Spring Festival has finally arrived! No more teaching english; no more last minute schedule changes; no more work … for one month. Chinese New Years is a time when all of China takes a month off leading to a mass migration of millions of people; all traveling to see family, friends and head back home. Busses, trains, and planes steadily become harder to book and more and more people begin filling in the tourist spots across the country.
With one month off, I’m obviously back on the road rather than staying in my small little town and doing nothing. I taught my last classes on Sunday and headed to the train station Monday. I am writing this update one week into Spring Festival…
The first week of traveling involved re-acclimating to life on the road, figuring out the best way to pack my backpack, learning how to efficiently buy bus and train tickets, and finding hostels in new cities. This is also the first time that I have travelled with someone else. My girlfriend Jess has been in China for the past month with me and we are now venturing out to see China together. The goal is to see as much of China as possible over the next month.
The Journey started in Henan provence where I teach english. From Henan Provence we worked our way to a small train station on the outskirts of a largely populated, yet rural feeling city. We decided to try the “hard seats” because they were cheaper; and settled in for our 12 hour journey to Nanjing. During the ride we head-bobbed through a couple hours of sleep, listened to people talk throughout the night, talked to 4-5 people who wanted to practice their english, enjoyed the soothing sounds of the kid crying in the seat across from us, and sat with puke at our feet for the last few hours because the other kid in our section got sick in the middle of the night. Needless to say it was a fairly long 12 hour train ride… but it only cost $20!!! (We are all about roughin’ it and traveling like the locals; but next time we will spend a bit more on train tickets).
So… Nanjing was the first stop. In Chinese “Nan” means Southern and “Jing” means Capital… so Nanjing is known as the Southern Capital of China (fun fact: Bei = North; Jing = Capital … so Beijing = Northern Capital). There are more than enough sights in Nanjing to fill the pages of Lonely Planet; but it wasn’t as action packed and amazing as we thought it would be. We ended up in a hostel where we were the only english speakers, were still getting our feet wet and figuring out the subtleties of backpacking and hostel-life again, and just couldn’t quite get to the point where we were super excited to be in Nanjing.
I always try to maintain a positive tone when writing about traveling; but at the same time I want to be honest and realistic about the places I visit. Nanjing just wasn’t worthwhile for us to go to… maybe if I knew the history of Nanjing better I would have enjoyed it more. Or perhaps knowing the language better would have helped in the hostel. All-in-all though, Nanjing was kind of a rough start to our 1 month trip through China.
There were upsides to Nanjing though. We hiked up to Sun Yat-Sen’s mausoleum which provided an amazing view of the city. We also had a lot of fun at the local coffee shops (there are tons of good coffee shops in Nanjing) which we don’t really get back in Henan. The metro system in Nanjing was also very organized, easy to follow, and cheap.
If you find yourself in Nanjing someday, there is one thing that I would highly recommend seeing… The Nanjing Massacre Museum. 300,000 Chinese people were massacred by the Japanese over the course of 6 weeks during the Japanese-Chinese conflict leading into WW2. The atmosphere in the museum is comparable to visiting one of the concentration camps in Germany or Poland … somber, sad, but worthwhile to see.
We missed our first train out of Nanjing because it was sold out, so we ended up waiting at the train station for an extra hour and hung out at McDonalds.
Our train turned out to be super fast (300km/hr) and our seats were much better than the previous experience. Within 2 hours we arrived at a popular city called Hangzhou and within 2 minutes of walking into the hostel we felt back at home. There was a certain liveliness and enthusiasm that we had missed in Nanjing. Hangzhou is an extremely international city (if you are a foreigner you can get free drinks at most of the clubs), the surrounding scenery is amazing, and it is well worth going out of the way to see.
Hangzhou is mostly known for West Lake … a huge lake with tons of boating tours, an island, thousands of little bridges, a prominent Pagoda, and a tourist-packed city center off the northeastern edge of the lake. We walked around a good portion of the lake from our hostel and enjoyed the scenery quite a bit. The smells, sites, and sounds were unique to China and intriguing as always.
We also spent a couple of hours biking in the mountains south of West Lake and we saw traditional tea fields and quaint little villages; resembling something you might discover in the Swiss or Austrian Alps.
There are bike rentals all over the city and they are the best way to cover ground and discover what Hangzhou has to offer.
We strolled through some of the shopping centers, felt at ease in town and mingled with other foreigners over free drinks at the clubs. Hangzhou turned out to be a mini turning point for us in our first week of traveling …. We entered Hangzhou disgruntled and eager to feel the excitement of travel; and left with enthusiasm and re-kindled spirits to discover what would come next.