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Three hours by plane, three weeks by train

After a delay, due to a typhoon that struck Shanghai causing the airport to close, which was defined as 'indefinite' on the airport monitor, I arrived in Kunming via Shanghai at 3am in the morning - five hours later than scheduled. The flight from Shanghai to Kunming took 3 hours. I would have to make it back to Shanghai, travelling mostly by train, in three weeks, in order to catch my flight back to Japan.

I showed the map in my guidebook to a taxi driver at the airport and he took me to my youth hostel. The 8km taxi ride cost 30 yuan off the meter, which means that with the meter running it would've cost 20 - 25 yuan. I was greeted at the hostel by a drunken Englishman from Leeds who joked that there were no beds available. I was tired and at first I didn't realise he was joking. Hilarious.

The next morning I looked around Kunming. It is a modern city with not many sights, but it is not too big and was a good place to prepare for the long journey ahead. I needed to arrange a train ticket to Dali, 359km away. Most hostels in China have a travel desk and for a small service fee can arrange train, plane and bus tickets. The ticket to Dali cost 77 yuan for a hard sleeper (second class bed) plus a 15 yuan service fee. I wanted to take the night train, but had to take the day train as that was the only ticket available. This meant that I would arrive in Dali in the evening with no hostel reservation.

The train left at noon the next day. As far as I could see I was the only foreigner in my carriage. I was given snacks by some of the Chinese passengers, and one of them spoke a little English. Some children tried to speak basic English phrases that they had learnt. I tried to sleep but it was difficult with people running up and down the carriage, and talking loudly. The train didn't go directly to Dali. It stopped at Xiaguan which is 18km away. The passenger who spoke a little English showed me to where the taxis gathered.

The 18km taxi ride to Dali cost 50 yuan. The driver dropped me off outside a hostel different to the one that I showed him in my guidebook. I was tired so I decided to stay here anyway because it looked nice, and Dali was quite small, so the location of the hostel was not important. I hadn't made a reservation but that was no problem because they had beds available. One night in a room with four beds cost only 15 yuan. The only problem was that next to the hostel was a building site, so it was a little noisy. I went to the bar and bought a decent size pizza, a big salad, and an orange juice for 32 yuan. A 620ml bottle of local beer cost 5 yuan.

The next day I looked around the city. It is a small historic walled city with a large gate on each of the walls. To walk from one wall to the opposite wall takes about 10 or 15 minutes. It is a relaxing place with a very laidback atmosphere. Unfortunately the weather was not too good so I alternated my day between sightseeing and having drinks at the restaurant and hostel. I arranged my ticket at the hostel reception to my next destination - Lijiang. My minibus was due to leave early the following morning. The ticket cost 40 yuan plus a small service fee.

I woke up very early the next morning to the sound of construction. It was too early to get up so I tried to ignore the noise and go back to sleep. Unfortunately this also made me ignore my alarm. I was woken up by one of the hostel staff who told me that the minibus to Lijiang was waiting downstairs. In five minutes I was on the bus and we made our way around Dali to pick up the other passengers. Very soon we were on our way out of Dali heading towards Lijiang. Lijiang is 200km from Dali and the journey was supposed to take three and a half hours. The road passed small mountain villages before eventually winding up the hills into the mountains themselves.

Half way through out journey another minibus overtook us and urged for our minibus to stop. The other driver had noticed that we had a puncture in one of our tyres. We kept on driving steadily until we found a place where the tyre could be changed. It was a welcome break and people on the bus walked down the road to take photos of the mountain scenery. After 30 minutes we were on our way and eventually arrived in Lijiang in the early afternoon.

Before planning which route to take in China I was watching the Discovery Channel in Japan. I saw a documentary on Lijiang and decided that I definitely have to include a visit to the city during my trip to China. My plan was always to leave China from Shanghai. Lijiang being so far from Shanghai is the reason why I took the route around China that I did. If I hadn't seen the documentary I would've probably taken an entirely different route and never have gone to southwest China. I am glad I saw the documentary.

