Tag Archives: China

Almost Tibet

Almost Tibet

Tagong 1

As I prepared for the last leg of my trip through China and India, I came up with a plan that would enable me to travel throughout China and reach my final destination in northern India, without having to fly.

After traveling counterclockwise around China, I would continue west through Tibet then south to Nepal before reaching Rishikesh in northern India where my yoga course awaited me. Not only would I get through China and India, but I would add two entirely new and exotic places to my trip, all for what I estimated to be the same, if not cheaper, cost of flying. Brilliant!

Nepal had grown as a leading destination of interest after hearing universally rave reviews from fellow travelers. But Tibet, China’s isolated and controversial land in the west, had also risen to prominence after the sheer amount of excitement and curiosity I found in other travelers who also discussed the journey. Tibet, however, like Myanmar, also brought a whole new level of travel concerns.

An ancient land that had undergone centuries of various autonomous and non-autonomous rule, Tibet declared its independence in 1912 after the fall of the Chinese Qing dynasty. In the 1950s, Communist China invaded Tibet in an attempt to reclaim control of the land. Technically, the Dalai Lama, leader of the Tibetan Buddhism and the former political leader of the Tibetan government in exile in Dharamsala, India, supports a “middle-way” approach of Tibet being a part of China with a high degree of autonomy, but the issue remains controversial. The Chinese say they are developing the isolated land and saving its people from an oppressive feudal system, while those in support of a free Tibet accuse the Chinese of violating human rights, destroying Tibetan culture and forcing Tibetans to assimilate to the Chinese way of life. The conflict has led to numerous protests both inside and outside of Tibet and restricted access to the land by outsiders, despite growing interest by tourists.

Of course, a mere few weeks before my estimated departure, my brilliant plans were shattered. Protests in Tibet, including several monks setting themselves on fire, caused the Chinese to tighten travel restrictions, eventually prohibiting all tourists from entering the region altogether.

Anyone planning to travel to Tibet knows the borders open and close on regular, and often unpredictable, basis. But as I waited around Chengdu, hoping for a last-minute change, I found myself defeated. Tibet was not going to happen. Not this time.

But I still had more than a week left on my Chinese visa, and I was determined to make the most of it. After discussing alternatives with some fellow travelers, I heard about a small, mostly Tibetan village in Western China called Tagong. Located about 270 miles west of Chengdu, one of China’s last major cities before reaching Tibet, Tagong is a tiny village full of mostly Tibetan inhabitants that would offer a glimpse into the isolated lifestyle that was proving so difficult to experience.

After weeks of massive, crowded Chinese mega-cities, I was ready for a change. So I packed up my bags, bought a bus ticket and headed off.

The first step to reaching Tagong was Kangding, a Chinese city up in the mountains that serves as a jumping off point for many who plan to continue traveling west. The eight-hour bus ride to reach Kangding from Leshan/Chengdu is stunning, albeit, a bit scary at times. Rocky cliffs covered with dense green trees and shrubs surrounded us, topped with hovering mists that let us know we were high enough to enter cloud territory.



When we finally reached Kangding, I was pleasantly surprised to find the city quite charming. Tall green mountains surrounded the neat city streets, full of a combination of Chinese and Tibetan shops. But Kangding offered another surprise for me: it was cold.

I know I’m from Michigan, land of seemingly eternal winters, but I was not prepared for this. After nearly two years of hot weather, including 14 months in Malaysia which is practically located on the equator, this was quite a shock for me. To top it off, it was raining and nothing is as much fun as being cold except for being wet and cold.

So I put on my jeans, my sole long-sleeved shirt, my broken-zippered hoodie and each of the three pairs of almost-never-used socks I brought and hoped they’d be enough. And I set out to find a ride to Tagong.

Luckily I had made a travel buddy in the process. Daniel was from Germany, and after already having spent several days in Kangding, was ready to head to Tagong. So we hailed a share taxi and found ourselves crammed in the backseat of a minibus with two older Tibetan ladies and a Tibetan man. And it was one of the coldest, most dramatic bus rides I had ever been on.

