For every one notion I had of what it would be like to visit China, I found at least half a dozen new things to love about the country and its citizens during my time there. Thankfully, my good friend from high school, Alexis, has been living there for about a year and was generous enough to take me in and show me the China that she has fallen in love with. From delicious provincial food to stunning countryside vistas, we definitely saw and took in as much as we possibly could have!
Destination one was Kunming (via an 18 hour train ride from Chongqing the morning after my arrival). Despite my exhaustion, it was impossible not to be immediately invigorated by the energy flowing through this city. We stayed at the centrally located Hump Hostel, whose roof overlooked the ever-bustling Jinbi Square and allowed us to take a long day stroll through the downtown, enjoying the sun alongside the people of the city who we found en masse in the scenic park surrounding Cuihu Lake and along the banks of the waterways that run through the city. What strikes me about a city like Kunming is that in one stroll, you can enjoy sights that juxtapose historic, classic-looking architecture with brand new high-rise apartment buildings that are now a hallmark of Chinese cities and towns everywhere. While just about everything (even the “old temples”) is relatively new, it’s hard to ignore the vast history and explosive growth that these structures allude to.
It took about thirty seconds for both Alexis and I to fall head over heels in love with Old Town Dali. Whereas most Chinese cities and towns are primarily composed of high rises,
few buildings in the Old Town were more than two or three stories, with the first level consisting of an open-fronted store or restaurant. Salespeople called out sales and offered up food as the crowds meandered up and down the cobblestone streets, while a quiet waterway ran through the central veins of the town, providing the eye with a peaceful break from the hullabaloo. On top of that, an extensive mountain range serves as the back drop of the town, giving the whole place a very Boulder, Colorado feel.
Our hostel, the Jade Emu, was incredible and is a must-stay for anyone planning to travel here. They helped us organize and book our trips in and out of the city, and were even helpful when we called them in a panic from Shangri-La (story to follow in another post). Not to mention the food was great, the outdoor courtyard a great spot to relax in, and the beer cheap!
The second half of the trip was a great deal more relaxing. Alexis lives in what I suppose we could call a suburb of Chongqing called Beibei, about an hour outside of the actual Chongqing downtown. Frankly, I could not have told you that we weren’t in the main city because even in what is considered the “small” town of Beibei, the streets of the city at any given moment were still more reminiscent of New York City than of any small-town suburbia I’ve ever seen.
Highlights of the week here included hot pot, which is a dining experience where you are given a pot of boiling liquids ranging in spice level from salty to mouth-numbing and drop in various meats and vegetables to cook them. It’s a form of cooking originally invented by poor fishermen in the region in order to boil out any harmful substances out of whatever food they were able to obtain, but has morphed into a popular and delicious treat.
Another highlight was a short visit to Alexis’ high school classroom, where she is working to prepare them for University in the United States. I had them sign a card for my nephew, who has been studying China in school, saying one thing they wanted people in the States to understand about China. The results were certainly comical!
Obviously I haven’t even cracked the surface of the many things China has to offer. I haven’t seen any of the major destinations that you might think of when you hear “China” (i.e. Shanghai, Beijing, Hong Kong, the Great Wall, and so on). But I think that is part of what made this trip what it was; we went “off the beaten path”, so to speak, and did a trip that I’m not sure I ever would have been able to plan without a friend who was already living in-country and had people around her to ask for travel advice. But the destinations were so worth it that I hate to think of the trip having gone any other way.