Leaving Xinjiang and the incredibly diverse Gansu region behind, we spent some days with family and friends in Beijing. Before leaving China for good, our goal was to tick off a couple of China’s most famous bucket-list items. As time was limited and we still wanted to visit Kevin’s family in Yichang, we had to narrow down our list to two destinations, Yangshuo, China’s backpacking and climbing paradise, and Chengdu, home to China’s most favourite icon, giant pandas.
Logistically, Nicole had a double-entry visa for 30 days each and as we were approaching the end of the first 30 days, we had to leave China and re-enter. So we flew to Hongkong (yes this is definitely worsening our carbon footprint, but it was more time-saving than taking a bus from Beijing to Mongolia and back) and literally took a bus directly from the airport back to Mainland China. After a lot of transfer frenzy (Chinese has amazing high-speed trains, but the train stations are always located at the end of the world), we finally made it to Yangshuo!
Yangshuo, the most bizarre and adventurous town in China?!
Yangshuo is THE backpacker town in China.
It basically consists of only hostels, restaurants and bars and is a pretty bizarre place in China, where western-style backpacker tourism is not really big anywhere else. Not having seen more than maybe two other foreigners at all since Kashgar (and even there it was only a group of 5 cyclists or so), it was suddenly weird for Nicole not to be stared at and being able to communicate in English. Usually, such touristy places are not too appealing to us, but it was nice meeting other backpackers and eating real pizza.
While Yangshuo is best known for its incredible natural beauty and nightlife, the real reason we came for Yangshuo was climbing! In the recent years Yangshuo, located in the middle of thousands of limestone karsts, developed into a world-class rock-climbing paradise with routes for all levels (starting at 5.6 up to 5.14b). As a lot of the routes are only within 30 minutes, we simply hired two bikes and cycled to the karsts each day. We stayed at the Climbers Inn hostel, which was perfect for renting all the equipment, meeting other climbers and borrowing their climbing guide (you can also buy the guidebook everywhere in Yangshuo). Plus, the hostel’s manager Lily was one of the best we had during our travels and incredibly helpful and friendly. She’s a climber herself and could give us lots of advice to be perfectly prepared.
After not having climbed for several months our climbing muscles and grip strength shrank to non-existence. We pretty much had to start from zero, but climbing in Yangshuo was so much fun, we will definitely come back again and stay longer. We even thought of buying a flat there so we would have a perfect excuse to come as much as possible :D. We climbed for three days and could see our muscles and techniques slowly coming back. Particularly for Nicole it was quite a new experience to climb actual rocks after having only trained in a climbing gym in Jordan. And we both learned how to clean a route (removing all quickdraws and cleaning the anchor at the top), which is a bit scary to do it the first time (particularly when you have to open your knot while your dangling at 20m above ground).
After three full days climbing and before heading on to Yichang, we decided to do some of the more traditional sightseeing and rented a scooter to drive to Xingping and along the Li River. The views of the limestone towers and the river actually made it to the backside of the 20 Yuan bill! So even if you are not a climber, Yangshuo is still fascinating!
One million steps up to Mount Emei
Do you remember the last time you decided to take the stairs to, let’s say, the 4th or 5th floor of a building? And probably being a bit exhausted afterwards? That was maybe around 10-13 meters of altitude difference…
And now imagine doing exactly that but climbing up 2,500 meters!
How did we end up doing that? In between Yangshuo and Chengdu, we spent a week at Kevin’s grandparents, feasting on super delicious homemade food and decided that there must be a way to put all these extra calories to work! So we decided to climb Mount Emei, a sacred Buddhist mountain (check out which other sacred mountains in China we have already visited!) quite near Chengdu. And although there are several ways to tackle Mount Emei if you want to hike up Mount Emei without taking a tourist bus or cable car you have to climb 2,500 meters, in steps.
So we walked what felt like a million steps up: 2500m and 25km up the first day and then on the second day, another 500m up, before going 3000m down covering a distance of around 30km. When we planned this hike, we already thought this will be crazy exhausting and we would regret it the minute we start going up. And yes, it was super arduous, but once we found our rhythm it was actually okay. We just had to take it step by step :). On our way, we also encountered some of the infamous monkeys of Mount Emei. Although monkeys seem to be rather cute and funny animals, they are also very very astute and, of course, smart. So they know very well, how to trick the tourists and rob their food, bags or just scare them to death.
The first day we were a bit unlucky with the weather, although it gave the scenery a nice mystic touch. Well – “scenery” – the view was so bad, you could not call it a “scenery”, let alone “view”. The fog started to emerge after half an hour walking and got so dense, we could barely see more than 5 meters (if at all).
Then it also started to rain and the last 500m up the steps were covered with ice and snow making them a bit slippery. But we made it just in time after around 7-8 hours and before it got too dark! That night we stayed in a monastery next to Jieyin Palace (when we arrived, we didn’t even see this huge palace was there at all!), rooms were quite spartan and without heating and so it was freezing cold. But after that day, everything was welcoming.
We didn’t get much time to sleep as we had to get up again at 5am in the morning, equipped with torches and wrapped up in layers of clothes, to climb the last 500m up (of course, only steps) to reach the peak – the Golden Summit – for sunrise. With too many clouds in the sky, the sunrise was not too spectacular, but the view from the peak was still impressive and simply beautiful!
Here our bad luck with the weather turned out to be pretty amazing! In the higher regions, it had snowed the night before and everything was still covered in white, opening a winter wonderland in front of us.
What you won’t be able to imagine is the crazy muscle ache in our calves we experienced the days after Mount Emei and lasting for about a week. People probably actually thought we were handicapped because we couldn’t walk straight and had to hobble so much to overcome any small step.
Lots of cute, chubby Pandas
On our last day in China, we had to tick-off the most important bucket-list item: China’s giant pandas! Even Kevin had not seen a panda in real life before. And they are just as cute and chubby and fluffy as they look like in all those YouTube videos!
The only region where giant pandas originally come from and still live in the wild is located in south central China, particularly the mountains of the Sichuan province near Chengdu. As most of you know, pandas are a vulnerable species and there are only 1,500-3,000 left living in the wild. As they’re China’s unofficial national icon and most beloved animal, the government at least put some effort into protecting the species in recent years. This paid well off and pandas are now only considered a “vulnerable” species (according to IUCN classifications), not an “endangered” anymore. One of the centers working hard to protect and increase the species is the Chengdu Research Base Of Giant Panda Breeding. The base hosts currently 113 giant pandas and 76 red pandas.
As it’s basically impossible to see wild pandas, this Panda-Base is probably the best way to see those cute animals! We went in the very early morning, when the pandas receive their breakfast and are the most active. Once they’re done with eating, they directly fall asleep. That’s all they do – eat and sleep! Their main diet consists of bamboo and as bamboo has so few calories, pandas not only have to eat a lot (!) of bamboo, but also have to sleep after eating to not burn too many calories again.
And it happened just like that: Breakfast was from 8:00-9:30 and we got to see a lot of pandas from young to old eating while running around, climbing trees and playing (or fighting) with each other.
But at 9:30 sharp, latest 9:45, we only saw them lying around, eyes closed and sleeping. What a life they have! :D
written by Kevin and Nicole in Canggu, Bali.
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