Apparently old Tibetan ladies don’t get out much, at least not in cars, because these women were extremely prone to motion sickness. At an hour and a half, the ride wasn’t really that long, and though we were up in the mountains, it wasn’t that winding either. But for some reason these women insisted on keeping the windows down in the car, despite the fact it was about 40 degrees outside and raining. Daniel was kind enough to share his blanket with me, but even that wasn’t enough and we remained shivering in the back seat. And though we repeatedly asked the driver to talk to the ladies about closing the windows, they were apparently very adamant about not doing so, at one point even opening the windows all the way so it was a complete wind ambush in the back. Meanwhile, the ladies, with their rosy cheeks, braided hair and colorful Tibetan clothing, lay prostrate on the middle seat, like some Victorian English woman in the midst of a fainting spell. If I wasn’t so cold, I would have been very amused.

Once we arrived in Tagong, I was surprised and charmed at how quaint the town was. With a population of only 8,000 people, it was definitely the least populated city I had visited in China, and with an altitude of more than 12,000 feet, it was also the highest point I’d ever reached on land in my entire life.

Main street Tagong

Main street Tagong

Daniel and I opted to stay at Iya Drolma and Gayla’s Guesthouse, a cheap yet delightfully colorful and charming place listed in our guidebook. The only problem was, despite the high altitude and cold temperatures, there was no heat in our building. In fact, there was no heat in any of the buildings.

Trying to warm up at my guest house

Trying to warm up at my guest house

After settling in and enjoying a delightful warm foot bath, Daniel and I set out to eat and soon discovered the Khampa Café and Art Center, a cozy backpacker haven nearby that would become our second home during the next few days. Full of comfy couches, puzzles, books and a delightful combination of Western and Tibetan food, Khampa Café was the place to go to kill time between adventures or just relax and adjust to the altitude. After months of traveling, I was quite happy to bum around and do nothing for awhile.

I’m not going to lie, a significant chunk of my five days in Tagong were spent curled up in a blanket, chatting with other travelers, playing with the kittens, reading about Nepal and just hanging out at the café. And it was delightful.

But so was the town itself. Only a few blocks long, the town contained a few small restaurants, some generic clothing and hardware stores and several, redundant Tibetan scarf and jewelry shops geared at tourists. With my mad traveler shopping skills, I browsed several of the souvenir stores looking for the best deals for gifts to take home. I finally settled on a small shop owned by a young, friendly Tibetan man who, with his limited English, had given me the best prices. I happily purchased three scarves and five bracelets. It wasn’t until he had finished ringing up my scarves that he asked me to sleep with him, making very clear hand gestures of what he hoped would happen. Needless to say, I quickly left the store. And then found out I’d paid about four times what the scarves were worth. Awesome.

The real charm to Tagong, however, was not its town or necessarily even its monasteries: it was its grasslands. I had never seen anything like it before. Surrounding this tiny village on all sides were seemingly endless miles of rich, hilly green land with barely a handful of trees to break up the sea of grass. Every now and then a herd of yaks would graze, prodded along by a couple Tibetan men on horses. It was stunning.

Tagong Grasslands

Tagong Grasslands

I figured the best way to experience the land was on horseback and signed up for a day-long horseback ride with two other girls. Unfortunately, it had decided to rain the day of the trip, and I found myself, once again, piling on every layer of clothing I had to stay warm. The morning was brutal. My gloves, feet and most of my pants were soaked within the first 30 minutes, and I had no idea how I would last the day. The best part came around noon, when we got to have lunch in the tent of a Tibetan nomadic family.

As we entered the tent, the girls and I were quickly welcomed by the older Tibetan lady, her daughter and her young grandson and we crowded around the fire to warm up. Like many Tibetan people, the family were yak herders and moved their tent around the grasslands to coincide with the care of their yaks.

Life was simple. A kettle heated up over a small fire, while piles of blankets, clothing, buckets and food supplies were strewn around the surrounding grass. Though we could not verbally communicate with each other, the family was extremely hospitable. We enjoyed a basic lunch of Tibetan staples: bread, yogurt and raisins, Tibetan butter tea and tsampa, a not-so-flavorful soup of barley, yak butter and boiling water. Not so different than tsampa, Tibetan butter tea is a savory tea made of yak butter melted into a pot of tea and yak milk. While many Westerners don’t care for the taste, I thought it tasted like liquid brie, and I loved it. Apparently the heavy, salty tea and soup provide great nutrients for life in the cold, windy temperatures of the high altitude, and I’ve read that Tibetans can consume up to 40 cups of yak butter tea a day!

