May 29, 2015 – June 1, 2015
After the hustle and bustle of lively modern Shanghai, we boarded a bus to Wuyuan, China for a tour of the countryside. The hills in Wuyuan County are dotted with ancient farming villages still connected by a network of cobble stone paved trails hundreds of years old. We spent three days hiking through the hills, and staying in tiny guesthouses in different villages, trying the local food and getting to see small town life in China.
Wuyuan, in Jiangxi province, is about six hours southwest of Shanghai by bus, through hilly terrain covered in lush vegetation and bright green terraced farm land. Wuyuan, although just a tiny dot on the map is actually a huge city, and as we are discovering, China is full of them. The city itself is a bit rough around the edges, and did not really have any English speakers. We used the town as a base for our hiking through the countryside. The staff at our hostel spoke a little English, and by far more than anyone else we met in the area. A good tip for travel in China, as mentioned before, is to get a phrase book with the Chinese characters in it to point to. You can try to pronounce the words, but in our experience trying to actually speak Chinese was useless and simply resulted in odd confused stares. Another great idea is the get your hotel or hostel staff to write down some useful phrases in Chinese so you can show people, like ‘I want a bus ticket to X town.’ or ‘Take me to the south bus station please.’ to show a taxi driver. Despite language difficulties we found that most of the people we met were very curious about us and patient with our pointing and hand gestures. No one seemed annoyed at having foreigners around not able to speak the language, though some did find us hilarious.
After staying the night in Wuyuan we left our big bags in the hostel storage, and caught a local bus up into hills to start our three days of trekking through the countryside.
Our first stop, a little over an hour from Wuyuan by bus is the small village of Da Likeng. Some of the buildings here and probably most of the foundations of others, date back almost 200 years. Like many places in China, Da Likeng charges a tourist entry fee of 60 Yuan, or about US$10.00. There is a maze of narrow streets to wander and several old buildings with signs outside showing their history, which are open to explore at your leisure. Nearly all of the stone buildings were plastered smooth and painted bright white, and ancient storm gutters and drains were still working and flushing the streets of rainwater. From our starting point here in Da Likeng, we had planned on just visiting the town for a few hours and then continuing on down the trail to the town of Hongguan.
We met a nice woman who spoke some English and asked about getting a guide to hike to the next town. She said she would help with that and offered to make us lunch as well. We agreed and walked through town to her house where her and her mother cooked us chicken soup and served it with steamed rice. They then told us because it was raining, which it was, no guides were willing to go to the next town and we should stay the night. After eating our soup which was essentially a chicken minus the majority of the meat, in a tasty broth with rice, we asked how much we owed her for the meal. She happily told us we owed her 168 Yuan, which is approximately US$28 for chicken broth and rice. We realized they were scamming us, by inviting us to have a meal and not agreeing on a price before hand she was able to charge what she wanted, which was their goal. We refused to pay that amount but still ended up paying about half. Our mistake, we should have agreed on a price before hand. Whenever anyone offers you a service or product of any kind, always agree on a price ahead of time. We have heard about other scams similar to this in the city involving someone inviting you to have tea, and after the tea finding out the bills is hundreds of dollars US. In general the Chinese are hard negotiators and can sometimes try to over charge if the opportunity presents itself. Traveling around the world, we have come to expect to be over charged a bit or have to negotiate a little, but we were shocked to find that negotiations in China often start ridiculously and even insultingly high. In one city we tried to get a load of laundry done and were told it would be 228 Yuan, or about US$40, when a fair rate is closer to 20-30 Yuan or even less. It has been some of the most difficult negotiating on our trip, especially when you add in the language barrier. A good bit of advice on negotiating is trying to get an idea of a fair price ahead of time, usually from your hotel staff, then you know where to start. We had heard before getting to China that the negotiating can be brutal, often from Chinese tourists we spoke with who were tired of it, and complaining about it themselves. One Chinese man we met in another country told us, “If they ask for 10, don’t pay over 3″. While the majority of businesses are perfectly honest and fair, it is the souvenir, and trinket venders and taxis which you need to be careful of the most.
Enough on negotiating in China. After paying for our overpriced chicken broth and rice, we assumed the lady was lying that there were no guides in town willing to take us to the next town, because she probably just wanted us to pay to stay the night. In fact the very next person we asked was willing to guide us, so we headed out of town on the trail through the countryside to the town of Hongguan.
A couple hours through a maze of wandering unmarked trails (it is best to get a guide for this stretch) we found ourselves in Hongguan. The trail was almost entirely built from old stone slabs carefully laid out, including stairs made of hand chiseled stone, all looking just as it has from probably the last 200 years. Although the first part of the trail was quite overgrown, we made it through with only a few scratches.
The small village of Hongguan, like Da Likeng, is a collection of old buildings of traditional style architecture separated by a maze of very narrow alleys and nearly every building was again painted bright white, as we would come to find in every village. Here we explored the town for a bit and our guide showed us a nice little guest house to stay the night. A very pleasant woman ran a little shop in town, and the guest house was built upstairs above it. We seemed to be her only guests and she was very excited to have us there and to cook for us. She didn’t speak any English other than ‘hello’ but got her daughter on the phone to interpret for us over video chat. We managed to get in a food order (going vegetarian after our earlier chicken experience) and got to eat some local village dishes. We asked for all the prices up front and were given very fair prices. I feel it is important to note that most people by far are very honest and fair, but it is still a good idea to get a price ahead of time for everything.
