Hope you are all well and enjoying the Year of the Rooster. This is a blog about my recent travels in China.
To keep this blog post short I am going to split the blog into sections. Hope you enjoy!
Winter travel or Spring Festival holiday is the largest holiday in China, school students and teachers have from the middle of January until the middle of February off. As cliché as it sounds, it was one of the best months of my life, from camel trekking through the Tengger Desert to watching the huge office blocks light up the sky in Shanghai. I really did get to see so many contrasting parts of China. I just want to thank every one of you again for your continued support and interest in my year.
Throughout my holiday I travelled by car, bus, taxi and train (both fast and slow) covering a distance of over 8,600 kilometres.
Harbin 哈尔滨 (Heilongjiang)
Harbin, China’s “Ice City” is the capital and largest city of Heilongjiang province. Harbin is also in the most northeastern part of China with an interesting European feel. This was our first destination, here the whole country group was meeting to go to the annual Harbin Ice Festival (the biggest ice festival in the world). Getting to Harbin from Chong ren was quite the journey, to get out of Jiangxi you need to travel to Nanchang for long distance trains. As Chong ren doesn’t have a train station we had to get the bus to Fuzhou then the train from Fuzhou to Nanchang. From Nanchang we got a 12 hour train to Beijing, and then after a couple of hours wait and change of train station we got the train from Beijing to Harbin. All in all we were traveling for 30 hours,I will remind you that this was all done on hard seat…
Nothing could of prepared us for the temperature in Harbin, on arrival it was -24 degrees, apparently “good weather” for that time of year. It was great to see all of the other volunteers, some of which we hadn’t seen since training as unfortunately there was a delay with their visas. The first night was spent catching up and just enjoying each others company.
The next day armed with some Scottish courage and some very very thick thermals we took to the streets of Harbin to explore, going to underground markets and visiting St Sofia cathedral. St Sofia cathedral is a former Russian Orthodox church in the Daoli district of Harbin.
On our last day, we went to the ice festival, after reluctantly paying the FULL price as our students visas weren’t a valid form of ID. We entered the ice festival. It was truly amazing with full size building ice sculptures, we decided to go at night too, so we got the full effect with all of the intricate sculptures brightly lit in array of colours. It even allowed me to forgot how cold I was.
Hohhot (Inner Mongolia)
The prosperous and gridlocked capital of Inner Mongolia. Apart from the huge Museum, tourist activities are few in winter, but the main purpose in coming was to reach Ordos.
Hohhot was just as cold as Harbin, the train journey from Harbin to Hohhot was around 25 hours… yes I was hard seating it again. However we managed to meet the other volunteers in the dining cart, we played cards, ate our gourmet pot noodles and admired the beautiful grasslands that seemed to infinitely expand into the distance. I must admit the journey went in quite quickly. I had looked forward to exploring Inner Mongolia for a while as it’s the only province that uses Mongolian scripture, it sounds completely different from Mandarin and many of the residents speak Mongolian as their first language instead of Mandarin.
We went to the Inner Mongolia Museum, which really interesting and also free! It allowed us to find out more about Inner Mongolia, Mongolian scripture and of course the infamous Genghis Khan.
Ordos – China’s “Ghost City “(Inner Mongolia)
Ordos first became known to the outside world due to an Al Jazeera report (which can easily be found on YouTube) and the short story is that the city was built with billions of dollars of profit from natural gas, and was supposed to provide a modern home for 1 million people. However, no one moved to the new city: at least not in significant numbers. The result is a whole city that is virtually empty: eerily quiet except for the odd tourist marvelling at its weirdness. The residency of Ordos is a 20,000, just 2 % of it’s full capacity. Tower blocks, up to 40 stories high, are extravagantly designed and never occupied. One particular complex we visited consisted of an above and below ground shopping centre, a man made lake, two 40 storey towers and four 28 storey towers. One furnished tower aside, it was entirely empty apart from two ATMs and some barking dogs. The one tower with a receptionist amazingly had a working lift, allowing us to get an aerial view of perhaps the most bizarre city on earth. Definitely the most bizarre city I have visited.
Baotou ᠪᠤᠭᠤᠲᠤ ᠬᠣᠲᠠ ( Inner Mongolia)
Baotou is located in western Inner Mongolia and the famous Yellow river flows through the south of the city. Due to trains selling out we only got to spend the evening here as we were off early the next day. We explored the area around our hotel and got a good nights sleep before getting the train to Zhongwei.
We found the area immediately outside of the hotel to be very nice, with lots of decorations in preparation for Chinese new year.
