We have just entered Laos, the weather is suddenly much warmer, and (of course) we got our first mosquito bites! Welcome to South East Asia!
After crossing Russia, Mongolia and China, our average driving hours have increased, to 300 km per day! This is a lot of driving, and we hope here in the south we’ll manage to take things easier but luckily for you, driving turns out to be the best moment to write our newsletters. So here come the highlights from the north to the south of China, in 20 days!
Entering China by car (and other tips and facts about China)
Crossing the Chinese border by car is not (at all) as simple as it was in Russia or Mongolia, in fact it is almost impossible if you want to do it by yourself. We had to hire an agency to do all the paperwork required by Chinese authorities: temporary Chinese plate and driving licenses, communication of the itinerary to the military, traffic control and government, and probably many other things that we don’t even know about (and that no one will tell you if you try to ask). Together with the paperwork, you are required to drive in China with a guide, who waits for you at the border and spends the rest of the trip with you. When we arrived at the border, our guide Yingchu was already waiting for us, with bad news: the car has to stay at the border for 24h for some papers to be processed. The joys of border crossing!
At least those 24h were valuable for us to learn some things about China, and to prepare our trip. Yingchu was very helpful, and gave us many useful tips. Here are some, together with other things that we found out by ourselves along the way:
- Highway tolls are charged per kilometre, which varies depending on the province, and is very expensive, more than in many countries in Europe! If you want to avoid them, you can use the national roads, which are usually in a good condition, but your trip will take you twice as long.
- Contrary to what we had heard, people generally drive safely in China, and in fact most of the time their mistake is that they drive too slowly, and on the left lane (which means you end up overtaking cars in a zigzag fashion).
- Food and accommodation are usually quite cheap in China, which made us believe that we’d manage to keep a low budget during our trip… but surprise: the cost of tourist attractions is extremely high, except in Beijing, where it is a bit more reasonable.
- Internet doesn’t work well in most places in China, and if you need to use Google, Facebook and other similar sites, you need to download a VPN, to avoid restrictions. Fun fact: we spent the first half an hour in China complaining about the terrible Internet of our hotel… not realising that the sites we were trying to open were blocked! And a tip: for the phone we downloaded the app Betternet, which worked well and is free.
- In China, most people drink hot water, either alone or with tea, and you can find it pretty much anywhere. It comes very handy when you buy pot noodles, or if you want to make tea on the go.
- In restaurants you can usually find varied food, but if you want to buy a snack for the road, you’ll have some trouble: it is impossible to find sandwiches or bread in the supermarkets, that only sell Chinese products, and a very tiny selection of foreign food (basically Chips Ahoy and Oreo). Even Lays have only strange flavours: cucumber, smoked pork bbq, beef burger… Expect to find instead a wide selection of noodles, and of chicken feet. Ludo didn’t seem to appreciate it so much…
The best welcome in Beijing
After a few toy distributions in Mongolia and Russia, we knew that it was time to refill our van with new toys, especially before entering South East Asia. Our guide, Yingchu, had a friend in Beijing whose daughter attends a local primary school, and who loved our project. Together with his daughter and the school principal, they organised the most amazing toy donation we could have imagined.
We arrived in their school after lunch, and were welcomed by the principal and a group of girls in school uniforms, who walked us to the school hall. Inside, a little girl dressed in traditional clothes started playing a beautiful song with a Chinese instrument.
After this magical beginning, we visited all the classrooms, and in each one the children had prepared something special for us: a kung fu performance, songs, dance, etc. Finally we entered a big room, and soon all the kids of the school (over two hundred) came to join us. Here, with the help of a microphone and Yingchu as a translator, we explained our project to the kids; we talked about what we had done so far and where their toys are going. Some of the children asked us questions at the end, but most of them just wanted to say bonjour, hola or hello!
We thought this great evening was over, but they had prepared some other surprises for us: a class of Chinese brush writing, a demonstration of some traditional toys, and a Chinese sweets degustation. Obviously we couldn’t collect toys from two hundred children, and when we headed back to our van, about twenty of them followed us carrying bags full of toys. They gave us so many toys, that they don’t fit in our boxes, and our bed has been covered by toys since then!
Hidden highlights of Beijing
The first thing we noticed when we entered Beijing was the enormous number of electric scooters. They are everywhere, in the big avenues and small hutongs, and come behind you without making a sound. Soon we found out that this wasn’t as eco-friendly as we thought when we arrived: most of the electricity in China is generated from coal! We still loved the city, and even extended our stay by a few days. There are many ‘must do’ visits in Beijing (the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace, the Lama Temple, the Temple of Heaven…) but here we’ll talk about some lesser-known things that we really loved:
Beijing Opera: we went to a performance in the HuGuang Guild Hall, and we had a great time. For a reasonable price you get your own table in front of the stage, with tea and some typical snacks. The opera is completely different from anything you would have seen before, so whether you like it or not it’s an experience you’ll never forget!
Acrobatics: if you enjoy watching the impossible come to life in front of you, you will love Chinese acrobatics. We saw twelve girls riding one single bike, a boy doing acrobatics on top of chairs twenty meters above our heads and eight motorbikes running inside a small iron sphere, among many other incredible things.
Muxiyuan Fabric Market: if, like Ana, you like making your own clothes and home décor, this is the place to go. Although finding good quality fabrics in such a gigantic space is not easy, you’ll be very happy when you do, as prices are much lower than in Europe.
798 Art Zone: home to the coolest art galleries in Beijing, as well as beautiful yet overpriced shops and boutiques, it’s a great place to spend a relaxed afternoon.
Wudaoying hutong: probably the trendiest hutong in Beijing, very close to the Lama Temple. It has the coolest and most beautiful boutiques (including some Chinese designers), teahouses and restaurants.
