China (2,5 months)
China was maybe the country of which I had the fewest imagination. I found it – although I should have known – surprisingly confusing and partly shocking. The widely varying landscape is just stunning. But it is unbelievably hard to make oneself understood even with the most obvious basic needs (it took me half an hour and very, very explicit gestures once to finally being shown a toilet!).
This huge country is an incredible world on its own. China is so big, many of the mostly very loyal inhabitants don’t seem to bother much about the rest of the world. We met so many people who obviously had to think very hard to figure out what or where “Germany” is (even when we had Germany translated into Mandarin “doegoa”). That made suddenly a huge difference to other countries like India, Myanmar or Kyrgyzstan, where often people knew more about our car brands and Angela Merkel than I did! Everywhere else we were “aaah, Germany!” and here we were complete strangers. But China was in many ways a parallel universe to me.
Although China has a real lot to offer and we met many friendly people plus the landscape is just amazing China didn’t make it as far up on my “have to return to”-list as other countries we’ve visited.
For our stay we had been given only a single-entry-4-weeks-visa at the office in Hong Kong which is, to be fair, ridiculous! The fourth biggest country on earth in four weeks!? Fortunately we knew that it was possible to get extensions on the visa in most of the province capitals. That’s what we did two times. And still we left with an overstay. China is just too big and has too many interesting places to see…
We went with a train from Hong Kong into “China mainland” with Guangzhou as a first and extended stop (after 1 month camping in HK and Macau we needed a proper rest and acclimatisation to the new culture!). The nice plumflower-hostel owner Yuan was quite irritated one day when we were making a salad because Chinese never ever do eat anything uncooked. But in the end he remembered: “aah yes, salad! I know! They have it at McDonalds on the burger!”
From Guangzhou, where we made great bike tours with our friend Mr. Lee we went with a night bus to Yangshuo in the landscape of thousands of tiny mountains (“Bobbelberge”). We accidentally ate dog for breakfast one day before we explored the surrounding villages at the Li River like Xingping and an ancient stone village without name and went on to the Longsheng Rice Terraces. After trekking, camping and amazing views for three days we went to Guilin for our first visa extention and headed west afterwards by train. After a quick stop in Kunming we stayed some days in Dali (old town) and Lijiang. There we were stuck for a couple of days because the road(s) to the Tiger Leaping Gorge was blocked due to some heavy rain and mud slides. Finally we made it and were smuggled inside (for every national park aka interesting sight you have to pay quite a high entrance fee (between 10 and 20 Euro)) by a nice taxi driver together with some Chinese students. The Gorge with its steep cliffs is one of the greatest places I’ve ever seen!
After three days in the Gorge we went to Shangri-La (highly recommended by everyone but we didn’t stay maybe because it already appeared like a place that everyone was recommending in every corner…) and tried to get a lift “north” which was very difficult to get. We always had a problem in China with lifts because you normally say (or show on a sign) “I want to go there.” and normally people say “Oh, I don’t go that far but I can at least take you to the next village.” Not so in China. People just say “ooh, no, I don’t go there, bye!” and drive off. Maybe because understanding each other is so hard, maybe because of politeness (they don’t want to satisfy you only half way)… They somehow think only taking one to the final destination is “right”. Anyway, hitch hiking didn’t work out very well for us in China.
After a night in a crappy and expensive motel in a village so small it wasn’t on our map we cached the bus to Xiangcheng which is a beautiful town in the mountains! The architecture is already very tibetan and the people were extraordinarily friendly. Unfortunately we already had time pressure again because of the outrunning visa so we had to leave after two days for Litang (again hitch-hiking: difficult!). For everyone who gets close to this area: The road/ landscape between Xiangcheng and Litang is the most beautiful I have ever seen. It starts with alpine/ canadian looking mountain terrain then changes for endless stony swamps and ends with mongolian grasslands. The tibetan town Litang on 4000 m altitude is beautiful with many buddhist monks but we had to leave after one night with the bus for Kangding. Our hope to get our visa extension there was dissapointed so we had to leave for the capital Chengdu the following day.
The problem with visa extensions in China is that you apply for them and it takes between three and nine days to get it so you might have to wait or at least return for it to the same place which is an annoying fact while traveling. In this case we spent some restful days in the hostel and went for a short trip south to the Bamboo forest and the Bo hanging coffins. First was nice (but again expensive entry fee!), second really cool! After we got our visa extension we went with the train all the way from Chengdu via Urumqi (Wulumuqi) to Kashgar (Kashi) (together three days and three nights on the train) and prepared our next big trip with bicycles to Kyrgyzstan!