From KL to Porto – Pandas, Terracotta Army and Mount Hua in China

It’s late afternoon, when I cross border from Laos to China. First smiley faces, I notice, belong to locals earning money on trading currencies. We haggle and I exchange some dollars. Huang and Ding are waiting for me. My drivers are freaking amazing. They help me find shop with local sim card. 30 dollars poorer, I have an access to the internet. It’s expensive, but it will last, I hope.

The difference in the quality of road between Laos and China is huge, bridges and tunnels we ride through could embarrass an European country. A different world. 700 km from Luang Prabang, it takes us all day. We conquer many mountains with their fancy car.

Finally boys decide to pull over and spend the night in the hotel 300 km from Kunming. They want to continue the next day. The hotel is not expensive, but I decide to camp and save some money. A polite hotel owner rush after me. He offers me sofa in the reception area for free. I accept. I spread my sleeping bag and fall asleep quickly. I wake up stiff and wait for my drivers.

Huang and Ding were visiting their business, a gold mine in South Laos. I have friends in Malaysia. The entire way to Kunming they discuss the possibility of expansion. They want me to ask my friends about tin ore mining sites. I try to help them. We exchange contacts and I leave the car.

On the way to Kunming, I send few couchsurfing requests. I want to spend time with locals and learn more about Chinese culture. It’s early afternoon when I decide to take bus to the city centre. I want to give a potential host a chance to reply. I want also sightsee Yuantong temple.

Kunming, bus view
Kunming, bus view

I observe the architecture, city life and traffic. I am positively surprised. Bikes and motorcycles have their own traffic lanes across the city. The streets are clean. Colourful flowers and shop displays are nice to look at. Some of the skyscrapers are technologically well advanced. I have seen anything like that in my own country.

Kunming street
Kunming street

The entrance fee to see Yuantong temple is 6 yuen (1 dollar ~ 6.5 yuen). There is no special tourist price, another surprise. Some Asian countries like to multiply the price of admission for foreigners. Lets wait and see. I have visited Chinese temples before so colours and symbols are very familiar. Yuantong however is the biggest and the most beautiful complex, I have seen.

Yuantong temple
Yuantong temple

I admire ornaments, observe locals praying and throwing coins into wishing well for luck.

Wishing well
Wishing well

By the time, I am finished sightseeing the temple, I receive a replay to my couchsurfing request. Unfortunately both hosts are unavailable. I am happy that they reply quick. I already found an emergency hostel nearby. Another surprise, 5 dollars a night. I have a quick shower, leave my bag and head out to Green Lake Park nearby. The festival is unfolding, people are taking the advantage of weekend. The park is full, there is a live music and people are dancing. It is relaxing and happy atmosphere.

Green Lake Park
Green Lake Park
Green Lake Park festival
Green Lake Park festival

The entrance fee to Kunming Zoo is 3 dollars. There is nothing else I want to explore in the city. I have good time observing birds and mammals. They have species, I never seen before.

Peafowl, white peacock
Peafowl, white peacock
Flamingos

In the morning, I catch local bus to the exit of Kunming. I researched the route the previous day. I walk 2 km to roundabout and catch a ride to the petrol station on the motorway. I get attention of station employess. They describe registration plate, I should be looking for. Within minutes, I find a ride straight to Chengdu.

Dong and Kenzie pick me up. The landscape is beautiful. Hills, mountains and valleys. People are working on rice terraces. I wish we could stop. I want to take pictures of the scenery. I would love to hike in this area. We are passing by the largest earth dam in Asia, I have only time to shout `wow!`.

Lunch with Dong and Kenzie

There seem to be a problem with the car. We need to stop, radiator is steaming, the water is boiling. At some point one of the drivers is looking for water in households next to the motorway. I use this opportunity to photograph the area.

On the way to Chengdu
On the way to Chengdu

The car is done. I spend 2 hours in the garage with guys. One of them needs to stay and wait for fix. The other will continue to travel to Chengdu in another car. I join him. We start to drive in the wrong direction. The route is a shortcut and it doesn’t exist on my map. It must be quite new. Bridges and tunnels take us North for hundreds of kilometres.

