The Backpacker

Day 89 (23rd of May, 2016) – Guilin, Guangxi Province, China

To continue from where I left off, I arrived in the early hours of the morning to my hostel in Shanghai. It was huge, to say the least. Three or so floors of air-conditioned goodness lay before me. For AU$8/night, this was the best value hostel I’ve ever been too. Despite the international vibe of the lobby, the guests were purely Chinese students, so I got a lot of speaking practice meeting the people in my room.

At 6:30am this morning, I resisted my body’s futile attempts to crawl back into bed and went for a cold shower.

Donning the most suit-like jacket I had, I jumped onto the metro to head to The Langham.

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I was reminded of the chaos of Shanghai’s metro system while witnessing the floods of people march up from the platforms into work.

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The Langham is situated near Xintiandi, which is the glitzy part of Shanghai.

Here, I was meeting my friend Craig Rogers. He’s a partner at King & Wood Mallesons (KWM), a law firm with a lot of business in both Australia and China. We’ve been exchanging messages for a number of months, and he had been kind enough to offer to take some time out of his schedule to meet me when he was next in China. Needless to say, that eventuated today.

The firm has a particularly interesting history. KWM first earned its current name in 2012 following the merger of Mallesons Stephen Jaques (one of Australia’s ‘Big Six’) and King & Wood (one of China’s ‘Red Circle’). KWM were the first global law firm to be headquartered in the Asia-Pacific. One of the most interesting facts I learned was that the name ‘King & Wood’ was chosen by its Chinese founders simply because it included two strong-sounding English names which brought a perception of prestige and reliability.

Over breakfast I learned about a darker history with Craig, though, as he shared with me his experiences as the ‘gimp’ at the Eales’ betting days.

Since I wasn’t flying out until the evening, Craig offered that I come to the office to learn about what he does day-to-day and to watch a presentation of his. I couldn’t have been more excited, and enthusiastically accepted the offer.

For the next few hours, I had the opportunity of watching over Craig’s shoulder and reading through the lessons he has taken from some of his bigger cases. One of those cases, I was surprised to learn, is the highly publicised acquisition of the Port of Darwin by Chinese company Landbridge.

At the end of the day, I was privileged to be able to sit in on Craig and some of his colleagues giving a presentation to the Shanghai office. Most of the presentation revolved around the process of dealing with large infrastructure projects. I found myself genuinely fascinated with everything that was being said, and it made me extraordinarily excited for studying law and commerce next year at university. The day served not only as an opportunity to meet a lot of very impressive people, but also as a reminder that I am entering a field which I have a real passion for.

It looks like there’ll be an opportunity for me to do some part time work with the people at KWM after starting my degree next year. I’m elated to be afforded such an opportunity.

After the day out at the office in the Shanghai International Financial Centre, I went via Xintiandi for a stroll on my way back to the hostel. For dinner I bought a dish of peanut chicken in oyster sauce, which I quickly ate before rushing off to Shanghai airport for my late night flight to Guilin.

The train was chaotic, and it was one of the few times in China where I’ve seen them use guards to push people into the trains.

You can imagine how tough that would’ve been for me with a big hiking backpack. Sometimes trying to be so frugal can be incredibly difficult, but my thinking is that if I resist the temptation to catch so many taxis, then eventually it will add up to a free plane ticket somewhere. An uncomfortable two-hour long subway ride is a price which I’m willing to pay for that.

Before boarding my 10pm flight, it’s safe to say that I was the most tired that I’d been in weeks. In typical backpacker fashion, I had a quick nap on the airport seats with my bag as a pillow.

Guilin airport turned out to be quite a long drive from the city centre, and so it wasn’t until around 2am that I arrived to check in at my hotel.

Here’s where everything went downhill.

I had booked my hotel on CTrip, China’s main hotel and transport booking app, and I had called the hotel in advance to explain that I would be checking in during the early hours of the morning. I was told that this was fine, and so I didn’t expect there to be any problems.

Upon arriving into the lobby, it was only after five or so minutes of banging on the counter that an elderly woman appeared from out of her bedroom which was connected to the office.

“No rooms available!” she squawked in her thick Southern accent.

“No, don’t worry, I have a booking,” I replied. I pulled out my booking receipt to show her.

