Silk Road (9): I have not told half of what I saw

“I have not told half of what I saw.”

Marco Polo

There was something about Shanghai that really captured my attention and almost immediately put me at ease as soon as we arrived there. Can’t really pinpoint what though. Perhaps it was because it reminded me of London. Could it be Shanghai’s unusually cloudy, sun-deprived, rain-proned sky? Or the fact, that you can just about get around with English as it is compulsory to teach English starting in primary schools? Or even its Metro, now the world’s longest after London’s?

We liked Shanghai so much that we made up a promise to ourselves that if there is one place in Asia which we are unequivocally happy to move to, it would be Shanghai. If anyone out there has any suggestions on how to do that, I am all ears!

This was our second visit here, even though I barely remember anything from the first: just like Xi’an and Beijing before, the city had profoundly changed. We stayed in a hotel not too far from the Bund – when it comes to skyline, this is still one of the most impressive sights I have seen.While Beijing was about sightseeing, Shanghai was about immersing ourselves in the city and discovering its peculiarities as much as possible. So we did our laundry in a local “Speed Queen”, my daughter got a haircut. We took the Metro or just walked everywhere (looking for the cheapest pomelo!). For a country so prone to planning and doing a lot by ‘order’ historically, and now recording everything its citizens do, I was curious to see these pictures in the metro.

Despite everything the Chinese understand that not everything can be modelled, that things are not black and white and should instead be put in perspective.

I was even more curious to visit the China propaganda museum. It is located in the basement of an ordinary block of flats, close to the French quarter, and it is an absolute must-see. Various propaganda posters are in display there, starting from WWI till the 1990s. It is interesting to see how Chinese thinking evolved throughout these years regarding internal politics, external threats and opportunities.

Our next stop was Huangzhou – another city which we had visited before but we thought it is worth going there again; after the hustle and bustle of Shanghai, Beijing and Xi’an, we were looking forward to some relaxed time in nature. That’s why we booked a hotel away from the city where the host turned out to be one of the nicest people we met in all of China. Even though he did not speak any English, he tried to help in every single way from offering to call a taxi through Didi to exchanging money, etc. At departure, he even gave us Osmanthus flower tea (specialty of the region) as a gift.

One of the downsides of staying in a nice but secluded place was the difficulty of getting to the main attractions: the West lake, the various Pagodas, Lingyin Temple, etc. On the first day we took a bus but got in an argument with the driver as he could not give us any change back as majority of people use WeChat. Eventually, after many shoulder shrugs, the driver asked the person behind to pay us instead of his fare thus we had our change back. Thereafter, we learnt out lesson and we would have exact change when traveling on buses in China.

The second day, no bus passed by for some unknown reason. There were plenty of empty taxis passing by but not a single one stopped for us. To this day, I think that perhaps because of our argument on the bus the day before, our social credit score was already ruined and we would be stuck in Huangzhou forever!

Inseed, we ended up walking for about 8 km. At least it was a pleasant walk among rice fields and beautiful lakes in-between luscious hills. At Lingyin Temple, we eventually managed to take a bus that took us in the completely opposite direction to where we needed to go! After two hours and two bus rides, we finally found ourselves at the bus station where there was a taxi stand and we managed to take one. Either our social credit score was back to normal or there was a hole in the Big Brother system!

After Huangzhou, we were back in an unfamiliar territory: we headed to the mountainous region around Huangshah. The name Huangshan in Chinese literally means ‘Yellow Mountain.’ Though not yellow, the mountain range was named  in honor of Huangdi, the ‘Yellow Emperor.’

Huangdi is probably China’s most famous emperor. Some people believe that he is the father of Chinese civilization itself. Huangdi apparently loved spending the summers in these mountains and thus the name stuck.

The mountains are impressive. There is a Chinese proverb which states that “after seeing the five mountains of China, there is no need to visit another mountain, but after seeing Huangshah, there is not even need to visit the other four.”

When I saw the peaks they reminded me of pictures I had seen on Chinese stamps and ink paintings. They looked surreal in their beauty there, but having seen them now in real life, I can attest that they do exist!

