Slow travelling vrs. fast travelling

Before I started travelling, I was reasonably worried I wouldn’t like it. The only other time I’d really been travelling on my own, when I was 18 and travelled through Croatia and Albania for two weeks, I really hadn’t enjoyed it. I had been borderline terrified the whole time, although of course I wouldn’t have admitted it to myself at the time. The bit I enjoyed the most was getting lost in a book on the long bus journeys…not perhaps a good sign.

I was older and wiser now, having spent a decent chunk of my adult life abroad, so much better equipped to deal with myself. Still, the only previous time I’d spent a large chunk of time far away from home, when I spent 3 months in New York, I’d been frankly surprised at how much I’d enjoyed it, and even then I’d been fairly homesick and hoping time would go faster by about half-way through. So in many way expecting to enjoy long term travelling was fairly outrageous, and yet I did. I genuinely enjoyed myself. I spent 6 months far away from any ‘home’ and yet had some of the most heart warming and clearly ‘belonging’ experiences of my life.

IMG-20180510-WA0007.jpg
Look at these lovely people! Met volunteering in Tamil Nadu šŸ˜Š

I think the key to my success is I spent the majority of my time in India slow travelling, I spent at least a week and often longer in each place, rather than ‘fast travelling’ as I attempted to do in China, where I moved every couple of days. When I planned the first part of my travels I had the dangers of not enjoying it clearly in mind, so I planned to spend the whole first month with a built in community and purpose on my 200h yoga teacher training course. It worked brilliantly and I made life long friends on the course who I could also travel and meet up with for the rest of my time in India. I kind of let the rest of India ‘happen’ without too much planning and so the slow pace continued.

Somehow though, the joy of travelling in India lulled me into a false sense of security so I’d lost my (valid) fear of not enjoying travelling by the time it came to planning China. Also, I think the time pressure of a 30 day max stay visa (dual entry) and also the pressure of trying to ‘understand China’ which is so much less visited by Westerners, encouraged me to try and see more. To my downfall. Now, I had some lovely times travelling Yunnan and Sichuan, but they were surrounded by plenty of feeling out of place, lonely and homesick times and segwayed by some stressed, confused and worried times.

DSC_2424

Ultimately, I don’t really get the point of fast travelling. The benefits of slow travelling have been clearly laid out of me:

  1. You get to meet amazing people who share your values and you can support each other in living the kind of life they want
  2. You get to learn amazing things from amazing people about concepts and practices that might not be common where you come from
  3. You get to question what is ‘normal’ by experiencing other ‘normals’ that are different from yours.

But you don’t really get any of that from fast travelling. You move too fast to make good friends and form a community, you’re not there for long enough to really learn something, and your already gone before the weird things you come up against seem normal. Fast travelling, it seems to me, you see more, but you experience less. It makes for better Instagram posts, but less learning. You get more of the less fun bits (long bus journeys and arriving in a new place which no idea where to stay or eat) of travelling, and less of the good bits. Frankly, anywhere that you don’t want to spend longer than a few days…why go at all?

This was clearly something I already half knew, hence why I got it so right in India, yet something I did forget when planning my China trip, which I one of the reasons I’m writing this, so I can hopefully reassure any budding slow travelling that their choices are valid and give them strength to resist the lure of fast travelling!!

Advertisements

When is it time to go home?

I breezed through 6 months in India and a week in Hong Kong without a thought in the world of going home. That’s not quite true, I set off on this trip knowing I’d come back within 11 months of setting off – I didn’t want to miss Christmas at home. I also knew I wanted to come back home and settle down, I just needed the time and space to think about what I wanted to do with my life first.

DSC_0113.jpg
The carefree life in my first stop: Kovalam, Kerala, India

So it was always on the horizon, but until my last day in China, it was in the distant future, something to long term plan for, but not something to contemplate in the here and now. My month travelling China was hard, I was lonely and struggled with the transportation and food. I’m not really built for fast travelling, moving every few days, and after an adult life including not inconsiderable portions of loneliness, I’m ready to be surrounded by people I love on a fairly constant basis. So, China was hard, but I was still up for travel in general after a month of it, just in places that had English menus and speakers.

On the last day in China though, I started to feel I might have done what I set out to do, and that changed things. I’d had the chance to think about what I wanted, I’d had the space to dream and I’d kinda decided what I wanted to do. I’d also learnt more than enough yoga to keep me occupied in my personal practice for the next few years. If those we my primary aims of travelling, decided what I wanted to do and learning tools to help me do it, I’d done them! What then, what the value it carrying on travelling?