Zhongwei 中卫 (Ningxia)
We got the train to Zhongwei, however the aim was to travel to Shapotou from there to see the Yellow River and explore the Tengger Desert. Shapotou is often referred to as a “desert playground” with lots of different activities to take part in on the desert such as sand boarding, camel trekking and sand surfing. We all decided to go on a camel trek which was slightly terrifying but great fun!
We found Zhongwei to be really pleasant with lots of old traditional Chinese streets and Temples within walking distance.
We took a day trip to Shapotou to explore the Tengger Desert. We went off season so luckily we had the place to ourselves apart from another couple of brave Chinese tourists, no queues or long waits which we were all really pleased about.
Zhangye 张掖 (Gansu)
We visited Zhangye as it was originally to be where two of the PT volunteers were to be placed, however due to visa problems they had to be moved to Heilogjiang. The main aim was to visit the famous “Rainbow Mountains” which I found to really really impressive. You can see for yourself in the pictures below. We had a spare day as our train wasn’t until late so we also managed to visit “Zhangye Giant Buddha Temple“ and got to see China’s largest sleeping Buddha.
Dunhaung 敦煌 (Gansu)
Dunhaung was where we spent Chinese New Year, we stayed in a family run inn at the foot of the Gobi desert. The family were extremely friendly and hospitable. As the inn was in a kind of complex there were lots of bars and restaurants however we were there off season so everything was shut, not to mention that Chinese New Year was also the next day so the family at the inn took us to the only open supermarket to stock up. They also cooked us dinner that night! The advantage to going to the Gobi off season is that again no queues, we had the whole place to ourselves, and the ticket prices were also cheaper!
We got the chance to visit the ancient Mogao Grottoes on the second day, it gave us the opportunity to find out more about Dunhaung and it’s involvement in the Silk Road. The famous Mogao Grottoes are ab ancient site renowned for their famous Buddhist artwork in the form of caves. I found it to be one of the most interesting things so far and highly recommend you read a little more about it. You can read more here.
Lanzhou the capital of Gansu, we were only here for around 5 hours as we were getting the evening train to Xi’an. Unfortuanly we couldn’t find anywhere to store our luggage so we had to take it around with us. As we didn’t have much time we didn’t stary too far from the train station and found a really nice restaurant selling cheap local food. We headed back to the station and said our goodbyes to the Heilongjiang boys and boared our train to Xi’an and gues what… I wasn’t hard seating it.
Xi’an 西安 (Shaanxi)
Xian, home to the Terra cotta warious and the largest Mosque in China. We were in Xi’an for 4 nights. Arriving off the night train we got the bus to our hostel. Our hostel was really central just at the foot of the city wall. We loved Xi’an and could of stayed for longer, there was just so much to do. Travelling allows you to meet so many different people, it was in Xi’an that we became good friends with a group of Australians, it was really interesting to share our experiences from China and also from school and life in the U.K.
The Xi’an Muslim quarter has some of the best street food I have ever tasted, it is also one of the busiest places I have ever been to, hundreds of stalls selling all different kinds of food both sweet and savoury. The grand Mosque is also in the Muslim quarter, we wandered there on the second day, we found this really interesting as it was the first time we had seen anything related to a minority religion in China. We also went to the drum and bell tower during the day and went back at night to see them lit up. I didn’t go to the Terra cotta warriors as I am going back to Xi’an with my parents in April and will go with them.
Back in Chongren for Candy’s wedding
We came back to our project during winter travel to attend our friend’s wedding. It was fun observing the differences between weddings in the U.K and weddings here, the wedding took the form of a game show with cash prizes and soft toys up for grabs-which sadly none of us won. The actual ceremony was surprisingly short too, lasting maybe just over an hour. I must admit the food was also slightly challenging with fungus and intestines on offer. Our friend Candy was really happy we made the effort and we even performed a song for her and her friends. Our waiban Judy was also there with our host family, so we got to catch up with them and let them know how our travelling was going!
From the wedding we all travelled to the very familiar train station of Nanchang. From there we got the high speed train to Shanghai and then travelled to our hostel. Our hostel was great and we got to go to a different Chinese culture event every night, from making dumplings to watching Beijing opera and trying our hardest to try and learn the most impossible Chinese game Mah Jong. It was good to stay for somewhere longer than a couple of nights, and as Shanghai would be our last destination we took the opportunity to relax. We hired bikes and cycled the length of the bund both during the day and at night when the tower blocks lit up the sky. We became regulars on Nanjing road and became very familer with the French Concession. I really do love Shanghai it’s the third time we’ve managed to go, and I am really looking forward to showing my parents around.
I am now 7 months in and time just seems to be racing by. I am settling back into teaching and have even been invited to another wedding, I had the best month travelling and can’t express enough how thankful I am for all of your support and help. Thanks for reading!