A Museum and a King’s Tomb

I visited Guangzhou province during the last week of my trip. As soon as I stepped off the bullet train (the speed of this train reached a whopping 306 km/h!) and into the train station, I finally felt like I wasn’t deaf and mute anymore. I could understand what people were saying and communicate with civilization again! There were Mandarin speakers sprinkled here and there but the majority of the population here speaks Cantonese.

One of the places we visited was the Museum of the Mausoleum of the Nanyue King. I had no idea the tomb in the museum belonged to a king until I started writing this post. Keep in mind that I can’t read any Chinese so I had no clue what the museum is called. I couldn’t say in this post I went to some museum with a tomb because it defeats the purpose of being a travel blogger who recommends places to visit. So in Google, I searched “Guangzhou museum tomb”. The entrance of the Mausoleum of the Nanyue King museum came up and I recognized it instantly. I couldn’t believe this tomb was discovered in downtown Guangzhou and it actually belonged to a king!

The museum housed a lot of artefacts from thousands of years ago. The most memorable artefacts for me would be the amount of ancient pillows on display.

When we think of pillows, those soft and comfy pieces of fluff, which we rest our heads on after a long day, come to mind.  These ancient pillows people used back then look far from comfortable. All of them had intricate drawings, writings and designs and always had a curvature on the ceramic block. Considering the amount of detail and attention put into each piece, I think they are works of art. I can’t imagine what it must feel like to rest your head on one of these for long hours.

The tomb itself was the below the museum. Looking down on the tomb, visitors can see the layout of where each chamber is. Visitors are also allowed to walk inside the tomb and explore each room, which surprised me because all this daily foot traffic must not be good for preserving this excavation. I thought the tomb would be bigger but it only had a couple of chambers and the walls weren’t that high. Anyone taller than 6ft would probably need to duck to enter the chambers. I also expected the chambers to be filled with stuff or have some small reconstruction showing where things were. Instead, each room was empty, you walk in, take your pictures and that was that. I don’t recommend this attraction for those who are claustrophobic, the tomb has small and tight spaces that could make you feel uncomfortable.

If you enjoy museums, put this Mausoleum on your list. The things you get to see will whisk you back to ancient times.

Yellow Dragon Cave

Hunan province continues to amaze me. Not only do they have mystical mountains soaring high up into the skies, it is also home to a massive cave named Yellow Dragon Cave. It is so big the name even suggests a dragon could live in there. When I think of dragons, I think of the dragon Smaug and the Lonely Mountain he lived in guarding all that gold in the movie, The Hobbit. Yellow Dragon Cave isn’t big enough to house generations of dwarves but it is still 120 acres of an underground realm waiting to be explored.

The tour took 2 hours or so inside the dark and mysterious cavern. The majority of chambers we visited were bigger than life, had wide open spaces and ceilings you couldn’t quite find. There are also stalactites and stalagmites throughout the cave, illuminated with different coloured neon lights. For those who aren’t familiar with geology terms, stalactites are icicle shaped formations hanging from the ceiling of a cave and stalagmites are similar but rise from the floor of the cave. Both are formed from water dripping. As the water drips, traces of calcite build up which slowly form stalactites and stalagmites. Sometimes both stalactites and stalagmites end up coming together, forming one long continuous pillar. The length and height of these formations give a good indication of how old Yellow Dragon Cave is because these cave “icicles” take years, if not centuries to develop.

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I remember climbing a lot of steps that day, going up and down in sometimes wet and not very well lit paths. The air was crisp and a bit damp but pleasant from the humidity outside. I also got to ride in a boat down a lake inside the cave! The experience was pretty cool but I’m not a very good swimmer and life jackets weren’t provided. Not having a life jacket freaked me out a little because the lake was vast and who knows how deep the water was!

Yellow Dragon Cave is another sweet spot to check out in Hunan province. Be sure to watch your step when you trek through the cave and don’t get lost!

Tianmen Mountain

In one day, I zipped 7,455 metres up towards a mountain, walked along a glass skywalk thousands of feet above ground and zoomed down the mountain on a road with 99 sharp corners.

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Tianmen Mountain is another mountainous national park in Hunan province. These mountains are like the typical mountains you would expect and not the mystical, beige pillars in the Zhangjiajie National Forest Park. Interesting to note how different the mountains are even though they are in the same city and province. Tianmen Mountain is south of the city, Zhangjiajie, and the other is in the north.

