It is what China is all about... for many

Trip Start Jan 01, 2010
Trip End Jun 30, 2012

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Monday, July 11, 2011

Xi'an, Luoyang, Pingyao, Beijing. For many travelers, these cities are what China is all about. In this "small" triangle (about 2000 km long) can be found the major imperial monuments and religious sites of Northern China. Here, the tourists are different : less backpackers, or as many backpackers as before, but diluted in the flow of "traditional" tourists, Chinese and foreigners.
We could this mass of tourists as soon as we step out the train in Xi'an. The square in front of the train station was full of Chinese carrying luggage, map & mineral water sellers... We are in July now, and summer holidays already started. I was warned that it would be like this, so i was not very surprised. Anyway, we were now very close to Beijing, so even with the crowd, we should not have too much problems to reach the capital.

For the first time since we started traveling together, Charlotte and I split. She went to the youth hostel while I wanted to stay with an English guy I met on Couchsurfing. As many native English speakers, James is English teacher and has very special ideas and theories about life. I can say it was great staying with him for 3 days. We had many discussions about life and I believe I will see certain things differently now.

I did not like much Xi'an : too hot, too busy Many people come here not only for the remaining wall circling the city (in the past, almost every Chinese city had a wall around, but Uncle Mao thought that feudalism and communism did not get along, so almost all were destroyed, except in a few cities : Xi'an, Pingyao, Dali...) but for the Army of Terracotta Warriors, 34kms outside town. We were there, of course... and we had to buy a ticket. Not too expensive with my false student card (made in Bangkok, on Khaosan road), and anyway, it was already in my budget, like the Taj Mahal in India, or Angkor War in Cambodia. However, I was not that impressed, maybe because they built a building the size of an aircraft hangar around. I spent the rest of the time wandering around, mainly in the Muslim neighborhood (since Gansu, we met so many Muslim neighborhoods and mosques. I thought Muslims were only in Western China, but not only, after all !)

There is a place I have wanted to see for a while, since I found it by chance on the Internet. It is a small village in Henan Province, that can be accessed only through a tunnel built into a cliff. I read on the Internet that because of this, the road leading to the village was ranked in the top 10 of the most dangerous roads in the World. I also had the surprise to discover that inside the top 10, I already rode a few of them : The road of Yungas, in Bolivia, closed to traffic but that can be ridden on a bicycle, for a flat 40$, including transportation, meal and a T-shirt featuring "I survived the most dangerous road in the World". I confess I did it, but I was with my girlfriend, so it is half-forgiven. In the top 10, there is also the Feary Meadow road in Northern Pakistan and the friendship highway running down the Tibetan plateau to the Nepali border... So, together with the Guoliang tunnel, it would be my fourth road into the ranking (not that I am calculating).

It was quite a detour from Xi'an. Instead of taking a train toward Beijing and jump-off at the middle in Pingyao (the best preserved ancient walled city in China), we boarded a train running East. The next morning, and a 2-hour bus ride later, we were at the entrance of Guoliangcun scenic area, in Henan, a province overlooked by most of foreign tourists. During the 3 days we stayed in Guoliang, we met only 2 foreigners, and there were leaving in China. The whole area was a great resting places, with many Chinese coming here to capture the scenery on paper and canvas.

However, the tunnel itself was quite disappointing. It might have been very impressive after it was built, in the 1970s, but since then, it has probably been upgraded in order for the tourists to drive safely into it. But cars are so few that I could walked twice into it without meeting a single vehicle. One of the most dangerous world had indeed become one of the safest !
Even though, I was not disappointed by the detour. I really liked the place and had a very nice surprise. As we were walking toward Guoliang, we took a wrong turn and I spotted some windows into the cliff on the other side of the valley. I thought it was Guoliang tunnel, but a local pointed the other direction. So, the next day, i wanted to find out what was it. I backtracked my steps and walked for 2 hours before I came to the door of another tunnel, much longer and much impressive of the Guoliang tunnel. It took me half an hour to walk it, passing amazing scenery's other the valley, and at the end I bumped into a fence. I had crossed the mountain and was now in Shanxi, the adjacent province. I reluctantly walked back when I spot a cable car at the top of the mountain. There was definitely a very Chinese scenic area (read an entertainment park) on the other side of the valley, but for some reasons this tunnel, probably the highlight of the visit, was closed. By coming the other side, I could enter, but apparently it was not known, because I did not meet anybody else here. After reflexion, I believed there might be a fight between the provincial governments about the benefice of the tunnel : it is in Henan but who charge entrance fees in Shanxi government. So, where the money goes to ?
I wanted to show Charlotte what I had discovered, so we agreed to stay a day more, and the next day we walked back together to the tunnel. I don't like to do things twice, but this time I did not regret it. The sun was shining, making great photo opportunities !

