I made it back to Hong Kong, meaning I'm not being held in a Chinese prison for being a political insubordinate or some kind of uppity revolutionary. Phew.
So a little back story. I had no travel plans for Easter weekend. (Qingming Festival fell in the same week as Good Friday so we had Wednesday, Friday, and Monday off work. Anyone who took Thursday had a nice long stretch off work). So on St. Patrick's Day while out with some friends, my friend J says that I should join him on a trip to mainland China to Huang Shan a popular mountain in the Anhui province, to see some old villages and do some hiking and really get away from it all. I liked the idea and I could still a grab a reasonable ticket, so I did. I figured two Americans who speak absolutely zero Chinese would still be able to figure things out with a lot of pointing and gesturing and a little bit of luck and help from nice locals.
Well... then J tells me the day before we're supposed to leave that he can't make it due to work. I understood his predicament and I felt bad that he couldn't make it, but I didn't want to waste my plane ticket, my visa to get into China, and my vacation day. What was I going to do here? Sit around HK for 6 days? Nope. I told J to forward me all the info on the hostels he reserved and I picked up his Lonely Planet guide to China (if you're going to go to China get the Lonely Planet book, trust me) and took off.
My flights were out of Hangzhou, a city I'd actually like to see more off. I didn't get to spend much time there, but it seemed like it had a lot to offer and I really enjoyed the hostels in the city.
Getting from Hangzhou to Tunxi was the first episode in a running theme for my trip: "how I got there." One of the staff at the hostel tells me how to get to the bus terminal. I end up at some sort of bus station, but to me it seems more like a giant parking lot with a bunch of buses and people seem to know where to go somehow. I'm completely lost. I've got a map with Tunxi written in Chinese and I'm clearly a lost white dude in a bus parking lot. Someone comes up to me and asks in very rough English where I want to go. I point to the map and he indicates he can help and I follow him. He leads me to some other guy on a street corner who tells me to wait there for a while. I do. Eventually he comes over and for lack of a pen and paper, writes the price in the dirt with a rock. I nod as that's the price that LP approximated. A few minutes later this guy is waving at me like mad to run with him and catch some bus that's just pulled out. This isn't like a Greyhound mind you, this is old and dirty and sketchy. So I'm thrown on this bus and I pay the guy and then he hops off the bus and I'm left to hope I'm going in the right direction. It wasn't until the young man sitting across from me asks in his best English where I'm going that I get any assurance I'm headed in the right direction.
From the bus station in Tunxi, I need to get to the hostel where I'll be spending the next 3 days. I show a taxi driver where I want to go and he shakes his head no. So then some other guy comes up to me and says he knows where to go. He puts me in his rickshaw/motorized bicycle hybrid which he's willing to take on the highway, putting both of our lives in Jeopardy. He then turns on the music playing device that I can only describe as just that. It's playing Christmas music. So there I am in this vehicle that feels like something from the Red Green Show listening to Jingle Bells in April once again hoping I'm headed in the right direction.
The hostel in Tunxi was great. It was comfortable, it had a nice private bathroom, a water boiler, it was great. The cafe in the hostel was also convenient. I could go down in the morning and get breakfast. I could get a beer there in the evening and meet other travelers. They have wifi, so I can check my e-mail (but not Facebook, it's apparently one of the websites that's censored up there...). The hostel was a great little area called "old street" which is like an old fashioned Chinese market street. Here's a shot at night while I was eating dinner one night.
Day one in Anhui: Qiyun Shan
Qiyun Shan is a smaller mountain in the area and it's apparently sacred to Taoists and I can see why. It's simply beautiful up there. I loved the combination of geological features and religious shrines.
This mountain is one awe inspiring view after another. And the statues and shrines are so bright and vivid.* The path up is easy and pretty and there are little pagodas along the way to stop and enjoy the views. But once you're up there it's like a playground.
It was amazing to come through a cave or tunnel in the mountain and see it open up to a massive rock wall with writing on it with stairs down to a water pool and more altars. Stunning. I absolutely loved this mountain and I wish I had had more time to explore the active village at the top past all of the Taoist relics and shrines.
Of course getting back in the afternoon is another adventure. Getting to the mountain was simply a bus from the local bus station to the nearest village and walk from there. The way people get back to Tunxi however is just to wait by the side of the road and flag down a bus heading back. And this is just how things are done there. It's fine, but I was a little curious at one point when the lady taking the money had everyone who wasn't in a proper seat duck down so as not to be seen. And it's not like it's a scheduled, numbered bus or anything, it's simply someone with a bus driving between these towns making a buck.
