An action-packed first overland run through China

Beijing's Forbidden City

The Forbidden City, Beijing, China

I’d been to Hong Kong & Macau the year before, but when we arrived in Beijing at the end of our Trans-Siberian journey, it was my first time in mainland China (and for my two companions too). Mike and Ross had flights booked back to England from Shanghai two weeks later, and we’d set out an ambitious itinerary to cover as much ground as possible in those two weeks.

China trip map

We covered this route in 10 days, which was some serious overlanding without bullet trains yet available!

After spending the weekend in Beijing, the plan was to visit Xi’an, Chengdu, Chongqing, and the Three Gorges, en route to Shanghai. This was years before all the cities on this route were connected up by bullet train, so we were looking at three night trains, a river boat, and as it turned out also a bunch of buses… it was a lot to bite off in just two weeks, but we just about managed to chew it!

Great Wall, Simatai section

The Jinshanling Great Wall section, near Beijing

The weekend in Beijing was pretty mental, probably the most full-on weekend I’ve had when travelling overseas – we managed to cover most of Beijing’s major tourist attractions while also partying hard, including an all-night bender with a knife-wielding nutcase, eating a load of fried critters, getting acquainted with the Beijing tea house scammers, visiting Mao’s mausoleum while still drunk, and trekking round the Summer Palace on zero sleep… a brilliant weekend! (full story here)

The Terracotta Warriors of Xi'an

From there it was a night train to Xi’an, the ancient capital during several imperial dynasties and one of China’s most historic and atmospheric cities. There we visited the Terracotta Warriors, climbed nearby Hua Shan, walked the 600-year old Ming dynasty city walls (one of only a few fully extant city walls in China and said to be the most impressive, though the people of Nanjing would disagree), and ate the awesome street food in the Muslim Quarter. Climbing Hua Shan was a particular highlight for me, and was one of the best things I’ve done in China:

View from the top of Hua Shan

Hua Shan’s dramatic scenery is well worth the trip from Xi’an

Another night train took us from Xi’an to the sprawling, choking city of Chengdu, famed in China for its friendly people and panda bears, its hot women and even hotter food, where the plan was to visit the panda sanctuary and sample the spicy Sichuanese cuisine. We only had one night there, so after an evening of hotpot and beers Mike and I got up early to go see some pandas while Ross got his beauty sleep, and we were on our way again on an afternoon bus to the megacity of Chongqing.

Panda at the research centre in Chengdu

If you’re not familiar with China, Chongqing is perhaps the biggest city you’ve never heard of. It was chosen by the government to be the focal point in the development of the Chinese interior, which is years behind the modern China of the more affluent coastal cities; to this end, the city and a large chunk of surrounding countryside were carved off the corner of Sichuan province and designated as Chongqing Metropolis, i.e. one of the four cities in China carrying province-level status (along with Beijing, Shanghai, and Tianjin). As a result, the official population of Chongqing is 26 million, although this is a little misleading as it includes a massive rural hinterland larger than many countries – the city proper is perhaps half that.

But with that said, it’s certainly a huge city, massive in its sprawl, in its crowds, and in the scale of its monolithic architecture; we got off the bus at some shithole bus station in a city that felt about two decades behind Beijing, under a smothering blanket of smog so thick you couldn’t see the tops of the ranks of concrete hulks lining the hillsides.

On a subsequent visit in better atmospheric conditions (8 years later, after trying and failing to visit Tibet), I was able to see that Chongqing holds a striking position in the hills along the Yangtze at one of its major confluences, and is a very attractive city location-wise (though still very much a city of phlegm and trash); but on that first visit we were only able to make out the grim facades of the rows of faceless tower blocks fading away up the steep riverbanks.

We had no clue where we were or where we were to stay – this was a little before the internet and wifi everywhere made accommodation so easy to book ahead, back when you just went there and found somewhere to crash. A crowd gathered to stare at us as we attempted to communicate with a taxi driver, a complete gong show of a scene, and he eventually took us to a cheap-ass hotel (as requested) tucked away on the mid-upper floors of one of those faceless blocks, somewhere downtownish… at the sight of three western blokes walking into her hotel, the receptionist immediately collapsed into a fit of such hysterics she was rendered unable to speak or even function; she was so completely paralysed that we actually had to wait for the manager to come check us in!

We continued to have this effect on her for the remainder of our short overnight stay; it was pretty baffling, but that night I heard some, er, noises from the next room, and put together with the somewhat seedy and tucked-away nature of the place we eventually realised we’d stayed at a love motel or maybe even a brothel, hence her great amusement at three lads sharing a room (though really her spontaneous combustion was still a tad over the top)

Chengdu hotpot

Chengdu hotpot… fiery stuff…

Anyway, we were in Chongqing as it is (or was) the jumping-off point for boats down the Yangtze and through the Three Gorges; but we were also hellbent on trying the legendary Chongqing hotpot, renowned throughout China as the hottest dish in the land. The previous night’s hotpot in Chengdu had been good, but the one we had in Chongqing was some seriously, mind-blowingly spicy stuff – it was also the most hilarious meal I’ve ever eaten, with the rotund proprietress force-feeding animal gizzards into our burning mouths while poor vegetarian Ross turned green…

A brilliant meal in Chongqing!

Chongqing hotpot… insanely hot!

After the hotpot we managed a visit to a mad little nightclub (after a couple of near-misses with ‘helpful’ locals trying to get us into ‘massage’ parlours), before grabbing a few hours sleep (reception girl waking up and peeing her pants again when we came in), then got up in the predawn dark for the boat down the river (leaving reception girl in hysterics one last time).