Beauty aside, climbing the mountains was a bit weird, however. This is a major tourist destination for local Chinese and, similar to everywhere else we visited, everything is so well organized that it feels artificial: nature is tamed and takes second priority to comfort. There were special buses that take you from the bottom to a several gondolas which then take you midway up the mountain. From there you continue your walk up in strictly designated (in some cases two-way, for traffic coming back down) lanes. Or you can also take one of these:

We were not in a busy season, yet it felt crowded: it took us a couple of hours to get to Celestial Peak. On the steepest climbs, we were not only literally crawling in a line but constantly stopping as people were taking pictures.

Two other things got my attention. First, there were garbage bins every few steps or so, yet locals could not be bothered but kept throwing their trash everywhere. One guy even made a special effort to throw his empty plastic bottle all the way down the hill. Nevertheless, the site looked clean as there was an army of street sweepers continuously collecting the thrash. Talk about a waste of resources but I guess old habits die slow.

And second, I was totally impressed by these people bringing stuff for sale in the various kiosks up in the mountains: I did not realize it in the beginning, but they were not using the gondolas (which were very expensive – 80 CNY one way) but instead they climbed at least 7 km up a very steep path all the way from the bottom.

In search of a more authentic mountain trek, we decided to climb down those 7 km. Even downhill and on a designated path with steps, it still took us forever.

We were supposed to go to Hengyang afterwards but we could not get direct train tickets and we decided alternative travel arrangements weren’t worthwhile given the forecast was for heavy rain. Reality was that, for first time wanderers like us, we also had become more comfortable with the trip and its ‘requirements of flexibility’.

So, in search of better weather we decided to head straight to Yangshuo. That by itself meant a 24 hour journey and three separate train rides of which one overnight (hey, at least we were saving on overnight stay expenses and even the slow trains in China are pretty comfortable to sleep in!).

Stepping out of the train at Yangshuo in the early hours was so mesmerizing that we immediately took out the cameras to take pictures of the rolling hills surrounding us – they are also famously commemorated in various Chinese postcards and stamps.

We had booked a wonderful bed and breakfast on one of those hills overlooking the Li River where the host turned out to be also a very nice person. He organized for us to rent scooters for the day at a much lower price than what we could get in the city.

I was a bit apprehensive at first to drive the scooter without a helmet with my son in the back amidst the chaotic Chinese traffic, but eventually I got used to it. Moreover, the chaos is only in the city. Once we got out of it, we could really enjoy the beauty of the scenery around us. We spent the whole day driving amidst the hills, stopping everywhere we wanted either to take pictures, for a rest, or for a bite to eat from the many stands along the road.

Having skipped Hengyang we had more time left to enjoy Yangshuo. On the second day we decided to go for a boat ride along the Yulong river and then ride bikes into town. And on the third day we visited the Silver Cave. The 2018 World Rock Climbing Competition was held on those very walls. Actually, it is not surprising that the hills around Yangshuo are popular climbing spots – we saw at least a few designated such places. It was peculiar to see teddy bears hanging up on the rocks – even in this case, it seemed, the natural attraction was not enough and people were given an additional stimulus.

Our last stop in China was Shenzhen. Not for anything else but for the fact that it is considered the Silicon Valley of China. Also, in true spirit of the Silk Road trip, we wanted to finish it off by crossing out of China by land: take the Metro to Hong Kong.

Shenzhen is the home of probably the world’s greatest electronics market, Huaqiangbei: a sprawling warehouse of several floors where one can pretty much buy any electronic hardware that has ever been produced anywhere in the world. When we visited, it was pretty empty, yet, my head was spinning from the options that were available there. You can find anything you are looking for and, for what it seems very reasonable prices, but you either have to be an expert in electronics or speak very good Mandarin.

Shenzhen is not about electronics anymore. In fact, it has become China’s most affluent big city once a mixed market system was introduced: the city is indeed home to China’s first stock exchange. What propelled Shenzhen was the decision in 1980 to declare it a special economic zone. Before that, it was literally a swamp, and since it has grown multiple times over. In fact, the proximity of Guanzhou and the easy and fast transportation links (bullet train) between the two, make this to be the world’s biggest megacity.

Actually, Hong Kong is even closer, 15km away (and the two are connected by a Metro), so I can only imagine what this would have looked like, had there been no border between them. Crossing the border, actually was very straightforward and fast (relative to other borders we crossed). It did remind me a bit of the France-UK border using the Eurotunnel. However, the border makes a huge difference in property prices. The ones in Shenzhen have risen proportionally to the growth of the city but they are still several times lower compared to the ones in Hong Kong.