The Last Leg: 3 Weeks in China, Hong Kong and Macau

After 4 months on the road, we reach our last stop on the trip and one of the most remarkable and fascinating countries in the world – China. It’s a place of mystery for so many in the West. I must confess we were slightly apprehensive before visiting China – our impressions of the place come from 3 things:

1. The media in the west which has probably promoted an “us and them” mentality when it comes to China where the lack of democracy is viewed with suspicion

2. Friends and family who have visited the place and bemoaned the lack of English and (in the case of the Indians) vegetarian food

3. Chinese tourists at a hotel buffet – they absolutely go to town on it!

But in the spirit of this trip we went into China with an open mind and allowed it to write it’s own story. After 3 weeks it became one of our favourite places in the world and somewhere we would love to come back to, if only to see how much it has changed in a few years time!

China’s recent history has been turbulent to say the least. The country is run by a single party – the Communist party – and has been since 1949. That means no elections and total control for the party which is why there continues to be tensions between China and the West. One thing we have have taken from this trip is that there are undoubtedly arguments in favour of doing things this way. China has been booming. Skyscrapers are propping up everywhere you look, bright lights illuminate the main cities and the majority of the country is no longer poverty stricken as it was a few years ago. The pace at which China is developing is in large part down to not having to deal with long drawn out elections and political games that we in the UK are becoming very familiar with at the moment. They just get on with it and we spoke to a number of Chinese who believe that they are doing things the right way. The numbers are difficult to argue with – China is now the second largest economy in the world.

But there is a dark side. Pro democracy protests in Beijing in 1989 were met with gunfire. We met someone in Shanghai who dreamt of living in Germany because he had seen some of his friends have been imprisoned for criticising the government. And then there is of course the “Great Firewall of China” which blocks Facebook, Google, Instagram and many other US sites partly to allow Chinese firms to develop but partly to ensure that Chinese citizens don’t start getting any ideas about democracy from Western media.

But China is opening up to the world and is now a big deal – one day it will probably be the largest economy in the world so we thought it’s probably worth understanding the place! Before we came, I mentioned we had heard some preconceived thoughts on China and before I list what we did, I want to highlight our actual experience of each of these, a section that will henceforth be known as MYTHBUSTERS!

Myth #1 Chinese Food is meat and weird stuff like chicken feet – OK I’ll admit, you can get chicken feet in China but I probably wouldn’t call it a staple of their cuisine. Plenty of vegetarian options as well if you know how to ask for it. We managed to steal a sticker from the plane and showed it to every restaurant – worked a treat! If you are veggie you could probably live off the street tofu for weeks!

Myth #2 There’s no English in China – I mentioned China is opening up to the world and was pleasantly surprised to see that the street signs and menus in the big cities are all pretty much translated into English. The metro in Beijing was a breeze to use for us as well, far easier than London where I still don’t know what’s going on with the Northern Line. What I would say though, is that the Chinese tourism industry largely caters for domestic tourists (all 1.3bn of them!) and so understandably sees less need to worry about the Internationals. Some museum exhibits weren’t translated for example and we joined a couple of tour groups where English speakers were an afterthought rather than the main event as we’re used to. We took the attitude of embracing being somewhere completely different and worst case, a combination of a translation app and asking the friendly people on the street will sort you out. Which brings me to myth #3…

Myth #3 Chinese people aren’t very friendly – Honestly I’ve heard this a couple of times and have absolutely no idea where it comes from. They were probably, along with the Sri Lankans, the warmest and most helpful group of people we’ve met on this trip. Special shout out to Tucci who took us on a cycle ride in Yangshuo and kept giving Shalini a hug, Betty who walked with us all around Shanghai old town helping us to find our next destination because we drank at her tea house and Master Ping our lovely Tai Chi instructor with ridiculously warm hands. Alas, none of them will ever see this tribute because the website is probably blocked in China but I hope they knew that the love was strong. What I’ve realised with the Chinese is they have absolutely no time for tourists who speak English to them and when they can’t understand, speak English louder. They wave their hands and tell you to bugger off – if the roles were reversed in England I’d probably do the same. If you’re apologetic for not knowing Mandarin and have a translation app to hand (we used Nemo), the Chinese will generally appreciate the effort and do everything they can to help.

