Only two months after arriving in Korea, we received a 10 day vacation due to a national holiday. Naturally, we decided to use this time to travel. With only 9 days, a backpack, each other, and a very detailed itinerary – Josh and I went off on an adventure to China. We saw everything we wanted to, thanks to hours of planning. We never got lost, thanks to Josh’s navigation skills. We didn’t experience overcrowding, which was surprising as it was a national holiday in China too. Plus, we got to take in everything without feeling anxious or rushed, which is crazy as China is a huge country, and we only had 9 days. Never expect your trips to go this smoothly, but always pray they do. So, where did we go, and what did we see while we were there? Let’s get into it…
We started our journey in the city where old and new coexist, and it’s completely normal to see a Tesla parked outside of an ancient palace. We took a plane to China, a bus into Beijing, then the subway to our hostel. As we walked the streets at night, through a small Chinese market, I couldn’t believe where I was. It was all so new to me. We went to a restaurant near our hostel and ordered pekking duck, which is a must have in Beijing. Then, we turned in early, as the next morning we had a big day planned.
The alarm rang at 4:45 a.m. We tiredly strapped on our backpacks, and headed out. We saw people in front of the hostel who were still drinking from the night before. I chuckled because we were starting our day, and they hadn’t even finished their previous one yet. So, where were we going that we had to get up so early? Well, we were going to the Great Wall of China!
We decided to go to the Simatai section of the wall, and I am sure happy we did. Simatai was a journey to reach due to it being so far out of the city. We walked through a quiet, dark neighborhood, and then took a few busses to get out of the city, and another bus way out into the country. Imagine this: a “city” bus, with people packed in like sardines, most of whom were farmers and acted like they had never seen a foreigner before. We took dirt roads, went over one-lane, rickety bridges, and had no clue if we were going the right way at times. Not to mention that the bus driver was yelling and fighting with people in Chinese, because they were sneaking on without paying (we think that’s why at least). So, yeah, this was a journey to say the least. Sure, we could’ve rented a private car and driver, but where is the fun in that? THIS is what travel is all about: the journey, culture, and experience. When we arrived, we were the only ones who got off at our stop, but, there it was: The Great Wall of China, up on the mountain, in all its glory.
We got our tickets and got on the cable car for our journey to the top. I watched from the cable car, as we neared the wall. I was just so in awe at what I was looking at. After hearing about a place your whole life, it is so surreal to actually be there. Once, at the top of the mountain, there was a small hike to get to the wall. I was rushing to get there. I just couldn’t contain my excitement. Then, it happened, I stepped onto the Great Wall of China. I was there. I made it.
Josh and I began taking pictures, exploring the watchtowers, and strolling along the wall. Simatai was the perfect fit for us. There were no crowds, less smog, and more beauty. It is completely unrestored, so the amount of history there was insane. We got to walk along the wall practically alone, and just stare at it as it disappeared into the distance. Seeing it zigzag back and forth along the top of the mountain peaks was incredible. It is definitely a place where you have to sit and take it all in. I am so glad we made the trek out there. I would take the rugg
ed Simatai wall, over the restored “Disney Land” version at Mutianyu. I cannot get over the awe of seeing the Great Wall of China in person. It truly was a dream strolling along a Wonder of the World.
We walked back to Gubei Water Town and found temple. As I looked inside, I saw a Starbucks logo… there was literally a Starbucks INSIDE the temple. So, we went in for a Frapuccino before catching a bus back.
I barely remember the journey to Beijing, as I was exhausted. When we reached the city, we ate at a pub where they had burgers, chips with cheesy spinach dip, and cold beer. It was just what we needed after our long, perfect day.
We slept well that night, before waking up to a rainy Beijing. It made for a really neat experience to sightsee in the drizzle. We ate breakfast in a little cafe before walking through the market and souvineer shopping. After that. we were off to see the sights.
We started at the Forbidden City. Seeing so many palaces, temples, and history packed into one area is very neat. We also got to people watch a lot, as this is where many Chinese locals wanted to spend their national holiday.
We walked to Wangfujing Street, a high end shopping street that had stores like Apple, Forever 21, Chanel, and Louis Vuitton. After exploring a little, we were getting cold and found a very nice restaurant to eat hotpot. That was an experience as we were the only foreigners, and had no clue what we were doing. From ordering, to preparing, to eating – we were clueless. A young man (who was on a date) came over to help us, as he could see we were confused. He spoke great English, and helped us understand everything. I think it scored him major points with his date.
