Winter Break Part I: Hunan & Guangxi

School finally ended and Winter Break has begun! We have almost 2 months before school starts again, so I decided to use the opportunity to explore more of China. There are so many places in China I’ve wanted to see, so I have been counting down the days until break since school started! To kick off a month of travel, my cousin Julia came to visit me in China for a week. We spent our week together split between Hunan Province in central-south China and Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region in the south.

The Slow Train to Hunan


Hard Sleepers

Julia & I planned to meet in Zhangjiajie, Hunan, and to get there from Beijing, I had to take the longest train I’ve ever been on – the 24 hour slow train with a hard sleeper. Quite an experience in and of itself, and something I’m getting used to on this trip. China is a huge country, and distances are not to be underestimated. Although high-speed trains are all the rage these days, the slow (K, Z, or T) trains are much cheaper and sometimes the better option getting to and from places. All in all, I actually find it a rather interesting experience. First, since not many foreigners take these trains, nothing is in English and people were always surprised to see me. The train is really slow and rickety, but not too uncomfortable, and kept fairly clean by the train attendants.

In the hard sleeper or 2nd class section 硬卧, the berths are arranged in 3’s (上,中,下) facing each other, with windows on both sides. There are also fold out seats with table space between them, so most passengers rotate between sitting and laying down. There are also outlets to charge phones, bathrooms (squatty potties), and hot water for tea and instant noodles (the dinner of choice for the Chinese). I mostly spent my time reading, and when I would get bored, I would stare out the window at the passing countryside. At around 9:30 the lights on the train turn off, and almost everyone falls asleep. In the morning I woke abruptly at 5:30am when my neighbors woke and began chatting loudly right below me.

Later in the morning, I got to talking with my neighbors for a while. As I ate my breakfast sitting on the fold out seat, I stared off into the Hunan countryside, with green vegetation and strangely large houses spread out like a farmer suburb. I also enjoyed the random selection of Chinese songs that would play over the loudspeaker at random times. All in all, it was a great way to travel on a budget, and made me feel like I was truly embarking on an adventure. The trains can also be quite social, so it’s a good way to be immersed in the language and local life.

Zhangjiajie – the Avatar Mountains

After arriving in Zhangjiajie, I walked about 10 minutes to Hostel Geographer, revelling in the moderate temperature compared to Beijing. After a shower and a nap, I was reminded of how cold it can feel in Southern China with no central heat in the winter. I headed out for dinner at a 湘菜 (Xiang Cuisine – aka Hunan food) restaurant near the hostel. The 老板 (boss) there was really nice and gave me good recommendations on which authentic dishes to order. While picking up provisions for our upcoming day in the mountains, I ended up chatting with the store ladies for awhile. The people there were so friendly, it really made me fall in love with China again, and I felt refreshed to be out in “random” China, out of the soulless big city of Beijing. Around 11pm, I went to the train station to pick up Julia. A very happy reunion!

We got up early for our day exploring Zhangjiajie Forest National Park, which is about an hour bus ride from Zhangjiajie city on super bumpy roads. After getting our tickets and avoiding all the people peddling goods & services, we entered the park and were immediately impressed by the scenery. We joked for the rest of the day we were wandering the enormous park, since we had no idea how to get to Yuanjiajie, which was recommended to us by the hostel. After some buses, a stair path, our first encounter with monkeys, and a monastery, we got on the cable car to Yangjiajie. Soon we were flying high above the forest in between stunning snow-dusted “floating” mountains that Zhangjiajie is famous for. It felt like we were in Jurassic Park or some kind of untouched wilderness paradise – the scenery was so breathtaking. Walking down a snow covered path, we eventually made it to the famed Yuanjiajie scenic spot, and walked along cliff-hanging paths with stunning views of the “Avatar” floating mountains and an insane natural bridge called “the First Bridge Under Heaven”. The mountains were something like I’d never seen before, pretty much exactly like the movie – almost other-worldly. It was a bit overcast, so the mist around the mountains, green trees, and monkeys created a beautiful atmosphere.

Later though we discovered how evil the monkeys who “infest” the forest (as the signs warned) really were. After taking so many photos of them, a man warned us to be careful the monkeys don’t steal our phones. And later, a monkey literally reached into Julia’s pocket to steal her orange. So we had to postpone any snacking until the monkeys were out of sight. And on the way back down, the crazy monkeys literally attacked Julia, chasing her and jumping across the railings in front of and behind her. Luckily we kept walking and escaped them, but it was frightening. They are wild animals after all.

We retraced our steps back down the mountain to the park entrance, walking down through the forest instead of taking the cable car again, and were surprised by a peaceful and quiet walk through a snow-covered, mossy, green, winter forest, right below the mountains we had flown through before. We were so relieved to catch the bus back to the city, although it seemed even bumpier than before. Back in the city, we had dinner, and our exhausted selves passed out at the hostel, waking up early the next morning for our train to Changsha.