A picture of Chips, mayo and ketchup
Fully immersing myself in the Chinese culture in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan

Then a week later, after my two day Buddhist temple retreat in Korea, some of the details began to solidify and I became even more sure. Just before I’d gone, I’d re-googled the masters program I was thinking about and found the details really fit into the rest of my plans. Those seedlings began to populate my mind whilst meditating by the sea, and when I got back all I wanted to do was phone my friends and family and let them know my plans.

44930014

A wise friend cooled my ardour and advised me not to make a decision before I had to. How I feel now is a product of this specific context and after my Tai Chi and meditation course, two things I definitely wanted to do before I left, it’ll be a very different context and I might feel differently. Fair enough. But she also gave me a tip – the masters I want to do is in Healthcare Design and for it I need a job in healthcare to give me frontline experience. But I’m not qualified in anything healthcare related – how can I get a job? Easily it turns out, there are lots of unqualified ‘Healthcare Assistant’ jobs out there which prompted hours of scrolling though potential jobs dreaming of helping adults with learning disabilities live their daily life or assisting on a mental heath ward. Each new thing I learnt helped to flesh out my idea of my plans for the future and my excitement was palpable.

That’s what really changed my mind. The idea of going back home and starting to persue my dreams became more exciting than travelling more, even though that would be doing amazing things like hiking the Annapurna trek…I started to feel like it’s just a long hike. Back home I get I set up my daily yoga and meditation practice and see what it’s really like to do that day in day out, it allows me to start finding clients and seeing what the yoga teaching scene is like back home, it allows me to start getting settled in my new home and it allows me to start getting experience in healthcare and perusing what I think could be an awesome career for me. All from the comfort of where I grew up, surrounded by family and friends and home cooked food. What more could you ask for?

I thought when I left I wanted to settle down, and travelling has confirmed my belief. When I was young the only things I wanted to do was get as far away from what I knew as possible, going first to London, then Eindhoven in the Netherlands, and then New York. After graduation the thought of living in the country I grew up in wasn’t so abhorrent and so I moved back to London, but still thought of almost anywhere else in England as a barren wasteland. But now it’s time to go back to Cheshire. I actually think of it as bursting with possibility and opportunity now, which just goes to show how much more important your mindset is than objective reality as I assume the North West of England hasn’t fundamentally changed in th last 5 years or so.

DSC_3219
Indulging in the not so traditional Korean food of Seoul: a mushroom burger

How much travel is right is different for each person. Some people never hunger for it, others never get sated by it. But for me, I did hunger, but now I am full. I’m half way through dessert, and might just have some room for a few chocolates and a decaf coffee, but then I’m done. I’d rather save the rest of my travelling (I’m thinking of going back 2 months earlier than the longest I’ve thought of staying out) for when I really need it, and will really relish it.

Two Weeks in a Tai Chi school in China: discipline, commitment and support

I signed up for the Tai Chi and Meditation course at Maling Shaolin Academy on a bit of an impulse. In retrospect, I didn’t do a whole lot of research about it. Don’t worry, I enjoyed it immensely, but it wasn’t quite what I imagined.

Firstly, Tai Chi is a martial art. I know, seems obvious right? I’d actually never done Tai Chi before, but I had done Qi Gong a few times, mainly with the lovely No Mi and Dawa from Wobbly Spoon who I met in Dharamsala in India. I thought, in my total innocence, that Tai Chi was a bit similar. However, Tai Chi is a martial art, Qi Gong isn’t. Tai Chi is about fighting people, Qi Gong isn’t. Qi Gong is actually more comparable to yoga – not in the moves at all, but in that it’s purely about moving energy around the body to improve your health and wellbeing. Tai Chi also very much does that, but you can also use it to throw someone to the floor.

mmexport1537171501041
Me and my fantastic teacher, Master Ning

Now, it might be worth mentioning what type of Tai Chi I was doing, as different styles can have very different approaches. The wonderful Master Ning at Maling Shaolin Kung Fu school taught Chen style Tai Chi, and while I was there we were learning the 18 basic steps. As I understand it, it’s a more external style focused on the applications in fighting than the more popular Yang style, which is probably what you have an image of in your head if you think of Tai Chi.

Secondly, it’s mainly a Kung Fu school. There are only about 20 students (I arrived at the end of the busy summer period) and most follow the Kung Fu schedule, which includes lots of fun stuff like jumps and rolls, conditioning (hitting yourself over the head to make yourself tougher) and power training, as well as three lessons a week of Kung Fu forms. The three of us who were doing Tai Chi while I was there joined everyone else for warming up, Qi Gong and power stretching, but the rest of the seasons (12) were all learning the Tai Chi form, aswell as 5 morning session which also worked on the same form. Absolutely perfect if you want to work on your Tai Chi, but you can feel a bit left out when everyone else is talking about the rewarding pain they felt hugging a tree in power training.