In the afternoon, we left for Luoyang. We got a ride with a Chinese couple to Zhengzhou, the capital of Henan province, and then we took a bus to Luoyang. We arrived late a night, very tired after the 4-hour trek we made in the morning, and the air-con dormitory of the hostel, its hot shower and Wi-fi offered a deserved rest. Luoyang is famous for the Longmen caves, an Unesco World Heritage Site, one of China's few surviving masterpieces of Buddhist rock carving. Last year, I wanted to visit a similar site, nearby Dunhuang, in Western China, but the high entrance fee and lack of opportunities to sneak inside discouraged me. This time, I was luckier. After an almost 2-hour search, i managed to get in without having to pay the heavy 20$ entrance fee. I would not have paid to see the site, anyway (it was not in my budget), and i did not find it that impressive. Probably I am not a fan of this kind of art.

Before reaching Beijing, we made a last stop, in Pingyao, another chance to have a close look to China overpopulation, when it comes to transportation, especially during the holidays. We did not do much in Pingyao, walking in the city and get some sleep before the 12-hour ride to Beijing with (of course) unreserved seats.

Beijing... For many travelers, it is their first encounter with the "Empire of the Middle". In my case, it took me 3 trips and nearly 3 months altogether before finally seeing the capital. Last year, I met a guy from Belgium in Kashgar (Xinxiang), and now he leaves in Beijing. he kindly agreed to host me and Charlotte during our whole stay in Beijing. But after 4 days, we moved to 2 couchsurfers, Dawn & Phillipp. Olivier had just lost its job, and since his apartment was part of his package, he was in a difficult situation until he starts his new assignment, near Shanghai, in September.

Think a week is enough in Beijing ? Think again ! The city is so big, and transportation, even with the efficient metro system (built for the Olympics in 2008) takes time. It is difficult to plan to do more than a thing in a day. Further more, hot summer days make the exploration more tiring. we were jut happy to explore Tienanmen Square the first day, the national museum the second day, the Great Wall the 3rd day, the Forbidden City the 4th, the Olympic Stadium the 5th and the Hutongs (narrow alleyways) the 6th.

The rest of the time, we spent it between the train station (to try to get tickets to Mongolia), the French Embassy (to take our invitations for the French National Day celebration, a big mistake, we went there for the free food and champagn, but nothing was free, even the glass of coke... Scrooges !!!! What's the point in going to a French party if not for the food ? If I want to see other French people, I go to France... And I even don't need an invitation to do this !), the train station (to try again to get tickets to Mongolia), several outdoor shops (because Charlotte needed gears for Mongolia) and the train station (to eventually try to get tickets to Mongolia)...

We managed to escape the overcrowded attractions of the city and the omnipresent communist propaganda for the 90th birthday of the Party to go camping one night at the Great Wall. There are various sections of the Wall that can be visited. Most of the tourists go to the same one, as part of a day tour from Beijing. They live at around 7am, drive 2 hours, take a cable-car, climb the wall together with 10.000 other people, take a few pictures and visit on the way back some boring overpriced other attractions. Me and Charlotte wanted to experience something different. We left in the afternoon to a more remote and less touristy section of the Wall. We arrived at 6pm, when the site was already closed, so we did not need to buy a ticket. Then we walked 5kms on the Wall, until sunset and slept in one of the towers, together with bats and a mouse. It is illegal to camp on the Wall and trespassers can be fined 1000Y (150$), so we tried to be very discreet at night, avoiding to light lamps. The next day, we got up early, and exited the wall through a section that is closed to public, before the guards took their shifts. We were however "caught" by some guards after we exited the wall (we thought they use to take their shifts at 9am, but actually they take it at 8am !). But we had already exited the Wall, so technically we did nothing illegal. We just found ourselves being in an area closed to public, and one of the guard kindly escorted us toward the exit, saying a timid "Thank-you" when he left us ;)

The week in Beijing finally passed quicker than expected and it was now time to end our 2 months journey in China, toward a new country, Mongolia, toward new adventures !

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