Meals in the villages are quite simple, if you order a vegetable, and you have to pick one, you will get just that prepared on a plate. We ordered carrot, eggplant and potato, and got a plate of cooked carrot, and a plate of cooked potato. She was out of eggplant but along with rice, we had plenty of food with just two dishes. We inquired once about mixing the vegetables together, pointing at the Chinese in our phrasebook for stir-fry, but this only served to confuse people. The food is great, just not complex, in the countryside.
After staying the night we continued on the trail to the next town of Lingjiao, where we would get off the main road and continue on a trail to Guankeng. We did not have a guide for this section as we had heard it is fairly straight forward, and we wanted to do some hiking at our own pace without worrying about holding up a guide taking pictures. The road out of Hongguan continues straight along the road to Lingjiao. There are no turns and it is hard to get lost. We entered Lingjiao after about 45 minutes of hiking and then found the turn off for Guankeng.
After Lingjiao the real hiking for the day began as we head up and away from the road up and over the hill into another valley and the village of Guankeng. Again the trail is very straightforward and no guide is required, it is just important to find the trail head in Lingjiao, thankfully it is marked with a sign, in English! Simply follow the signs and head up the endless stairs to the top of the ridge separating the two valleys. Along the way we got to see hundreds of flooded rice fields, spread out over the terraces below.
Once at the top of the ridge we walked through the forest for a bit until we could see down the next valley to Guankeng. On the way there is only one time you need to turn. Upon reaching the fourth man-made shelter take a right, walking through the shelter, to reach Guankeng. Guankeng is another old white walled stone village built along a water way with stone bridges spanning to either side. From here, after snapping a few pictures, we found a motorcycle taxi to take us to our next town Qingyuan, where we would be staying the night. The distance is much too far to walk in the same day, and there is little in the way of signage to guide you, so we recommend taking a 30 minute moto-taxi.
Probably the cutest and most well preserved of the various towns we visited, Qingyuan is apparently also one of the least visited. It is just far enough off the beaten path that tourist groups seem to avoid it. The result of which is that this sleepy town was nearly empty, we walked its tiny streets, along the waterways winding through town and watched large groups of wild orange koi (carp) swimming around, and saw only locals. There were a couple guest houses and as far as we could tell we were the only guests in town. This was by far our favorite of the various small mountain villages, and why the tourist groups seem to avoid it is beyond us, but we hope they continue to do so. We would definitely recommend it to anyone hiking or backpacking in the area.
Ordering meals at this guesthouse was a bit tricky. We were given a menu in Chinese, and tried to translate some key words with our phrasebook. After we had decided to try a dish containing pork and another containing tofu (but not knowing what the other characters in the names meant), we were told they didn’t have those items available. Krista showed them the pictures of vegetables in the phrasebook and was led to the kitchen, where they opened the refrigerator and showed her some pumpkin and cabbage, to which she nodded yes. She also pointed to some eggs in the refrigerator and requested rice and tea. We had a similar meal (minus the pumpkin) for breakfast.
After a night in our quiet guesthouse in little Qingyuan we hired our final guide to take us for our longest stretch of trail to the much more popular and frequented town of Xiaoqi.
The village of Xiaoqi dates back to 787 AD, and looks much like the others, with the main difference being that commercialism has discovered it and struck its claim big time. There is a big walled gatehouse entry way selling 60 Yuan tickets to get in, and ticket scanning turn styles, manned by guards. Inside you will find that dozens and dozens of souvenir shops have taken up residence inside the old buildings and will try their very best to separate you from your money. We thought the village was okay, but not any nicer than any of the others and certainly not as nice as little Qingyuan. Why it has become so popular is unknown, though it probably has to do with its proximity to a stretch of road wide enough for the hordes of tour buses which come through each day. Overall the towns we thought the least of were Xiaoqi and Da Likeng, which charge large entry fees. There are many many more towns to discover in the area, some quite touristy and others relatively unknown, so you can create your own unique itinerary for touring the area.
Back to Wuyuan
Back in Wuyuan we stayed one more night and since we were back in civilization decided to go out and get a nice meal, since the small village meals were so basic. We picked out a restaurant which looked good, and went inside. Unfortunately they didn’t speak a word of English and there were no pictures on their menu. They figured out that we wanted pictures and quickly produced a phone with a bunch of pictures of different dishes they could cook, we picked out two that looked good. I picked one that looked like strips of meat stir fried with veggies and Krista picked what looked like a vegetable soup. What came out was not quite what we had in mind…
I got a plate of chicken feet, and Krista got a chicken stomach soup (we think). I tried some of the chicken feet and have to say I don’t get it, there’s nothing on them except a little skin and fat, no meat and very little flavor. Krista’s chicken stomach soup was even worse, it smelled exactly like the former contents of the stomachs and tasted even worse, she had a few bites and was done. Of my several dozen chicken feet I tried about half a dozen and was finished as well. We can now say that some of the strangest dishes we’ve seen on our entire trip have been in China, and it pays to find a place with either good clear pictures or English on the menu.
The next morning we were at the bus station bright and early, to make our way to our next destination.