Once I realised what I’d got myself in for though, I was still really glad I came and got a lot out of it.

mmexport1536810126515
A spot on Qi Gong in the wheat fields

Firstly, I loved the schedule. God, how I love a good schedule. I loved the yoga teaching training for that, my time in the Ashram and okay I could have done with a bit more free time in Sadhana forest but…schedules are awesome. For the two weeks I was here, I woke up at 5:30am to meditate for half an hour, then went straight to the mornings Tai Chi lessons. Then it was breakfast and time for about an hour of chilling. This is what I love about a good schedule – the time in between. Time to read a bit, to relax, to do some admin, to sleep, just in the middle of the day. Bliss.

mmexport1536804377552

Then we all went for a 2km run to warm up and I went to Tai Chi while (almost) everyone else went to do Kung Fu. We did an hour training, then another half hour blissful rest, then another hour training. By lunch time you’ve already done most of the days work, a great feeling. After lunch we do another 2km run (or a 4km one on Thursday and a 10km one on Friday) and another hour of training. Then your free! There are optional classes in other marital arts styles Monday and Tuesday, but I took the chance to do my yoga practice – another awesome thing about being here was I had the time and space to do yoga after a 2 month break of hiking and travelling where I was hard to have any sort of routine. Which brings me to my next point…

Everyone here was really committed and motivated so it was the perfect atmosphere to physically train yourself. In the evenings, everyone was practicing their Kung Fu forms so it felt totally natural to do some extra training, even though I chose yoga myself. People are really here to improve them self, get fitter and be more in control of their own power so it really helps you on that journey too. Thank you guys!

dsc_3251
A chance to do some yoga on the roof top!

Another good thing, the actual Tai Chi! I found learning the forms very challenging and demanding, it’s a whole new language for your body to learn so it can feel completely unnatural and you have to wrap you brain around a lot of new things. Have you ever though how the power from you feet travels up you leg, and turns you hip in order to generate power in your fingers? No, me neither, until someone made me do it in a Tai Chi class. Your hip, arms, fingers, back and facial expressions all have to be doing the right thing and it takes time to learn it. The super super cool thing though is once you’ve learnt it, even just a little bit of it, you can start to visualise how the energy is passing through you, you can feel the energy sinking down to you feet or staying in your dantian (an area below your navel).

I’m just scratching the surface but this seems to be something that the Chinese traditions have a lot more of than yoga, really directly working with your energy/life force, which they call chi. People seem to worry about the exact translation and meaning of chi, but it seems very similar to the concept of prana in yogic philosophy. I imagine is as a flowing substance in my body, and I’m totally willing to believe it’s the same force that creates trees and tarmac. There are a lot of clearly awesome things in Daoist philosophy, I dug into it a little more reading the first half of ‘Decoding the Dao’ by Tom Bisio while I was here.

mmexport1537171476374
Tai Chi Comrades šŸ™Œ

These two weeks got me thinking out of my comfort zone. Naturally, I’m more of a ‘Yin’ person when I comes to exercise, I find it hard to push myself that much, I tend to being slow and careful and my yoga practice is very meditative. But being surrounded by the hard Yang of martial arts is pushing through that, which I think is very balancing. I’ve thought previously I need a strong Yang practice if I’m going to develop my Yin yoga practice – too much Yin isn’t safe without the Yang to support it. Physically, if your connective tissue get too loose by stretching it out and you don’t have the strength in your muscles to support your flexibility, you open yourself up to injury. This experience has given me a good idea of what a good Yang practice could look like – the 2km run is definitely something I’d like to incorporate in my own practice, as is the stretching to help us do the splits, and I already know I’m going to look into doing some sort of ‘power training’ when I get back home to build my strength. My actual thoughts while being here was, this is amazing, the focus on improving yourself, the simplicity of the schedule, the support of your Kung Fu brothers and sisters, but I’m not sure martial arts is the skill I want to train, what I’d really love is to be better at ariel arts like hoop or pole…watch this space!

mmexport1536918531674

Last but certainly not least, the people here were warm and friendly right from the beginning, all on their own fascinating journeys, and it was a pleasure to be able to get to know a few of them in my short time here. It certainly cured me of the ‘where are all my fellow intrepid travellers?’ syndrome I’d felt in much of the rest of my travel around China. They’re all here, learning Kung Fu. If you’ve ever wanted to learn martial arts, I’d definitely recommend joining them. Two weeks is about the shortest time you can stay, most people stay here at least a month and often up to 6 months or a year. The longest staying person the right now has been there for 2.5 years!

mmexport1537272076502

 

Hiking Tiger Leaping Gorge Solo: beautiful views, easy trails and people to talk to!

