The great thing about travelling is that you never really know what you are going to get until you get there. You can read books, watch movies and talk to others, but you don’t really know what it will be like until you are there. In that way, it is a bit like having kids. I guess that makes it a double whammy when you travel with kids.
We have been pretty slow with our blog posts, but we are trying to change this now. We are saving most of the good stuff for the kids as part of their schooling, so I’ve been thinking, “what is left for me?” I had thought of taking a more philosophical approach (this won’t be a surprise to those who know me). I started a couple of posts like this, but they quickly become long and very heavy. Not really suitable for our family blog and made me seem far too serious.
So I’ve decided to take a different approach. I’m going to do a retrospective on each country we have visited. I’m not going talk about everything… just the areas that jumped out to me. This might help others plan their trips to these countries or might just provide a glimpse into my twisted preferences.
Well… let’s get started… this post is going to be on China.
A month ago we finished our trip to China. Dates, times and activities are all included in the itinerary post that has already been posted (see Our China Itinerary). It ended up being exactly six weeks. We probably could have shaved a week off and visited the same places, but we were learning to travel as a family. And trust me when I say, there has been lots to learn.
Unfortunately, we had to skip the entire east and south coast of China because it just didn’t fit. We wanted to see more of the remote areas to see China’s diversity. This meant sacrificing a big part of the Chinese heartland. We didn’t even go to the Yangtze river (shhh! don’t tell anyone).
That said, we did end up seeing the diversity that we were looking for. From Beijing to the Tibetian areas of Yunnan and from riverside Buddhist grottoes near Datong to mountain top Shaolin temples in Wudangshan. We saw different geographies, cultures and people. The Chinese government likes to portray China as a single unified people, but there is far more complexity underneath.
My highlights are listed below. There were other things that I liked (Great Wall, Forbidden City, Pingyao walled city, etc), so these are the top picks.
The Hanging Monastery near Datong is not very big, but it is very impressive. I’m not sure what possessed someone to stick a monastery to the side of a cliff in the middle of a canyon, but the result is pretty cool. I’m sure it had something to do with it being a beautiful and peaceful place where few others would go. They sure like isolation for temple sites in China.
The pictures really don’t do this place justice. The monastery really looks like to shouldn’t be able to stay where it is for 100 years, let along 1600 years. The construction is a hodgepodge of design and materials, and yet it all seems to fit together. It was definitely built as a labour of love.
I can also imagine that in the off-season when the tourists are gone and the highway nearby is quite, it would be a magical place to be. Although, I imagine that the winter winds must whistle through the canyon and extract every once of warmth you might have.
I loved the Muslim Quarter of Xi’an. China can seem culturally monotonous. There is a lot of sameness for many of the large Chinese cities we visited. The Muslim Quarter in Xi’an was a welcome splash of colour and diversity.
I will admit that the Muslim Quarter has a very touristy side to it. There is not much you can do about that in Asia. That said, there is a lot of character in the area. It was nice to just walk up and down the streets nibbling on your sesame brittle, looking for the next place to eat.
Also the people were so much more colourful than the typical conservative Chinese. We had a great time with the owner of one restaurant even thought neither of us could speak the other’s language.
Good food, good shopping and good people!
Shangri-La is another town in China that gets slammed for being too touristy. Once again, there is not much you can do about that in China. If you find a place that is good, a good portion of a billion people want a piece of it too.
For us Shangri-La was a triple Tibetan whammy. It had the old town with all its shops and customs, the Sumtsenling Monastery with its Tibetan flair and the Nixi Village with a real window in Tibetan village life. It was also at 3400m, so you could experience a little of the Tibetan thin air.
Now I know that Shangri-La is not Tibet, but it does have a high percentage of Tibetan people living there (having been taken from Tibet by the Chinese many year before they took Tibet). It is also a lot easier to visit than Tibet and a little lower in altitude.
Finally, I really enjoyed bamboo rafting on the Yulong River. This was a great way to see the countryside in Yangshuo away from all the crowds. We just floated down the river with our feet in the water looking at the meadows and Karst mountains. And every now and then we had a little excitement as we rode our rafts over waterfalls. If you are in the area, this is a must do.