Lijiang has an old town and a new town. Since the old town is completely pedestrianised, the minibus dropped me off in the new town. I took out my guidebook to use the map to find the hostel where I wanted to stay. According to the map in the book, the old town didn't have many streets - just a few running approximately parallel to the river. When I arrived at the old town I realised that my guidebook only contained the major streets. The whole town was a maze of cobblestone streets, and what looked like straight streets according to my map, actually had kinks and turns that the makers of my guidebook didn't feel necessary to print. After walking around trying to find the hostel for nearly one hour, I decided to buy a tourist map of Lijiang from a street vendor. I arrived at my hostel a few minutes later. I wasn't sure whether I would stay for two or three nights, but one night only cost 30 yuan so I paid for three.

I had already seen a lot of the town during my search for the hostel. But now I didn't have my luggage to carry, so I set off to have another look. For the last 1400 years, Lijiang has been the centre of the Naxi minority - of which there are more than 250,000 followers. Around town Naxi women, in their traditional blue clothes, can be seen. Every day in the old market square they dance to traditional Naxi music, while scores of mostly Chinese touristsÂ’ crowd round them, take photos, and sometimes join in.

In 1996, an earthquake measuring 7.0 on the Richter scale hit Lijiang. More than 300 people were killed and 16,000 injured. Most of the new town was destroyed, but the traditional architecture of the old town coped quite well. The survival of the old town was one of the contributing factors to UNESCO's decision to name the town a world heritage site in 1997. Wooden buildings line the small streets alongside the canals, streams, and the small bridges that cross them. Most buildings are shops, restaurants or traditional Naxi guesthouses, which all serve Lijiang's booming tourist industry. In the evening, red lanterns line the streets, and floating candles follow the current of the canals, until they are caught by children waiting for them on the banks and at the bridges.

I needed to arrange transportation to my next destination, Chengdu, 750km away over the mountains. The only direct way of reaching Chengdu was by plane, so I went to the tourist information office to purchase a ticket. The only one available was due to leave two days later in the late evening. This meant I would arrive in Chengdu in the very early hours of the morning. I don't like doing this, but I had no choice. I bought the ticket for 820 yuan. And since I booked my accommodation for three nights, it meant that I could keep my luggage in my room until just before I left for the airport.

I went back to the hostel, and sat on the roof terrace on the top floor. The terrace afforded a magnificent view of the beautifully lit old town, overlooked by the floodlit 'Looking at the Past' Pavilion, which seemed to glow on top of the hill. When I first arrived at the hostel, I couldn't understand why my guidebook recommended it so much. Now I understood why.

In the morning, I had breakfast at a Tibetan restaurant. Tibet is not too far from Lijiang - the border is just a few hundred kilometres northwest.

Just north of the city lies Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. At 5500m the summit is covered in snow all year round. On a clear day, the mountain can be seen from the city. I decided to walk to Black Dragon Pool Park, which is just a few kilometres north. I wanted to take one of the most famous photos in southwest China. However, this morning was not a clear one. I paid the 60 yuan entrance fee, which I felt was far too expensive, and walked around the lake rumoured to have a dragon living in it. The clouds started to clear and I thought that if I waited I would be able to take my photo of a temple, a bridge and a snow covered mountain. I waited for two hours. The sky overhead cleared, but the mountain remained covered in clouds. Unfortunately I had to take the photo without the snow covered peak in the background. I spent the rest of the day wandering around the old town. In the evening I sat on the roof terrace again and had a few drinks. Lijiang was more expensive than Dali, and a 620ml bottle of beer cost 10 yuan.

The next day was the day of my flight to Chengdu. I decided to walk to the place where I would catch the minibus to the airport. I memorized the location on the map in my guidebook because it was a nice day and I didn't want to carry anything. The stop seemed to be at a major t-junction a few kilometres along the main road northwest of the city. I walked along the road but there didn't seem to be any t-junctions. I walked a little further but decided to turn back, go to the hostel, and look at the map again. This time I memorised the street names. An hour and a half after I was first there, I was back on the main road looking for the t-junction of Shangri-la Dadao and Fuhui Lu. I found the junction, but it was actually a crossroad. Judging by the large buildings lining both streets, it has always been a crossroad. If I tell the makers of my guidebook I will get my name printed in the next edition.