Hiking Tiger Leaping Gorge was always on my travel agenda for Yunnan and it definitely lived up to expectations. It was a clear highlight of the trip for two reasons:

  1. It’s a beautiful hike
  2. I met lots of lovely English speakers so it was also the most sociable part of my trip

However, arriving at Jane’s Guesthouse, the starting point of the hike, on an unsuspecting Sunday afternoon to find the entire place empty of fellow hikers produced a trickle of fear in my heart. I’d been hoping and expecting I’d find loads of other solo hikers here who could join me on my trek. I’d never been hiking alone, was is safe? Was I crazy fool hardy to attempt it?

DSC_2796

I immediately began searching on the internet to see if other people, especially women, had hiked the trail alone and didn’t really find any, although I found a great blog post written by a couple. To my great relief, more hikers did trickle in later in the day, a friendly French couple and two guys from England. Both sets of two people I noticed, but they gave me the chance to talk a bit about the trail and calm my nerves.

The real bonus came when an American couple who’d just finished the trail turned up to pick up their bags and we got the chance to talk. Hearing about the trail first hand from them completely reassure me I was doing a reasonable thing. Here is a list of the reassuring things the American couple said, slightly embellished by my own subsequent experience of hiking of the trail. Hopefully it will reassure you in turn it’s a great thing to do!

  1. The most important one is that there are lots of people on the trail. My main fear about hiking alone is I break and ankle and have to drag myself 5km to get help. That just wouldn’t happen here, there were lots of people on the trail, maybe 20 or so a day while I was there in mid-August 2018 and also there are locals hanging about, tending sheep or shops along the way so you’d be quickly found.
  2. Secondly, there are good signs for the trail so it’s hard to get lost. I used maps.me to double check I was on the right path if I couldn’t see a sign – more often than not is be half way through checking it and I’d see the next sign but it was still useful a few times.DSC_2653
  3. Thirdly, sorting out baggage and getting onward buses to Shangri-la or Lijiang is super easy. You can leave your baggage at Jane’s Guesthouse and then get a bus that sets off from Tina’s and stops enroute at Jane’s for five minutes so you can pick up your baggage. Very convenient!
  4. Next, I actually had no idea of how food works on the trail. Do we need to get a packed lunch from the guesthouse? Buy our own lunch from the shop? It turns out though that the guesthouses are close enough together, and they all serve food restaurant-style to order, so you can just stop at a guesthouse for lunch. Easy!
  5. Importantly, they met lots of nice people on their trek and they all ate togethe. Exactly what I was loving for, and also what I go on my trek.
  6. On some blogs people say the men offering donkey rides are quite pushy but, like many others, I didn’t find them to be pushy at all, I just said no and walked off, easy peasy. I felt totally safe the whole time.
  7. Lastly, the guidebooks bang on about how hard the 28 bends are, but the bit leading up to them is just as hard, and many say harder, perhaps because it’s a less developed track. They actually ascend the same amount so, if you find the first bit hard, fear not, it’s not going to get any harder, just continue on about the same (it’s a much easier walk after the 28 bends).

So, with all these reassuring things in my pocket, I set off the following morning shortly after the English guys. The French couple had jetted off before breakfast because they only had one day to do the hike, which seems crazy to me but lots of people do it. It’s a challenging one day or easy two day hike from Jane’s to Tina’s, and there is plenty more hiking to do for three days. I took three days and I think the area totally warrants the time spent there.

sketch-1534145228109

My route through Tiger Leaping Gorge

From Jane’s Guesthouse I hiked 2.5h (6km) to the Naxi Family Guesthouse for a quick snack, then another 3h (6km) to the Teahorse Guesthouse where I had a lateish lunch and ended up staying the night, it was too nice.

On the second day I hiked the easy 10km to Tina’s guesthouse in just under 4h for lunch, and then walked the quite steeply ascending 4km to Walnut Garden Youth Hostel via the road. Initially I’d not planned to go to Tina’s, there is a clear path the branches to the left 15 mins before you get the Tina’s that leads straight there, but there is nowhere else really to get food and I was hungry. Once I got to Tina’s some fellow hikers warned me off using the high trail saying it’s in less good repair than the rest of the path and could be dangerous. I have no idea how true that is, but it was enough to put me off. The road route is mainly along a tiny local rarely used road with great views of the gorgeĀ though so all good. Plus, I could book my bus ticket to Shangri-la for the next day at Tina’s.

DSC_2765

The third day, me and a lovely French lady I met at Walnut Garden hiked all the way down to the actual Yangtze River that made the gorge in 2.5 hours. It’s a tiny bit annoying because you have to pay entry to get down there, and if you did the route we did you have to pay twice but in the end it’s not much money so just cough up and be grateful you earn more than them (I’m assuming otherwise it’s unlikely you’d be travelling here!).