Day two in Anhui: Xidi
Xidi is an ancient village but still an active village. So there are a number of old houses dating back to different dynasties from hundreds of years ago but there are people who live in houses right next door, just doing their thing. It's a little weird to be one of many tourists wandering around this old village taking pictures browsing in shops and passing right in front of people's homes. But it is what it is.
These old buildings are typically laid out with an area in the middle of the main hall that's open to above and there's a little pool/pond and trees. I don't know what to make of it. Very interesting to see these old structures and how people lived up in this area so many years ago. While crawling over the hundreds of art students there to sketch or paint different areas of the village, I did try a bit of the local food. I couldn't really tell you what it was, but it had egg in it and it was tasty.
Day three in Anhui: Hike up Huang Shan
The hike! The weather was nice and sunny, I was well rested and had eaten a huge breakfast early before catching a bus at 6:25 to the mountain. I had water in my camel-back, snacks in my back pack, and music on my mp3 player. It took about 2 hours to get up the 7.5 km hike up the east stairs and then maybe another 20 mins or so from there to my hotel. Along the hike there some simply fantastic views of the rest of the mountain. I don't know that I can do them justice but I've linked to all of my pictures below. There are plenty of people going up the mountain but never enough that the steps are congested or anything. They're all very nice and most of them are a little surprised to see a white boy on his own hiking this mountain. At one point on the way up, there were some local monkeys just hanging out doing their thing.
I've been up the mountains in Colorado and didn't see any monkeys. Get on that, Denver.
Here are some of my favorite shots from the mountain:
Since I started the hike at 8-8:30 I'm up at my hotel by 11 or so and checked in and putting down my back pack before noon. The hotel was a proper hotel, there are a few of them up there at the top. It was actually really nice to have the hotel to go to when I got up. I ate one huge meal in the early-mid afternoon at the hotel restaurant, going with the buffet so that I didn't have to try to communicate with a waiter.
I spent the afternoon checking out sights from the top and watching some people play basketball on the court up by the hotel. Actually the hotel apparently rents out space on the court for people to pitch tents and camp out. So as people are setting up their tents the playable area of the court is getting smaller and smaller. But it was nice to sit outside, sip a well earned beer and watch some pick up basketball for a bit.
Day four in Anhui: Sunrise, more hiking, and eventually down the mountain
It's popular to get up and watch the sunrise from the top of the mountain and since I crashed early, I figured I would do just that. So I throw on the only jacket/sweatshirt I really have with me and wander up with everyone. And everyone who spent the night up there crams into the best viewing spot on the mountain for the eastern sun. And I'm up there with them hoping to see a great sunrise. Well it was more of a gradual gray lightening. It was so foggy and overcast that morning that the sunrise was a bit of a disappointment. Ah well.
So after catching a little more shut eye back at the room, I check out and get on my way. Of course rather than heading right down, I end up taking some loops on the west side that I hadn't seen the day before. Great views of the rock faces, and some good hiking, but by the time I've finished them, it's getting on with the morning and I need to get on with the hike down to catch a bus back to Tunxi, and from there, catch the bus back to Hangzhou. There were so many people trying to get down the west steps at the same time I was that there a few real log jams. People end up funneling themselves to top of one narrow steep set of stairs people backed up going single file. It was so bad that I was sweating getting down in time and so in the interest of time, halfway down I grabbed the cable car down the rest of the way. I'm actually pretty glad I did. The bus that took an hour to get from Tunxi to the mountain, takes two hours, making all kinds of long stops along the way back. I finally reach the bus station and with a little help from a nice guy in the station, figure my way onto the right bus back to Hangzhou. Seriously, that guy was great, I couldn't thank him enough, and I just want to throw some good vibes out into the ether for him and his lady friend who was traveling with them.
I finally make it back to Hangzhou, find my hostel, eat a nice meal right at the restaurant downstairs which is open to outside and the perfect evening weather. A nice relaxing ending to a great trip in China. I actually would like to see more of Hangzhou and might try to talk the Kiddo into meeting me there for a long weekend while she's in Shanghai this summer. We could stay in that same hostel and see some of that city. My visa is good for another trip into China and the flights are easy and inexpensive.
Monday I grabbed lunch in TST with my new friend H and we indulged in a little bit of scrabble at the pub. We had been talking about getting together for scrabble and it was the perfect opportunity. She was actually recommending I join up and play with some of the more serious scrabble players that she plays with. We'll see. I feel like when it comes to board games and card games, I'm like Chevy Chase's character from Caddyshack.
Thanks for reading this far. It means a lot to me. All of pictures from my trip are here. Check them out.
Work's still busy, but I'm surviving. I've got mlb.tv so the Yankees are helping out me stay sane. I miss everyone back in the States. I hope you all had a great Easter or Passover.