Myth #4 China is dirty – So our view on this is probably a little skewed as we’ve just come from India (over there it’s no myth, India IS dirty). But honestly, the places we’ve been to have been as clean as a whistle. No piles of garbage, public toilets have been of a decent standard and the pollution has been fine for what is supposedly the worst time of year for it (Xi’an the exception where the pollution was rancid – see pictures below). We’ve heard a lot of tourists get a bit grossed out by the people spitting phlegm on the street. The Chinese argue that it is far more disgusting to blow your nose and then keep the phlegm in a tissue in your pocket. Thinking about it, we might be with the Chinese on this one!

Myth #5 India and China are the next world superpowers – We had to add this one, especially having been to both countries so recently and with India so close to our hearts. This line gets peddled a lot in the news which led us to think that India and China were at least reasonably close in their development. As it stands, it saddens me to say that India is miles behind. China has a far better infrastructure with its high speed trains and city metros. The construction of high rise office buildings and presence of luxury fashion brands is not the be all and end all but it a signal that there is a significant middle class in China which India has thus far struggled to create. The poverty in India is utterly heartbreaking and there is clearly a long way to go before it reaches China’s level. For now, China is the next world superpower and maybe one day, India will be in the conversation. That time is not now but I have no doubt that India will get there and will do it based on principles of democracy and freedom which may slow it down for now, but will be a source of pride in years to come.

Myth #6 China don’t celebrate Christmas – China loves Christmas!!

So that was just the introduction! Forgive me for all the preamble – you come out of China with so many thoughts about the place it is hard to resist the temptation to put everything in the blog! But without further ado, here’s what we got up to with 3 weeks in this remarkable country.

Chengdu:

First stop was Chengdu in the Sichuan province in West China. Sichuan is known for two main things: spicy food and pandas!

The Panda Sanctuary is the main attraction in the Chengdu area. It was set up to protect two species of Panda – the Giant Panda and the Red Panda. Honestly they might just be the cutest things we’ve ever seen. The sight of them rolling around munching on their bamboo just melts you, I’m telling you. One of the lovely Chinese people we met (Steve) even bought us our own souvenir panda as a Christmas present to add to Shalini’s collection of cuddly toys. We named him Steve.

The spicy food we tried was in the form of a hotpot where you dump your food in a broth filled to the brim with chillis and allow it to cook. It burnt a hole in our tongues but had so much flavour that it was totally worth it.

Aside from the pandas, the other must do in Chengdu is the Face Changing Opera. It is spectacular – the performers make a big show of changing their mask to the music. They use an ancient technique but it’s slick and fast leaving you wondering how exactly they did it. Coupled with a visit to the local tea house made this a great evening.

Chengdu as a number of attractions in the city which are also well worth checking out:

⁃ Jinli Street and Kuanzhai alley – bustling Chinese markets with all the weird and wonderful stuff you can hope for at a Chinese market. Oh and a Starbucks of course

⁃ Chunxi Street – the main shopping area in Chengdu and buzzing with street food and fashion brands. It was here that it really hit me that China had well and truly arrived. The street would not look out of place in New York!

⁃ Peoples Park – the main park in Chengdu where we happened to stumble across some form of Chinese opera. No face changing in this one unfortunately!

⁃ Tianfu Square – A huge statue of Mao Zedong lies at the heart of the square which gave the perfect opportunity for a picture. It amazes me that he is still treated like a hero despite the problems China had under his rule. Father of the nation I suppose!