DSC_2746

It’s really worth it though, I throughly enjoyed the majesty and raw power of the Yangtze up close. Mesmerising. The only trouble is you do then have to hike back up and despite my now considerable experience hiking up mountains in Ladakh, I was slooooow and exhausted by the time I reached the top, it took me just over an hour and a half but other people were definitely faster!!

Once up at the top, I had a lovely bowl of noodles in a cafe just before you reach Tina’s (which I’d recommend, much more cosy than Tina’s) and jumped on the bus to Shangri-la. It wasn’t quite that simple a sign there was a landslide so we had to get a mini-bus and then clamber over the rocks to reach the bus…but by now we were a lovely group of people and so it wasn’t as daunting as it could have been!

DSC_2849

Travelling Alone in Western China: my itinerary, loneliness, infrastructure and food

In August 2018, I stepped over the boarder fromĀ Hong Kong to mainland China. I was anxious and didn’t know what to expect, but the initial arrival went very smoothly. As the month comes to an end and I sit in a Western cafe in Chengdu (the Bookworm), where I fly out tomorrow, how did I find the month? Would I recommend travelling this part of China alone? What would my advice be?

DSC_2600
Searching for a railway station in Jianshui that turned out to be 8km away…

Loneliness

The hardest thing about travelling solo in Western china for a month is there aren’t many English speakers here. Even when you find some, everyone is on the move so you’ll only have a few days together. Consequently, I found loneliness the hardest thing to deal with. No one to share my observations, worries and joys with.

It’s simply a problem I never had in 6 months of travelling India, I travelled slower and there much more English speakers so I was fairly constantly surrounded by lovely people. Coming out of that bubble was not what I wanted, and for me it pushed me to the edge of whether I was enjoying this period of travelling or not.

DSC_2562
Favourite food in Yunnan: rose cakes. Yum!

I realised the most important thing about travelling is the people you meet. It’s very clear, the bits of travelling I enjoyed the most were those I was with people I liked. Which is why, if I’m totally honest, I’d recommend travelling Western China with a friend or tour group. I met a couple of tour groups while travelling and they seemed full of nice people. Plenty of people who have travelled alone to other places choose tour groups in China it seems! Either that or travel slowly and do a course of volunteer, where again you’ll meet English speaking people – that’s my plan for when I go back to China in a week anyway, I’ll let you know how successful it is!

Good infrastructure

In many ways, getting around China was much easier than expected. Their subways, trains and buses run in much the same way as they do in Europe, and in all subways and train stations there are English signs and announcements so you know exactly what your doing. You can book your train tickets in English using trip.com, and do the whole things like a pro without speaking any Chinese. I felt completely safe the entire time I was there (okay, I had a tiny wobble when I was wandering around an unknown village after dark before finding my accommodation in Yuanyang…)

DSC_2339
High speed train in China

One challengingly thing is, hostels and guesthouses don’t always have clear signs. Either they’re only in Chinese, or they don’t exist at all. I had the most difficulties finding my accommodation in Shenzhen, Pugao in Yuanyang and Daocheng so size of town is no guide. The advice I’d give is if you think you might be in the right place, knock and ask anyway, you probably are and there just isn’t a sign.

Chinese food is a challenge

I surprised myself by getting to a stage where I couldn’t face noodles for breakfast after less than a week. In non-touristy towns, there isn’t any other option than Chinese food and it’s amazing how quickly you start fantasising about baked potato beans and cheese, if your anything like me anyway. You can get good Western food in Dali, Shangri-la, Kangding and Chengdu, and probably Shenzhen and Kunming I just wasn’t looking for it. But for the time in between I’d recommend carrying a bag of museli and/or snack bars so at least you can eat breakfast before wandering out into an unknown Chinese town. It’s not only the fact it’s Chinese food, it’s the fact there won’t be an English menu so you have to point at what you want, which is actually pretty successful you’re just not always in the mood for itĀ when your feeling a bit worn down and hungry.

DSC_2596

One super nice thing about China food-wise is you can always guarantee to have hot water on tap or a kettle nearby. The Chinese seemingly have a weird superstition about cold water, thinking it will make you ill, which is great for us tea lovers out there. So if you bring your favourite tea bags, instant soups, pot noodles and hot chocolate sachets, it’s easy to make yourself at home here.

