No panda crossed our road in China.
However we did see one – my sister’s pet panda was busting vibes at the Great Wall of China.
Say hello, Sydney.
Our first stop in China was Urumqi (handy tip on how to pronounce it: “a room key”).
We had entered through the Kazakhstan-China border, and of course, we ran into a situation.
The ride to the border was actually pleasant – a Kazakh friend offered to drop us off by car. Once at the border, a man took us to passport control. We passed the check and therefore started walking to the Chinese border before a loud voice on a megaphone called us back. Confused, we returned to the news that we couldn’t walk to the border (note: it was a five minute stroll away) and the only way we could cross was to wait an undefined amount of time for a bus coming from a distant village, so we could hitchhike it, if it wasn’t full. Even more so, we would have to pay the driver for those 2 minutes’ drive.
But it doesn’t stop there. Once back in the waiting area, we were pestered by security guards asking us questions individually (to me – “What is your mum’s name?”, to my mum – “Can you confirm your husband is from Ukraine?”)
When the guards were satisfied with our answers, they finally left and we were on our own in the waiting area for the next three hours.
Major problem? They hadn’t bothered to put on the heating.
Mind you, this is still Kazakhstan we’re talking about. Where it was snowing!
So the extreme cold left me shivering for the whole wait – the freezing seats didn’t help.
On the other hand, I did get to read on my kindle, my trustworthy library of books. I knew it was a good idea to bring it on the trip.
From time to time, a few individuals would pass through the waiting area and eventually my dad striked up a conversation with one of them. They talked for a bit and the guy offered to negotiate a free ride for us. That was a relief for all of us, as now we didn’t need to worry about the bus being too full or not having enough money to pay for it.
Eventually the bus arrived, the passengers got off to pass through passport control, and, soon enough, the waiting area was filled up. Only then they switched the heater on, which, actually, didn’t matter, as, five minutes later, we all went outside to get on the bus to no man’s land.
Unfortunately, the Chinese border picked that exact time to close down for lunch break. Thus we ended up waiting on the bus for half an hour. Needless to say, I felt uncomfortable: we were clearly the odd ones out – among others we were hitchhiking a bus while other passengers actually had to pay.
Finally, the border opened and we set out to cross into China. At last.
Urumqi was interesting, the tension was thick – it was clear something was going on. This feeling was proven correct: police was stationed on almost every street and we witnessed constant drilling (of the police force and, even, of the shopkeepers). Not only police checks were clearly present in the streets, their red lights flashing 24/7, but also security guards and metal detectors were positioned at the entrance of most shops – even the budget hotel I stayed in! I later found out that the Xinjiang region is a predominantly Muslim area which is considered a troublemaker by the Chinese government.
Being so close to Almaty, Urumqi still had traces of snow in the streets, which quickly evaporated in a couple of days or so, which also meant no snow fight😔.
The next stop was Dunhuang, which I really really enjoyed. Mostly, it was because we spent half a day climbing the sand dunes in the Gobi Desert before rolling/running down.
(I created this poster out of it, because why not)
We also visited the Mogao Caves , where we were led on an English tour, accompanied by a German biker and two Swiss. The main part of the tour was the cave of the large Buddha but I preferred the cave that talks of karma. In it a special deer saves a man from drowning and to return the favour, asks him not to reveal its location. However, when the king suddenly requests the capture of this special deer, the man helps to find and capture the deer for a reward. But after the animal tells the story to the king, it is let go and the traitor is punished. To my parents bewilderment, the story of a prince purposely jumping off a cliff to feed two tiger cubs starving to death, also really captured my imagination.
Talking of Buddha, Zhangye, the next city on our schedule, is home to the largest reclining Buddha in China, which we did, of course, visit. My impressions? It was, well, long! But that wasn’t all. Stunning beauty? Nature at its finest? That’s the Rainbow Mountains. Indeed we came to Zhangye mostly to see those colourful hills stretching across a distance of 322 square km. I was in awe of the mountains. On our way there though we first stumbled into the Binggou Mountains. The rock formations there were just incredible, varying from tall towers to rocks that resembled turtles, snakes and even a frog!
Xi’an was next. The hotel we stayed at was amazing. It was a contemporary art gallery/hotel, so of course it was heaven for my mum. I genuinely enjoyed the creative mood of the hotel and was sad to leave. It was one of the best I had been in.
The actual city itself was ok. The old city was surrounded by a wall where you could walk on. It was interesting, because it gave us a high view (*cough* high ground, Star Wars fans *cough*) over the city: we could see women playing poker on the streets, scooters zooming by and even a school playing at full blast Fhur Eliza on the speakers of its basketball court.
Of course, we also visited the Terracotta warriors, the legendary army of clay soldiers buried with the emperor to protect him on his way to the afterlife. I found amusing that it was all discovered by a bunch of farmers digging for a well. Who knew that would lead to a discovery of such importance?
Other interesting things: there wasn’t just soldiers, but also calvary, chariots, pottery, servants and entourage; each piece was individually created i.e. arm, leg, before they were assembled. Impressive, huh?
The capitol!!! *cough* Hunger Games *cough*
We spent a day strolling through the Forbidden City, a city reserved only to the emperor, his family and his entourage. How ironic, since now it is open to everyone, bursting with tourists. No matter how grand and spacious it is, it mustn’t have been very exciting living in a whole city all alone, closed from the outside world. I find it astonishing that an emperor would spend his whole life doing that – when he is meant to rule China (which is one of the biggest countries in the world, in terms of population and land mass).
That night, we went to see the Olympic stadium lit up, white and blue colours illuminating the nightly air.