Our hosts

Our hosts

As we left the warm comfort of the nomad tent, we were rudely jolted back to our earlier mission of exploring the grasslands. It was even colder now and the rain had picked up, and we still had six hours to go! With our feet numb, clothing soaked and eyes half shut against the rain, we asked our guide if we could just head back. It was far too miserable to enjoy the grasslands. But we had gone too far and the only way back was to follow the original plan, so on we rode trying our best to remind ourselves we were on the adventure of a lifetime.

Thankfully for us, the weather gods showed us some mercy around mid-afternoon. Though it never got warm, the rain stopped, the sun came out and we found ourselves surrounded by nothing but sprawling green hills and grasslands. At that point, I think we were all glad to have stuck around.

But my happiness was short-lived. Apparently, the nice weather had energized my horse as well, who then decided to go for a vigorous run by himself. Now, I enjoy horses and prior to China, I had ridden them several times throughout my life, though rarely going more than a short trot or canter. While my heart raced with excitement to test my horsewoman skills, this horse had a mind of its own. My attempts to lean back on the reigned paired with “whoa” (I knew nothing else to say) only caused the horse to pause before taking off again even faster. When we approached a rocky area, I was reminded of Asia’s relaxed helmet policy and started to scream.

Our guide was not happy about this. Though he could barely speak English, I quickly understood that I was not supposed to scream at the horses. So things calmed down and we tried again. Sure enough, a few minutes later my horse decided, yet again, he needed to go for a run, and I found myself once more clinging on for dear life and screaming.

Me and my misbehaving horse

Me and my misbehaving horse

Now my guide was angry, but so was I, and I managed to communicate to him that he needed to get this situation under control. Luckily, we had come across one of his buddies who was herding yaks, and I found myself on a horse “leash,” with the yak herder holding on to my reins in addition to his. This ended up being amazingly fun.

Though my wings were clipped, I got to trot along with the yak herder as he did his job. When a few of the yaks strayed, I chased after them with the yak herder to get them back with the group. When they got distracted or slowed down, I found myself whistling along with my new guide to get their attention. While I was merely the tag-along, I felt like I, too, was herding yaks. And it was super bad ass.

By the time we made it back we were cold and exhausted yet exhilarated by the amazing adventure we’d had. I ended up paying for that adventure with a nasty cold over the next few days. But as I headed to the Chengdu airport – indeed, to fly to Nepal – I was grateful that, after weeks of experiencing the “mainstream” Chinese mega cities, I had found a little patch of rural China and experienced a little bit of Tibetan culture. Even if it was, only, almost Tibet.

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The Big Ka-Buddha!


Giant Buddha

A few years ago I was sitting at a café, when I randomly spotted an image of an enormous Buddha in a travel magazine. I had never seen an image like this before, and I was immediately intrigued. I knew one day I had to see this thing.

I remember glancing at the fine print and reading the Buddha was located in China, but I had never heard of the city before and soon forgot the name. Years later, when I was finally making plans to go to China, I knew I had to find this place. Lucky for me, Leshan, home of officially the world’s largest Buddha, was not too hard to find, and in fact was an easy day trip from Chengdu in Sichuan.

Carved into a cliff face, the Buddha is 233 feet tall, with shoulders 92 feet wide, and toes that are nearly 30 feet long, each! It was constructed between 713-803AD under the instruction of a monk who thought the Buddha’s presence would calm the tempestuous rivers that plagued the shipping vessels that went by. Interestingly enough, the sheer amount of rock that went into the water as a result of the sculpture altered the currents and indeed had a calming effect on the river.

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My trip to the Buddha was lovely, though not quite what I expected. What I didn’t realize was that the giant Buddha is part of an entire Buddhist complex, complete with numerous temples and parks to walk around. What I also didn’t realize is the main part of the complex is level with the Buddha’s enormous head, providing an interesting and relatively close perspective to see just how huge his features are, as well as a bit of a surprise when you enter the grounds. But to see the big picture, you have to line up with the seemingly millions of Chinese people to make the long, slow, crowded descent to the bottom. Luckily, there are enough viewing spots along the way to allow you a good long view of this wonder, which really is pretty amazing. Once at the bottom, you can linger a little (not too long) to take even more photos, before exiting and making the long ascent back to the top.

As a city, Leshan was pleasant enough, but the sweltering temperatures made daytime wandering highly undesirable. I only expected to spend one day there, but since the lone daily bus to reach my next destination in Kanding was booked, I had to spend an extra day. So what to do? See the Buddha again, of course, this time from water :). In addition to (or instead of) battling the crowds on the temple grounds, you can take a pleasant 30-minute boat ride along the side of the cliff instead. Though you don’t get nearly as close to the sculpture or spend as much time viewing it as if you were on the grounds, the boat ride is really relaxing and provides a bigger, more-distant perspective and enables you to see the two flanking sculptures that aren’t visible on land.