The evening came and I found myself waiting for the minibus to the airport. When it came I thought there would be some sort of storage space underneath the bus for our luggage. It turned out that we had to take everything onto the bus with us. There was one more seat than there were people, so fortunately I was able to put my backpack on it. Others crammed the isle with their large suitcases and there really was no place to move. As we pulled out of the car park a few minutes before schedule, I saw some foreigners arrive by taxi, probably hoping to catch the bus. The driver either didn't see them, or ignored them and we continued on our way. Besides, the bus was full anyway. On the way to the airport a Chinese university student spoke to me and asked me about my trip. He was from Xi'an, which would be my next stop after Chengdu.

After an 80 minute delay, I found myself on an extremely modern aeroplane on the one hour flight to Chengdu. During the flight, a passenger was having difficulty opening her bottle of water. She asked me if I could do it for her. I gave her a smile which suggested 'give it here, love, I'll do it for you.' I really tried but I was unable to open it. It hurt the skin on my palm. I apologised and gave her back the unopened bottle. She asked the stewardess for help, and the she opened the bottle with one easy twist. I must have loosened it for her.

At 1am the plane arrived at Chengdu airport. The only way to get to the city was by taxi. I showed the map in my guidebook to a taxi driver. After some discussion with other drivers as to where the hostel was, we set off on the 20km journey. The driver talked on his phone and drove with one hand most of the way to the city down the highway. We passed a serious traffic accident. A taxi had smashed into the back of a truck, which had destroyed the passenger side of the taxi and nearly taken the roof off. I was also sitting on the passenger side. The taxi driver continued to talk loudly on his phone and drive with one hand. We arrived at the area where the hostel was, and the driver asked a local shop owner where it was exactly located. He pointed towards an extremely dark street, which was mostly blocked off by construction leaving only a metre wide alley at the side of the road. He pointed and gestured to me that the hostel was down there. I paid the 68 yuan fare and stood at the end of the alley. I was extremely hesitant to walk down it. I took out my guidebook and checked that I was in the right place, hoping that the taxi driver had made a mistake and the hostel was actually on the next street. A local came up to me and asked if I needed help. I showed him the name of the hotel and he gestured me to follow him down the alley. I wasn't sure whether I should, but the situation seemed ok and he offered to help me carry my luggage. We walked very far down the alley and I was a little worried, but eventually we arrived at the hostel. I wouldn't have walked this far if someone hadn't shown me the way, so I was grateful. I thanked him and checked into the hostel, waking up my roommate by opening the door just as she was about to after hearing someone fumble around with keys in the door to her room. A bed cost 40 yuan per night.

The next day I was able to see the hostel in the daylight. The Dragon Town Youth Hostel is a four storey building, dating back to the Qing dynasty, surrounding a courtyard. The people who run the place are the friendliest hostel staff that I met during my trip. I went to the travel desk to arrange my ticket to Xi'an, my next destination. A hard sleeper (second class bed) cost 201 yuan plus 35 yuan service fee.

I decided to take a bicycle taxi into the city centre. The 3km ride cost 10 yuan. I think I was a little overcharged. I was running out of clean clothes so I bought a few t-shirts. My plan was to do my laundry in Xi'an since I would be staying there for three days. I needed to check my e-mail to confirm my hostel reservation for Xian. According to my guidebook, Chengdu has countless internet cafes. I was unable to find one. Unlike other countries throughout the world, internet cafes can be difficult to find in China due to the governments distrust of the medium. Many have been closed down. I eventually found a restaurant which had one computer in the corner. In the evening I sat on a bench, watching people, and two school girls sat down and tried to speak to me. They spoke little English so I used the Chinese phrases in my guidebook. Unfortunately, after 'what is your name?' and 'where are you from?' the only other phrases I could ask were ones such as 'I need a doctor.'

I spent the next day looking around the city and buying food for my 17 hour train journey to Xi'an. The hostel was 4km from the station so I decided to take a taxi. The fare was 13 yuan. I offered the driver 14 yuan, with the change being his tip. He thought I made a mistake and tried to give me the 1 yuan change. Tipping is not common in China. As the train left Chengdu I could see people taking a leisurely stroll along the tracks. The young boy in the bed below mine was travelling by himself. He offered me some of his bread. I offered him some of my Mickey Mouse sweets in return, but he refused them and looked a little bit scared. Loud music was constantly played over the train PA which made it difficult to sleep. Fortunately the lights and PA were turned off at 10pm. Unfortunately they were turned on at 7am the next morning. Along with the boy constantly hitting my bed trying to make me get up, it meant that a lay-in was impossible.