Itinerary: 1 month in China

I found it hard trying to estimate how long things would take and what journey’s would be possible or not possible so here is a detailed itinerary which might help you plan your trip:

Day 1:Ā Hong Kong – Shenzhen

Day 2: Chill in Shenzhen

Day 3: Shenzhen – Kunming

Day 4: Chill in Kunming

Day 5:Ā KunmingĀ – Pugao (Yuanyang Rice Terraces)

Day 6 and 7: Chill in Pugao

Day 8: Pugao – Jianshui

Day 9: Chill in Jianshui

Day 10 and 11: Jianshui – Dali (night train to Lijiang, train to Dali)

Day 12 and 13: Chill in Dali

Day 14: DaliĀ – Jane’s Guesthouse (Tiger Leaping Gorge)

Day 15:Ā Jane’s Guesthouse – Teahorse GuesthouseĀ (Tiger Leaping Gorge)

Day 16:Ā Teahorse Guesthouse – Walnut Garden Youth HostelĀ (Tiger Leaping Gorge)

Day 17:Ā Tiger Leaping GorgeĀ – Shangri-la

Day 18: Chill inĀ Shangri-la

Day 19: Shangri-la – Daocheng

Day 20: Chill in Daocheng

Day 21: Daocheng – Yading Nature Reserve

Day 22: Yading Nature Reserve – Daocheng

Day 23: Daocheng – Kangding

Day 24 and 25: Chill in Kangding

Day 26: KangdingĀ – Chengdu

Day 27 and 28: Chill in Chengdu

Day 29: Chengdu to South Korea

How did the journey go?

The first part of the journey is a fairly well travelled route and went was fairly smoothly, you can read about my experience from Hong Kong to Shenzhen, and Kunming to Yuanyang Rice Terraces in previous blog posts. Shenzhen to Kunming was a dream, I took a high speed training and was thoroughly impressed. It took just 7h to do 1500km and arrived on time to the minute. There was hot water on tap and the views were stunning – I posted more pictures on my Instagram.

DSC_2326

In the middle of my trip I hiked Tiger Leaping Gorge, which warrants a whole blog post to itself.

After Tiger Leaping Gorge I went much more off the beaten track – most people just fly out of Shangri-la or Lijiang. I’ve written in more detail about my experience here.

Apps you need in China:

Trip.com – a great way to by train tickets in English. It’s really set up for use in China so you can just show a piece of Chinese text to the people behind the counter to collect your tickets.

Maps.me – a complete must have for travelling anywhere, maps.me is a bit limited in China because it doesn’t fully have Chinese characters. It’s still super useful though for finding your hostel or where the bus stop is. Use it with slight caution, the information is only about 90% right – it lead me astray in Jianshui, thinking that the train station was in town, when it’s 8km north of town. Its still incredibly useful to have a offline map you can bookmark and I t has lots of walking paths marked, so super useful for not get lost in Tiger Leaping Gorge.

Bidu maps – all in Chinese, and for some reason I couldn’t download it, but the most accurate map of China and you can copy paste your destination using Chinese characters.

Google translate – a must if you don’t speak mandarin! You need a VPN and wifi/data of course, but switch it to conversation mode and you can speak English into it and out will come (grammatically awful) Chinese, and visa versa.

Express VPN – or any other VPN of course but I found this worked the best in China.

Wechat – expect to make friends with lots of lovely Chinese people in restaurants and train stations. How else you you share selfies with people you barely know?

DSC_2516

XE currency – seems to be the best currency converter

Pleco – an off line Chinese to English dictionary, great for when you don’t have data to use google translate.

 

Shangri-la, Yunnan to Chengdu, Sichuan: a Chinese road trip by bus and mini-van

This area is changing very fast. The guidebooks are out of date and blog posts of only a few years ago are outrageous. All my journey times were 1-2 hours shorter than that of the Lonely Planet, and let me reassure you it’s not a grassland path from Daocheng to Litang as it was when this intrepid traveller did the journey only five year five ago!!! This all means the journey is much faster and easier than is was and will probably continue to gently improve over the next few years, although it’s pretty much all good fast roads at this point so my impression is the period of very fast change is over.

It was always my plan to do this journey over land, but while travelling it worried me a bit that I was signing myself up to so many super long bus rides, and as I was doing it at the end of my trip, I didn’t want to be stuck in the grasslands 1,000s of miles from Chengdu when I needed to leave the country to comply with my visa. However, faster journey times mean it’s only really three longish journeys and Yading Nature Reserve and Kangding are well worth the visit. Plus, this way is a brilliant way to acclimatise slowly from Shangri-la (3160m) to Daocheng (3750m) to Yading Village (3900m).

DSC_2933
Great food on the bus ride from Shangri-la to Daocheng

 

Journey Times and Transportation

Shangri-la to Daocheng: just over 8 hours (public bus, book one day in advance)

Daocheng to the entrance of Yading Nature Reserve: 1h 40 (shared mini van, organised my hostel)

Daocheng to Kangding: 10h 30 (shared mini van, just turn up outside the old bus station the morning you want to go)

Kangding to Chengdu: 5h 30 (public bus, ticket brought on the day)

Shangri-la to Daocheng

An easy bus ride including a great lunch! Buy the ticket from the bus station 3km north of the old town the day before. I got fairly sick towards the end, I think because of the altitude but it’s hard to be sure. When we arrived in Daocheng, half the bus got mini-vans straight to Yading Nature Reserve and so it would have been easy to jump in one of those (although a bit crazy I think because of the altitude!).