Bridge \ motorway

Big cities are like a visit card of China. Pretty, clean, organised. Imagine however a family leaving in a valley for generations. It’s a beautiful place surrounded with mountains and covered by forest, quiet and peaceful.

Suddenly there is a motorway passing through. No one asked you if you like it. Once a while a plastic bottle will fell down on your head from a passing car. I might exaggerate a bit. The road is very comfortable, we move quickly and it helps me a lot. When I imagine how the place would look without it, I feel regret.

I sleep for 3 hours. My plan is to take a bullet train South of Chengdu. 300 km/h would deliver me to Leshan around 8.30 am. A friend recommended me to see a statue of Leshan Giant Buddha. I am late or maybe tickets just sold out. I am informed that the next train will depart after 9 am. I am impatient and decided to hitchhike. It is not difficult, just time consuming. I take underground and local bus. I start to hitch around 9 am by the toll gate.

Thumbing is not working well. I quickly write down the name of the city on a small piece of paper. It is enough. Within 5 minutes, I find a ride. Fang offers to take me half way to Leshan. He stops for me the first car heading back on the motorway. What a guy. He also give me a couple of small bags with some sticky rice.

Sticky rice
Sticky rice

I end up in a car with Chang and Kenzie, boys are driving to Leshan. Once in the city, they take me to the island with a distance view of Buddha. Unfortunately the weather is very bad and the 71 metres tall statue is barely visible. I decide to buy a ticket and see it up close instead of taking the boat. Boys are happy to deliver me to the entrance.

Kenzie shows me a video of a terrorist attack, that took place in Leshan just a day earlier. The bomb exploded on the bus. I am shocked. China seems to me a very safe country, I had no idea they have a problem with terrorists.

Ticket to see 1200 years old Giant Buddha and few temples in the area costs 14 dollars. The que is there, I wait patiently to descend alongside the statue. One look at monument`s head fills me with disappointment. The statue is massive and that is it. I hoped for more detail and beauty. You can’t have everything, it seems.

Leshan Giant Buddha
Leshan Giant Buddha

The temples are less than average, but ice cream I bought is not bad. The most pretty and interesting to me is a bridge.

A pretty bridge

It is the highlight of my trip to Leshan. I think about my drivers and I smile. The bridge isn’t the only thing, I am happy to experience. It takes me a while to catch a lift back to Chengdu. Luckily after an hour a country bus picks me up, I got a free ride.

I am back in Chengdu and have a free evening. Not far from my hostel is Wenshu Monastery, a place highly ranked on Trip Advisor, let’s check it. The entry is free. There are some massive beautiful buildings, a park and people relaxing drinking tea. I learn that the Buddhist temple is 1400 ears old.

Wenshu Monastery
Wenshu Monastery

My attention catch a girl, she wears a traditional outfit, there are some interesting paintings next to her. There is a lot of precision and care in her movements, while she prepares the table, she is sitting by. I am interested and start conversation, her English is good.

Zhouhoi is studying, she wants to become a tea professional. She practises the art of serving tea in the monastery. She offers me to join her. The process of preparing tea relax her, she likes to share the experience. Its a tranquil time, everything slows down, there is no disturbance. I find time to observe surroundings, reflect on moment and enjoy life at it’s simplest. Once tea is ready we start conversation. We get along, a couple of strangers talking about politics, religion, love and casual day over a cup of tea. I am having a blast. We talk for hours. I ask her to meet the next day, we exchange numbers.

Tea with Zhouhoi
Tea with Zhouhoi

One of the places, I want to visit is Chengdu Giant Panda Breeding Research Base. I find a local bus and start sightseeing the park early afternoon. I find small red pandas. Few of them are walking around their area, teasing each other and chilling.

Red pandas
Red pandas

I am quite worried that, I will be bored with inactive animals and will depart soon unsatisfied. It is not the case. Big pandas create a show, I won’t forget for a while. A couple of them are chilling, hanging at tree, while the other are messing around. Once fed, pandas start to wrestle, which is hilarious. The place is full of tourist cheering both sides of the conflict and gasping at potential falls.

