The walled city of Xi’an is famous for two things, dumplings and the cultural and historical treasure trove that is the Terrocatta Army. To be honest with you, while I was hyped to visit a place where the history extends to 240BCE – I was also pretty excited about authentic soup dumplings. Fortunately, I was able to tick that one off the list pretty early on – allowing me to focus on the cultural sights with a clear head and a full stomach. In a country that’s famed for its history, Xi’an is among the oldest cities in China. For 6,000 years it’s been on of the cultural and economic capitals of the country, and in 2014 it’s a constant push and pull between the modern face of China and this sense of tradition that gives the city its vibrancy. It’s quite literally manifests itself as soon as you walk out your door and see roadside vendors working next to Gucci and Louis Vuitton boutiques. Later on at the site of the Terracotta Army I was hit by the contrast watching busloads of tourists stopping at Subway for lunch while en route to see a place that considerably pre-dates Jesus. What exactly that means, I’m not sure. But no doubt the future of China and it’s massive cultural and economic influence is at least as indebted to its past as it is its rapid progression. Looking over the army of statues built under instruction of Emperor Qin Shi Huang to protect him in the afterlife its hard to make sense of what it all means, but it’s that ambiguity that’s so compelling. On my last day in Xi’an I decide to cycle the 15km off wall that marks the early borders of the city, but by the time I’m boarding another overnight train to Shanghai I don’t feel any closer to having answers.
Still, I’m able to push away any lingering questions regarding cultural identity as the train pulls into the Paris of the East. I’ve been enamoured with Shanghai for a long time now, and I’m keen to hit the ground running. There’s a vibrancy there that’s unique, more welcoming than the Brutalist skyline of Beijing but without the cloying business oriented artifice of Hong Kong. Shanghai is somewhere in the middle, a European sensibility manifested in a uniquely Asian manner – and I can’t get enough of it. Plus, perfect weather and a lot of free time to wander are a good combination. After sightseeing on the Bund, I decide to check out some of Shanghai’s more unique offerings. From Punk bars, to a thriving skate scene, Shanghai is home to thriving subcultures that are harder to come across throughout the rest of the country. After a quick stop off at Jeff Han’s FLY skate shop, and Kevin Poon’s Juice, it seemed only appropriate to cap off the day with a drink in the French concession. I think it’s sitting there people-watching with a whiskey in hand, among the architectural legacy of colonial occupation in one of the largest cities in the world – that I feel closest to being able to articulate my feelings about China. Still, it’s shrouded in a frustratingly intangible quality – just out of reach. All I know for sure is that I like it here, a lot.
Unfortunately my newfound sense of inner-peace only lasted until the next morning when I arrived at the bus station to depart for Huangshan. While rail travel in China isn’t exactly first class, it’s got nothing on the reality of travelling by bus. The next six hours is punctuated by a series of unscheduled stops, treachorous road conditions, and my neighbouring passenger’s penchant for spitting a seemingly endless supply of chicken bones into the bus aisle. By the time we make it to the town, I’m fully prepared to swear my allegiance to trains forever more. After settling in at a local guesthouse and grabbing a quick meal during which I finally get to try the infamous hairy tofu (tofu left to ferment until it’s mouldy), it’s time to retire. The next day we set out for the heights of Huangshan’s namesake, the Yellow Mountains. Domestic tourism is in full swing, so before long I’m jostling for a decent spot in queue with a few hundred locals. The Yellow Mountains are famous across China for the breathtaking scenery, and each year 15 million people pass through Huangshan. Unfortunately, the higher altitude means the weather tends to be more volatile – and before long we’re attempting to ascend to the peak in a rainstorm. We persist for a few hours, and manage to catch some amazing views before the rain beats us into a retreat. Fortunately the weather clears up the next day as we head to the nearby town of Hongcun to visit a more traditional village. The lakeside town is amazing, with architecture dating back to the Ming dynasty and it has been formally recognised as a world heritage site by UNESCO as of 2000. The sprawling networks of linked alleys and small houses that are built around the water are a testament to the simple beauty of the countryside. Around the lake young artists document the scenery with watercolours – and later in the evening crowds gather in the street to sing karaoke on outdoor projectors and drink rice wine. The pace here is slower, and it’s a calming end to my time travelling through China. I board the train back to Shanghai the next morning after enduring the bus trip back and have some time to take stock. It’s been nearly two weeks, and I’ve covered close to 4,000 kilometres in that time. I’ve seen a lot of different faces of one of the most diverse countries in the world – and I still feel like I’m no closer to understanding any of it. But I’ll be back, there’s no doubt about that.
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