All the neon lights and loud music made the famous Olympic stadium even more stunning than I imagined.
Mostly though, I still can’t believe I’ve been to one of the greatest landmarks in the world – the Great Wall of China. Even more so, I get to brag that Sydney, the panda went there too. 🐼😎
The specific section we took was mostly uphill and it gave us an amazing view at the top. Being on the wall, overlooking miles and miles of landscape I could imagine what it would have been like to be a guard patrolling the wall – I could see through his eyes.
While in Beijing, we also indulged ourselves in eating a peking duck, a dish greatly appreciated by emperors and first introduced in Beijing during the North and South Dynasties. We ate it wrapped in a pancake, after dipping the fatty roasted skin in sugar and jam. It was absurdly delicious – I helped myself to a large portion of it. The name Peking was only introduced later on during the Ming Dynasty.
The next stop was Shanghai. We all enjoyed Shanghai, but I particularly did because of its futuristic atmosphere – all the tall skyscrapers looming throughout the day, and the city lit up with sound and colour at night.
There, we walked along the Bund – where more looming buildings were built on the other side and we visited the Propaganda Art Museum – where most art depicted China as extremely successful and Europe and America falling behind. Below are a couple of my favourites posters.
As much as I loved Shanghai it was nice to take a break from the lively and busy city though, and, once in Hangzhou, we decided to lodge in the the nearby forest, rather than in the centre of the city.
We did go to the city though, but ended up having to walk since not a single taxi would take us. Why? To this date we still don’t know. We could only imagine that we were victims of discrimination… and, man, it was painful (literally, as we ended having to walk more than 8km).
Beside this misfortune, we still managed to see the famously romantic West Lake, the calm water reflecting slivers of the setting sun.
Home to the renowned Yellow Mountains, Huangshan was our next reside(Huangshan literally means Yellow Mountains, which left me wondering if they couldn’t be any more creative). It is so called because the Yellow Emperor, the mythical ancestor of the Chinese, lived there. Eventually, it became well known for the odd pine trees, hot springs, clouds and peaks. Here, it was the weather that didn’t assist us – the day we chose to visit the mountains, it was raining and quite foggy. On the other hand, it did add a majestic and mysterious feel to it.
On the way up, we took a cable car, but we decided to go by foot on our way down, we walked 7km. And man, that was long.
Next up was Yangshuo. We spent the majority of the first day sitting on a raft while a man paddled us across the Li river. It was a satisfying experience, including mini-waterfalls, where we would ride down, screaming all the way. At the end we rented bikes and rode through the countryside back to the city. The next day, we visited the Silver cave which, while it was impressive, felt artificial, because of manned colourful lighting everywhere (more on this in my next post).
The last day we rented scooters. Feeling the wind as we rode through stunning nature was a first for me and felt very pleasant. I chose not to wear a hat (helmets aren’t compulsory here) and life came back to bite me in the face by giving me a sore throat the following day. Eh, it was worth it.
Bear with me, folks. We’re almost done.
Before our last stop, (Hong Kong, which has a special status and not considered mainland China, but let’s not dwell on the technicalities), we stayed in Shenzhen – China’s Silicon Valley – for a couple of days. I was in awe of the products being sold. My parents marveled for long time in front of a 3D holographic fan. The city is also home to, apparently, the largest bookstore in the world, which I was happy we visited.
Finally we arrived to what I expected to be one of the most glamorous and busting cities of the world – Hong Kong. In the back of my mind, throughout the whole journey, I just couldn’t wait for Hong Kong, one of the only three cosmopolitan financial centers in the world. Already as a young kid, I was intrigued by what I imagined to be a city of exhilarating sights and complex culture. It came as a disappointment to realize how similar it was to London!
Just as in London, Hong Kong sported humongous looming buildings, double-decker buses driving along the road, and huge crowds of people pushing past each other on the pavements. It just didn’t feel as Asia anymore…
On the train to our hotel; a young girl leaning on the pole (must have been around 6 or 7) was reading a particularly popular English book; later on, a man accidentally bumped into me and instinctively said “Sorry” in English. Even more so, English signs were everywhere and shop assistants in English high street franchises (Mark and Spencer, Debenham etc…) were speaking in accurate British accents.
I do wonder, if we had just taken a plane from London to Hong Kong, instead of slowly coming to the city through all those other countries, my impressions, and enthusiasm, would have been very different. There were, after all, tall skyscrapers penetrating the sky and the neon signs flashing on and on did give off an astonishing nightly view.
In Hong Kong we stayed the longest time to date on our journey (four nights). This had nothing to do with sightseeing but was due to the fact that my dad has a few friends here, and wanted to have time to catch up with most of them. I got to know his friend Devin and his family quite well as we had dinner with them every night, which was great as I immediately struck up a bond with his son, Nicholas (if you are reading this, hi!) with whom I had especially great time playing Fortnite and Clash Royale.
We were not confined only to Hong Kong City though. We took a boat to Lamma Island where we strolled around. However, even there, I was a little disappointed. This time, because of how carelessly the environment was treated – litter present everywhere, chunks of trees piled up on the grass and a gigantic power station situated right by the beach for everyone to see, which totally spoiled the view.
Well, that’s it gang. We made it. We travelled all over Central Asia by land, passing through Bulgaria, Turkey, Georgia, Armenia, Iran, Azerbaijan, the Caspian Sea, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and China. Our Silk Road journey is over. There’s been so many ups and downs. I’ve also managed to survive this far, so good news. If I don’t post the second part within a month, assume I’m dead. As for the moment, adios.
(by the way, just kidding. We are all good)