2 Weekends, 2 Mountains: Moganshan and Sanqingshan

The last couple of weekends have taken me to two different mountains where I have been able to walk 2 very different hikes.

Mountain 1 – Moganshan.

Nicki and I decided that we needed to remove ourselves from the city life. Partly due to the fact that I was growing irritable to the non-desirable habits of lots of Chinese people (although I am now writing this on a train beside someone who wants me to hear how loud he can chew). It was true that going somewhere less crowded and polluted was a welcome break fro us both.

Nicki met me at Hangzhou train station where we took a short train to Deqing. There were people sitting in our seats but we decided to leave them as our journey was to be no more than 10 minutes. However, we initially annoyed everyone by opening our beer all over them before ending up coming to a standstill and waiting an hour to get to our destination. In retrospect a taxi, bus, car or bicycle would have been a better option of travel.

Fortunately for us the small city is a stones throw away from the mountain and our lodge for the weekend.

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We woke up relatively early on the Saturday morning to begin exploring Moganshan. Our host had made us breakfast to set us up for the day. We initially tried to make our own way towards the trails as we were aware that Moganshan is full of trails that are not well trodden. This exploration led us to a clearing behind a house. We decided to explore it.

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Soon after beginning our hike we realised that there was no one else on this trail. This meant that we had the bamboo that enveloped us all to ourselves. It was nice to try to spot paths beneath the overgrown floor, but we were slightly concerned with the number of midgy and mosquito bites we were obtaining. In fact, we could not stop moving for more than a minute or so without being bitten. Still, the novelty of the bamboo forest never wore off, nor did seeing the occasional praying mantis.


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We eventually came to a road which took us further up the mountain in a less scenic but more bite-free route before continuing along another hidden trail. It was really nice to walk without a map and without an end goal. We were carelessly walking with the knowledge that our lodge would simply be back down the mountain.

In fact, when we decided we might need to eat again, we walked back down the bamboo forest paths and stopped for a local lunch and a local beer.

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Following lunch we decided to walk a different route, this time following one of the trails on a map. We attempted to ask some Chinese people for directions but the ones we chose appeared to have very little Mandarin Chinese as they were also visitors. It didn’t help that my Chinese isn’t quite where I want it. Still, they decided they wanted to go where we were going so joined us. Chinese people walk slowly at the best of times but these were of the older, even slower, generation. It wasn’t long before we made our excuses and walked on.

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We came to an open lake along the trail and ventured down through the bamboo towards it. There were Tibeten flags waving beside the lake which added to its serenity.

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We called it a day after that, satisfied that we had fulfilled our objectives for the day and keen to have the late afternoon resting on the terrace of our lodge, which didn’t disappoint either.

In fact, we spent the remainder of the day sitting on the pine terrace looking over the river with our feet up. We were happy to sit smugly when a couple of English girls turned up demanding the world from the poor family who owned the place. We decided that the family would prefer us, if it mattered.

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On the Sunday morning we were in no rush to get up. Instead we were offered a lift from the landlord to the train station around midday (because we knew they liked us).  This gave us an opportunity to walk for a while in the morning to take in some of the fresh air before retuning to city life.

Mountain 2 – Sanqingshan.

Since Nicki had to work a few more days before her half term began I decided to use her work days to go somewhere that wasn’t on our ‘to-go-to’ list. In hindsight, I think it probably would’ve/should’ve been.

I had spent the Saturday in Ningbo before catching a 6am train to a small city called Shangrao in Jiangxi province. From there I caught a short train to Yushannan, where I thought the mountain began (because I stupidly used a map and not the internet).

I refused to get in a car from one of the hassling drivers who were begging to drive me somewhere. As an escape I jumped on a public bus crowded full of people who stared at me with there chins dropped. I was definitely beyond the major cities here. The driver asked where I was going, but I was only able to tell him ‘I don’t know, I’ll have a look’.

The bus stopped in a place that resembled civilisation but had far less traffic. I got off the bus at the point and found myself outside a bank where I asked for directions to the mountain. I was greeted by 4 girls who were willing to help in exchange for a photograph with them. They then gave me a mooncake to eat in celebration for the day’s national holiday. Ultimately I left the bank with a set of directions which made it look a struggle to get to the mountain.