Below is a short video of this amazing and striking sculpture and definitely one of the coolest Buddha’s I’ve ever seen.

An Army of Terracotta


I find the pottery sections of history museums incredibly frustrating. As much as I strive to be “cultured,” the drone of staring at one red pot after another creates a kind of tedium in me that knows no limits. This plus a healthy dose of guilt at my inability to truly appreciate the importance of these gems from the earliest stages of humanity leaves me always wanting to pass through quickly and move on. But, of course, my quest for knowledge and appreciation leads me to return to these museums again and again, though often to no new result.

Though I had specifically included a visit to Xi’an to see the famed Terracotta Warriors in China, my expectations for my appreciation for them were pretty low. As I read further about the warriors before my visit, I tried to fully grasp their importance.

Discovered by farmers in the 1970s, the Terracotta Warriors are a massive collection of life-sized pottery soldiers found buried around the tomb of China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang, dating from around 210 BC. The soldiers were thought to protect him even after his death. The true significance of the warriors comes not just from the fact that there a ridiculously huge amount of them (more than 8,000!), but that each warrior has his own set of distinct facial features, clothing and identity, all painstakingly detailed, down to the ridges on the bottom of their shoes. Additionally, hundreds of other sculptures, including acrobats and musicians, were found within the tomb, as well as horses, dogs, pigs, cows and other animals, presumably to provide entertainment and food for the emperor in the afterlife.

Knowing this information, I still didn’t have high expectations. In fact, more than being impressed with the warriors, I figured I’d also have an extra-large helping of guilt for not enjoying them all that much. I really did not expect to be COMPLETELY BLOWN AWAY.

I made the trip with my two new Iowan friends (and train travel buddies), Kaleb and Wade, who I’d met in Beijing. The three of us hired a guide and followed the masses to Excavation Site 1, the first and largest of three sites open to the public. I gotta say, there’s something about seeing these pottery soldiers close-up, buried in the original ground they were discovered in that no museum can hold a candle to.

The largest and most impressive of the sites, there were more than 6,000 terracotta figures found in Excavation Site 1 alone! It was only when I actually saw the sheer number of clay soldiers standing attentive, staring back at me did I truly grasp their significance. All I can say is wow.

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Though smaller, Excavation Sites 2 and 3 were also nice, and featured more individually displayed warriors and details about the tomb. Site 2 featured four specific types of warriors, including soldier, general, army chief and a kneeling archer. It also showcased some of the warriors’ finer details, like the groves in their boots. Site 3, the army line closest to the emperor’s actual tomb, contained the highest rank of soldiers, situated differently than the other two sites.

What’s fascinating is that the excavation work is far from finished. In fact, the tomb of the emperor himself has yet to be touched and is supposed to contain the “real” treasure. The tomb, however, is apparently protected by a moat of lethal gases which would take years of planning and advanced technology to unearth safely.

Perhaps when that happens, I’ll have to make another trip to China :).

Why You Shouldn’t Drink on Trains…


The drinking culture of different countries is usually pretty interesting.

In China, the ability to consume massive amounts of alcohol when pressured by friends or making a business deal is necessary in order to “save face” and maintain your reputation (ah, binge drinking, always a healthy habit). With the words “gan bei,” one must down the drink without question, often the ever-terrible and ever-potent “baijiu,” a distilled liquor usually made from rice, wheat or barley that can only be compared to drinking rubbing alcohol. Repeat this procedure throughout the night and you can get some interesting events.

Like when taking a night train in the seated class.

With our last-minute planning, my travel buddies Kaleb and Wade and I found ourselves forced to spend the night in the chair-only section of the train on our way to Pingyao. While Kaleb had his own seat in the section behind us, Wade and I found ourselves sitting across a table from a Chinese woman and a Chinese man who spoke no English but seemed pleasant enough. As I leaned against the window to attempt to sleep, I heard the words “gan bei”, as the Chinese man and his buddies across the aisle attempted to engage Wade in their drinking game. Always a good sport, Wade happily obliged, and as I glanced at the silver bottle containing the nasty baijiu, I was grateful to be a woman and, therefore, usually left alone in the drinking games.