To get up to Tianmen Mountain national park, we went on a 20 minute or so cable car ride that was 7, 455 metres in length. As we kept climbing upwards (I wish I knew how high we were from the ground!), picturesque mountains slowly emerged from the fog. Some of the views felt like a scene from the movies and it was hard to believe this was real. Even though we were told to sit during the ride, I had to stand so I could take better pictures. Standing made the whole ride experience feel more thrilling! I did sit when we almost reached the top of the mountain because the ride got bumpy and the older adults in the cable car said to us younger folks, “You guys better start sitting!”

The views from the top of the mountains made me feel like I was on top of the world. For a brief couple of minutes, I even felt like I was walking on the clouds in the skies. Along the designated hiking path, there is a glass skywalk built on the edges of the mountain. This skywalk features glass panels to your left and glass flooring for those daring and curious visitors who want to look down. Before walking along this skywalk, we had to wear big red slippers to cover our shoes. I think everyone was a little nervous walking through this but once we started walking, it didn’t feel so scary after all. There are videos and photos online showing people walking cautiously and clinging onto the edges of the mountain. Other photos show tourists crawling through the skywalk! I thought the skywalk wasn’t long enough and could be extended for a more exciting experience.

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The swirly paths on the left is the road with 99 sharp turns.

To get down the mountain, we had to take a bus which travels down a long, 2 lane road with 99 sharp turns. This was the only part of the trip I actually felt like my life was in danger. The bus drivers do the same route many a times a day so they drive fast down the mountain like it was no big deal. It was windy going down and the windows couldn’t stay shut. I tried closing the window to feel a little safer but the ride was so bumpy the windows rattled and stayed open the entire time! The guardrails along the side of the road were almost nonexistent. They were low blocks of concrete that aren’t even connected with each other! The width of the road fits exactly 2 buses side by side so when another bus passed us going the other way, they were so close you could probably shake hands with the other passengers. There was even one part of the road where construction workers were busy working and drilling!

Visiting the 2 national parks are the favourite parts of my trip. I never thought nature could be so breathtaking to make me forget all my worries. These are certainly views I would love to wake up to every morning.

Zhangjiajie National Forest Park

Zhangjiajie National Forest Park, a hidden gem inside Hunan province is definitely a place you must visit if you ever travel to China. The photos I took cannot show how incredible, jaw dropping and thrilling the natural landscapes are. All your worries and troubles will suddenly be forgotten when you take a stroll in and around the mountains, it’s as if someone whisked you away into some dreamlike land where everything feels perfect. The air was crisp and cool up there, which is a pleasant welcome from the smoggy city streets, and the breeze was just right that day. I even saw little monkeys, who are native to the mountains, gawking at us tourists.

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These mystical pillars that erode upwards towards the skies are actually quartz sandstone pillars. By the looks of it, these natural formations must have taken thousands if not millions of years to form from gradual geological changes and forces of nature. According to UNESCO, there are more than 3,000 of these pillars that are over 200 metres high. Interestingly, I did not see one pillar not covered in vegetation or trees growing at the very top. I wonder how these trees even grow at the top and what kind of wildlife lives there.

We were so high up I could only see tree tops and a thin shroud of mist around the pillars when I looked down. Speaking of looking down, I am pretty sure if any accidents were to happen, no one would ever hear from you again! The base of these pillars seemed nonexistent because the ground was nowhere to be seen. Every time I looked down, only a lush abyss of more vegetation and quartz sandstone was visible. This national park was also the inspiration for the floating mountains in James Cameron’s movie, Avatar.

I could visit this park many times and still be in awe as if it was my first visit. The views should be even more spectacular during the winter and I hope I can see it in person one day. I highly recommend paying this park a visit because you will not regret it. Do keep in mind the set of rules the park has, even though they should be second nature to us anyway 😉

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The Language Barrier

As mentioned in my older posts, I was part of a Mandarin speaking tour group.  We were told by the travel agency the tour guides speak and understand Cantonese. When they started speaking in nothing but Mandarin during our first outing, I knew the first 2 weeks of my trip was going to be a frustrating one.

Mandarin is China’s official language and Cantonese is only spoken in a few provinces. This is like in Canada, where the majority of the population speaks English but like Cantonese, French is spoken in some provinces. The only Mandarin words I understand are the numbers from 1 to 8 and absolutely nothing else. I also can’t read Chinese characters or write them. Growing up, I learned Cantonese and at the time, the majority of the Chinese community in and around Toronto spoke that. As I got older, I noticed more and more Mandarin speakers no matter where I went. Looks like my days of listening in into random conversations are coming to an end!

