Chengdu is a pretty typical Chinese city – orderly but super crowded and polluted – but I did have time to go to the world-famous panda reserve there. The pandas wake up around 8:30 am, chew on bamboo leaves for an hour or two and sleep the rest of the time, but they are the cutest animals I have ever seen!

While in Chengdu, I also ran into the two Swedish girls I had crossed into China with, and together with a really nice guy from Israel we went to an opera typical to Chengdu’s province. It was actually more of a talent show than an opera, highlighted by performers who are able to rapidly change masks without giving away how they do it.

After Chengdu I took a night train to Xi’an, once regarded as the “Rome of Asia.” The highlight is supposed to be the Terracotta Warriors, an army of ancient, life-size clay soldiers, horses and chariots. They were impressive but in my opinion definitely not worth going out of your way to see. I found the city itself to be equally unimpressive, so after two days I took a super cheap flight to Beijing where I stayed with a friend of a friend who speaks fluent Mandarin and works as a Project Manager for Otis Elevators. I can’t tell you how nice it was to stay in a nice, air-conditioned apartment after weeks on the road (and even play baseball which we did one day)!!!

Besides the HORRIFIC air pollution Beijing is an extremely impressive city. One can really see just how booming China is, as it seems like skyscrapers are being thrown up right and left. The cultural and historical value of the city also cannot be understated, and the Forbidden City is every bit as impressive as I had imagined.

One of the more fascinating things to do in Beijing is wonder around on Tiananmen Square. Though it is a bit eerie thinking about the 1989 massacre, I found it to be the best spot in China to people watch. I especially got a kick out of the Chinese tourists who constantly asked me, as well as other Westerners, to take a picture with them!

As you can imagine though the highlight of Beijing is the Great Wall. Per a recommendation from a fellow backpacker, I took a three-hour bus ride to a stretch of it I hiked 10 kilometers on. This particular stretch of the Wall is not renovated, so it was everything I thought it would be but far more steep and at times dangerous!

From Beijing I took a night train to Tai Shan, one of China’s five sacred Tao Mountains, frequented by many Chinese tourists. After climbing 6,660 steps in just under four hours two Danish girls and I made it to the top, only to be thoroughly disappointed by the tourist circus there. The climb itself though was really beautiful which made climbing the 6,600 steps worth while!

That night we took a night train to Shanghai, where I parted with the girls and met up with a friend of the American I had traveled with in Nepal and Thailand. Again it was SOOOOOOO nice to stay in an immaculate, air-conditioned apartment, and Ed did a great job making me run basketball games in a non-air-conditioned, non-ventilated gym (we both just about died!) and showing me the bumping Shanghai nightlife.

Relative to Beijing, Shanghai doesn’t have much to offer in terms of culture or history, but it’s an EXTREMELY impressive city in terms of modernization and, like much of China, as far from stereotypical Communism as you can imagine!

From Shanghai I took a cheap flight to Xiamen, a beautiful coastal city where I stayed with a Chinese student I had studied with in Germany. Xiamen is not really on the backpacker trail, so I literally didn’t see a single Westerner! The next day I took another cheap flight to Shenzhen where I crossed the border into Hong Kong just before my visa was to expire.

As luck would have it I was also able to stay with a friend of a friend and his roommate there whose apartment was the nicest of any I had stayed at so far, and I even got to play tennis! They also showed me an interesting nightlife subculture in Hong Kong: the rave scene. I liked it so much that I had Fu-Min wipe out the music I had been listening to for six months on my Ipod and replace it all with electronic music!

Hong Kong itself is as, if not more, impressive than any first-world city I have ever been to. Although it’s the most densely populated city in the world, the highly-modern public transportation system, which includes extensive trains, trams, buses, ferries and the longest escalator in the world, is able to shuttle people around with ease and comfort (air conditioning!). The scenery is also spectacular, as Hong Kong Island has a huge mountain range down the middle of it, and there are skyscrapers almost half way up!

The surrounding islands are equally as beautiful and easily reachable by ferry. One night we had a seafood FEAST at one of the islands that is a fishing village full of quaint alleyways (no cars!) and nice beaches. From the few days I’ve spent here I would say Hong Kong is my second favorite city in the world … next to New York of course!

After getting another visa for China, I went to Yangshuo, a legendary backpacker destination surrounded by lush limestone mountains. I spent three full days mountain biking through remote villages, bamboo rafting down pristine rivers, climbing some of the peaks and exploring a water cave that had a pool of mud I “swam” around in for a while (you have to see those pictures)!

I also saw an AMAZING 500-person riverside light show, as well as birds trained to catch fish for their owners. For those of you familiar with Chinese art and philosophy, apparently a lot of it comes from this region, inspired by its indescribable beauty.

It’s back to Hong Kong now for a couple of days before continuing on to Indonesia, Japan, Australia and New Zealand. The longer I am away, the more curious I am about what’s going on back home…

– Greg

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