As I continued to doze, I heard laughter as the men delighted in Wade’s participation and their own progressive inebriation. Awhile later, further into my sleep, I felt something shoving against my leg and was forced to awaken fully to discover our neighbor passed out, slumped across from us, trying to stretch his legs under the entire length of the table. The woman, who had originally sat across from me, had been displaced. I looked at Wade at what to do and together (or really, Wade), moved the man to lay on his back with his legs away from us and into the aisle.

Chinese drinking

Again, I attempted to sleep.

A short time later, I awoke to a gurgling noise to find that our Chinese neighbor had begun to vomit on himself. Quite disgusted, I waited in vain for one of this man’s buddies to take care of him. The guys across the aisle from us made no attempt to help this man, and in fact, found the situation pretty funny. Though I’ll admit I was part annoyed, part amused by the circumstances, I did not want this guy to choke and die on us and called the attention of one of the train attendants.

Chinese drinking

I have little experience taking care of drunk people, but I thought the SOP of these situations was to turn the person over so they don’t choke. To my surprise, the train attendant, finally dawdling over to us, simply wiped off the man’s face before covering it with newspaper. No joke.

I looked to Wade for help on this on to whether or not I was overly worried. He said that he was not planning on sleeping that night and would keep an eye on our drunken neighbor and make sure he kept breathing.

Semi-relaxed, again, I tried to sleep.

A short time later, I was woken up again to the feeling of someone pulling my backpack out from underneath my legs and seat. My sleepy instinct was to fight to hold my bag with my feet, and then I realized it was Wade “stealing” my bag and asked what was going on.

He said that our “friend” had begun to wet his pants and he was trying to save my bag so it didn’t get peed on.

Now I was annoyed.

As Wade tried to find a place to store my backpack on the already-full train, a distinct smell of urine filled the air as a pool of liquid began to form on the ground beneath the table.

I decided that I had had enough.

Like the woman before me, I found myself displaced and was lucky to find the one open seat remaining a few seats down.

Returning to my original seat in the morning, I was pleased to find the man sitting up, alive, relaxed in his chair, carrying on as if nothing had happened the night before. As I stared at the dried vomit on his face and the newspapers on the ground, I wondered what was going through his mind. Was there any sense of shame or remorse to the previous night’s activities or was this just another evening for him? If one was required to drink excessively to prove himself to his friends, was alcohol tolerance a factor or were these drunken and seemingly expected occurrences all part of the game?

I never did get my answer to that one. I’m just glad he didn’t piss on my bag :).

The Great Wall


It seems so cliché to go to China and visit the Great Wall, but like the Taj Mahal, it’s one of those things that you just have to see if you have the chance.

With most of these kinds of sights, I always expect it to look just like the pictures, plus a million annoying tourists. But, I gotta say, seeing the Great Wall in person is so much better!

There are lots of places, especially around Beijing, to see the wall, but I opted to join a tour at the Beijing Downtown Backpackers Hostel that does a 6km hike on the wall between the cities of Jinshanling and Simatai.

It was perfect.

I have heard a lot of stories about overly touristy Great Wall destinations like Badaling or Mutianyu, where everywhere you look people are trying to sell you t-shirts and drinks. But on this hike, there were about 20 of us on our tour and only a handful of others that we encountered the entire afternoon.

We could not have asked for a better day. Above us, the sun was shining, with only a few clouds creating a perfect 70-something temperature for a hike. All around were absolutely stunning views of lush greenery and mountains. I had no idea the Great Wall of China would be this pretty!

My visit to the Great Wall was definitely one of my absolute favorite experiences of all of China and maybe of my entire trip. I hope you enjoy the photos!

Great Wall

Great Wall 2

Great Wall 3

Great Wall 4

Great Wall 5

Great Wall 6

Great Wall 7

Great Wall 8

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A Gleeful Circus


Having graduated from a university with one of the highest numbers of living alumni in the world, it’s no wonder this Michigan Wolverine ran into some of her fellow University of Michiganders while in China. In fact, several times…

Michigan Alum on the Great Wall

With a random Michigan alum I met on the Great Wall of China

But the most memorable occurrence was in Shanghai, during what ended up being a not-so-lonely trip to see the Shanghai World Circus, ERA-Intersection of Time. After arriving (and getting lost) at the subway stop, I headed toward the ticket office and, to my surprise, spotted a young man in a Michigan t-shirt. I immediately went up to him to ask him if he was a student, and as we began to chat, I noticed several other young men wearing Michigan t-shirts… 60, to be exact. It was the Michigan’s Men Glee Club on tour in China!

