Ni hao from China!
Dad went back home and I was alone again, and without a plan. I wanted to head to the middle of the country, but also wanted to get to Beijing, where I would apply for a second passport. US citizens can apply for a second passport under specific circumstances, and given how long I was “stuck” in Hong Kong waiting for visas, I knew I wanted one. Having a second passport will allow me to leave one with or send one to an embassy for visas, while still traveling on the other one. BUT, the processing time is 10 business days and there is no way to rush it.
So I decided to get up to Beijing to the embassy to get my application (and the processing time) started, and then explore from there, returning for the passport and to head to Mongolia. This proved to be unnecessary both because the passport was processed and arrived in Beijing shockingly quickly, and because I’d end up spending more time than planned in Beijing when I got back. Oh well, I can’t be upset that the passport arrived too quickly or the process was too efficient.
After the application, I headed straight out with an itinerary of Beijing > Zhangye > Chengdu > Xi’an > Beijing. It would be over 60 hours of trains in less than a week, but also the most cost-effective way to get to the things I wanted to see in China the most: the Rainbow Mountains (Zhangye), pandas and spicy food (Sichuan) and the Terra Cotta Army (Xi’an).
A note on Chinese trains: there are fast ones and slow ones. The beds are moderately comfortable, there is enough space to keep yourself from going crazy, there is no Wi-Fi but there are outlets and there are no foreigners. I did get a SIM card before getting on a 29 and 24-hour train each, knowing that I’d at least want a little connection. Kids were excited to practice saying “hello” and “bye bye,” running up and down the carriage to wave.
The Rainbow Mountains are the focus of pictures that have gone around the internet, leaving travelers wondering if they’re real, or mostly Photoshopped. Knowing China’s tendency to create fakes, I was skeptical, but wanted to believe. As I pulled in to Zhangye, that changed to worry, as snow fell and snow covered the nearby mountains. “Have I come ALL this way to see mountains that are covered in SNOW??!?!?! How could I not have checked?!” I wouldn’t know until the next day, and was getting more and more mad at myself the more I looked at the snow. Even on the bus ride there in the morning, all of the mountains to the side are snow-capped. But somehow, as you approach the geo park, all of the sudden the snow is gone.
The Zhangye Geological Park is a UNESCO site and well-protected. For good reason. The park is breath-taking. I felt the same as the first visit to the Grand Canyon. Empty of tourists (and empty of smoking!), but full of views. The colors and layers come from a magical combination of wind and rain and sandstone and tectonic shifts. And at this point, I’ll just let the pictures speak for themselves.
A definite departure from the concrete and skyscrapers I had expected, and confirmation that the Rainbow Mountains are in fact very, very real.
Next up will be Sichuan – home to spicy Chinese food and PANDAS.
Preparing for a trip to China? Don’t miss the 10 Things You Need to Know Before Visiting China, with tips and video.