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In fact, it wasn’t. I was quite close to the local bus station where I was able to get on an old bus heading for the mountain. It was a 70-minute journey but I was pleased that it was costing me less than 2 pounds to get there.

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I arrived mid afternoon so used that time to have a brief walk around the village before sunset and then having an early night before the morning trek.

On the bus journey the previous day I had met some university students who were also trekking the next day. I asked if I could join them, and they were pleased to welcome me. I was to meet them somewhere near the peak of the mountain.

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Sanqingshan exists in the midst of hundreds of other mountains and the cable car to the start of the trek is like a scene from Jurassic Park. It took me, and the Cantonese people I initially found myself with, beyond the clouds and into the morning mist before disembarking to a feeling of chilliness.

The morning clouds were still prevalent as I began walking along the narrow mountain-side paths. The place is clearly reminiscent of Zhanjiajie, Hunan in its beauty and the unpredictable behaviour of the weather.

Within half an hour I stumbled across a camp from the previous night. Eating breakfast beside it was the gang of university students I met the on the bus. We agreed to walk together for the remainder of the day.

It was a good job that I had got a good sleep the previous night as the day was slightly relentless in terms of miles walked, inclines made, attempting to communicate in Chinese (which is more tiring than I imagined), and battling the weather. It was certainly fun to become part of a Chinese group, which helped restore my faith in the nation’s people. They were kind and friendly, helpful, and humorous.

There were points on our trek that made my heart leap. The paths hug the mountain in an unnatural way that leave you feeling uneasy about taking another step. Indeed, one of our group refused to step too far away from the mountain face in fear of being swept off the path to the abyss below, which wasn’t helped by the unpredictable wind.

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Like Zhangjiajie, the rock formations are the most stunning parts of the mountain as they leap up from the Earth in the strangest of ways.

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The mountain itself is famous for its Taoism and has a temple at its highest point to celebrate this. It was always our goal to reach there at the midpoint in the afternoon as we wanted to set up camp there for the evening. Yet, we were left disappointed by the lack of opportunities to camp there. Undeterred we kept walking until we found somewhere more suitable to camp.

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We came across a pavilion about 20 minutes later. We decided to set up camp beneath the shelter it offered as the weather was getting slightly dangerous for a continued hike along the mountains edge (in visibility, slipperiness and wind). The Chinese people I was with (who I haven’t named as I regretfully don’t remember their Chinese names and they didn’t have English ones) somehow found a sweeping brush to remove the bugs, leaves and grub from our sleeping spot. It is worth noting that we picked up a middle aged man with a tent to himself at some point along the way, and I was able to sleep in his tent during the night. We assembled the tents and sat satisfied.

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It soon became apparent that we had made the correct decision as a group of 3 lads came down from the temple and also didn’t want to risk their lives on the cliff path. They too put up their tents within proximity of ours.

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Darkness set in quite early and we formed a circle beside the tents where all food was put in the middle and shared (of which I had very little to offer). We then played card games before taking turns to sing songs. It was a really special evening where I really felt pleased to have joined such a group as the experience would have been far less enjoyable alone.

We were all asleep by 8:30 and I slept peacefully beside the middle aged Chinese man we referred to as ‘uncle’.

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20150929_071307Our early night led to an early morning trek back down the mountain side. We braved the walk despite the imminent typhoon which had led to trains being cancelled below. The path hugging the mountain took a scarier turn when parts of it became see-through glass that enabled us to see what lay beneath(a drop). We then came across a rope bridge which added another element to our morning adventure.
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Due to the continuing mist we were unable to stop to enjoy many of the sights during the morning which meant we returned to the cable car base earlier than anticipated. With the help and company of my new friends we returned to Shangrao where I was able to jump on an earlier train back to Hangzhou to have a shower and wash my clothes ahead of the next adventure to Seoul, South Korea.

Treks in Yunnan, Hunan and now Jiangxi have seen me join up with Chinese compatriots, each welcoming me into their group on their own treks. My last two mountain trips have restored my affection for the Chinese people.

A new life in China: Ningbo, Qiandouhu, Hangzhou and Beijing.