And, of course, the food:
Yoghurt and sweets: our favourite ‘street food’ is the yoghurt, which in China is eaten with a straw (easy while walking around). Don’t pick the ones with the glass container, as you’ll have to eat (drink) them on the spot and give the container back. We also loved the pastries: even tough you’re never too sure of what you’re buying, trying them and finding it out is fun and most of the times very tasty!
Peking roast duck: it’s an unmissable dish in Beijing, brought to us from imperial times. We loved its thin and crisp skin, sliced by the chef in front of you. Siji Minfu (near the Forbidden City) has an excellent and reasonably priced peking duck, but you’ll have to wait about thirty minutes to get a table.
Black sesame kitchen: our favourite restaurant in China (and top three in the world tour so far), its food and concept are amazing. Located in a small, dark hutong, when you enter the beautiful courtyard, you join a table of 8 people in a room with a totally open kitchen. The concept: meeting new people while you eat with them, and seeing your food cooked by three chefs in front of you (there’s even a mirror in the ceiling so you can see inside the pans). The food: ten delicious Chinese dishes, including an amazing and surprising dessert: black sesame ice cream with caramelised sweet potato fries (the dessert alone is worth a visit to Beijing!).
China, from north to south
Great Wall: we visited the Great Wall at a place very close to Beijing (Badaling), and we have to admit that we were a bit underwhelmed. The views from there were nice, but it was crowded (being so close to Beijing makes it a favourite for tourists), and perfectly restored. We’d recommend visiting instead other more authentic and less visited parts of the wall.
Hanging Temple (in the Hengshan mountain): on our way to the Yungang grottoes in Datong, we stopped in this amazing 1500-year-old temple, which is solely supported by wooden pillars inserted in the mountain.
Yungang Grottoes: one of our favourite sights in China, we went there with no expectations, and were amazed by the number, dimensions and beauty of all the Buddha, stupas and other sculptures in the grottoes. Most of the more than 40 grottos are dated from the 5th to the 6th centuries and their state of conservation is impressive.
Pingyao, Fenghuang and other ancient villages: during our journey, we were lucky to cross some very beautiful ancient villages. From the majestic mansions of Pingyao, to the charming riverside village of Fenghuang, to Miao villages in the south, we loved all of them! The drawback? Most of them charge an entry fee, and they are a bit too touristy for our liking. Fun fact: in Fenghuang, we played catch the mouse to escape the many city checkpoints, and managed to visit it for free!
Terracotta Warriors: no matter how many photos you have seen before, the warriors are still an imposing sight. You cannot but think about the enormous power of an emperor who, at age 13, started to build this incredible army. But what really surprised us was to see the work in progress of the archaeologists who are restoring the army on the site.
Xi’an: most people visit Xi’an to see the neighbouring Terracotta Warriors, but this city has some interesting sights of its own. Some of our favourites are: the pretty Wild Goose Pagoda, the History Museum, which showcases a selection of pottery and sculptures from different Chinese dynasties, and the night market at the Muslim Quarter, where you can try some of the city’s traditional dishes: we loved the Chinese burger (tip: go to the stand with the longest queue), the sweets and the nuts.
Zhangjiajie Scenic Area: it’s recognised as China’s first national park, but it only became famous amongst foreign tourists when its landscape was used as the inspiration for Avatar’s Pandora planet. We were lucky to go there on low season to enjoy the breath-taking vertical rocky mountains. But beware: beauty has its price, in this case over 45 euros per person- train, elevator and cable car not included!
Yangshuo: this is China how you had always imagined and seen in movies. Take a quiet boat trip and enjoy the beautiful mountain surroundings – which rival those of Zhangjiajie.
Dragon’s Backbone rice terraces: we saw rice terraces all over the south of China, but these ones were the most spectacular. The surrounding villages are populated by colourful ethnic groups, and offer one our favourite dishes in China: steamed rice cooked inside a bamboo stick.
The best way to say good-bye
After our amazing toy collection in Beijing, we were looking forward to also give some toys. We knew about the problem of the so called ‘left-behind children’ in China: children whose parent or parents move away from home hundreds of kilometres, usually to work in cities. According to china.org.cn, there are 61 million left-behind children in China, half of which have seen both of their parents leave, and most of which live with their grandparents, although some of them even live on their own. In the countryside of the south of China, this phenomenon is very common, so we thought it would be the best place to find a school to support.
With the help of our guide Yingchu, we found a school in a small village in the Guizhou province. The Qiaosang Primary School had no idea about our visit when we went in and asked to speak to the principal. We explained our project and asked some questions about his school. Most of the kids in the school, as we had imagined, were ‘left-behind children’ who slept in the school during the week, and spent the weekend with their grandparents.
A couple of hours later we were back in the school, with our hands full of presents. A class of about thirty children of 4 to 6 years old was waiting for us when we came in with all the toys and a big teddy bear. The children were literally screaming of joy, which called the attention of the rest of the kids in the school. It was also lunchtime, so kids were coming in and out with bowls full of rice and meat. Soon the class was overcrowded with children of all ages screaming, playing and eating. In this big mess, we were surprised to see that none of the children were fighting for the toys or left behind: they played together with them, and then put them back happily in a common playground table… we had never seen such a genuine sharing spirit before!
As always, we played with the kids, and smiled when they tried to speak to us in Chinese. The principal then called us outside, and invited us to have lunch in the canteen with him and other school employees. Everyone – from the cook to the principal – was sitting around a hot stove full of boiling meat and vegetables, and eating together. Another great sharing moment for us, and the best way to say goodbye to China!
Ludo with Yingchu on the way to the school
Ana and Ludo
Disclaimer: all the touristy stuff + restaurants, etc. are at our own expense (just to reassure you that all your donations are TOY-exclusive!)