Gubeikou Part 2, The Hutong Edition

Last week, the friendly folks at The Hutong invited me to return to Gubeikou (古北口, or “Ancient North Pass”), a section of the Great Wall of China about two hours northwest of Beijing. Jeremiah and Simon, the trip's leaders, brought a wealth of knowledge of this region's history and natural setting. They did a great job of explaining the circumstances that led to the wall's construction in the 16th century. When I went to Gubeikou without a guide, I simply hiked on the wall. But this time, I could really envision Manchu armies invading from the north, and Chinese troops taking positions to defend their homeland.

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Hiking on the Gubeikou Great Wall

Having lived in Beijing for the last three years, Katie and I have visited the Great Wall many times. Contrary to popular belief, the Great Wall isn't one continuous wall. There are many sections; some have eroded to almost nothing, others remain relatively intact, and still others that have been completely restored to their former glory. My favorite sections (as you probably guessed) are un-restored, yet still hike-able.

Gubeikou (古北口) fits the bill perfectly. It's one of the easier sections to hike, it typically draws few tourists, and the surrounding landscape is spectacular. It's only a few short hours from Beijing, so if the Great Wall is on your travel radar, Gubeikou is a great section to consider visiting.

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Biking around Beautiful Erhai Lake

At the end of our disastrous bike trip through Yunnan (read more about it here), Katie and I had one last day to spend around Dali's old town. We decided to rent a bike and pedal around nearby Erhai (洱海) Lake. Shaped like an ear (“Erhai” means “ear-shaped sea”) and at 1,972 meters (6,470 feet) above sea level, the lake is the second-largest highland lake in all of China.

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An Easy Day Trip to Macau

As I made my way south through China, I got an idea: why not stop in Macau for a day? As it turned, out, it was quite easy. I took trains through Guilin and Guangzhou, and eventually ended up in the lovely city of Zhuhai. (One bonus of Zhuhai: it was the only place I had been in China where cars actually stopped for pedestrians.) From there, I just had to go through some immigration formalities and walk across the border, into Macau.

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The Fu Ling Weekly Market

Nowadays, it may seem like everyone in China lives in a big city. But that definitely is not true. Many villages are emptying as more and more people migrate in search of a better life, but small-town life still is flourishing in pockets of China.

Take Fu Ling, for example. Once a week, the people of this southern Chinese village get together to sell their wares in a market. Local produce, as well as household goods, are sold under one roof. For me, the Fu Ling market offered a great look into a way of life that is in slow decline. Given that the average age of salespeople in Fu Ling was north of fifty, I doubt this market will exist in thirty years. But for now, it is still thriving.

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Yangshuo, Gumdrops of My Dreams

Yangshuo, in northeastern Guangxi Province, is a part of China that everyone should see. Magnificent gumdrop hills dot the landscape. You can climb to the top of some of these peaks for great views of the region. This is also where many traditional Chinese artists gain their inspiration. Quite often, those beautiful paintings of emerald hills and frothy waterfalls are made in the villages along the Li River. The journey from the giant southern cities of Guangzhou and Shenzhen takes less than a day. If you want to relax for a weekend, Yangshuo is a great bet.

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The Monkeys of Zhangjiajie

Those who fear monkeys beware! Zhangjiajie National Forest Park in China is infested with macaques. Admittedly, these monkeys look cute and harmless, and indeed upon seeing them, most tourists are quick to whip out their cameras. But the macaques are aggressive, and not afraid of humans.

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Zhangjiajie National Forest Park

Zhangjiajie National Forest Park (湖南张家界国家森林公园) is my favorite place in China (so far). The park is full of sky-high stone pillars, some of which soar over 1000 meters above the forest floor. Supposedly, these natural formations inspired James Cameron to create the “Hallelujah Floating Mountains” for his movie Avatar. Never one to turn down free publicity, Chinese officials renamed one of the pillars “Avatar Hallelujah Mountain” (阿凡达-哈利路亚山).

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Tianmen Mountain, a Glass-Shattering Experience?

Tianmen (天门山) is a famous mountain, located near Zhangjiajie City in China's Hunan Province. Before we were allowed to walk on its glass walkway, we had to put red slippers on over our shoes. Unfortunately, I couldn't stretch the tiny slippers over my hiking boots. Two months before this, a similar glass bridge on Yuntai Mountain (云台山) cracked shortly after opening. Officials claimed that even though the glass was cracked, it “will not pose threat to safety.”

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Pingyao: An Ancient Chinese Town

If you want to see what life was like in China hundreds of years ago, one of your best options is Pingyao (平遥), in Shanxi province. The village is surrounded by an ancient wall, now located in the center of the modern city of Pingyao. Cars are not allowed in large portions of the ancient village, so you can roam freely, without worrying about getting run over. And while the main street is quite touristy, you only have to walk a few blocks to see life as it was before modern times.

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