I actually failed to get a taxi the 2km into town, no one was interested! So I just walked, which was fine for me.

DSC_2945
Cycling to the hot springs in Daocheng

Off the beaten track enough to cause confusion!

There is very little English spoken in these parts so the moment you want to do anything off the beaten track, you can get in trouble with baffling and contradictory information being thrown your way. This happened to me twice in a month of travelling China.

The first time was actually before I got to Shangri-la when I wanted to go from Dali straight to Tiger Leaping Gorge, but it felt very similar.

Dali to Tiger Leaping Gorge

No one does it. There are buses to Shangri-la from Dali, which as far as I can see must go through Qiaotou/Hutiaoxia, where you get off for Tiger Leaping Gorge, but the ticket lady and kind younger gentlemen who didn’t have great English but was helping me translate, were worried the bus driver wouldn’t stop there. There are no direct tickets.

What everyone does is to go to Tiger Leaping Gorge (Qiaotou/Hutiaoxia) from Lijiang. Now, I decided to skip it because I was worried it would be a huge tourist trap, but from what I hear from other travellers it’s actually still quite nice so you can make your life easier by spending a night there.

What I did though was to get a bus from Dali to Lijiang in the morning, then from Lijiang buy a bus ticket that same day to Qiaotou/Hutiaoxia. It was a bus to Shangri-la and I was the only one getting off at Qiaotou/Hutiaoxia, but following along my progress on maps.me I had no problems getting off in the right place.

If anyone has got the bus direct from Dali to Qiaotou/Hutiaoxia let me know in the comments below!

Daocheng to Litang: “no one does it”??

The second time I got confusing information was when I tried to go from Daocheng to Litang. You’ll notice from my journey times I never actually made it to Litang, I went straight to Kangding. This was because by the time I figured out what to do I was so scared about the difficulties of travelling in this area, I wanted to get as close as possible to Chengdu (my final stop) as possible. Essentially, the lady at my hostel had the impression ‘no one goes to Litang’ and no buses went there, you had to get a shared mini van, but even then ‘no one goes to Litang’ so they might be hard to find. Travelling to Kangding also wasn’t easy, she warned, you need to book the bus tickets a day in advance and there was only one bus at 6am. Not what I wanted to hear just before going to bed, hoping to travel to one of those destinations in the morning.

In the event though, it turned out to be very easy. You just turn up outside the old bus station (again, this is something that has changed compared to the Lonely Planet. The old bus station is on Gong Ga Lu street in the centre of town, the new one is 2km south of the town – both are marked on maps.me) at 6:30 in the morning and after you’ve refused the shouts to ‘Yading! Yading!’ they quickly turn to ‘Litang! Litang!’ And ‘Kangding!’. Now, of course I could have been lucky, shared mini vans are completely dependant on who turns up in the half an hour or so either side of when you turn up, but it seemed to me there was a roaring trade of people heading to both Litang and Kangding, so if you want to go to either and didn’t book the bus in time, this is a very good option. I decided to go straight to Kangding, I’d had enough faffing around with transport to relish doing much more of it.

DSC_3096
So pleased to arrive in Kangding to English speaking staff and western food šŸ˜‹

Kangding to Chengdu: an easy bus ride

Kangding to Chengdu was an easy bus ride – there are buses going every hour from about 6am to 11am. I actually tried to get a shared mini van, I was so impressed with the journey from Daocheng, it was more comfortable, you could ask to stop if you really needed to loo and I got much less sick than usual. There are so many buses to Chengdu though, there isn’t really the need to shared minivans so no one offered me a journey. Fortunately though, I could buy a ticket about half an hour before the 8am bus set off so no harm done.

Renaming towns

One extra confusing thing about this area is that they seem to have a habit of renaming towns. The stop you want to get off for Tiger Leaping Gorge is now Hutiaoxia not Qiaotou, although all the signs in the trail still refer to Qiaotou. Then the town near Yading Nature Reserve is now called Shangri-la, not Riwa, as it is in the Lonely Planet and many blogs. Not of course to be confused with the Shangri-la in Yunnan, formerly Zhongdian. If you goggle any of the names though Wikipedia has pretty good explanations of what’s goes on, plus the Chinese characters which are invaluable when when your trying to buy bus tickets etc.

Kunming to Pugao in Yuanyang, Yunnan: the ‘Oh, Shit!’ Moments and the Unexpected Joy

So, a mere 14 hours after leaving my hostel in Kunming, I’m safe and getting dry in my hostel in Pugao in Yuanyang. Easy right?