It has now been a month since my latest dip into the Middle Kingdom. There is a plethora of reasons why I have waited this long to write an entry, not least because I have had limited opportunities to share photos.

In fact, since I am working more than travelling, I will attempt to write monthly entries in order to ensure that I keep doing things interesting enough to write about.

It seems like an age since I touched down in Guangzhou for the first time in 3 years and I was comforted by the familiarity of the extreme humidity of Guangdong. I arrived at my hostel late in the night and reminisced around the city the next day before meeting Benny for the first time since 2011. Benny was my first Chinese friend who I met in week 1 of my first trip here. He has grown up a lot since but remains one of the nicest people I have ever met. Together with Angel (badminton lady from my first school) we enjoyed delicious Cantonese food before a few drinks. It felt like I was back.

It wasn’t long before I was boarding my plane to my new home in Zhejiang and after a short flight I was greeted by Autumn, a nice Chinese lady who would take me into the city of Ningbo and my hotel. The hotel was much better than I expected and a far cry from the hostels I have always slept in. Little did I know that I would spend the next 20 days calling it home.

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After a day of acclimatisation in Ningbo I was required to attend the primary school for my induction. This meant my summer holidays had lasted no more than a week. Part of me still feels as though I had earned the summer break following a long school year. Oh well. My induction period lasted for 2 and a half weeks, and I don’t think it will make interesting reading even though there are certain parts that will live with me forever, such as out first aid training.

Unquestionably, the best part of the 2 and a half weeks spent in Ningbo were the people I met for various reasons. I became particularly close to a British girl named Nicki and a New Zealand couple named Mark and Olivia. Together we were able to find the humour in everything, particularly by relating everything to a scene in The Office (which was easy to do). Generally, we would be out of school by 4pm and we were able to find some Chinese food to try out or a bar to meet in. The group of 12 became quite close because we spent so much time together during this period.

In fact, at the end of the first week Nicki and I decided to leave the city for a while and travel to a large lake just beyond it. We decided to hire a tandem bicycle and cycle around the lake and a water town surrounding it. As soon as we began our cycle ride we were hit by a tropical storm. This made for an adventurous exploration of a water town as we were being beaten with rain trying to navigate our bike across the narrow cobbled streets. The rain became so heavy that we eventually stopped riding in order to seek shelter. We found ourselves in an ancient building full of old men playing Mahjong. We were well greeted and were even asked to sit and play. Nicki clearly enjoyed the atmosphere of the Mahjong table as the rain battered the makeshift roof made of tarpaulin.

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As the rain subsided we were able to find a small restaurant willing to provide us lunch before returning the bikes and continuing on a stroll across the lake. We eventually took on the challenge of returning by public bus, which we managed successfully.

In this respect, it has turned out as I thought it would, with my weekdays being focused around work, leaving travel as a priority for the weekend. Indeed, the following weekend Nicki and I travelled to Thousand Island Lake (QIandouhu). It was aptly named since it has over 1000 small islands within the lake. On the Saturday morning we set off by bus on a journey that was considered to be between 3 and 5 hours. In the end it took almost 6 hours which made a major indent in our day. We managed to walk a fair distance and discussed how we might be earning a reputation for ourselves as a couple of people who only visit lakes at the weekend.

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Since it was too late in the afternoon to begin any excursions we were kindly picked up by a young girl called Nemo, who took us back to her dad’s house for our homestay visit. The family cooked us up a great meal and provided us with a nice room to stay in.

It has quickly become apparent that Nicki and I are very similar in many ways, which is more of a blessing than I imagined. It seems that being around someone with a laid back approach to problems and a similar sense of humour makes life a lot easier.

The following day we ventured back towards the lake. I have made far more effort with my Chinese in recent weeks but I struggled in this environment, yet we eventually managed to convince a boat man to take us to several islands on the lake. It was a great experience on the different islands, and it felt like we had hiked a small mountain by the time we returned for our monstrously long bus journey back to Ningbo. We had the beautiful images of the lake to keep us company coming home though.

During my final half week in Ningbo I was met by Simon, who would be my boss in Hangzhou. He seemed great, aided by the fact that he is also British. Since I had made lots of new friends in Ningbo, Nicki being the best of them, it was difficult to leave the city. It felt even more difficult knowing that most of them would remain together for the foreseeable future. However, myself, Jeremy and Simon ventured on to a new beginning.

