China is an adventure!  For me, China has been a story filled with amazing images, new ideas, fascinating history, interesting people, and a number of frustrations that are part of any exciting adventure.

We’ve spent slightly less than 2 months exploring China, traveling through a dozen cities and a handful of provinces.  China is a big country – although the same size as the US, there is a distinct flavor to each province, from culture, to people, to food and unique traditions – making it feel huge.

When we first arrived, it was a real slap in the face of east vs. west, modern vs. not so modern.  For a country that is jumping by leaps and bounds to the front of the world stage, this came as quite a surprise to me. In hindsight, I don’t know if Shanghai was the best starting point, nor very representative of greater China.  However, from talking to fellow western travelers, it almost seems as if the city you visit first in china is your least liked city – as nothing fits within your expectations.

The ‘Middle Kingdom’ (as it is better known) really places you in the middle of different social behaviors.  You’ll encounter rude people and you’ll encounter the warmest hosts.  You’ll get frustrated at the elderly old man with a cane cutting dozens of people in line while laughing… just to be dumbfounded with humbleness when a young stranger comes up to you speaking english and offers to help you buy your train ticket (as they can see you struggling).

And then you’ll visit the outskirts of small villages, with locals washing their clothes on the sidewalk who also know how to work an iphone and want to see pictures of your trip around China.

China can be a Delorian trip a few hundred years into the past, while other areas can feel as if 300 years have been fast forwarded in less than a decade.  So not only is there an east vs. west culture clash, but there’s also a 18th century rural vs. modern/urban cultural clash.  This really plays out in the cities, with a mix of young urbanites and migrant workers who come in to the cities to build and support the infrastructure.  As China-Mike points out, there is a Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde of Chinese etiquette, the past century in China has gone through a lot: from political clashes, to wars, to the Cultural Revolution, so one minute you’re getting elbowed out of a ticket line, and the next you’re being treated to a full dinner by a gracious Chinese host.

I find it difficult to lump a story of the whole kingdom into one post.  It’s impossible to compare the hip cultural urban lifestyle of Beijing with the beautiful scenic mountains and lush gorges of the southwest.  So I’ll just highlight a few of my favorite experiences.

Beijing

Beijing is awesome, it’s China, it’s international, it’s young, it’s hip, and it kinda reminded me of NYC.  We got a chance to catch some live music shows, feast on Peking duck, tour the iconic Tiananmen Square, and visit one of the Seven Wonders of the World – The Great Wall.  It’s the one city in China that I really felt like I could live there.

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Pictured above: Hua Acid Jazz Live.  Read more of Beijing Highlights.

Hua Shan

Hike 2km straight up, and stay overnight at the top of the mountain.  The hike is intense, the cliffs are strenuous, and the hobbit caves in the side of the mountain make you think you’re in ‘The Prince Bride’ movie.

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Read more on hiking Hua Shan.

Chengdu

A great city with a great mix of culture and smack in the middle of some of the spiciest food on earth in Sichuan province.  The city seemed to encompass a lot of China’s different aspects into one place.  From a nearby ‘old village’, to a modern city with bustling construction, to food markets with livestock running around, to a incredibly large statue of Mao – Chengdu has it all mixed into one.  The free tours at Lazybones/Mix Hostel helped us experience more then we would have on our own.

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Read more on getting Chengiggy with it.

The Chinese Railways

Train rides in China can be 300km maglevs that zip you to your destination in minutes, to overcrowded K series trains – with the air filled with cigarette smoke and the floor covered with sunflower seeds.  Both are unique experiences and both provide amazing views of the country.  By far my preferred method of travel around China, the only draw back is typically you have to buy tickets 1-2 days in advance, in person! (hello, internet?)

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View more photos of the country side out our train windows.

Tiger Leaping Gorge

A 3 day hike through a beautiful gorge, green farms on one side, snow capped mountain peaks on the other.  With over 2km of vertically hiking to the roaring river floor, it’s strenuous and gorgeous.  I strongly recommend spending at least one night at Sean’s Guest House for the full experience.

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Read our posts on hiking Tiger Leaping Gorge.

Litang

Literally at the top of the world, over 4km above sea level, there is no higher city in the world.  The multi-day bus trip is beautiful and nothing like I’ve ever seen before – I was glued to my bus window.  The town will take you back to the wild west with cowboys strutting down the sidewalk and cattle crossing the street.  The winter wasn’t the optimal time to visit, but I’ll never forgot the feeling of zipping around icy one lane cliffs in our bus.

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Read about our trip on the Sichuan Tibet Highway to Litang.

Other memories I’ll take away:

  • On two occasions, we saw police offers grab somebody by the lower ear lobe and drag them around because they caused some trouble or harassment.  That’ll put you in your place!
  • I now know why no transit employees enforce the no smoking signs posted on trains & buses – there is only one tobacco company for all of china (which is sold under dozens of brands) and it is owned by the government. Think about how much money that is! Chinia is 30% of al the worlds smokers! Phillip Morris can only dream of that much money.
  • 95% of Chinese people have never heard of a queue!

My next post will cover my personal perspective of Chinese Politics.

p.s. I’d also liked to give a big ‘Thank You’ to Bonnie Wang who helped us so much with planning our travels around China and for introducing us to friends and family around the country.