⁃ Area we don’t know the name of – while walking around the city we stumbled across a buzzing area south of the river. No idea of the name, it was all in Chinese! We walked in to a bar and they were playing Bollywood music! As you can imagine, we became quite a hit with the crowd..

Yangshuo:

Next up was Yangshuo in Guangxi province. It was a fair distance to get there and when in China there are probably two main options to travel these large distances – plane or the high speed trains. This was our only train on the trip but I almost wish we’d taken it more as the scenery was amazing, taking us through the South China Karst landscape and some of the rural areas that you don’t see in the glitzy cities.

Yangshuo is a town in the heart of the Karst landscape and is on the banks of the Li River which makes it a haven for nature lovers wanting to get away from the busy Chinese cities. We had four days here which was loads of time to see the main attractions of the place:

⁃ Bamboo Rafting – the number one attraction in Yangshuo I reckon. The raft takes you cruising down the Yulong River which is surrounded by incredible Karst landscape. We’d never seen mountains and hills of this shape before (except in Kung Fu Panda!)

⁃ Silver Cave – there’s an old Chinese proverb: whoever has been to the silver cave will never be short of money. It therefore seemed a sensible investment to shell out on the entrance fee and visit the place. Some absolutely spectacular formations and we thought the light effects made it even better!

⁃ Liu Sanjie Light Show – the show is set on the banks of the Li River and using some amazing effects to light up the scenery in the background. I think there was some sort of story in the show but our Mandarin was sadly lacking so we had no idea what was going on. Seemed like everyone was having fun though. Well worth it for the visuals alone!

⁃ Biking in the countryside – another way to experience the landscapes around here and a proper workout I have to say, our legs hurt for about 3 days after this! At the end of our bike ride we got the chance to go quad biking on the banks of the Li River which was fantastic and a welcome rest for our legs.

⁃ Chinese calligraphy lesson – it sounds obvious but Chinese characters are so different to the Latin letters that most of the rest of the world are used to and it fascinated us to the point where we wanted to learn a bit more. We can now write one, two and three and our names in Chinese. Fine progress I’m sure you’ll agree!

⁃ Tai Chi – another part of Chinese culture that fascinated us. You see lots of people doing Tai Chi in the parks of China’s cities so we thought we’d have a go. It’s actually more like yoga than martial arts with a lot of focus on breathing and control. It also happens to improve your circulation massively – on the coldest day of the trip Master Ping’s hands were about ten times warmer than ours. Sign us up!

– Ear Cleaning – I tried it once and I never, ever want to do this again. What do they see in it?! The facial expressions tell the story I think…

Shanghai:

Bright lights, tall skyscrapers and the symbol of China’s development over the last few years. In the early 90’s Shanghai was a bit of a sleepy town. Now it’s China’s main financial centre, the population has doubled and is probably the most international place in mainland China. It was also where we spent NYE 2019!

⁃ The Bund – This walk along the river bank gives the full taste of a booming Asian city. On one side is Pudong – Shanghai’s main financial district where skyscrapers have popped up at a crazy pace over the last few years. On the other is the Bund with its iconic Western architecture (dating back to when Shanghai was largely under British and French control).

⁃ Old City – Even Shanghai has a few traditional Chinese buildings! Walking through the Yuyuan gardens is probably the best way to experience them.

⁃ Tea Ceremony – Next to the gardens are a few tea houses which give you a chance to sample China’s famous tea! The ceremony is basically tea tasting – you can try Jasmine, Oolong, Green, Fruit and everything in between. We couldn’t resist taking some “mixed fruit” tea back home, it tasted like liquid jelly babies. Yum.

⁃ Temples – Shanghai is full of them and it’s definitely worth going to a couple. City of God was our favourite, a Taoist temple dedicated to three historical figures who have protected the city in previous battles.

⁃ Shanghai museum – A fantastic (and free museum) showcasing ancient Chinese artefacts from the various dynasties.

