Off the Beaten Path in China (and in general)

Why I’ve Lived Here for One Year and Never Visited the Great Wall; Where I’m Going and Where I’ve Been Instead.

At the beginning of my travels I was obsessed with lists, with notoriety. The top cities of Europe, the great wonders of the world, Paris, London, and Amsterdam. And not to shit on those places (just kidding, Paris is a lawless, piss-smelling place) but that wasn’t where I cemented my passion for travel. Maybe its the hipster in me but I realized after 3 months of ticking off TOP TOURIST DESTINATIONS that my heart lay a few miles off the path paved by “world’s best-loved” articles. I liked wandering through Aberdeen and Antwerp, getting lost in Bad Ischl and lounging on the beaches of Porto (Florence is top though). So heading into China with 18 months of exploring Europe under my belt, I knew that my travels were not going to fit into the typical American travel guide. I landed in Guangzhou, the Southern Capital and over 2000km away from China’s famous attraction with no plans on heading in that direction. What I’ve seen in my year here has only cemented my commitment to this slow and unorthodox way of travel.

Why I didn’t go

Now I don’t know if this is news to you but China has a lot of people. Not just due to its massive size but China is, in many places at least, packed. And these people are traveling at higher and higher rates. Domestic tourism, which has been on an exponential rise for nearly a decade grew by nearly 11% in 2018. All these travelers mean one thing and one thing only for the country’s top destinations: they’re swarmed. I’m talking shoulder to shoulder shuffling crowds, what Mandarin speakers call 人山人海 (rén shān rén hǎi) or people mountain people sea: people crowded as far as the horizon stretches. Now a quick trip to google will turn up countless articles hawking “The Unseen Great Wall” stretches of the marvel in the West that are all but deserted, overlooking breathtaking countryside, and that’s all well and good. But crowds aren’t the only reason I tend to swerve away from such famous destinations.

Heading to Austria for the first time in early 2017 I was determined to visit Hallstatt. I’d read about a beautiful mountain village, a preserved cultural snapshot of mid-19th-century alpine culture and a mountaintop cemetery where the dead were unearthed and their skulls painted and displayed: yes please. We went in the shoulder season, after all I am an experienced traveler, but what I found there wasn’t exactly the snapshot I was hoping for.

Alright, I’ll give Hallstatt this much: the views are breathtaking, the history is well integrated into the town making it a bit like one large museum attraction, and the crypt previously mentioned was actually to die for (sorry sorry sometimes a shit joke just slips out). But the whole place felt… artificial. Maybe it was just the bussed in tourists with selfie sticks but I think that much fame can kind of ruin a place. Obviously, tourism is a gigantic world industry, making over 1.26 billion USD in worldwide revenue in 2015, and I’m happy the people of this small corner of Austria are making a buck off all our voyeuristic tendencies. But to experience a preserved picture of a culture, or a time, or a people you can never, never, head to the place the articles point you towards. The money, the business, the capitalism of it all lends a thick veneer, obscuring realities and intricacies and leaving in their place an easily consumable product. The Hallstatt we found was packaged for our easy consumption and honestly, it made it a little more forgettable and a lot less meaningful.

 

Where I Went in China

Okay so back to China, my current home and love of the ages. Or something like that. Now I haven’t been to even half the places in China I want to see in my time here because, well, I’m living and working here and flights to Korea and Malaysia are so goddamn cheap. The places I have seen though, I’ll sing their praises till the day I die. From open-air seafood mess halls in the country and free museums on tiny islands to deserted mountain hikes and wading in near-untouched sections of the Li River, the China I know is more real to me than any Great Wall day hike or Bejing walking tour ever could be. Sure there have been tourists, and westerners speaking English loud and slow (as if that will help) and packaged plastic trinkets, it’s just the modern traveling way, but if you want to experience the China I’ve seen here’s where to head.

Xingping and Yangshou

Bill Clinton once said, “No Place in China is More Evocative of the Beauty of Your Country than Guilin.” And because he said that even the moderately read western traveler is likely to head to Guilin. Don’t go. Instead, head to the Yangshuo and Xingping area about 83km South East. It’s got all the karst rock formations and lush jungle-adjacent hikes of your dreams, minus the newly paved paths and multilingual tour guides. My advice? Get off the bus and start walking. skip right past the aggressive cormorant fisherman and designated selfie spots and head uphill and out of town. Buy a chestnut jelly from the Super Grandma with two kids strapped to her torso. Sit in awe of your own mortality at the gorgeous hilltop shrines to the dead. Jump in the Li river just to cool off when there’s no one around to show off your beach bod too. And, I can’t stress this enough, definitely hike up this trail to see Yangshuo at sunset (full Yangshuo guide coming soon).

Hainan

ThE hAWaiI oF ChINa (yes I want you to picture the SpongeBob meme). Forget the curated hype this a great place to go to see slow, tropical, Chinese, living. World-renowned for some chicken and rice dish but I’m a vegetarian so miss me with that. I came for the coconuts (growing everywhere on the island and sold fresh and unbelievably cheap on every street corner) and the tea (life changing… okay not really but very, very good). Have yourself a wander in the palm tree forests, stay in some of the cheapest luxury accommodations, and perfect that tan on the pristine beaches.

Guangzhou

This impressive and historic city and China’s southern capital flies under almost every American’s radar. If you’ve never heard of it before thinking about coming to China don’t worry I hadn’t either, the American education system truly failed us. The area has been settled and home to leaders of China since as early as 300 b.c. Plus it is sometimes known as Goat City due to a legend that the land was blessed by five immortals riding different colored goats (and there’s a statue. Radical). So not only would it be a shame to miss this city for all the right reasons but, it’s also wickedly fun. From giant underground shopping malls with peacocks and ponies inside (what) to world-class art museums this city gives me the overwhelming urge to give in to cliche: it has it all. Shop here, drink here, for god’s sake eat here; soak in the history alongside the dim sum. I could spend every weekend roaming these wide boulevards and winding narrow neighborhoods, and I’ve already spent quite a few.

Hong Kong

The big city to beat all cities. The one place I thought I wouldn’t be enthralled with coming to this part of the world and the one place I just can’t seem to get enough of. It might have something to do with the fact that Hong Kong was my point of entry for the last amazing year I’ve spent in Asia, instantly imbuing it with visceral nostalgia. Actually, nah, it’s definitely the rooftop bar city views juxtaposed with the ever-present mountains, the near-unique level of multiculturalism that rivals even London’s boroughs, the integration of art and of course the abundance of pirate ships.

Where I’m Headed

I recently made the decision to spend the month of August traveling China by train rather than flying off to another Top Asian Destination. Part of this was environmental, part of it was cost conscious, part of it was due to the reasoning argued in this piece. To be perfectly honest though, the largest reason by far was just a desire to see more of this country I’ve come to see as my home. I wanted to take my time, get a little farther out there and I’m ecstatic to say that desire is leading me to explore two amazing regions: Tibet and Hunan. My trips are not yet planned or booked but I know I’ll be spending days at a time on sleeper trains, traveling to historical sites and hiking waterfalls and mountains (including THE mountain, that’s right, ya girl is going to Everest!). Something tells me I won’t mind not seeing Beijing when the roof of the world is the alternative.

 

So there it is. My argument on why you should skip the lines and entrance fees of China’s (and the world’s) top-rated attractions and head straight for the smaller destinations, the places where real people are living and working and creating a home for themselves. If you ask nicely (and in the local language) maybe you can be invited in. And I know if you are it will be the experience of a lifetime.

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