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I wonder what these are…

I can’t say the travel agency lied to us because the tour guides did speak and understand Cantonese. Problem was, they only spoke and understood the bare minimum, their vocabulary was limited and they could not carry out a conversation. Every time they spoke, I felt like I was deaf and mute. I didn’t understand the debriefings before we visited someplace, the instructions they would give regarding wake up calls or where to meet, and most importantly, the explanations they gave when we visited historic sites. Every time the bus stopped, I would be thinking “Why are we stopping?!” and every time people on the bus laughed, I thought “What did he say that was so funny??” but “What’s going on??” was usually my reaction during the entire trip. After the first day, looking out the bus windows became more entertaining than “listening” to the tour guide.

Shopping and buying food was another challenge. Pointing to merchandise or items on a menu became my way of communicating. I couldn’t reply to salespeople when they probably asked if I needed help and I had no idea what was on a menu if there was no broken English or pictures on them. Ordering food from international chains like Starbucks or KFC was easy because English text was underneath each menu item. I thought the price of a Starbucks drink would be cheaper in the other side of the world but nope, the prices are pretty much similar to how they are in Canada. I found that international brands like Lay’s potato chips and Oreo cookies, usually had English on their packaging. It was interesting to see the different product variations offered there, I don’t know about you but cucumber chips sound quite “healthy” and refreshing!

Not being able to communicate can be overwhelming and frustrating but it is not the end of the world. Embrace the moment as a clueless traveler because you go home with the most memorable stories to tell.

The Great Firewall of China

We spend so much time online these days it would be hard to imagine life without the internet. Imagine not being able to ask Google all the questions we are curious about or look up addresses and reviews on products and services.  Say goodbye to checking your social media platforms throughout the day and reading about what is happening in your social networks. Without the internet, we can no longer watch TV shows or stream videos whenever and wherever we want. These are just some of the things we would not be able to do if the web decided to disconnect everyone tomorrow. People would go into shock but then again, generations have survived without the internet for ages.

I sort of experienced this shock during my trip and it was an interesting experience. Our freedom of speech, belief and of the press are values I definitely take for granted in Canada and it is hard to imagine what being muzzled is like unless you experience it firsthand.  I was told by family members not to publicly talk about politics or to criticize past or present governments. In Canada, being told not to discuss politics seems absurd because we are free to do so wherever we may be. It felt odd keeping this little nugget of advice in the back of my mind.

Since the internet is the perfect medium for spreading information, beliefs and opinions, it is no doubt heavily censored. Accessing any Google pages or Google owned companies like YouTube was not possible. I couldn’t rely on my go to search engine for every little question I had, check my email, or look up where we were.  However, I was able to access my Gmail account using the Android email app but not through gmail.com directly.centaur

Most social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are blocked. I had almost no source of entertainment during my down time before bed. China has its own platform equivalent to Facebook and Twitter but that’s no use to travellers who can’t read or write the language. Surprisingly, Whatsapp works there and I am glad it does. Whatsapp was my only way of communicating with family and friends back home!  I was also able to catch up on news happening at home by accessing either the Toronto Star’s or National Post’s websites. However, CBC and the New York Times’ websites were blocked. I understand why the New York Times is blocked because they usually publish articles critical of China but with CBC, I’m not too sure.

Public Wi-Fi is available almost everywhere regardless if you are in a business, school, hotel or house. As soon as you walk into the street, there is a public Wi-Fi network. I wish there was public Wi-Fi everywhere in Toronto! In some places, to sign in, it looked like you needed to register an account with your phone number.  No thank you to that!

Disconnecting from the internet is an eye opening experience. You do not realize how much you rely on it or use it until it is taken away from you. Check out this site to see which websites work and which don’t.

Your Worst Nightmare

Oh the things in a washroom you take for granted: toilet paper, paper towels, soap, proper locks, and a toilet where you can sit down.  We never think about these things in a washroom because they are usually the standard wherever you go in North America. Cleanliness is also a bonus with the exception of bars, nightclubs, amusement parks and outhouses. In most public places in China, you do not get the luxury of a sit down toilet but the luxury and guaranteed experience like no other, an infamous squat toilet.  Whether in museums, restaurants, or airports, squat toilets will be your new friend. In hotels however, toilets are the sit down kind and it is wise to use that toilet as much as you can, as long as you can, for whatever you need to do.  Whatever you need to do.