– Nanjing Road – Shanghai’s main shopping district. All the posh shops and absolutely heaving with people that have enough money to buy stuff from them.

⁃ Peoples Park – Admittedly the park looks a bit rubbish in winter when all the trees and flowers are dead but it was redeemed by the local market. Every weekend, parents gather to auction off their sons and daughters for marriage. CV’s are brought in (and bizarrely stuck to umbrellas) and much negotiation takes place. Surprised there isn’t anything like this in India! Anyone want to start a business with me?

⁃ New Years Eve – Only one option for us here: one of Shanghai’s famous rooftop bars. We opted for the Hyatt on the Bund and the views were amazing! Happy new year everyone!

Beijing:

If time is short and you can only visit one place in China, Beijing should be that place. It is a country’s capital and cultural centre, home to some of the most famous attractions in the world such as the Forbidden City and the Great Wall. Word of advice though, do NOT go in the winter. Temperatures went as low as -10C and Shalini ended up wearing seven layers at one point (including thermals!).

⁃ The Great Wall of China – A masterpiece! The Great Wall is the most famous attraction in the country. Built originally to keep the Mongols out from the north, the wall is a symbol of mankind’s greatest achievements. It’s 21,000km long (the length of the UK is about 2,000km) and the views are spectacular. We visited the Mutuanyu section of the wall and benefitted from the off season in that our pictures were completely free of other tourists!

⁃ Forbidden City – The Forbidden City is the symbol of Imperial China, having served as the home of Ming and Qing emperors for 500 years. It is now a museum but maintains the same palace buildings that were present for many years during its heyday. The names of these buildings are all very fancy such as “The Palace of Earthly Tranquility” and “The Palace of Heavenly Purity”.

⁃ Tianamen Square – This place is huge! And very patriotic. On one side you have a picture of Mao Zedong, the founder of the Chinese Communist party. On the other is Mao’s mausoleum where his tomb lies and in the middle is a museum which shouts from the rooftops how great China is. As it is essentially a symbol of Communist China, it has also been the home of pro-democracy protests, most notably in 1989 where a number of students were brutally shot.

⁃ Peking duck – Beijing is of course the home of one the the best Chinese culinary experiences, the Peking duck! We (or rather I, Shalini had gone full blown veggie at this point) had to give it a try and where better to go than the restaurant that created the dish: Quanjude. It was a little greasy for my liking and the carving of the bird was a bit graphic for Shalini’s liking. A worthwhile experience nonetheless!

⁃ Wangfujing – Beijing’s answer to Oxford street and probably the most Westernised place in the city.

⁃ Hutongs – Beijing has made a considerable effort to maintain a lot of its traditions in the wake of modern change and Hutongs are a fine example of this. These narrow alleys represent a way of life in days gone by and we could have spent hours wondering them. A bit of colour wouldn’t go amiss though, they are all stone grey which gets a bit grim in the winter!

– Temple of Heaven – A wonderful complex of buildings which were used by the dynasties to pray for good harvests. Often animals were sacrificed as part of these ceremonies.

⁃ Birds Nest – The home of the Beijing 2008 Olympics. We happened to get randomly dropped off here on the way back from the Great Wall so we thought we’d make the most of it and take a look.

⁃ Peking Opera – Apparently the most famous of all the operas around China. I have no idea why because the show we saw was absolute tripe and a waste of 2 precious hours. Good wine though.

Xi’an:

It’s often said that “if you haven’t been to Xi’an you haven’t been to China”! Not sure I’d fully agree but as the capital of 13 Chinese dynasties, there is so much history in the place and as result is on everyone’s China itinerary.

Xi’an is most famous for the Terracotta Warriors which is just remarkable. The story goes something like this. About 2000 years ago there was a great emperor who was able to unite all of China – Qin Shi Huang. This emperor, although great, happened to also be a little bit nutty. Emperor Qin had a lot of enemies and was so scared of being attacked in the afterlife that he got his men to build a huge army made of terracotta to protect him. 8000 soldiers all made by hand with each soldier looking different so they couldn’t even get a production line going. Nutter. But thank god he was because they are amazing and well worth the hype.