Feeding pandas
Feeding pandas
Wrestling pandas

I patiently wait 20 minutes to have a 30 second look at the nursery, where new born pandas are treated. The constant flow of people is well organised so everyone can have a chance to see a tiny creature. Once satisfied with admiring pandas, I am passing by lake, while proceeding to exit. A lot of people are resting, dining and feeding ducks. The lake is pretty.

Swan lake
Swan lake

I meet with Zhouhoi at People’s Park, we are having tea and chat. The cafe is huge, over a hundred people chill and enjoy a slow pace atmosphere of this place. Zhouhoi invites me to dinner and I gladly accept. Together with her friend we try local specialties, a different type of noodles, a fish and a variety of snacks.

In the evening, I meet Joyce. We contacted through couchsurfing. She couldn’t host me, but would like to show me some places in her city. We sightsee Kuan-Zhai Xiangzi Alley full of shops with local craft, souvenirs and street food. I admire art and beauty of instruments and ornaments.

Joyce mentions her friend has a rooftop garden. It sounds great. She uses an app on her phone to rent us a couple of bicycles. You can find some parked everywhere in Chengdu. We ride bikes for 30 minutes through centre of city. It is magical. It’s warm evening, the city is alive with an average traffic. People are watching football, dine in restaurants and socialise on the street. I enjoy the atmosphere a lot. Arthur and his neighbour are chilling. We join them. Drinking tea, eating fruit, chatting and relaxing. I drive back at night, it’s raining, I am happy. I met some amazing people and made new friends.

At rooftop garden

I start hitching to Xian at the exit of city. I try to buy water at local petrol station, but they don’t accept cash payments. WeChat is a local social media application, that people use to make payments. It’s very convenient if you have Chinese bank account. I do not. I struggle to find a ride. Petrol station employees start to help me and suddenly there are 10 people trying to find me a ride. I end up in a police car. Two policeman are going 200 km in my direction, they also give me some water.

A truck delivers me to Xian late after midnight. We took a 200 km detour, 900 km done that day has kicked my ass. I save myself a 4 km walk through centre and grab a taxi to a cheap hostel, I found on a website. Before hitting the bed I am having conversation with Turkish and Kenyan girls, they are teaching English and are very happy living in China. I consider this option, I like China so far.

Bank of China is the only place in the city, where I can change money. There is no alternative, no exchange, I try to be patient. 30 minutes later, I leave the bank. Bell and Drum towers are first victims of my sightseeing rampage. I buy some fruit for breakfast and make my way forward, while stuffing my face with food.

Bell tower is the centre of the city. A huge roundabout is full of flowers, I use underground passage, where I buy ticket. I pay 5 dollars to see both buildings. With a student id you can get a discount to many attractions in China. I spend 15 minutes minutes sightseeing the building and taking pictures of the area around it.

Bell tower
Bell tower

Tip 011 Student ID

You can find student tickets being available for many tourist attractions in China and other countries. I am not saying you need to study, just find yourself a student ID. It is a great investment, you can save lots of money.

I stayed for longer in Drum tower nearby. While the sound of bell indicated sunrise, the drum was beat at sunset. At certain times there is a music performance with several ladies in traditional outfits playing instruments. I wait and enjoy the experience.

Drum tower
Drum tower

The city wall around centre is majestic. Huge fortifications with castles on top can be walked for hours or cycled. 10 dollars for entry, 15 dollars for a bike, I decided to walk. I last an hour before sun scare me of. I took many pics, i need a rest.

Xian city walls
Xian city walls

Late afternoon, I am going to see 1300 years old Wild Goose Pagoda. A lot of green space, fountains, temple and a horde of tourists. Great, there are many people to take picture for me. The view from the top of 64 m tower is nice, I like the art in temple buildings around.

Wild Goose Pagoda
Wild Goose Pagoda

In the evening, I meet Jing. We go for a walk and enjoy a meal. She is a great company, we are having beers, while walking through city and park.

Next day, I take a local bus to see Terracota Army Museum. I deposit my luggage, it’s free, the service is great. The full price ticket costs 25 dollars. I walk through the park and second check to one of the smaller buildings. The excavation site inside is empty, but I find several terracotta warrior statues displayed behind a glass. They vary between each other, they represent different ranks within the army. I am impressed.