This might not be a big deal to most people, but aside from the fact that I always enjoy running into Michigan people while abroad, I LOVE singing boys. No seriously. I used to go to all the Men’s Glee Club and a cappella concerts when I was in college like a starry-eyed school girl.

So, being ever shy and humble, I asked them to serenade me. The next thing I know, 60 Michigan boys are singing Happy Birthday to me (six weeks early, but who cares?) amongst the few hundred-person crowd waiting to get into the circus. It was pretty awesome.

Michigan Men's Glee Club in China

Hanging out with the Michigan Men’s Glee Club at the circus in Shanghai!

Oh, and the circus was pretty good too. While I wasn’t able to take my own photos or videos of the performance, I do remember amazing acrobats and an incredible finale involving six motorcyclists riding around inside a metal cage! Luckily, the circus people have a trailer offering a pretty good snapshot of the show itself. Enjoy.

Rice and Dragons


As much as I loved Yangshuo, I was told repeatedly that I simply MUST visit the Longsheng Longji Rice Terraces nearby. My time was limited, but I somehow managed to allocate a day and a half to the trip, and it might have been one of the most picturesque places I’ve found in the whole world.

Situated just a few hours from Guilin and Yangshuo, the Longji Rice Terraces are simply a series of rice farms built into the mountains. What makes them special, however, is that the rice terraces are layered on top of one another to make room in the hills. In fact, the terraces are nicknamed the “Dragon Backbone” rice terraces, because the layers resemble the scales on a dragon’s back. The effect is incredible.

Layers of green, brown and blue cascade on top of one another, rippling down the mountain and surrounding the tiny villages below. While I was there in early spring, when the terraces were mostly green, apparently the effect is different and stunning in every season.

Not going to lie, the trip to get to the top of terraces is fairly intense, with seemingly endless steps carrying you up higher and higher up the mountain. However, if you are feeling especially lazy or regal, you can hire porters to actually carry you and all your stuff on a SEDAN (not the car!) and avoid the whole mess altogether. I will admit, I was pretty tempted (those backpacks aren’t light!), but I was not entirely comfortable with having people carrying my load up for me, plus I figured it wasn’t the best use of my funds :).

Ping An Sedan

Porters carry tourists up the mountain the old school way.

But once that trek to the top is made, the view is simply breathtaking and you can walk all along the ridge at a level pace and enjoy the view from different angles. I was alone with a limited amount of time, so I decided to stay around the Ping An village, which has a relatively short walk. Others, however, can take more time and actually hike from one village to the next, but I enjoyed my time alone just sitting and staring at the magnificent landscape.

Here is a taste of the rice terraces below, though honestly, my camera can simply not do it justice.

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Yearning for Yangshuo


There are some cities that are simply magical. Places where, from the minute you first set foot on the ground, you are instantly in love and know you want to linger. Where first impressions are both exhilarating and angst-filled with an excitement to explore, yet also a panic with the knowledge you’ll eventually have to leave.

I’ve been fortunate enough to find these places all over the world in cities like Edinburgh, Scotland, York, England, San Gimignano, Italy, Munich, Germany, Perhentian Islands, Malaysia, McLeod Ganj, India and even in my own state in Ann Arbor and Mackinac Island, Michigan. And now after two months in China I’m happy to add one more to the list: Yangshuo, China.

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Just a small town an hour and a half out of Guilin, Yangshuo is a charming backpacker’s haven full of pedestrian streets, Chinese architecture, cozy restaurants and enough outdoor activities and courses to keep you occupied for weeks. But the town’s most stunning feature is its natural scenery. The minute you get off the bus to the city, your jaw drops as you stare at the massive limestone cliffs that encompass it throughout. These karsts are so close that they literally hover over the streets like protective guards you can go up and touch. Aside from providing an incredible backdrop, the karsts also provide lots of opportunities for outdoor exploration including beautiful bike rides, hikes and my new favorite: rock climbing.

My two-turned-five days in Yangshuo were some of my favorite in all of China and I took well advantage of the activities offered.


The cycling around Yangshuo was perhaps the best bike ride I’ve ever been on. The ride through the countryside takes you along the river through a series of small villages, between the karsts on one side and the rice paddies on the other. Absolutely stunning scenery!