When you enter those washrooms for the first time, the stench will be overbearing. The floors and walls are usually not pearly white or squeaky clean, in fact, watch your step to avoid slipping and don’t be surprised if it isn’t well lit in there. All the stalls are raised up on a little platform and once you get that door open, the flat porcelain throne awaits. Again, don’t expect a pearly white or squeaky clean toilet unless you are in a high end restaurant. Do remember to bring your own toilet paper and if you see a garbage bin inside your stall, that is where the toilet paper should go. Apparently, their plumbing in some areas cannot handle toilet paper being flushed.  Since putting toilet paper in the toilet is so second nature to me, I usually forgot not to put it there. “Oh crap” usually followed after I saw it struggling to flush.

Other pieces of advice, your face should be facing the stall door and try not to bump into anything inside the stall because they aren’t very wide. Make sure the door is locked properly, I found them unlocking easily whenever someone bangs their door beside you. Sometimes, because I was paranoid, I would place one finger on my door just in case.  Once you are all done, wash your hands and run out. No need to stay in there longer than you need too!

Mastering the squat toilet takes a few tries but if you are brave and quick, you will learn a new skill in no time. More often than not, if nature calls and you have no other option, you will have to just suck it up. Thankfully, washrooms in private homes and hotels are just like washrooms in North America, I promise there are no surprises there!

Don’t Be Surprised

The honking doesn’t stop. Cars zip in and out of lanes whenever there is a tiny opening. Electric bikes are everywhere on city streets. Crowds are everywhere.  Smokers are everywhere.  Public toilets are a nightmare. This land is far from the peaceful and orderly Toronto I’m used to.

For all those who think Highway 401 or the Gardiner Expressway is bad during rush hour, traffic in China will frighten you. Ontario drivers, most of the time, drive in an organized manner except for when you see the occasional impatient bozo who think they own the road or the usual case of road rage. Drivers only honk to alert others of something or when someone ticks off another. I can’t believe I’m saying this but there is some sort of peacefulness in Toronto’s congested roads. Drivers don’t honk relentlessly or constantly squeeze into lanes whenever there is a teeny weeny gap between cars. In China however, this is the norm. If one doesn’t drive closely to the car in front of them, everyone will cut them off.

On top of other cars drivers have to look out for in China, there are also a ton of electric bike riders. These bike riders will drive so close to cars that first time visitors will be amazed at how they get to where they have to be in one piece. No matter how big or small the car or bus, they are not afraid to do something daring.  The passengers on these bikes are even braver. Sometimes I would I see a child standing in the space between the driver and the steering handles. I saw children sitting on the back seat of these bikes and even a woman carrying her baby in the back! Riders don’t wear helmets; heck passengers in cars don’t even always wear seat belts!

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This blatant disregard for safety made my jaw drop. On the 3rd day of our trip, our tour bus even got into an accident! I still can’t believe this actually happened. We were stuck in traffic on a highway and after a standstill, our driver accelerated a little too much and bumped into a truck transporting a shipping container. I was awake to watch the whole thing unfold and knew we were going to hit that truck. The windshield shattered instantly and our bus was clipped into the back of the shipping container. The air conditioning and engine turned off and we had to wait a good 20 minutes or so in the sweltering heat for authorities to arrive. Fortunately, everyone on the bus sustained only cuts and bruises. When the authorities arrived, by authorities I mean only 1 police car, 2 fire trucks and highway maintenance crew, we were ushered to the right side of the highway where we stood and waited on the shoulder lane until another bus picked us up.

The accident caused a mess on the highway that day. There was only a shoulder lane on the right side of the road and the accident took place 2 lanes from the left guardrail. The vehicles couldn’t be steered to the side because there was no left shoulder lane. Pylons were used to barricade the large crash site and despite the lack of space and dangerous conditions, cars were still squeezing into the last left lane to get around the crash. I found this ridiculous considering the amount of glass that was on the road. When the bus was towed, the glass wasn’t even cleaned up! All the cars were driving over it as if nothing happened! After all this, our tour guide didn’t even ask us once if everyone was ok.

Another unsafe thing I noticed was how their trucks transport goods. In Canada and the U.S, goods are usually transported inside an enclosed tractor trailer. I don’t remember seeing many tractor trailers of this sort in China. Instead, I saw a lot of flat bed trucks and everyone could see what they were transporting, regardless of how big or small the load. I saw packages of mail all bundled together, tree logs and even metal barrels stacked into a pyramid. They were tied together with what looked like “heavy duty” string or straps of some sort.

If you ever travel to China, always, always be alert on the roads.

Hotels in China

For the first 2 weeks of the trip, we were part of a Mandarin speaking tour group. During the 1st week, we visited Shanghai and its neighbouring provinces and for the 2nd week, we went to Hunan, a mountainous province where Avatar was filmed. The last time I was part of a tour group was back in grade school when we visited Quebec. Great trip overall, only drawback was the early wake up calls. I’m never a fan of early wake up calls but I expected it when I signed up for these tours.