Terracotta horseman
Terracotta horseman

Second building is smaller and partially excavated. I find there numerous warriors, unfortunately most of the statues are missing head. I am worried now. Where is the real deal? It supposed to be a huge army!

Terracotta warriors, pit 2
Terracotta warriors, pit 2

I find the answer in the largest building. I have visited the site in the wrong order. It is where I should start. The site is huge, the excavation and diagnosis is ongoing. I see employees fixing destroyed monuments and replacing missing parts.

Ongoing excavation and repair of terracotta warriors
Ongoing excavation and repair of terracotta warriors

I find terracota warriors in big number at the front of the building. I squeeze my way between people and find a good vantage point. It’s different then expected, but I like what I see.

Terracotta army
Terracotta army

While leaving the site, I walk by multiple restaurants and souvenir shops. Some of them specialise in very expensive products like gems and jewelry. They are beautiful and pricey.

It takes me over an hour to find a car going to Huashan. Meantime, local students offer to pay for my taxi. I politely decline two offers of help and continue to advertise hitchhiking. A family of three picks me up.

It’s late afternoon, when I start to hike Mount Hua, one of the Five Great Mountains of China. I purchase a student 15 dollar ticket and go through fingerprint check. The whole path to the top is well organised, paved and lighten. There are bathrooms and shops on the way. The prices are high, many products are delivered to shops by foot. I make friends on the way up.

Hiking Mount Hua
Hiking Mount Hua

It takes me over four hours to reach the top carrying my 10 kg bag with all my staff. I am very quick, not many people walk pass me. On the way I refill my fillter bottle with water and have portion of noodles. It’s dark, when I reach the Northern peak. Mount hua has five of them. The Eastern peak is popular for sunrise, it’s where, I want to pitch my tent.

Mount Hua at night
Mount Hua at night

I find a spot to lay down. Just yoga mat and sleeping bag, I can’t be bothered with setting a tent. At 11 pm when I fall asleep there are 30 people camping and cuddling in their sleeping bags. When I wake up around 3 am there are 200.

Mount Hua, sunrise spot at 3 am
Mount Hua, sunrise spot at 3 am

There are several viewing points. This one is definitely a popular one. I realise what will happen soon. All these people will walk over me to take a picture of raising sun. I quickly start to pack. I made it just in time. 30 minutes before the sunrise there are 400 people at the top and many more on the way from hotels. There is a lot of excitement and cameras in action.

I leave my viewing post and descend to a lower location. Another 300 people are rushing past me to see the sunrise. I find a good spot with fewer people. I relax and smile. I feel so much better. I watch the sunrise and admire the view.

Mount Hua, sunrise at 5 am
Mount Hua, sunrise at 5 am

Once the sun is up, I start to hike other peaks. Some of locations offer extra activities for a bit more money and a lot of patience. You can que for an hour or longer to walk to a remote location with the help of chains and other support.

Mount Hua view
Mount Hua view

The view is superb. I explore the area, take pictures of mountains and colourful temples. There are thousands of padlocks with initials everywhere.

Temple at Mount Hua
Temple at Mount Hua
Mount Hua padlocks
Mount Hua padlocks

You can have pictures taken wearing traditional outfit. A monk can tell you the future, make sure your donation is generous enough to hear a good one.

Temple at Mount Hua
Temple at Mount Hua

I descend the mountain late afternoon. I am tired. I find a cheap hostel for the night. In the evening, I sightsee Huashan and prepare my hitchhiking sign for the next day.

Hitchhiking to Beijing
Hitchhiking to Beijing

I have difficulty. I hitchhike all day and with 350 km done, I am stuck in Zhengzhou. No Beijing today. I am thinking about camping. Just in case, I send out 2 last minute couchsurfing requests. I am accepted. I meet with Lu at underground station close to her flat. We have a chat, she shows me her clay figures, she creates from scratch. It is a real art full of detail and beauty. Lu has her own internet business, she is doing very well, her clay figures are a quality product. I grab a shower and fall asleep. The Great Wall of China is waiting.

A)Mengla B)Kunming C)Chengdu D)Xian E)Huashan F)Zhengzhou

2 thoughts on “From KL to Porto – Pandas, Terracotta Army and Mount Hua in China

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