The first group outing we took was to Yuyuan Garden (technically “yuan” means garden/park, so the English name is somewhat redundant). It was blazing hot with the Shanghai sun beating down upon us, but that didn’t stop the flocks of tourists from crowding the same narrow streets we wandered down. It is styled in the classic “Chinese” looking architecture, with pointy, tiled roofs and statues of lions and such everywhere. There are shops lining the walkways where you can buy pretty much any souvenir your heart could possibly desire. Moving in a giant group of 20+ people proved challenging throughout the morning as we took the subway and walked along the streets in a hurried mass. After lunch we split up into smaller groups to do our own things. Once I got into the actual garden, it was a little calmer and I could appreciate the traditional Chinese garden aesthetic with white walls, angular designs, scatterings of rocks and ancient trees, pagodas, and, of course, koi ponds (because every Chinese garden has to have water in it, really). We crossed this zig-zagging bridge that wound by a restaurant (or tea house? Didn’t get a good look) on the way to the ticket office (you can get a student discount on most tickets for cultural attractions in China so always check, you’ll thank me later) and it was actually the same bridge as the one on my first-year Chinese textbooks, so I guess that shows you never know where life will take you until you get there. We had fun doing mini-photoshoots in the garden including all the stares my classmates’ foreign looks attracted.
This was a few weeks later and was a full 2+ hours drive away in Suzhou, Jiangsu. It was humid and hot as per usual, but the sky was clear and umbrellas were only needed for sun protection. We had an official tour guide for this trip (his name was Stanley) and we visited some historical sites in the town. Tongli is a “water village” and is built on these canal-type water ways, I even heard someone refer to it as the “Venice of China.” (a bit of a stretch). It is also a popular tourist destination, and the streets were crowded with Chinese and foreign tourists like ourselves (several other tour group flags were spotted throughout the day). We had lunch at this old style place with tables overlooking the water, which was pretty cool (and I’m down for any time we have an organized, family-style meal where they order for us and we get to try the local specialties). After lunch, we took a boat ride down the water way that ran through the heart of the village (like a gondola, but with short roofs) which was lovely and the peace was very welcome after the hurriedness of the morning’s activities. Afterward, we were given the afternoon to ourselves to explore the area and buy souvenirs. Two of my classmates and I decided to try one of the “dress-up” photo services that were scattered along the pathways. They’re similar to those glamour shot studios, except here you pick a “traditional” Chinese outfit (they have an extensive catalog to choose from) and take beauty shots along the waterside and around town with assorted props. I’m not much for buying souvenirs and would rather pay for an experience I can’t get anywhere else. Some of you may be thinking “Isn’t that cultural appropriation though?” and I honestly can’t say where that line gets drawn in this situation since it’s literally the business they make their living off of, but I can say I don’t regret doing it.
I had never heard of Huangshan, but apparently it’s one of the most iconic mountains in China and is a major hotspot for tourists. I was just excited to be getting out of the concrete jungle for a bit and see some countryside of the “real” China. When I heard we would be hiking, I imagined a steep, but satisfying journey up a slightly beaten dirt path to the summit to gaze down in satisfaction at the valley below. They also made mention of hot springs at the hotel we would be staying at the second, which made me glad I packed my swimsuit after all. We took a smaller bus and the drive was quite the haul, but 5+ hours and several rest stops later, we arrived in the city of Huangshan. After picking up our tour guide Jackie (like “the kung fu movie star” he told explained), we looked around a couple of “old streets”.
The next morning, we got up real early and had one of the most extensive breakfast buffets at a hotel I have ever witnessed (I’m not a big breakfast eater, and even I went back for seconds). I definitely stowed some croissants in my bag for a mid-hike pick-me-up. The weather didn’t look promising as we set off from the hotel and it didn’t get any better during the hour-long ride to the starting point. When we arrived, I realized immediately that my expectations about the nature hike in some solitude were completely off. There were tour buses and crowds of people milling around everywhere. This was tourist city, even on a crappy weather day. We queued in several lines for an hour or so to reach the mountain side. If there’s one overlooked thing that sets China apart from other countries, it’s gotta be the fact that there’s always, always a line for everything. Ascending the cable, we floated through the clouds of mist surrounding the mountain side, rendering the awe-inspiring view completely invisible. Once we reached the mountain, the weather was even more extreme, with the rain coming down light, fast, and at a slant, making so that even an umbrella combined with a poncho couldn’t keep one entirely dry. The rest of the day consisted of following the flow of tourists, single file along very narrow stone paths and stairs. The views were whited out by the sea of clouds, which was an interesting phenomenon to witness in itself, but a little disappointing in that we came all this way to see the glory that is Huangshan and only got glimpses of rock formations in the mist and soaked to the skin for our efforts. The rain made the trip a bit treacherous and looking down at a couple of the precipices definitely made me wonder how accidents were handled all the way up here.
We ended up leaving the mountain a little early due to the weather conditions making the route we were planning to take down unsafe to continue. Our teachers were real troopers trying to keep us all together in the craziness. Afterwards we just went to visit Nine Dragon Waterfall park and the weather cleared up a smidge. The waterfalls were flowing heavily from all the rain the area had received. It was somewhat touristy as well, but not nearly to the degree of the mountain. The stairs to the final waterfall (Jiulong) were possibly the steepest I have encountered in my entire life, but after a few breathless stops, I was rewarded with the view of a grand, multi-level waterfall. It was gratifying to feel that at least this hike had been worth it.
The hotel we stayed at that night was also quite grand in its own right. It was more of a resort, and when I saw they had a wave pool and rooftop infinity pool, I wished we had been able to spend more time there. The hot springs were more like indoor heated pools, but it was nice to sit and let the tension of the day ebb away in the heat. The next day was clear of events, so we just took things a little slower and spent the day traveling back to Shanghai. I had my first Chinese KFC experience when we stopped for lunch, and strangely enough, nothing about it seemed familiar to me aside from the layout of the restaurant. We were all pretty wiped after the crazy weekend, but it is an experience I am sure never to forget.
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<p>Hi there! If you like cranberries, coffee, or swimming recreationally, you have come to the wrong place (but I'm sure there are blogs for those things elsewhere). I am currently a junior at the College of William and Mary and am studying Sociology and Marketing. I enjoy NPR tiny desk concerts and living vicariously through other people's Snapchats.<br />
Also, I make some pretty decent Spotify playlists and am willing to make one for your next life event, whether it be a wedding, a party, or your dog's teeth cleaning. Join me as I journey through the bustling city of Shanghai and attempt to experience everything in 8 weeks!</p>