We didn’t have time for a full 3-day Three Gorges cruise, so we opted for the public transport hydrofoils that used to blast up and down that stretch of the Yangtze (cruises are the only option these days). You can read about that in more detail here, but basically we were glad to do it that way – while a bit more time to take in the spectacular gorges themselves would’ve been good, I’m not sure a 3-day cruise would’ve quite justified the time.

Going through the Three Gorges

The best part of the Three Gorges

After disembarking at the Three Gorges Dam (an impressive structure, from what we could make of it through the smog) we took a shuttle bus to nearby Yichang, and from there we just managed to catch the last bus of the day to Wuhan (we almost got fleeced out of a handful of cash by the driver of the first bus, who took our payment for the Wuhan bus and then jumped back on his own bus and tried to drive off! Mike stood in front of the bus at the station exit with his arms out wide and thankfully the guy stopped instead of running him over, and I got round by the door and got the cash back…)

Arriving in Wuhan late at night at another shitty bus station in another bleak-looking town, we checked into a fleepit hotel and went out to score some street snacks. The spicy grilled skewers of quail eggs, squid tentacles, tofu, and some random animal organs for Mike, were delicious, but the area was a dump – I’ve never seen so many people sleeping rough in China as we did in Wuhan that night. We snatched about five hours of sleep before getting up early doors to try and catch a train onwards to Shanghai; by now we had about 48 hours left until their flight out of Shanghai Pudong, and wanted as much time in Shanghai as possible. However, getting out of Wuhan turned into a ridiculous run-around; the city of Wuhan is actually a fairly recent (20th century) amalgamation of three formerly separate cities standing on the three corners formed by the confluence of the Yangtze and Han rivers. Each of the three sections has a different train station, and the one we went to was completely the wrong one; I couldn’t read or speak Chinese yet at this point, and without mobile internet we couldn’t work any of this out. After messing around at the train station unsuccessfully for a while (and using the horrific toilet – think turds floating in the urinals), we managed to find a bus, but it wasn’t leaving for hours; we spent those hours trekking around a couple of other bus stations looking for an earlier departure, and ended up back at the first station again buying tickets for that first bus. This was made all the more difficult by the complete lack of a subway in Wuhan at the time, and I think after checking out at 7am we only managed to leave that damn city at 1pm!

(Eight years later I visited Wuhan again for a couple of nights en route to try and visit Tibet, and while I still didn’t really warm to the place much at all, the improvements in infrastructure must be acknowledged – with a brand new subway system with half a dozen lines, and a big new main Wuhan station to handle the bullet trains, the kind of tedious morning we experienced that day is unlikely to be experienced by future visitors to Wuhan. China’s rapid development can literally be seen and experienced by making visits just a few years apart, and it’s quite an astonishing thing to witness)

Anyway, that bus took us to Nanjing, where we had to wait around in Nanjing station for a few hours before we could get on a midnight train to Shanghai, and we finally arrived in Shanghai around 4am that night. I remember the three of us sitting there in that brightly lit, uncomfortable, jam-packed train, flitting in and out of sleep, surrounded by other passengers doing the same, when suddenly the old lady next to Ross hawked, and hawked, and absolutely hawked up the most almighty mouthful of putrid phlegm you can possibly imagine, and gobbed it loudly and proudly on to the floor right in front of her. The splat zone had about a 6-inch diameter, Ross looked good to puke, and Mike and myself just totally lost it at that point, deliriously tired and laughing our heads off at one of the most unpleasant things I think I’ve ever seen!

Shanghai's waterfront

Phew… made it!

All in, we’d got down the Yangtze from Chongqing to Shanghai in about 45 hours, including the Three Gorges, with nothing pre-booked, which with the transportation available at the time was pretty Herculean! Doing it now of course, the bullet trains (and improvements in the internet situation) would make it much less punishing, but we arrived in Shanghai dead on our feet. Still, the next day was the lads’ only full day in the city, so we got up, saw the sights, ate a bunch of awesome street food, drank most of the next night, and then Ross and Mike got their hungover selves on their flight back to England and slept it off on the plane.

As for me, I slowed the pace down a bit (I needed to after England to Shanghai overland in 5 weeks!) and chilled in Shanghai for a couple more days, then went down to Yangshuo (which was awesome), before making my way (via hikes at Huang Shan and Tai Shan) to Qingdao for the ferry to Korea, and ultimately on to Japan and the approaching ski season in Hokkaido.

These days the route we covered would be doable entirely by bullet train (except the 3 Gorges, obviously!), which would’ve made it pricier but would have given us a useful bit of extra time in each city; it’s really been quite amazing to witness China’s infrastructure boom through repeated visits over the last decade. Another thing that’s improved is the booking systems – buying train tickets used to be a complete pain in the ass, but these days you can simply book online and pick the tickets up before travel. If you don’t have a Chinese residency number (required for using the official booking site) the easiest way to do this is 12go Asia* (lines can still be long for picking tickets up though, so if you know your dates it makes sense to book several tickets in advance and pick them all up in one go)

Have you travelled overland around China? How was it? Leave me a comment below and I’ll get back to you.

Make sure to sign up for a VPN service before arriving in China so you can use the internet as normal – see here

For more China posts, click here. Also check out my China overland travel guide

(*this is an affiliate link i.e. if you use it to book a ticket, I’ll score a commission; this comes out of their profit margin at no extra cost to you. Thank you in advance should you choose to use this link!)

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