Secrets of China: 8 off-beat experiences
On my four-year journey around the world I cycled across the length and breadth of China for eight glorious, eye-opening months; along the way I had plenty of scrapes, but many more beautiful, life-changing moments. As much as we all love luxury travel, sometimes you have to stray from the trodden path for the most extraordinary experiences.
One that sticks in my mind was a sunset of epic proportions: a startling array of colours strewn dramatically across the cloud-studded sky. This sort of meteorological display is common during spring in Northern China but they never fail to render me dumbstruck. The swollen, orange sun was melting into the west and before it stood the impossibly picturesque Great Wall of China. It bobbed, weaved and raced its ramparted way from my feet, over several hills of rich green verdure all the way to that horizon-kissing sun.
I was stood atop a 500 year old Ming dynasty watchtower on the Jinshanling section of the wall, gazing mutely at the display. Beside me was a pack with sleeping bag and food. The guards that once patrolled this vast national defence had lapsed into ages past, so I set up camp in my own private slice of ancient China as the sunset turned to night.
Here, I share with you my 8 (China's lucky number) top off-beat experiences in the Middle Kingdom:
1. Hiking in the Cangshan, Dali, Yunnan Province
Visitors to the ancient city of Dali tend to stroll the pleasant, paved alleyways, snack in hand, and browse the souvenir shops. However, surrounding the old walled citadel is a half-moon of mountain range. An energetic day's hiking in the Cangshan mountains can take you along a jagged ridge with several peaks, some of which are over 4,000m. The views of Lake Erhai (which wears Dali as a skirt at its southern end) are well worth the trek and the trickling little streams that tumble down the mountainside are fresh enough to drink. You can follow the 'Jade Cloud Road' footpath if you want an easier go of things. Either way, you're sure to be off the mountainside in time for an evening G&T in the beautiful courtyard of The Linden Centre hotel.
2. Hangzhou Botanical Park, Hangzhou
A peaceful place for a stroll or an afternoon with plenty of benches and lawns set among an extensive wooded area a little west of stunning Xilu Lake. Those with green fingers and keen eyes will spot several interesting foreign plants and trees dotted around the park including Olive, Cherry and even Redwood. The numerous ponds with lily pads and almost shark-sized carp are a boon to budding photographers and the cool greenery can be a huge relief if you've come straight from the city centre. Young Hangzhou residents rightly consider the Botanical Park to be a romantic setting so you can enjoy watching the tentative handholding of shy young couples.
3. Donghuamen Night Market, Beijing
Everyday from 4-10pm, food stalls spring up in Donghuamen just east of The Forbidden City. As you'd expect at a Chinese food market, you can sample national favourites from every region of this hugely diverse country, from spicy Sichuanese gong bao (kung po) chicken to the Inner Mongolian baozi (steamed dumpling buns). However, for the more adventurous gourmands, there are plenty of unusual delicacies to sample. Seared chicken hearts, fried grasshoppers, "smelly doufu" (tofu) and the enigmatic "hundred year egg". Bring an empty stomach and an open mind.
4. Mianshan Mountain, near Pingyao
Pingyao is best known as the well-preserved walled city that gave rise to China's first banks during the Qing dynasty. However, just an hour's drive southwest stands Mianshan Mountain which is the birthplace of a very different phenomenon: the Qingming "Tomb Sweeping" Spring festival to show honour and respect to one's ancestors. Today the area has a series of Buddhist temples, scenic walkways and holy caves strung precariously along (and sometimes bored into) seemingly sheer cliffs. You can learn about the birth and development of Taoism or simple wonder along, camera at the ready, to soak it all in. It is an increasingly popular spot for domestic tourists so expect to make friends.
5. The Mausoleum of Mao Zedong (Chairman Mao)
Many laowai (foreigners) have reservations about visiting the embalmed body of one of history's most infamous villains. However, for many Chinese, the trip is an important pilgrimage. The fact that Mao has remained so popular may seem baffling to an outsider but seeing the upwelling of emotion on the faces of the visitors is to better understand the impressively pragmatic nature of Chinese people. He may be responsible for the deaths of up to 60 million of his countrymen, but Mao Zedong's radical steps are seen by most Chinese as vital moves towards creating the rapidly modernising nation that is emerging today. The mausoleum is located prominently in the centre of Tiananmen Square in a gesture of communist powerhousing.
Note: arrive early to avoid long queues. The patriotic daybreak military flag raising ceremony in Tiananmen Square is worth seeing while you're there.
6. Bicycle ride around Yangshuo, Guanxi Province
Visitors often take a cruise down the Li River to observe the spread of jutting limestone karst mountians, and rightly so as it's a fantastically scenic experience. However, the impressive karsts with their rich carpet of greenery between them are also home to some wonderfully bucolic scenes of traditional Chinese agriculture. Buffalo pulling ploughs, farmers hand-planting crops and women carrying buckets of water with yokes. A gentle bicycle ride along the flat village paths surrounding Yangshuo is a great way to see and interact with the smiling rural workers that still comprise half of China's population and have stuck stoically at their trade through every kind of upheaval imaginable. Most hotels in the area have bicycles for their guests to use.
7. Harbin Ice Festival, Harbin, Heilongjiang Province
I know, I know! The Harbin Ice festival is hardly a secret. However, due to the cold winter weather it is too easily dismissed by potential visitors to China. This is a shame as the colourfully lit ice sculptures (and even an entire 'ice city' with palaces, walkways, domes and spires) are truly extraordinary. The luminescent ice works (glowing with their interior lighting) are extremely striking and the 'ice city' looks like a bizarre vision of an LED fashioned future. Running throughout most of January and February every year, the Harbin Ice Festival is convenient to tie in as a bracing detour on a winter sun trip to South East Asia or a ski holiday to Northern Japan. Do wrap up warm though as temperatures can drop to -40°C!
8. Hit the Ancient Tea Trail, Yunnan Province
For centuries tea defined China in the western mind. The mysterious dried leaf was exported already prepared and the European obsession soon grew. People knew it came from China but didn't know what plant it was as the Emperors of China cleverly forbid their subjects to sell any living tea plants to protect the increasingly lucrative trade. The Imperial restrictions on the tea trade directly led to the start of the Opium Wars and to the founding of Hong Kong. Yet, that is only our side of the story. The Chinese side is as fascinating, if not more so. Explorer and tea expert Jeff Fuchs is leading a tour this September (10th - 17th) to the original source of tea deep in the lush, tropical Xishuangbanna region of Yunnan province and then along the ancient horse caravan trail to Shaxi. Simply the views of the tea plantations beautifully contouring the densely packed rolling hills is worth the trip. The history and charismatic guide are the cherries on top!
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