But there’s more to the city than the Terracotta Warriors! Xi’an’s other spots include:

⁃ The Old City Walls – The best way to do this is by bike so you can zip round the city in a couple of hours. Also well worth doing part of it at night as well, partly because the lights are cool and partly because the most disgusting pollution we have ever seen is much less visible!

⁃ Bell and Drum Tower – In the heart of the city and a monument to Ming Dynasty splendour. Great views of the city from the top as well!

⁃ Muslim Quarter – In an area of Xi’an there lives a small Muslim community which traces its roots back to the days of the Silk Road and influence from Muslim neighbours. The Great Mosque is the main attraction in the area but the best thing about this place is the food! The night market is buzzing and I can still taste the hamburger I had that day – delicious!

Hong Kong:

The story of Hong Kong is pretty amazing. The Chinese used to sell a lot of tea to Britain. That was all well and good until Britain realised they were spending all this money on tea but not getting much back in return. They therefore started selling China drugs – opium – and understandably China started getting a bit miffed that Britain was drugging up it’s population. Thus, the First Opium War began and Britain’s victory allowed it to take over the key port of Hong Kong. With one fell swoop, Hong Kong’s culture changed massively, becoming far more Western, and to this day has very different cultural behaviours to mainland China (including a Pret at the airport). All because Britain fancied itself as a bit of a drug dealer!

Hong Kong is now a massively prosperous city. It’s incredibly diverse (with expats coming from across the world) and has some of the best bars and restaurants on the planet. Some of the our favourites that we tried were Chachawan (Thai), China Tang (fancy Chinese), Quinary (bar), The Old Man (hidden bar) and Yum Cha (Dim Sum)

Outside of the great food, Hong Kong is also home to some must-see attractions:

⁃ Victoria Peak – The best view in city. We didn’t get the crystal clear day we wanted but even then, the view didn’t disappoint.

⁃ Ladies Market – If you like to haggle and you like fake designer bags then this is the place to go. Shalini loved it! Amar? Missed an important Newcastle United game for this rubbish.

⁃ Happy Valley Racecourse – What a venue! It’s much bigger than I expected to be and looks fantastic when lit up at night. The horse we bet on decided to bottle it over the last few metres so we walked away empty handed. Totally worth it though.

⁃ Tsim Sha Tsui Promenade – Amazing views of Hong Kong Island from Kowloon and I actually think it’s even better at night – pictures don’t do it justice!

⁃ Disneyland – You didn’t think we’d miss Disney did you?! In a sign of incredible progress, Shalini went on every rollercoaster in the park. When you can do paragliding, a Star Wars themed ride is child’s play!

Macau:

Our very last stop on the trip! Like Hong Kong, Macau has a similarly unique history having been a Portuguese colony for over 400 years. The streets as a result have a distinctly Iberian feel making us think we were a lot closer to home than we actually were! Walking these streets is by far the best way to experience this bizarre hybrid of cultures.

But Macau is less famous for its European roads now because it is officially the gambling capital of the world! Macau takes in far more in gambling revenue than Las Vegas and is Asia’s playground, particularly on the Cotai Strip where flash hotels are packed to the rafters with people blowing their hard earned money. We had a gamble of course and I’m delighted to report than we ended up 600 HKD up (£60). Sometimes, the house loses!

Afterword:

And with that, our honeymoon finally comes to an end. It’s been a once in a lifetime experience for us and going on this trip has probably been the best decision we’ve ever made. I hope everyone has enjoyed reading these blogs as much as we’ve enjoyed writing them! In fact we’ve enjoyed writing them so much that we’ve agreed to write up every single holiday we’ve been on in the past, and pledge to write up every holiday in the future. Check up on this page in a year to see how far we’ve got!

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