What I didn’t expect was scurrying from hotel to hotel every day. We were rarely in the same hotel for more than 9 hours. The days were long, they usually started at 6:30 or 7 in the morning and you would not see a bed until 10 or 11 at night. I looked forward to plopping myself on these glorious beds every night.

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One hotel we stayed in was beside a military training complex. Early in the morning and late at night, I would hear trainees practicing their marches, chanting in unison “Huh! Huh! Huh!” loudly. I was surprised to see this beside a hotel because I thought military training grounds were usually in isolated areas. Being a typical tourist, I wanted to snap a photo so badly from my bedroom window but remembering some online articles I read about travelling in China, it is never a good idea to take photos of their military or government buildings. I didn’t want to risk being detained 11,000 km away from home!

Most of the hotels we stayed in were impressive and their lobbies were extravagant. Every drawer, closet, and anything that could open had something unexpected in there. All closets had 2 pairs of soft white slippers, bathrobes, a shoe shining mini kit, several clothes hangers, and even gas masks for emergencies! Every room provided 2 water bottles and some even had tea leaves for you to brew your own tea. To satisfy all those environmentally conscious folks, all the lights wouldn’t turn on unless your room key was in the card reader near the door.

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What stood out the most for me was their washroom layout. The counters and sink were always separated from the toilet area and the shower/bath area. The toilet was in a little room next to the shower/bathing room, both enclosed with frosted glass doors. If someone ever gets really sick in the washroom, there is always a phone next to the toilet so they call for assistance. Can’t decide whether to take a shower or bath? You can do both! As soon as you step out of the bathtub, it becomes a shower area too. Toothbrushes, nail clippers, cotton swabs, mini nail filers, and toothpaste were also provided.

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Although we didn’t stay long in each hotel, they were comfortable and served its purpose. If you join a tour where you stay in a different hotel every night, unpack only the essentials. In less than 9 hours, you will find yourself packing up again and it is quite easy to lose track of what you take out.

The 14 Hour Flight

I’ve never been on a flight longer than 2 hours or travelled outside of North America. The furthest I’ve been outside of Canada would be Key West, Florida where I reached the most Southern tip of the United States. We were only 90 miles (144 km) away from Cuba and I thought that was pretty cool at the time.

I knew my trip to China would destroy my Florida adventure any day. The only thing I had to get through was the flight, a whopping 14 hours and 15 minutes of flying through territories, countries, and the dateline. Put into perspective, this also meant sitting idly around 50 other people or so for 2 straight work days (almost) while soaring through the clouds.

What was I going to do for 14 hours?!

If you ever find yourself on a 14 hour flight, here is a list of things you could do:

  • Watch movies/listen to music
  • Play games
  • Talk to your flight buddies (..or not)
  • Read
  • Take photos
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The sun setting somewhere in the Arctic. These look like snow pyramids from above.

But for a comfortable flight experience, you should:

  • Get up and walk around (This is a must! I sat for 5 hours straight and my legs were wobbly when I got up)
  • Drink plenty of water (It can get pretty dry inside the plane)
  • Wear loose fitting clothes
  • Bring a neck pillow
  • Sleep

I can’t sleep in any mode of transportation but almost everyone, like I expected, slept through most of the flight. Unfortunately for them, they missed out on some pretty incredible views of the Arctic and parts of Russia! I was lucky enough to be at a window seat and stayed awake until the last 2 hours. I can’t even fall asleep in a car and of all places, I fell asleep in a plane.  However, I must apologize to my fellow passengers on AC87 that day if I disturbed your sleep, I couldn’t stop pulling the window panel up (slightly) to take pictures of the incredible view outside! I hope you didn’t notice the bright sunlight coming in…

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Snow mountains in the Arctic, sun still setting.

The photos can’t even show how spectacular the views were from above. I was speechless. It was interesting to see the sun setting as we approached the dateline, this was around 5:30 PM Eastern time. My sense of time went out of whack as soon as we crossed the dateline. After 2 hours flying above the Arctic Ocean and the East Siberian Sea, the sun was rising again, signalling the next day somewhere in Russia in some other time zone.

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The sun rising after crossing the dateline.
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Somewhere near Russia.

The 14 hour flight was tiring but if you keep yourself busy, with whatever you choose to do, the trip to the other side of the world is worth it.

*The image of the snow capped mountains was taken somewhere in Russia. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw that landscape.