I’m sure by now our astute readers have cottoned on to the fact that our time in China was filled with plenty of ups and downs. Truth be told, it probably featured a lot more downs than ups. And no one is more disappointed about this than we are. Seriously. I never sat down and tried to transform my dreams of what our time in China would be like into words, but it’s fairly accurate to say that they were about as large as the country itself.
When I was fifteen, I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt my life would end at thirty. I didn’t have a death wish — at least not one any greater than your average teenager prone to fits of melodrama — but at that time in my life, the number thirty seemed so far away that I was certain that by the time I reached it, I would have done all the living I could possibly do and be ready to throw in the towel and go out on top. Trying to see past thirty was like trying to see the stars through the haze kicked up into the skies of big cities, the future obscured by a smog of uncertainty.
Not 10 minutes after stepping out of our hostel in Guilin, he was upon us. Like a shadow—albeit, an extremely charming and talkative one—he kept pace with us, smiling and asking us about ourselves and our interests. It’s a sad thing to admit, but the very fact that a local was being so friendly to us in a country where we had rarely felt welcome or wanted immediately made us wary of him and his motives. Our second warning that something was likely afoot was the fact that his English was not just passable, but exceedingly good. Some countries we had visited thus far had enough of an English presence that someone speaking with near fluency wasn’t out of the ordinary; in China, it is.
On this trip, Tony & I have been walking the delicate tightrope that balances visiting the well-known tourist attractions with trying to uncover the sides to the countries and cities that often get overlooked. As much as we love a UNESCO world heritage site (or most of them, at least), we’ve found that they often provide a very different perspective than one simply gains by spending time in a place, observing the local people going about their daily lives.
In my last post, I said that although we loved Xi’an, it was hard for me to identify precisely why that was.
That statement may have been a lie.
I mean, come on! If you’ve been reading this blog for any period of time, if there’s one thing about a city that is going to capture our affections, it is obviously food. And Xi’an just so happens to have excellent food. Even if some of it is ethically questionable… But more on that later!
It’s true that in travel, just as in life, there is no accounting for taste. Though some travelers have tumbled head over heels for China, our time in China started off about as rocky as we could imagine. Though there had been a few bright spots during our 10 days in the country, there had been enough bad/frustrating/disappointing/exhausting moments that we were seriously considering packing it in and had started contemplating exit strategies.
Playwright Christopher Marlowe lived by the motto “That which nourishes me destroys me.” Given that he was killed in a bar brawl, it’s likely he died by those same words too.
The parallels between Marlowe and the ancient Chinese city of Pingyao might not be immediately apparent, but I’d argue that Pingyao could easily adopt Marlowe’s philosophy as its slogan. Our time in China prior to visiting Pingyao taught us many things about the nation’s utilitarian world view, not least of which is that the value of old, historic places is generally viewed solely in terms of cold hard cash; if it can’t make money, then bulldoze it to the ground to make room for something that does. So long as something pulls in a profit, it has a purpose and is viewed as worth keeping around. Although Pingyao is one of the country’s oldest and best preserved examples of a traditional walled city, the reason it continues to exist today is not by virtue of its age or historical significance, but simply because it has proven to be an extremely lucrative tourist attraction.
We tried the best we could to enjoy our time in Beijing, but in the end, we had to admit that it was not a place we liked really at all, and we anxiously looked forward to our departure. Given that this was the case, you would think that on the day we had tickets booked, we’d be at the train station at the first light of dawn, not dawdling at our hostel, going so far as to order breakfast (mango pancakes) 90 minutes before our train was scheduled to depart. What’s more, even with inflated hostel prices, surely no one would pay $24USD for pancakes, right?
Unfortunately, that is exactly what we did. Here’s how:
This is the time when I would normally run down all the things we ate while in Beijing. Faithful readers know Tony & I love nothing more than posting gratuitous food photos to get you salivating. Heck, these posts often get ME drooling and feeling more than a little bit nostalgic for some of the meals we’ve had while traveling.
After four days in Beijing, we were ready to get the hell out of the city and head for the hills. So on the morning of our fifth day in China, we did precisely that and set out to visit one of the new seven wonders of the world, the Great Wall.
Although our hostel offered daily tours to various parts of the Wall, we decided that we would do our best to make our own way to the section in Mutianyu, which is accessible via public transportation from Beijing, but being slightly farther than the Badaling section, reportedly experiences but a fraction of the visitors. Getting away from the crowds sounded like a good idea to us, and after consulting this post over at GQ Trippin’, we decided that if we could make our way to the Wall by bus, not only would we save a lot of money, but we would be fairly bad ass as well.
It is fairly safe to say that as far as first impressions go, the ones Tony & I formed of Beijing were about as abysmal as they come. We both vowed we would try our best to keep an open mind, but it would be dishonest of me to pretend that our initial forays into the city hadn’t taken a bit of the wind out of our sails. Sure we were both recovering from a soul-sucking bout of the flu that we had picked up in Hong Kong, which may have contributed to our malaise, but just when we thought there was no more soul to suck… there was Beijing to prove us wrong.
After spending a heavily scheduled month in rule-oriented Japan, bursting into the teeming, chaotic streets of Hong Kong was a breath of fresh air. We were invigorated by the vague sense of lawlessness that infused the city (a sense certainly heightened by our previous destination – we have never jaywalked so much or so gleefully as we did in Hong Kong!), and we felt like we were finally getting a glimpse of madcap Asia, and a primer of what was to come in China.
You may have noticed that pretty much every post we have written about Hong Kong to date has mentioned food. This was not an accident. We visited Hong Kong with the goal of eating as much as humanly possible, and although other elements of the city charmed us, the food definitely did not disappoint and remained a major highlight of our time there.
I firmly believe that a trip to Hong Kong that revolves solely around eating as much food as possible is not only entirely acceptable, but wholly desirable as well! However, not everyone is so singularly minded as Tony & I are, and it would be wrong for us to give the impression that all there is to do in Hong Kong is eat. Far from it! Though we spent the months leading up to our trip seriously downsizing our belongings, and carrying all of our possessions on your back has a way of causing you to re-evaluate just how necessary a purchase really is, like millions before us, we discovered that Hong Kong is a bit of a shopper’s paradise.
It would seem that one necessary evil when traveling is the inevitable encounter with a Traveler. A Traveler has a world-weary “seen there, done that” air about them and is constantly engaging in games of “one-upsmanship” (anything you’ve seen or done, they’ve seen or done something better or cooler). A Traveler is someone who goes to great pains and lengths to enumerate the many differences between being a Traveler and a mere tourist (and of course, how they are the former, not the latter), and quite frankly in their books, if you’re going to be a tourist, you might as well just stay home. Constantly chasing “authentic” travel experiences, a Traveler will condemn an activity as anathema to them with the damning label of being “too touristy/touristic”.