase but she is not so sure how she stumbled upon it. I have no idea what it means, but somehow I feel it could be the answer to an infinite number of questions.
I woke up to the sound of birds chirping their morning call. Our innkeeper kept birds in small cages in the courtyard.
We are ready for our homeward leg. Cao Li will fly to Shenzhen from Shanghai, Sin back to Portugal, Ying Chu and Lao Liu back to Chengdu to await their next assignment. For me, China is my home now. I have come away from this odyssey with an understanding that there is so much more to China than the chaotic showpiece I live in. I am saddened to find my car door has been keyed last night by reckless passers by. It is not so much the cost and time it will take to repair the damage. There are people in every country who may find pleasure in dishing out pain. I feel a little betrayed that it had to happen to me in a country I want so dearly to love. I don’t take this as a true reflection of China, or even Asia. It’s the first time I have experienced a car of mine being keyed in 23 years of being in Asia. Bygones.
We hit Hongcun for the very last time. It looks more picturesque today. Perhaps as today is our last day, we just only want to see the beauty. Budding artists, sketchbooks in hand, dot the lakeside. Teenagers want pictures taken with us. We oblige, as we have done many times during this trip. A kind reminder that we are guests in this foreign land.
We are heading home now, having almost clocked 10,000km. As I reflect back I think to myself, maybe I am home.
I am beginning to understand now.
A tree is a tree, a flower is a flower.
Lead Car: 2010 Mazda MX 5
Support Car: 1999 Toyota Landcruiser
Dates: 31st March - 30th April
Distance Covered - 10,017km
Total off-roading distance covered - About 200km
Toll Fees Paid for one car - A whopping RMB 3,030
Number of Toll Gates - 63
Total gas bill for MX 5 - Around RMB 8,000
Number of spare wheels used - MX 5, 1 / Landcruiser, 2
Speeding tickets - Hehe, None !!!!!
Cheapest Room: Dong Village Guesthouse RMB 130 per night
Most Expensive Room: Aman at The Summer Palace, Beijing RMB 3,865 per night
Favourite Room: Dong Village Guesthouse
Route: Shanghai-Huai'an-Tai'an-Beijing-Huairou-Datong-Pingyao-Hukou-Huashan-Xi'an-Jiangyou-Jiuzhaigou-Chengdu-Leshan-Xichang-Luguhu-Lijiang-Tiger Leaping Gorge-Lijiang-Dali-Kunming-Xingyi-Huangguoshu-Kaili-Leishan-Rongjiang-Sanjiang-Longji-Yangshuo-Guilin-Nanchang-Jingdezhen-Shexian-Hongcun-Shanghai
Sightseeing entrance tickets paid per person - RMB 2,141
Cheapest entrance ticket - Sanbao Dong RMB 10
Most expensive entrance tickets - Huashan RMB 180, Huangguoshu Waterfall RMB 180, Impressions of Lijiang RMB 190
Sights visited: Qufu, Confuscius Temple - Mt. Taishan - Great Wall - Forbidden City - Hanging Temple - Pingyao Ancient City - Hukou Waterfall - Mt Huashan - Terracotta Warriors - Jiuzhaigou Valley - Chengdu Panda Research Base - Leshan Giant Buddha - Satellite Launch Centre Museum - Qionghai Lake - Lugu Lake - Tiger Leaping Gorge - Impressions of Lijiang - Jade Dragon Snow Mountain - Lijiang Ancient City - Huangguoshu Waterfall - Dali Ancient City - Rongjiang Dong Village - Xijiang Miao Village - Baisha Village - SanBao Dong - Chengyang Bridge - Longji Rice Terraces - Yangshuo riverboat - Guilin night cruise - Hongcun Ancient Village
Favourite places: Huashan, Pingyao, Xijiang Miao Village
Could have done without: Trip to Leshan to see the Giant Buddha, one night stay in Nanchang
Trip rating: 100/100
The Blog according to Sin
This blog is dedicated to my brother, who took a break from his studies to fly out from Lisbon and join the roadtrip through the Middle Kingdom.
I'd not seen my brother for 10 years, and this trip was a good way for us to reflect on times past. It was also strange to see that although we had totally different upbringings, we shared very similar personality traits that could easily identify us as brothers. I was also glad to see that my brother had commendable skills as an amateur photographer. This first photo of the donkey trek in Lijiang was taken by me using his mighty big Canon DSLR. It has to be one of my favourite photos, and also proof that he had the better camera. Despite this, I'll not revert back to DSLRs in future as I think my trusty Leica D Lux 5 proved it's worth as can be seen in the photos on all the past blogs. Aside from the first photo, all other photos below were taken by Sinclair Patrick Owen & Co. I am hoping now that Sin will be able to join the next adventure, not purely for his skills behind the camera, but also as a brother and a buddy.
It's been two weeks since our return and I have settled back into my job. Last week I was in Hong Kong speaking at a conference. The highlight of the conference was a keynote speech by Sir Ranulph Fiennes OBE, titled by the Guinness Book of Records as "The World's Greatest Living Explorer". Addressing the audience of finance professionals, Sir Ranulph capitivated us with stories of his past endeavors, from failing A-levels at Eton College, to his time with the SAS and the Sultan of Omens forces, to his achievements as an Adventurer. Although truly inspirational that he has spent more than 40 years making a career out of often life threatening expeditions, I'll not kid myself into thinking our cushy roadtrip was one millionth as challenging as spending month on end in pitch black Antarctic conditions. No, our antics across China were more akin to a Top Gear challenge, and I'm happy with that.
Originally posted on Travelblog.org. If you made it to the end, I much appreciate you taking the time and hope that you found it worth your while.