We checked the time and realized we needed to get to the Summer Palace before it closed. We rushed to the subway, and made it, just as the sun was setting. It seemed like a bummer at first but then, once we got inside, we had the place to ourselves. We imagined what it would be like to live in that palace as Emperor and Empress.
As it got dark, we followed a path of stairs down through the back gardens, and down to the waterfront. We enjoyed the walk and the gorgeous view of the main house. We didn’t realize we would have to climb all the way back up the stairs once we were done. We did it though, and then went back to our hostel for some pizza and shut eye. We had another early morning ahead of us, to catch a flight.
After Beijing, we technically left China. We flew to Hong Kong, which is a territory of China, but its own country.
Honestly, this place blew me away! It ended up being my favorite city we’ve been to (sorry, L.A.). The tropical weather, skyline of gorgeous buildings, and water separating the mainland from the island, made me fall in love with it. It’s like a mix of L.A., New York, and Shanghai. Not to mention all of the diverse cultures of people living there, and English as one of their national languages. I would love to live there.
We stayed on the mainland at Hotel ICON, a five star hotel that overlooks the harbor and skyline. It was just what we needed after staying in hostels in Beijing, and before spending the next two nights on sleeper trains. My favorite part was the rooftop pool, but the “in room, FREE mini bar” is a close second.
We went to the island to take a tram up to the top of Victoria Peak, however the line was infinitely long, and we realized we wouldn’t make it up there until it was dark. I noticed a young couple grabbing a taxi, and asked if we could split the fare. They agreed, and we hopped in. After learning that they were Korean and from Seoul, we bonded as we took the scenic drive up the mountain. Victoria Peak was a gorgeous view and we were able to see the sunset from the top.
Afterwards, we decided to take the long journey down from the peak, and walked through the neighborhoods where locals were enjoying evening strolls with their dogs. We made it to the bottom, and caught the ferry across Victoria Harbor. It was amazing to see the buildings lit up and reflecting on the water, as we rode back to the mainland.
Once returning to our hotel we enjoyed the pool and the views, I took a nice warm bubble bath, and we ordered room service. We wished we had planned to stay longer in Hong Kong, but had no clue how much we would love it. We will definitely go back someday.
When it was time to leave the next morning, we took a train out of the city and crossed the Chinese border, through immigration, on foot. We then boarded a train where we shared a sleeper car with a girl from France. We talked for hours about culture, travel, and social issues. Perhaps that is my favorite part about traveling: meeting likeminded people, who are rejecting the status quo and seeing the world.
Once we got to Guilin, we rushed off the train to meet a guide that we hired to take us around Yangshuo. This is a very small town in which there is incredible natural beauty. It is worth going off the beaten path to see it, as it is home to the Yulong River, where we spent the first part of our trip. Arriving first thing in the morning, we were able to beat the crowds of Chinese tourists, and get a bamboo raft down the river. We sat on the raft as a Chinese man pushed us down the river using a long bamboo stick. The green, round mountains surrounding the calm water, made for a gorgeous and romantic ride down the serene river.
Afterwards, we got to explore the town with no other foreigners in sight. There was a Starbucks though, which is just what I needed after a cool morning. We were enjoying our treat when a girl, who was only 4 years old, came up to us and began speaking impeccably, perfect English. It blew my mind, and she was the cutest thing. My favorite quote was when she found out we were from the USA and said, “That’s the greatest country in the world, no?” Her dad was watching from afar and chuckled when she said that. After learning about the girls’ hopes and dreams for the future, we strapped on our backpacks for a hike.
We found a small mountain in a quaint park and began trekking through a little forest to reach the top. Once up there, we had a picturesque view of the town amidst the natural wonders.
I was ready for some shopping at this point. We went to “West Street”, which is where the local market is; full of food, souvenirs, art, and people. I found a massage place where I got little fish to eat the dead skin off my feet. It was so much fun and my feet felt so refreshed after being cooped up in hiking boots for almost a week. We found a quaint little German restaurant to eat at after walking along the Li River, waterfront.
The day was going so great, and it didn’t stop there. Our guide met up with us and we went for a drive in his jeep up into the mountains. He drove fast as we zigzagged to the top, and saw cumquat farms around every turn. Once we reached as far as we could drive, we got out and began to hike up Xianggong Mountain. Pictures on the internet did not prepare me for the magnificent view that was awaiting us atop the mountain. When I saw the Li River from above, and the surrounding peaks, my jaw dropped. How can such a place exist? I could stare at it forever. Unfortunately, we couldn’t stay indefinitely and we had to head back to the train station. Thankfully, there were other gorgeous views on the way there, as the sun set on this perfect day.