Rock Climbing

Rock climbing was a new experience for me and one that I found strangely meditative. Something about hanging in the air, clutching to the side of a rock cliff has a very focusing effect, and I found my mind completely concentrated on not falling. Half-way through I remember thinking, “I’m never doing this again,” but sure enough, I went up nearly three times! What a rush!

Yangshuo Rock Climbing

Rock climbing in Yangshuo


While I’m not a big fan of needles, I decided to try acupuncture as a stress-relieving technique. The whole process took 40 minutes: 5 minutes to insert the needles, and another 35 holding still, letting the needles do their work. I did not find the insertion of the needles particularly painful, but I soon learned that when the acupuncturist says, “hold still” she means it! Honestly, I found my anxiety levels rise during the process, since I wasn’t completely comfortable with the idea of having eight needles stuck in me as I sat alone for more than a half hour (anyone else seen Final Destination 5?). But I will say that I did feel much calmer afterward. But who knows, maybe just sitting still for that long will calm anyone down?

Acupuncture in Yangshuo

Acupuncture in Yangshuo

Kung Fu

In India, I do yoga. In China, martial arts? I decided to try Kung Fu after meeting a nice Bruce Lee-looking man in town who not only gave me lessons, but helped me to book my next train ticket and invited me to dinner with his friends. I can’t say I learned much during my hour-long lesson with him, but I did learn a fairly cool “dance” routine, which was pretty fun.

My Kung Fu routine:

What my Kung Fu routine is supposed to look like:

I’m pretty sure Yangshuo just might be my favorite place in all of China ;).

Oh, China


Pingyao, China

Oh, China.

The most populated land in the world. The land of communism, of high-speed trains, of emperors, of tea, of tradition. The land where stuff is made. The land that is fast-developing, fast-acquiring power, fast-causing the world to wonder, “What’s next?”

After nearly two years living and traveling in Asia, China proved to be an altogether different experience from any of the other countries I had visited and on many different levels.

I originally did not have much interest in visiting China. In my mind I pictured one massive, overpopulated gray city after another, but after spending three months in India, another living ancient civilization, I figured that China must offer a more colorful culture to visit than I had given it credit for. At the very least, I decided I could not finish a trip throughout Asia without experiencing the world’s supposed next super power.

So off I went. Gritting my teeth, I dropped the $150, one-month, single-entry visa fee required only for Americans (other countries pay significantly less) and made a basic plan to hit China’s most significant destinations. Starting with the Special Administrative Regions (SARs), I decided to fly to Macau then travel the country in a counter-clockwise manner, hitting Hong Kong, Guangzhou (Canton), Shanghai, Beijing, Xi’an and Chengdu, before traveling through Tibet on way to Nepal. As always, this was a rough plan, subject to changing circumstances and interests. Sure enough, I found myself half-way dropping another $150 to extend my visa for a second month to accommodate the new destinations of Yangshuo, Wuhan, Hangzhou, Nanjing, Pingyao and Western Sichuan.

To be fair, China wasn’t entirely unlike my original expectations. I was a bit disappointed to find that China really was, in fact, often one massive, overpopulated gray city after another. While bits of the country’s glorious culture still survived (no thanks to Mao’s Cultural Revolution), I began to notice themes that repeated themselves throughout. For instance, Chinese people LOVE gardens, especially old Chinese people. It seems no matter where you find yourselves in the country, you will always come across groups of women dancing in the park, old men playing cards and mahjong, and people throughout practicing Chinese opera or musical instruments. The traditional architecture of Chinese temples, walls and buildings also repeated itself throughout the country, though I imagine to a lesser extent than what you would have found 60 years ago.

To my surprise, China was much more modern than I suspected. After months of dealing with frequent power outages, disorganization and dirty, garbage-lined streets, China was like visiting a developed country. Streets were clean, trains ran on time and modern chains like McDonalds, Starbucks and H&M popped up everywhere. Even the toilets, which though nearly all squatters, were the cleanest I’d found anywhere in Asia. That is, however, until I visited Western China, but I digress…

While these “luxuries” certainly made travel easier, there was one aspect that made China by far one of the most difficult countries through which to travel: the language barrier. Chinese people do not speak English.

No really. Chinese people do not speak English.

