loving the challenge of china

hot air balloon over yangshuo chinaWhen Alison Meredith took up the challenge to travel the world for over a year, she probably never expected to be berated by border police, forced to ask strangers for help to get cash from an ATM or touching down in someone’s front yard in a hot air balloon. But all this and more happened in the first country she visited…

“The following is an email account of my initial experiences in China. It was the first destination of a life changing, 15-month journey through over 30 counties and still remains at the top of my list of favourites. I travelled  with a German girl whom I met en route and despite the absolute chaos of China, or perhaps because of it, we had a fantastic time. I can’t recommend China highly enough if you’re after an eye-opening, all sense-assaulting, entertaining and thoroughly worthwhile travel experience.

Friday, 5 March:
Ni hao! That’s hello in Chinese. We’re in Yangshuo now in the south of China and have decided to stay here for a few days because the scenery is nice and there is plenty to do. But let me start at the beginning…

Crossing the border into China from Hong Kong was an adventure in itself. At the customs gate for “leaving Hong Kong” (it turns out there were two gates, and there is another story for the second one) I went through and then thought I’d take a photo of Mareike as she came through. It was a good shot, one lonely little blonde head in amongst the sea of black haired Asian ones, with that hopeful look I suppose everyone has when a stone-faced customs official is scrutinising their passport.

I was happily showing Mareike her portrait and we were congratulating ourselves on making it through when I was loudly berated by the Chinese border police and made to delete the photo! I did as I was told feeling very sheepish, though grateful that every photo I’d taken had not been destroyed. After that excitement we walked through the ‘no man’s land’ between the two customs gates, following the directions “foreigners keep left” and handing our passports over to the officers at the “going into China” gates. There we were told (via charades and a lot of pointing) to go and fill in an entry card and then come back.

Fully laden with backpack, day pack and a plastic bag containing some groceries and my camera (cleverly disguised as food snacks to fool the pickpockets) I struggled over to the bench to fill in the entry card and the returned to a much longer line at the second customs gate. At the front of the line we had to stand on a pair of red footprints while an overhead camera of sorts scanned us and took our temperature. Seaching for fever due to SARS or birdflu I assume. Fortunately Mareike and I (and all of the people around us) were given the green light and were able to pass through. Yay! We were in China!

I was unloading all of my luggage onto the baggage xray machine when I suddenly realised that I was minus one piece. Aaah! The plastic bag with my camera in it! I managed to communicate to the border police that I had left something rather important somewhere in between the two gates we’d just come through. They held onto my passport while I ducked back through and checked the desk. Nope, not there. Perhaps the bench where I’d filled in the entry card? I struggled against the oncoming tide of Asian tourists and there was my plastic bag, complete with camera, sitting on the bench surrounded by Asian businessmen calmly filling in their entry cards!

Back through the customs gates (without lining up this time) with a sheepish grin at the border police who laughed at my foreign forgetfulness, and we were on our way again, this time with me in possession of all my belongings. About two minutes later Marieke realised that she’d left the bottle of water she’d been carrying in the no man’s land as well, but we decided to cut our losses and sacrifice it to the Hong Kong/China border gods.

So we were in China, in a city called Shenzhen. We needed to find out how to get to Yangshuo and I needed some Chinese money. We asked the girls at the tourist information about a sleeper bus to Yangshuo. We were first told that such a bus between Shenzhen and Yangshuo didn’t exist, but we persisted (stood there repeating the word “Yangshuo” whilst miming sleeping on a bus) because we had been told about this bus by some travellers in Hong Kong who had used it, so we knew that it was possible. The girls made a phone call and found out about the bus, then wrote us directions to the bus station we were to go and said we should catch a taxi there.

One down, now for the Chinese money. The Chinese ATM experience went very well at first, until on about the third screen all the English writing disappeared and I was left to stare blankly at the unintelligible Chinese characters. I didn’t want to start pressing buttons randomly in case my card got eaten, so I waited while casting pleading looks at all the people walking by. Eventually the machine timed out and spat my card back at me. I still needed money so I tried again, but this time I was wise and I enlisted the help of a kindly passerby who ably assisted me to use the touchy Chinese ATM.

In fact everyone here in China has been very helpful, even though they can’t understand us, and seem to think we’re crazy for wanting to travel in China. At the taxi rank we were accosted by young men who thought we wanted to go to the airport. We just ignored them and lined up for a taxi like everyone else. When it was our turn we handed our written directions to the bus station to the driver upsidedown, as instructed by the lonely planet guide book. This was to test if he could read. It was a relief to see him turn it up the right way and nod. Not such a relief to see him also nod at the young man who had accosted us, who was yelling out the same word to which he had earlier mimed an aeroplane taking off!

So we were in a taxi, going somewhere. Perhaps to the bus station, or maybe to the airport, who knew? Thankfully our written instructions won out and we were unloaded at the bus station where through more charades and saying “Yangshuo” we were able to purchase tickets for a bus leaving at 8pm. It was then only 5.30pm so we settled down to wait.

Being the only foreigners in sight and due to Mareike’s very fair hair we got a lot of stares. When I decided I might need my sleeping bag on the bus and embarked on a complete repack of my backpack right there on the floor, one man even came up to watch the entire process intently from about half a metre away. I guess it’s not every day they have a couple of tourists unpacking all their gear on the floor of a Chinese bus station.