Oh Shit Moment Number 1:

I’d successfully got the bus from my hostel and got off at the right stop, exactly where the subway station was supposed to be. But it was nowhere to be seen. I thought I spotted the entrance over the other side of the road, but on the other side of the road all there was was a street map telling me there ought to be a subway entrance right behind me, but no sign of the thing itself. I decided to walk on to the next station as I genuinely couldn’t see sight nor sound of this one.

Oh Shit Moment Number 2:

Taking a closer look at my maps.me I spotted something, ‘new southern bus station’, nearby. I was heading to the South Bus Station, but expecting to find it some 15km out of town. Had it recently moved? What did my hostel instructions say? The Chinese name they gave for the bus station pointed at a spot right by where I was. Okay, maybe this was it! Lucky I didn’t get on the subway to the other place?

Oh Shit Moment Number 3:

Finding my way to the ticket counter of this bus station, the lady wouldn’t book me onto the 10:20 I’d been hoping to catch, instead she booked the 12:30. Not what I wanted, it was already a long journey and I had a connection to make once I arrived, doing it all two hours later might mean doing it in the dark. But alas, it was already 9:20, what with the faffing around not finding the subway. Low and behold, I needed to go 15km further south to the original bus stop I’d been aiming for to catch the actual bus.

 

Unexpected Joy Moment Number 1:

Quite bizarrely, the really lovely lady who’d booked my ticket (who I just about managed to thank, despite the fact I was really disappointed right then) hustled me onto a bus which essentially functioned as my own private taxi to the other bus station. I have no idea why no one else was on it, but Ithink it got me to the other bus station about as fast as anything could have done. I even got hopeful I’d be able to swap my ticket for the 10:20, but unfortunately that was sold out when I arrived. Because I now had ages to wait for my bus, I had time to eat an early lunch and buy snacks, which was a small blessing in the midst of the slap in the face of getting the later bus.

IMG_7715

Unexpected Joy Moment Number 2:

I got front row seats on the bus. Always a pleasure.

DSC_2411

Oh Shit Moment Number 4:

Most of the bus journey passed uneventfully bus we’d just dropped half the people off at Nasha, when the bus did a U turn and went back the way it had come for 10 minutes, not onwards to Xinje as I’d been expecting. Oh shit, I thought, I should’ve check the destination. What if we went right back to Kunming and I’d have to get off half way and get a taxi back? It sounds a bit silly now, but watching the bus bowl along in the opposite direction than I knew we needed to get was not reassuring. Fortunately, it did turn back on itself and just went another way to Xinje.

Oh Shit Moment Number 5:

It was pretty dark when we pulled up to Xinje, which was an hours drive from my guesthouse in Pugao. Would there be mini buses waiting there? Would I have to get a taxi? Or go there tomorrow morning and sleep in Xinje tonight? The scenarios in my head were countless, none of them very pleasant.

DSC_2415

Unexpected Joy Moment Number 3:

A lady cornered me outside the bus asking if I was going to Pugao and, with another lady, we set off in a taxi. Shortly after we’d set off she told me the fee was 80 yuan, via a translation app (the guesthouse had said it would be between 80 and 100 so I was happy). I was happy it was a lady driving, I felt safe.

Oh Shit Moment Number 6:

We arrive near my guesthouse and I realise it’s not on the road. She’d taken me as far as she could but I was going to have to walk the remaining 500m in the dark. Head torch on and not quite believing what I was doing, I set off. The paths were paved and wound round the village houses, I crossed a river and got a nasty shock when I looked up to see two huge cows/bulls staring back at me from someone’s back yard.

Oh Shit Moment Number 7:

I couldn’t find the damn thing. Maps.me had been right about all the other guesthouses I’d passed, but there was no sign of my guesthouse. There was no one around. I’d seen a place in roughly the right area that at least had a sign, in Chinese, outside it but no answer. I tried phoning the guesthouse, no answer. I walked back up to the last house I’d seen some lights on and knocked. A woman answered but professed no knowledge of the guesthouse, and shut the door in in my panic stricken face and I started crying.

Unexpectedly Joyful Moment Number 4:

I started walking back to the other guesthouses I’d seen, surely they must know where it is, when I saw a man and two children on the path. I asked him, showing the Chinese name on my phone as I’d done to the lady, one of the children could read it and they knew where it was! The very kind gentleman walked me there – it was the same place I’d knocked 5mins before! But with his help, someone answered. I’d arrived, thank god.

Unexpectedly Joyful Moment Number 5:

He gave me a double, not the dorm I’d booked, and I could write this. And he made me fried rice for dinner.

I arrived šŸ˜Š tired and slightly terrified, but safe and whole.

DSC_2424

I’m writing much more about my actual experience in the places I visit on Instagram, somehow they’re not turning into full blog posts. Follow me at @hutch_sarah to get the full story!

DSC_2471