Furthermore, most signs and menus are written exclusively in Cantonese or Mandarin (or another Chinese dialect), making any attempt at figuring things out on your own nearly impossible. I knew going in that language would be an issue, but what surprised me the most was not that the Chinese could not speak any English but that they could barely communicate outside of their own language at all. So many times I found my efforts at speaking their language or using simple hand gestures completely in vain, even using the most seemingly-universal methods of communication. If my pronunciation did not sound exactly the way it does when they speak, the Chinese had no idea what I was saying. Simple gestures, like indicating locations on maps, mimicking the action of rolling on deodorant or pointing to an actual tissue in request for more left me only with a series of blank looks. I remember having a 10-minute “discussion” with a cab driver once in the beginning of my trip where he tried to tell me I needed to pay an additional 2 RMB for my cab fare. Instead of writing down the number two or indicating two with his fingers or a variety of other creative methods of communication, he simply said the word for “two” louder using the Chinese hand gesture repeatedly. I found this method of repetition, volume and fervor frequently throughout my travels in China (except near Tibet), like there was a total incomprehension that people could actually not understand their language.

All I can say is thank goodness for the bilingual friends I made throughout my travels and the Lonely Planet. I soon gave up any attempts at speaking and learned simply to point to the phrase I wanted in guidebook and hope for the best.

In addition to development, my method of traveling throughout China also made for an entirely different experience than the rest of my travels. After months of staying in cheap guest houses in both Southeast Asia and India, I decided instead to CouchSurf my way throughout China and save some money.

CouchSurfing is the greatest idea ever.

Basically, CouchSurfing is an international travelers’ network where people from different countries open up their homes to host travelers free of cost. While the network is ideal for those who have little money to spend on accommodation, the main idea of CouchSurfing is to break down cultural barriers to allow people of different backgrounds to share each other’s experiences on a more intimate level. While it may sound dangerous, the website’s highly-detailed profile system requires all members to fill out thorough information about themselves and what they’re offering and also contains a very comprehensive reference system where people can leave positive or negative reviews about the other CouchSurfers they meet to hold them accountable.

I joined the system when I moved to Malaysia in order to take part in the social events and meet new people. It wasn’t until my travel budget began to dwindle that I decided to CouchSurf properly and find local hosts, which proved to provide a completely different experience for my travels.

Unlike staying in a guest house, staying with a local resident is much more like being at home, and often times you find yourself with your own room and comforts and a more authentic living situation than you’d find elsewhere.

I was fortunate to find some amazing hosts. Whether it be Suraj, my first host in Macau who picked me up from the airport when I first arrived in China and made sure I didn’t gamble away my savings or Althea in Hong Kong who spent three days showing me around her city and inviting me to a home-cooked Chinese meal with her family, or Stephen, my witty American host in Beijing with whom I spent a week discussing American politics and singing 60s music, I made some amazing new friends in China, many of whom I expect to remain friends with for a long time.

Hong Kong Meal

Enjoying a home-cooked meal with Althea and her mother

On the other hand, CouchSurfing purely also posed its own set of difficulties. When traveling alone, it’s usually in guest houses where you make travel buddies and exchange ideas on where to go next or where to avoid. While my hosts were amazing, they also had real lives and jobs, and I often found myself alone during the day to experience the sites by myself, which can get a bit lonely, especially in a country where people do not speak English.

After nearly two years living in Asia, China also reunited me with two people from my past who also happened to be in the country. Josh, my former childhood neighbor who moved to Beijing over 10 years ago, brought a welcome taste from home as we discussed our lives, our families and our changes since being in Asia. I was also fortunate to meet up with my college friend Marja who was on a dance tour throughout China. After losing touch after college, it was wonderful staying up until 5 a.m. chatting together and catching up on our lives from the past six years.

Among all these people, new and old, was a common theme: the real world, something I had successfully and delightfully avoided the previous eight months. Unlike other wandering, carefree backpackers, these people had real jobs, real lives, real aspirations and for the first time in months, I found a real pressure to “be productive” and do something important with my life. Instead of dreaming of future travel destinations, I found myself fantasizing about returning to the young professional life back in the U.S. and really developing some kick-ass career. Thank God I went back to hippie-land in India afterward ;).

While I wasn’t always in love with the country, the new relationships I made in China and the modernity of the land itself reminded me much of the world I had left behind and caused me to question what I really wanted out of life. Though I’m still sorting all that out, I am grateful to the new experiences and challenges China presented to me.

The following are largely photo essays and a collection of the most beautiful, entertaining or interesting things I discovered in China.