We took two different sleeper trains to get to Zhangjiajie. The first one I can barely remember because I was so tired, but the second one we shared a sleeping area with the cutest child, her parents, and grandparents. They didn’t speak English but we bonded over shared food, photos, smiles, and laughs. The little girl was intrigued by Josh, as I think he was the first white person she has ever seen.
When we arrived, we took a bus to our hostel in Wulingyuan, which felt more like a hotel as we had our own room. It had been a long night and day of traveling, so we made ramen in our room, and then crashed. We felt well rested the next morning, and ready to conquer our day, which is just what we did.
We entered Zhangjiajie Forest National Park and were immediately greeted with a view that took our breath away. There was a lot of fog covering everything, but seeing the tips of the mountains peak out through the fog was awe inspiring.
We saw a couple of wild monkeys sitting on a rock and when we got closer, we found a whole bunch of them just chilling. We got very close to feed them and I think they liked me a lot!
We then spent the majority of the morning climbing thousands and thousands of steps up Tianzi Mountain. Most people take the cable car, but we were up for an adventure. We got a lot of exercise as we were waiting for the clouds to burn off, but to no avail they didn’t clear, even as we reached the top. Surprisingly, there was a McDonalds up there, so we got some lunch (because you have to try McDonalds in every country you visit, right?) and waited a little longer. Finally we were able to see what this beautiful place has to offer and I was ready to take it all in. We hopped on a bus which took us to the main area and we began to explore. In every direction, we were taken aback by all that this park had to offer. I felt like I was in a dream. Perhaps because I have seen this place in my dreams after watching the movie Avatar. I wanted to befriend a dragon, jump on its back, and fly through the mountains freely. Alas, this is only my fantastical side coming out and instead, I could only imagine my daydream come to life, which was very easy in this place, as you can see.
Climbing down the mountain, using stairs once again, we began to have a different view of these amazing mountains from below. As we reached the bottom, we walked along the Golden Whip Stream. I enjoyed the peaceful and calming waters, as I looked up at the magical place I was in. We came across some more monkeys, and very small babies walking along the path too. It was so cool to just exist in that moment with them. As the dusk set in, we knew we must leave this place.
We slept in the city of Zhangjiajie, at what was perhaps my favorite hostel of them all. We got our very own room, a kind staff, and a cute little restaurant downstairs where they made really good curry and rice. When we woke up the next morning, we were ready to take on our last day in China. It was spent at Tianmen Mountain. To reach the top, we took the longest cable car ride in the world. It was insanely long and high. We went up into the clouds, and disappeared among them. We were surrounded in white for a while until we broke through, above the clouds, and could see them mountain.
Once on top, we walked along a path that is built on the sheer cliff face, and circles around the entire mountain. It was scary to say the least, and the infrastructure blew me away. Perhaps, even scarier was the glass bridge walkway that looks straight down to nothingness; only clouds.
As we walked around Tianmen and took in the views, we reveled in the marvel of being in such a surreal place. We came to the end of the path, where it was time to take a series of escalators down the mountain to another spot. There we around 8 or 9 escalators, and the journey down took about 20 minutes. We exited underneath The Gateway to Heaven, where we had to walk down hundreds of the steepest steps I have ever laid eyes on. It was drizzling at this point too, so the stairs were wet as well. I grasped tight of the railing as I made my way down. Every once and awhile I would turn around to see Heaven’s Gate, and it was such a cool thing to be there and see this giant, natural hole, in the middle of the mountain. I didn’t want it to end, but all good things must. We caught the bus and took the zigzagging road down the mountain.
When we got to the small little airport in Zhangjiajie, we were some of the only ones there. I have never seen a cuter, quainter, or smaller airport in my life. It looked more like a film set than an airport. Sitting and waiting for our flight to board was so great. I began replaying all of our adventures, while also thanking God that we were flying out of there, instead of taking trains again.
We got on our flight, and taxied to the runway. Just as I thought my China experience was over, I looked out the airplane window, noticed that clouds had parted, and I could see Tianmen Mountain from afar, with the Gateway to Heaven Clearly visible. I was ecstatic to say the least; and as we took off to head home to Korea, I didn’t take my eyes off of it, until it disappeared into my memories.