I am now in a lovely little town called Pingyao, which is halfway between Xian and Beijing. It is a Ming dynasty walled city that is the best preserved of its age in China and is really wonderful to go exploring all the tiny narrow alleys that take you past ancient buildings and courtyards with locals sitting in playing mah jong, dominos or cards. I am staying in a hostel that is the former Ming Governers residence and has a central courtyard, rooms with wooden floors, red lanterns and paper screens seperating sections within the rooms. I met some guys on the bus here who are phD students in Taiwan and have enjoyed spending time chatting to them.
Since reluctantly leaving Hong Kong, I have got back into travelling mode and am enjoying China even more than when I was on my tour. I initially caught a train to the Cantonese capital of Guangzhou and spent a few days there. I stayed on the lovely Shamian Island area, which is an old French and British trade concession area and is a quiet area of the city with wide tree lined roads and large park area. It was a little oasis in the Pearl River and felt a long way from the rest of the frenetic city. Also, it was a great place to enjoy the fantastic Cantonese food that the city is famous for. It was nice to meet some other people travelling around China and share experiences of where we had been etc. and is one of the bonuses of staying in hostels.
I explored the sights there including some great parks full of people practising martial arts, temples, a stunning orchid garden with traditional tea houses next to carp filled ponds, museums and art galleries. I also visited Qinping market what is meant to be the most notorious markets in China. Indeed it was full of pretty strange looking things such as sackfulls of dried seahorses, decapitated and stuffed deer heads, snakes and various other things which I could not even hazard a guess at their origin!
I then caught my first sleeper train up to Shanghai. I opted for a cheap 'hard sleeper' and came to the conclusion that the name is an accurate description of the quality of your nights sleep rather than a description of the mattress! I really don't understand why the Chinese insist on chain smoking in confined spaces - it is not good at all. However, my ear plugs could (just about) drown out the chatting/shouting, hawking and spitting and tinny pop music played from mobile phones.
I had thought it was pretty hot in the rest of China, but Shanghai in August was a completely different kettle of fish. It was well over forty degrees and humid with very little breeze due to the amount of skyscrapers. Despite not usually being a morning person I found that getting up and out by 8am was the best option to be able to cope with walking anywhere.
I stayed in a hostel close to the famous Bund area, which is the waterfront area next to the Yangtze River and is lined by old European style buildings from the former trading companies. However, the opposite side of the river is the new Pudong area which in direct contrast has space age soaring skyscrapers. I went to the top of the tripod Pearl Tower with its spherical viewpoints and came to the realisation that it was a fairly ugly city from that height.
Despite enjoying meeting people in the hostel, I was also reminded of the downside due to lack of sleep from some exceptionally loud snorers in my dorm who could make the bunks and windows rattle with their breathing.
Each day I tried to visit places that involved walking first thing in the morning and then took refuge in the various museums and art galleries during the searing midday heat. The area I liked most was the old French Concession with its wide tree lined roads, parks and cafes next to markets and art galleries. However, for a real break from the city it was lovely to sit in the Ming designed Yuyuan Gardens with rockeries, bamboo, pavillions and sweet smelling flowers. Alternatively, getting lost wandering around the old town with its temples, antique markets selling everything from bound shoes to Mao badges and houses full of drying washing felt like a long way from the skyscrapers.
I also visited one of the nearby canal villages called Tongling. This was a pretty area with locals punting people around on tiny boats through the numerous arched bridges and past historical homes that have been well preserved. The village also interesting has a History of Chinese Sex Museum containing some pretty amusing statues in the courtyard.
I then took a train to the gorgeous West Lake in Hangzhou, which is an 8th century creation from a marshland that is full of gardens, causeways to take a stroll along, pagodas surrounding it and some islands in the middle. I was staying in a fantastic hostel which in Chinese is called 'Living in the Lake' but in English was the Garden Hostel. It was in a great old wooden building with a courtyard and balconeys that we sat in and enjoyed chatting to the other guests.
The Lake has the most enormous water lillies that I have ever seen and the pads are the size of dustbin lids. Some of them come high out of the water and blow in the breeze that comes across the lake. It was a really pleasant and relaxing place to spend a few days and I got to spend some time with some Chinese people on their holidays or read and walk next to the lake.
I then caught a bus to Huang Shan, which is meant to be the most beautiful mountain in China. Indeed it was stunning with its numerous limestone peaks swathed in swirling mist along with dense green forests. I had met a German guy on the bus there and we ended up hanging out for a few days there. We had amazing weather the day we arrived and the day we left, but on the day we climbed the steep steps up to the summit it changed completely. We started with a little mist, which gradually became thick fog and turned into a gale force rainstorm. Therefore, the views we had hoped for on the summit were non-existant. However, at least the cable car brought us down to better weather and we got to appreciate an incredible sunrise the following morning with a vivid orange sky and clouds next to the craggy peaks.
I had a long bus journey to the Yangtze River city of Wuhan, which I just used as a stopover due to it being fairly uninteresting and even hotter than Shanghai. Instead I just chilled out in my hostel with some of the other people and enjoyed some good food and a bit of relaxation after my mountain climbing.
I then travelled to a city called Zhengzhou and after some considerable difficulty finding somewhere to stay I ended up having to spend a night in an expensive hotel. It was good to have my own room for a change, but the downside of Chinese hotels are the phone calls at 1am asking if you would like a 'full massage'. The city itself was very modern and I just walked around and visited a museum and the old city walls that turned out to be mounds of mud!
I then went to the city of Luoyang, which despite being an ancient capital was pretty polluted and not that interesting. However, I had gone there to use it as a base to visit the Shaolin Temple and the Longmen Caves. The caves look like a honeycomb in the side of a cliff next to a river and are the first Buddhist statues in China. It takes a few hours to get around them and some of the statues are stunning. However, a number were defaced during the Cultural Revolution, so have great detail on their bodies, but then smashed faces.
I really enjoyed visiting the Shaolin temple as I had met some Koreans and Chinese people in my hostel and we all went there together. When you first arrive you are greeted with the sight of thousands of students out practising in the fields. It looks like a kung fu army training camp with classes as far as the eye can see with classes in sword play, num chucks, kite swirling, boxing and acrobatics as well as fighting.
There was a demonstration by some of the monks dressed in bright orange, blue,yellow and white costumes. They were on a high stage above murals of fighting monks and flew across the stage showing us their acrobatic fighting skills. Later, we went to the indoor theatre to watch some of the masters being put through their paces by breaking iron bars over their heads, punching nails into glass without breaking it and doing various contortions with their bodies.
The actual original temple looked similar to many of the other Buddhist temples I have seen here. However, there were some significant differences such as the old frescoes of fighting monks and my favourite part was an old practising hall where over the years the monks had caused indentations in the stone floor from their punches and kicks.
I then left Luoyang on another long bus journey to come to Pingyao and will be leaving here for the city of Datong.