The train pulled into Xi'an at noon. My friend Sophia, who used to live in the same city as me in Japan, was also travelling in China and we had arranged to meet in Xi'an. We were booked into the same hostel. I arrived there to find her already at the reception. I paid for three night's accommodation at 50 yuan per night.

Xi'an used to be the capital city of China and was the beginning of the Silk Road, which linked China to central Asia and Europe. The city centre is surrounded by a 14km rectangular city wall. There is a gateway on each side. The hostel was one minutes walk from the South Gate, inside the city walls. We walked to the Bell Tower, a large tower in the centre of Xian. Sophia wanted to buy some paper cuts (artwork that is made by cutting out intricate shapes from one sheet of paper). We went to a tourist shop underneath the Bell Tower. They were obviously overpriced because the shop catered to tourists, but the price that she managed to haggle showed just how overpriced they were. The displayed price for one large paper cut was 85 yuan. She managed to by two of these, plus a smaller one for a total of 50 yuan. In the evening we washed our clothes at the hostel, ate at the hostel's restaurant, drank, and spoke to some other travellers.

In 1974, about 30km east of Xi'an, farmers were digging in a field when they made an amazing discovery. They had discovered the Army of Terracotta Warriors. Every one of the 6000 life-size statues have different features. They were built to serve Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of all of China, in the afterlife. We took the local bus from Xi'an train station for 8 yuan return. The journey took 90 minutes. After paying the expensive entrance fee we made our way around the three halls. I expected more from the visit. The first two halls had few warriors on display. The final hall had more, but I expected to be able to get closer to them, and I expected to see more than I did. My guidebook describes the warriors as a must see sight, along with the Forbidden City and the Great Wall. I don't think it is. The best part of the visit was the 3-D documentary in the visitors centre, but even that couldn't make the three hour round trip and expensive entrance fee seem worth it.

Back in Xi'an we ate very cheaply at a local Chinese restaurant for 18 yuan for two people. Later, in a department store, a Chinese child of about 10 years old came to me and started practising his English. It was surprisingly good, and it put most of the 18 year old Japanese students at the school where I work to shame. The Japanese are among the worst people in Asia at speaking English. Tests are designed to see how well they can memorize sentences. They don't know how to react to what people say and so they cannot have a real conversation. The boy listened to the answers that I gave him and responded accordingly.

At the hostel I went to the travel desk to collect the ticket that I had reserved earlier in the day to Beijing. The only ticket available was first class and cost 417 yuan for the 1200km journey, plus a 40 yuan service fee. I didn't mind this because travelling first class would be a lot more peaceful than my hard sleeper ride to Xi'an. Sophia was due to leave the next day so we spent her final night in the bar in the basement of the hostel. The bar had a stage with musical instruments, and anyone could get up and play whatever they wanted. For the rest of the night we listened to some local people and travellers play songs.

The next day it rained all day. In the evening it was time for Sophia to leave so I walked her to the place where the bus would leave for the airport. She was due to stay in China for a few more days before heading to Vietnam for two weeks. The rain continued through the night and into the next day. I hadn't yet walked along the walls so I paid the entrance fee and walked along the south side for a few kilometres. At a width of between 12 and 14 metres they are quite wide, and a relaxing place to spend a few hours.

It was time to go to the station to catch my train to Beijing. I thought I would take the local bus to the station as it was too far to walk. After waiting at the bus stop for a few minutes and seeing the crowded buses, I decided it would be easier to take a taxi. I flagged one down and put my luggage in the boot. The driver said that his meter wasn't working and quoted me a fare of 20 yuan. I knew he was trying to overcharge me so I said 15 yuan. He begrudgingly accepted. When we arrived close to the station, the driver said that I had to get out and walk, and suggested that he couldn't go any further. He was probably upset that he couldn't overcharge me as much as he wanted. I pretended to be confused by implying that I could not see the station. He said I had to walk and it was around the corner, and that he couldn't drive any further. I pointed towards all of the other cars driving towards the station, and ignored the rest of what he said. Eventually he drove me the final few hundred metres to the station. When I got out of the taxi I left the door open just in case he conveniently forgot that I had luggage in his boot and drove away.