Eventually the inevitable need to visit the Chinese toilets arose. For those of you who are not aware, Chinese toilets are squat pots, a porcelain hole in the ground which condition, I had heard, ranged from disgusting to downright putrid. So off I went armed with my own toilet paper (another handy hint from Lonely Planet) and prepared to hold my breath for as long as it took. Fortunately these ones weren’t too bad, a bit muddy but otherwise cleanish, and having a cold did have one benefit – I couldn’t smell a thing with my blocked nose! Mareike however wasn’t so fortunate in her good health.

When the time came, the numerous locals we’d enlisted to notify us when our bus arrived eagerly shepherded us towards it. The bus was full of beds. 3 rows of double bunk beds. Just like school camp, but on a bus. Quite a novelty and not a bad way to travel either, though the beds weren’t very wide. I had a top bunk right behind the driver. I think if we stopped suddenly I would have slid off my bunk and landed right on top of him. Fortunately the drivers here never seem to stop, all they do is lean harder on their horns and hope that their obstacle gets out of the way.

Every time I opened my eyes I saw the glaring lights of the oncoming traffic heading straight for us. At the last moment the driver would blast his horn and the oncoming vehicle would veer to the left and narrowly miss scraping right own my side of the bus. Shortly into the trip I decided it was best just to close my eyes and hope for the best.

To our relief we arrived safely in Yangshuo at 5am. After a bit of confusion and fending off some enthusiastic hotel touts we managed to find the West Street Inn, that had been recommended to us in Hong Kong. We were shown up about 6 flights of stairs to our room, where we gratefully fell into stationary beds. The West Street Inn is really good and cheap. We had a double room with a private bathroom (no squat pot thankfully) which was much nicer than most of the places I’ve ever stayed. We were able to eat out all the time too, because it only costs about $3 each time.

Yangshuo is a pretty town on the Li River, set amongst the spectacular karst scenery. Karsts are hills of limestone and they stick up all over the place. Yesterday we went on a bamboo raft on the river. We were told the price included the bus to the river, but when the bus came it turned out to be two motorbikes, so we got a fun ride on the back of a motorbike through the villages and paddocks.

It was very serene on the river and the scenery was beautiful. We were enjoying the peace and quiet of the river after the bustle of Hong Kong, happily being punted along by a local Chinese man, when his mobile phone rang! Everyone has them here. For such a huge country, they certainly have no problem with mobile coverage. Even out in the middle of nowhere in a tiny, tiny village you can still hear mobiles ringing. It certainly puts Australia to shame where you can’t even get coverage all the way along the country’s major highway.

This morning we went up in a hot air balloon! The price for the bus to the take-off site was also included, but this time the bus turned out to be a small truck! In China one can never be sure.

The view from over 1000m up was amazing. It was so peaceful floating up there. The limestone karst hills stretched out endlessly before us with the rivers snaking between them, and little villages dotting the landscape making patchwork quilts with their crops and fields. The best thing of all was that we had to land randomly in someone’s field, since it isn’t really possible to precisely steer a hot air balloon. As we came down people materialised from their houses, rode up on bikes and stopped their toiling at their crops to watch the balloon and its load of foreigners descend into their midst. They all crowded around friendly and curious. Everyone that saw us called out “hello” or “hello missy”. It is hard not to respond automatically, but we were trying to remember to reply with Ni hao instead of hello, because it gives them a laugh.

This evening we were approached by numerous groups of giggling schoolgirls wanting to interview us for a school project. It was quite funny and everyone walking past was curious – at one point we gathered a crowd that just about filled up the whole street.

There are all manner of things happening on the streets here. People buying and selling, welding up a window frame, cooking, eating, playing cards, mahjong or even badminton, washing dishes, washing clothes. The streets are full of life and full of incongruity. Right next to an alley full of street food stalls and people squatting in the dust having a game of cards there is a shiny new mobile phone shop with the latest in digital communication convenience. On top of the village huts with no windows and no cement between the bricks sit satellite dishes receiving many TV channels.

As you can tell I am loving China. Despite the fact that we can’t understand anything (it’s all Chinese to us) and they can’t understand us most of the time, we’re having heaps of fun. Everything has been pretty easy so far, but I think it would have been quite daunting on my own, so I am glad to have Mareike with me. I think she also feels the same.

Anyway, now my fingers are tired as well as the rest of me. We have a big day ahead of us tomorrow, going on a tour to a nearby minority village and some famous rice terraces. I hope the sun is shining on you wherever you are.”

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* photo by Sam Mariani – Intrepid Photography Competition

About the author

Sue Elliot - Like many of us, Sue contracted a serious travel bug at an early age. She's visited over 90 countries in search of a cure, but her wanderlust just seems to get worse. Thankfully at Intrepid Travel she's amongst people who understand the affliction and since 1998 Sue has enjoyed being our blog and newsletter editor. Here you'll find helpful travel advice and inspiring tales from Sue and other Intrepid travellers.

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Have now travelled twice through China with Intrepid and loved every moment of it, fun, local, great adventures and amazing local experiences. Planning another trip soon, the best way to travel

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