Ni hao from China!
Finally! Nearly two months after first arriving in Hong Kong, I’ve made my way the few miles across the border to the mainland. And, as expected, it’s worlds different. It is amazing how palpable the differences are with just a short walk across the border. Immediately things seemed exponentially more difficult – the language barrier was higher, the processes less clear and I think it was even a little hotter. But this week would not only be the week that I entered China, it would be the week that I would see my dad for the first time in just over a year.
The border crossing is quite simple and accessible. From Hong Kong, you can take the metro straight to the border and walk across, hopping on the metro or even the high speed train in Shenzhen. Basically one massive transportation station, serving two “countries,” with a little border in between. It is home to the an overwhelming chunk of the largest annual human migration, so it’s well-equipped to handle the regular daily traffic of commuters and tourists. Shenzhen is the border town, and aside from that, mainly a large city with lots of shopping, so I cleared out of there without haste. Within an hour of being in China I would be on the famous speed rail. And in less than two hours and for about $20, I was 141 km away in Guangzhou.
Guangzhou was pretty uneventful and a large city. Fun fact, China is home to 61 > 1 million population cities (compared to 13 in the US). After exploring Guangzhou, I headed on to Guilin, famous for the Li River and the sharp karst formations. It was rainy and I was quite sick, but I still got out to explore. Elephant Trunk hill is the iconic image, and you can see why. Unfortunately, when you picture this place, you might think of beautiful, serene nature.
But one thing that I was told to expect in China was how much of a “tourist destination” many spots like this have been made into. To get anywhere that you can see the hill, you have to pay an entry fee to the area, in which people will be hawking boat rides, costumes to wear for photos, photo opps with leashed birds and anything else that sells. It was my first time taking in the beauty of China’s landscapes in this fashion, but certainly wouldn’t be the last.
From Guilin, I flew to Shanghai. I opted on the 2 hour flight that was actually cheaper than the 14 hour train – not a hard choice. Of everywhere in China, I was most excited to get to Shanghai because that’s where I would be meeting my dad (!!!!!!). I always keep an eye on Secret Flying for flights leaving the States, and there was a smoking $350 round trip flight, which he jumped right on. I was over the moon ecstatic to see my dad, and to have a courier bringing me the important things from home, like stick deodorant and Girl Scout cookies.
Both of our flights in were delayed, so we met up, we teared up and got out of the airport, headed to the hotel at about 2:00 am. After a nice sleep in and a quick hotel change, it was time to explore. It is amazing how similar our instincts were when it came to getting a feel for the city and finding food. We spent the first day walking around, catching up, laughing, snacking and taking in the city. Shanghai is surprisingly void of foreigners, so we stood and really only ate at places we could point to pictures. It would be hard to say what we ate anywhere, but it was all delicious.
The next day was a trip to Hangzhou to West Lake. A quick speed train and metro, and we were at the massive, slightly touristy, lake away from the city. It was a beautiful place to again walk around, take in the scenery, find some snacks and get a little lost. The area is large and I can see how someone could get lost and remain unnoticed for days. Tired, we hopped in a cab to get us back through the traffic to the other side of the lake. Despite agreeing on a price before getting in, the cab driver tried to multiply that price by 10. But, we were getting out of the cab after he t-boned another vehicle, smashing my face into the plexiglass, so no one was in the mood for arguing and he can be mad at me that we paid less than he was hoping.
On the move again, the next day we headed out to Zhouzhuang, the closest and most famous water village from Shanghai. Dad kept reveling in how similar Shanghai was to Venice, in the way that an intricate river system infiltrates and feeds the city. It is a beautiful village and was nice to explore, but a bit overwhelming in terms of number of visitors. While we were waiting for our return bus, though, we watched locals spend their Sunday afternoon playing croquet, laughing together, or yelling when they think they’ve found a cheat.
Back in Shanghai, we headed out to the Bund – an area that everyone said is a can’t miss. And it’s easy to see why. It offers an incredible view of the modern skyline, just across the water from a street filled with centuries-old buildings. With this architecture, you could have convinced me we were in Europe, rather than China.
We finished the week with an obligatory visit for dad to the Shanghai Harley Davidson, and a quick trip to the fabric market for me to drop off an item I needed tailored (for a whole $5). We did a bit more wandering, both trying not to acknowledge the waning hours before dad would head to the airport, and back home.
Shanghai and the surrounding day-trip areas were wonderful, but the best part of the week (month and year) was being able to explore those with dad. The timing was perfect, right as I near my anniversary of leaving the country, and having felt a bit lonely being on the other side of the world (and clock) from most of my friends and family.
I love traveling solo and am happy to do it, but no one can complain about a week in China with dad.