The soft sleeper (first class bed) to Beijing was extremely comfortable. There were four beds, and each bed had its own private TV. Many Chinese cannot afford hard sleepers so I encountered a few more foreigners than I did in second class. I shared my compartment with a mother and daughter from Europe, and a Chinese man.

I was still asleep when the train pulled into Beijing West Station the following morning. When I awoke, most people had already left the train. I quickly gathered my things and left. Inconveniently there was no subway station nearby, so I walked twenty minutes with my luggage to the closest one. Beijing was the most humid and warmest city of my trip so far. Kunming, Dali and Lijiang had all been extremely comfortable and sometimes a little cold in the evenings. Chengdu had been a little uncomfortable, but Xi'an had been almost cold. The remainder of my trip from now would be humid.

I had reserved a bed at a hostel which I thought was close to the football stadium. I had no idea that the hostel would actually be part of the stadium. I paid for four nights at 50 yuan per night. The corridors of the clean and modern hostel curved round with the shape of the stadium. Around the stadium there were other businesses such as restaurants, shops, nightclubs and also a park. Fitness enthusiasts used the outside of the stadium to run or rollerblade around. It was the most unusual location for a hostel during my whole trip.

The Great Wall is not too far from Beijing. Actually, many parts of the wall are close to Beijing but they are not all joined together. The Great Wall is not one long continuous wall as many people believe. It consists of many segments with very large gaps in between sometimes hundreds of kilometres in length. I arranged a ticket to a part of the wall at Jinshanling, 110km from Beijing. It cost 90 yuan return. The bus was due to leave early next morning. It would drop people off at Jinshanling, and pick people up at Simatai. This meant I would have to walk 10km along the wall in order to catch the bus back to Beijing. I tried to sleep early but this was hampered by all of the mosquitoes in the room, and two of my roommates who watched TV loudly very late at night.

The bus journey took three hours in quite cramped conditions. Upon arrival at Jinshanling we were all informed that the bus would leave from Simatai about four and a half hours later. My guidebook said that because of the terrain, the 10km walk would take about four hours to complete. The wall was about 1km from the car park, and by the time I reached it, the steep path had already made me tired. I entered up some steep stairs to find other people standing around, taking their first photos of the Great Wall. Everyone was unsure as to which direction to take to Simatai as there were no signs. However, someone noticed that the wall ended not too far from where we were, so everyone set off in the opposite direction.

The walk was tough as the wall ran along the peaks of the hills. Most of the wall was not flat, and some of it was at a very steep gradient. If the weather had not been good it could have been dangerous. Luckily it was a beautiful clear day and mountain peaks stretched as far as the eye could see in all directions. Everyone walked at their own pace so people spread out quite quickly. Soon, I was only able to see a few people far in front and far behind me. I had only brought 1.5 litres of water with me and I soon realised that this was not going to be enough. It was very hot and I was wearing jeans so I was constantly sweating. Other people found it tough too. Fortunately, all along the wall hawkers were selling souvenir t-shirts, books and drinks. They seemed to find the walk easy. I knew that once I ran out of water it would only be a matter of time until I met someone else who could sell me another overpriced drink.

I came to a part of the wall that Sophia had told me about. She had done the same walk a week before me during worse weather. Every few hundred metres there are watchtowers. Most of the watchtowers can be walked through, but the entrance or exit to others are sometimes a few metres above the wall. These kinds of watchtowers have to be walked around using a path that is usually next to the wall. These are usually no signs to explain this so the first time I encountered one I didn't want to double back the twenty or thirty metres to the path. The exit to the watchtower was nearly two metres above a slope leading down into bushes. The people in front of me managed to climb down, but they were taller than me. However, if I jumped to the right, I could land back on the wall and continue my walk. I jumped, but was unable to jump far enough and landed on the slope. I was about to fall down the slope and off of the wall until one of the people who had climbed down grabbed my hand. When Sophia encountered the same watchtower, she was considering jumping until someone told her about the path further back along the wall. I decided that from now on I would always use a path if there was one. My insurance didn't cover being airlifted to the hospital.

It took me three and a half hours to reach Simatai. The wall was 1km from the car park where the bus was waiting. Instead of walking I chose to take a ropeway. Riders are connected to an overhead rope which they slide down over a lake and onto the opposite bank. From there, a boat takes people close to the car park. This was much more fun than walking down, and was infinitely easier. I slept well that night despite the mosquitoes and noisy roommates.