Guilin, Yangshuo, & Longji Rice Terraces

Transferring trains in Changsha, we made our way from Hunan Province into the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, where the scenery changed before our eyes into beautiful mountains and hills, watery fields, and even a water buffalo sighting. Guangxi is home to many minority groups, including the Yao and Zhuang, which is China’s largest minority group. As such, it has the status of an “Autonomous Region”, one of 5 in China. Arriving in Guilin, our base for the next few days, we were instantly in love. The air was warm, with palm trees and other green trees lining the road. We took the double decker bus to Ming Palace Hostel, and after checking in, went out to explore the nearby East-West Culture Street and the Sun & Moon Pagodas on one of Guilin’s many lakes. They were beautifully illuminated, and we enjoyed a leisurely stroll around the 2 lakes. Drinking a local beer on the Zhengyang Pedestrian Street, we truly fell in love with the city, which exceeded my expectations.

Our first full day in Guangxi, we joined a boat tour of the Li River, the famous vista found on the back of the 20 元 note. We took the tour bus to Yangdi Pier, where we had time to get lunch of Guilin rice noodles 桂林米粉, which were just amazing. Next we boarded our “bamboo raft” and set off downriver. Tall mountains surrounded us, with clear green water below, lush greenery on the shore, and mist between the peaks. We floated along for another hour or so, equally amazed with the views around each bend. When we got off, a lady selling photos with her cormorant birds on a bamboo pole placed the pole on Julia’s shoulders, so we ended up taking the photos. Next we took a little electric car through the countryside to Xingping town. After walking around a bit, we got back on the tour bus to Yangshuo.

In Yangshuo, we found a small hotel renting bikes for 10 元, and after figuring out a route, we hopped on and rode off. We ended up doing a 10 mile loop going up through Yangshuo town and west to the Yulong River, following it downward, then back up to town. We were among few people on the rural roads, moving over for the occasional car or motorbike. The views on our ride were incredible. Mountains everywhere, green fields and small houses, and the strong afternoon sun setting on the insanely blue Yulong River. It was so peaceful and enjoyable. After returning the bikes, we had local beer fish for dinner. So fresh and delicious. And after struggling to find a bus back to Guilin, we eventually made it and even befriended some Canadians en route.

The next morning we got up even earlier to go to Longji Rice Terraces. We first took the bus towards Longsheng town. The going was slow, picking up villagers on the side of the road, and it rained on the way. At Heping, we transferred onto an even more rickety bus, which started up the steep mountains, passing tiny clusters of wood buildings and picking up even more local villagers. A few ladies onboard were clearly of the Yao minority, evident by their brightly colored pink & black traditional clothing, tied up hairstyles, and unintelligible language. We finally arrived somewhere in the hills with the intent to hike between the villages of Dazhai and Ping’An, but pretty much wandered in circles since no signage or instructions made it clear where we should go. To make matters worse, it was cold & muddy with few others in sight. We eventually gave that plan up, sand started on the path to “Golden Buddha Peak”. Unfortunately it ended up being a never ending, exhausting sludge up a billion muddy steps with absolutely no scenery, as the higher we climbed, the more shrouded in cloud we became. We could see absolutely nothing at the top, but I did get to talk to a Yao woman, who even taught me some of their language.

We took the cable car down, and as we descended, we were able to see more of the rice terraces from the sky, which are actually incredible. Some are over 700 years old. Crazy to imagine how they were made, carved from the side of the mountain. Regardless of our struggles, the journey itself was interesting – riding alongside local villagers and getting a small glimpse into their lives. This area of Guangxi is really rural and full of minority culture.

Our last day, we strolled along Guilin’s Zhengyang Pedestrian Street on the hunt for souvenirs for Julia’s family. Highlight of the day was a free sampling at a tea shop. The owner gave us samples of several kinds of tea that he and his sister grow and make locally in the mountains near their village north of Guilin. He taught us a lot about tea culture, as well as lots of side stories. Walking by cute shops and cafes and tree covered roads, I really fell in love with Guilin and Guangxi more broadly. It was a surprisingly lively city with friendly people, cheap prices, yummy food, and good weather. It’s also an interesting mix of small city, rural countryside and mountains, with lots of diversity and minority culture.

Changsha, Hunan’s Capital

We arrived late at night in Changsha, as Julia had an early flight home the next morning. I was really sad to see her leave; we had such an amazing week together. After checking out of the hotel, I left my bags there and went to explore the city a bit. Although foggy, I was pleasantly surprised by how modern and hip the city was. I walked from Pozi Street up to Wuyi Square, getting a yummy milk tea, and going through the underground shopping heaven of Guojin Jie. After lots of shopping around, I made my way via very modern metro to the train station for another 20+ night train to Chengdu.

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