As it turned out, by the end of that same day we had arrived in Hangzhou, viewed apartments and secured tenancies on the places we wanted to live. This meant I could quickly call Hangzhou home. I was particularly pleased with the quirky layout of my apartment, but less impressed with the 2 month’s deposit that I had to pay.

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We spent the remainder of the week attempting to create a nice class room atmosphere with our limited resources. The weekend break was welcome and Nicki came to experience Hangzhou. The most famous landmark in Hangzhou happens to be a lake. Cautious of our new reputation we steered clear of the lake for the weekend and instead took in some other sights, such as an ancient street and 6 pagodas.

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Monday came quickly and this signalled the arrival of the children back at school. This was quite an experience as the parents in my class represent a very close knit community and they were quick to make me part of it. I have quickly noticed how I have to adapt my teaching style here and I feel as though it will take me a while to adjust to the children, as much as they need to adjust to me.

After only 3 days of the new term we had a national holiday to celebrate the end of World War 2 (the Anti-Fascist, anti-Japanese war). This meant that we had the Thursday and Friday to do as we wish. In typical Chinese fashion we were required to return to work at the weekend to catch up on the learning the children had missed.

To take advantage Nicki and I had booked a cheap flight to Beijing on the Wednesday night and a bullet train back on the Saturday. Nicki’s resolve was tested on when we arrived in Beijing since we realised that she had left her residence permit receipt (temporary replacement for a passport) on the plane and we would therefore not be allowed to stay in the hostel, nor get our transport back. I was immediately impressed with her lack of stress or panic, but noticed that she instead thought more pragmatically about the solutions and how we could get by. The hostel we had booked into would not let us stay, aside from the small sofas by the entrance. It was already 3am so we obliged and decided to wake up early to seek a solution to our problem. I think that we both secretly enjoyed having a problem to solve.

Despite Beijing having so much to offer we made it our mission to ensure that we could both get back to Zhejiang Province for work at the weekend. Our first stop was the airport, where we found out that the permit had not been found but we had the opportunity to watch some of the massive military parade happening close by in Tiananmen Square.

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We then headed to the train station but could only obtain my train ticket without a valid passport. We then considered a variety of legal and illegal options, but we were warned by the British Embassy to stay on the right side of the law. Strangely, the British Consulate and embassy were shut because of the military parade so were of little help to us. We were no closer to getting a train ticket back for Nicki by the evening but felt confident that the embassy would sort us out in the morning.

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Consequently, we headed for a walk into Beijing’s ancient hutongs. It has been 5 years since I last visited Beijing but there was an air of familiarity about the hutongs, which felt strange as we wandered past bars and shops. We settled in a couple of bars and enjoyed a peaceful night with a few drinks and some live Chinese music.

The next day it quickly became apparent that there was a solution to our problem and the British consulate was able to provide Nicki with emergency travel documents to get her back to Ningbo on time. This was a huge relief and a sense of accomplishment for us both.

This meant we could enjoy the rest of our afternoon and evening without any burden of worry. We headed straight to Tiananmen square, where there were remains of the parade from the previous day. Unlike the previous day, the weather was now horrendous enough for me to consider a poncho as an essential. My last visit to Tiananmen had been in the snow. This was a very different experience.

We wondered around the square for a while and took a few pictures ‘with Mao’ before heading towards the Forbidden City. It is a strange feeling to stand on a square that would appear ordinary had it not been so poignant in China’s rich history. The Forbidden City looked almost more glamourous with a grey sky as backdrop. Yet, it soon started to rain even more heavily and we found ourselves wondering between the great buildings swiftly to avoid the rain. I feel as though it would be best experienced without the need for a poncho or an umbrella hat.

However, we managed to experience more of Beijing than it was looking likely to. We vowed to return with less drama in the future, but I fear it will not be as memorable next time.

I have summarised a whole month very quickly here. It’s been eventful but I am sure China has not presented itself in all the glory I know it holds yet. I keep trying to see China through Nicki’s eyes and want to reassure her and myself that there are more fantastic things to come.