The next few days were spent wandering around Beijing's shopping districts, Tiananmen Square, and traditional Hutong streets. Hutong are small alleyways where many of Beijing's residents live. Unfortunately many of them are being bulldozed to make way for new developments for the 2008 Olympics which will be held in Beijing. Tiananmen square is the largest public square in the world. Even though there are always thousands of people there, it is still big enough to have a relaxing stroll. At night it is lit up and people fly kites extremely high into the sky - sometimes a few hundred metres. I spent every evening in Beijing in the square. People would come up to me and practise their English. At first I wasn't sure whether they were going to try and sell me something, or ask me to go to an 'art gallery' where they would try and pressure me into buying something. Half of the time the people were genuine, the other half they weren't. I was also asked to be in photographs with Chinese tourists. I guess that they rarely see foreigners in their hometowns, so to see so many in Beijing was an unusual sight for them. Next to Tiananmen Square lies the Forbidden City, so-called because it was off limits to the outside world for 500 years. I was going to go inside, but there were so many tourists that I wouldn't have enjoyed it. Instead, I went to Jingshan Park which offered magnificent views over the Forbidden City and Beijing.

My final destination in China was Shanghai. The train from Beijing only had soft sleepers (first class beds) and soft seats. I didn't want to sit for the long journey so I bought a soft sleeper ticket for 499 yuan plus a 30 yuan service fee. Shanghai is nearly 1500km from Beijing, but the trains on this route are quite modern and take a relatively short time compared to others in China. The journey was due to take twelve hours. I shared my compartment with three other Chinese people. One of them was a reporter who had just done an interview in Beijing. She spoke English so we talked for a while. A free meal was included in the price of the ticket, but unfortunately it wasn't very tasty. It was like the food served on an aeroplane. After talking with the reporter for a few hours I went to sleep.

The train arrived in Shanghai early the following morning. This was not my first visit to Shanghai, so despite its huge size, I expected my final few days to be relaxing since there weren't any sights that I definitely had to go out of my way to see. I booked into my hostel for three nights at 50 yuan per night. When I first came to Shanghai the year before, I decided that it was my favourite city. After my first day there during this visit I still felt the same. I walked along the Bund and along Nanjing Donglu, China's busiest shopping street. I didn't remember there being so many bright lights on my last visit. I had noticed more skyscrapers had been built or were under construction. Halfway along Nanjing Donglu, two giant screens had been erected along with a fountain and a kind of lightshow built into the pavement in the large open space. I visited the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Hall to see what the future holds for Shanghai. I saw a scale model of what the city will look like in 20 years. There were hundreds, possibly thousands, of skyscrapers covering the entire city. Tokyo is part of the largest urban sprawl in the world, but a lot of Tokyo isn't much taller than a few stories. The plans for Shanghai look far more impressive than anything I have every seen. However, the city is sinking into the mud upon which it is built. Efforts are being made to stop the problem, but surely the ambitious plans for Shanghai cannot make things any easier. Since the 1920's, the city has sunk by nearly two metres.

My final days in Shanghai were spent strolling around, shopping and relaxing. Things were cheaper than in Japan, but clothes were still quite expensive. Shanghai can be an expensive place to visit, but it can also be a cheap place to visit if you want it to be. Sometimes I ate western food for 60 yuan per meal; sometimes I ate local food for around 10 yuan per meal. The last time I came to Shanghai I travelled around by taxi. This time I took the subway. Although the taxi is cheap by western standards, everything adds up.

My departure day soon arrived and I faced the choice of how to get to the airport. I could take a bus, a taxi, or a floating train with no wheels which travels over 400 km/h. I arrived at the Maglev (magnetic levitation) station about three hours before my flight was due to leave. The train floated almost silently to the platform. Soon we were on our way and accelerating to a speed of 431 km/h. Less than a minute after reaching this speed we started to slow down again because we had covered the majority of the 30km journey in just a few minutes. We finally reached the airport 8 minutes after we left Shanghai. It was an exciting ride, but I am glad that the other trains that I took through China weren't this fast, or my trip wouldn't have been half as interesting as it was.