“No rooms available!” she exclaimed, ignoring the booking receipt in front of her.

“What? No you don’t understand, I’ve already booked a room.”

“No rooms available!” she repeated.

I started to doubt that her vocabulary extended past these three words. Nonetheless, I kept my patience until roughly 3am. At that point I grew pretty furious, especially since I had already prepaid for my hotel room. After testing the extent of my Chinese insults, a few other guests came out of their rooms to try and resolve the commotion. I eventually got on the phone with the hotel manager who was at their home, and was greeted with the same Godforsaken line: “No rooms available!”

I crawled up onto the lobby couch and began to try and get some sleep.

“I have no choice,” I said, “I’m not sleeping on the street.”

The old woman started whacking me on the side of the head and telling me something in her local dialect. I didn’t move until the other guests pulled her off me, and started trying to come to a resolution with her. Eventually, I was told that a man who runs a nearby hotel was coming to pick me up. The hotel knew that I had paid but hadn’t held my room until the next morning as I had requested, and so they agreed to transfer the money to this new hotel.

A man arrived on his motorbike and told me to hop on. My hiking bag definitely threw the bike’s centre of gravity out and my safety wasn’t exactly assured by trying to take a photo of the incident, but hey, this is what a gap year is about.

After twenty minutes of riding on this guy’s motorcycle, we arrive at what is objectively the worst hotel I have ever seen.

Here is my bathroom. The shower is a nozzle above a squat toilet.

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I wish I took a photo of the ‘mattress’ for you. It was a mattress cover simply pulled over the large block of wood which was the bed frame. It was significantly more uncomfortable than my dorm room in Xuzhou.

I eventually fell asleep with my bag still on in this filthy room.

 

Day 90 (24th of May, 2016) – Guilin, Guangxi Province, China

After maybe three hours of sleep, I emerged out of the prison and passed the receptionist.

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I snapped a photo of the hotel for the blog.

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Out on the main street, I jumped into a taxi to go to a nearby hotel where I would be meeting my tour group to take a cruise on the Li River. While waiting, I sat down for a meal of Guilin’s famous 米饭 (mifan) which means ‘rice’ in practically every part of China except Guilin. Here, it refers to white noodles, typically served with pork crackling and peanuts.

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The streets of Guilin are much more beautiful than other parts of China. They’re all lined with trees of deep green which temper the drizzling rain.

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After meeting the tour group, we were transferred to a cruise terminal where we would begin our four hour journey to the riverside town of Yangshou.

The cruise, as recommended to me by a good mate Angus Gilbert, was one of the best things I have done in China. The mountains poking out of the mist were beautiful – they looked as if all of the ink paintings in Chinese history had come to life. Their bases were dotted with groups of water buffalo grazing on the damp shores. The best way to represent this cruise is through a slideshow of photos, and so I’ll let the images do the talking.

I’ll draw a few pictures out of the collection to talk about my favourite things, though.

In this picture, I love the obscure and pointed shape of the mountains. They have the same green as the archipelagos off Thailand, and yet they possess an almost alien-like shape.

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In this photo, I am taken aback by the relative insignificance of the line of cruise ships against the enormity of the cliff face to the right.

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Or in this photo, the streaked granite colours of the famous nine-horses rock face.

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It’s no wonder that the Chinese chose to print this scene on their 20RMB bank note.

Here are a collection of some of the other photos I took.

Following the cruise, we disembarked at Yangshou. Despite common complaints that this town is too ‘touristy’, I actually loved it. The main street had a wonderful ‘island’ feel to it, and it was a perfect setting beneath the towering hills.

I thought that this image was a good contrast between modern globalised China, its ancient past and its natural beauty.

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While in Yangshou, I was thankfully roped into another tour with the same group to Yangshou’s countryside to see Guangxi’s esteemed caves. On the way, I came across this moon-shaped rock.

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The caves were astounding. I’ve always loved caves and have very fond memories of visiting the Jenolan Caves when I was younger, and the Silver Caves of Yangshou reminded me of why. Once again, I think these will be better represented with pictures.

I was impressed by the almost tree-like appearance of the rocks.

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The caves were lit up in neon, which made views like this some of the most impressive. To me, the best way I can describe this scene is the representation of a cacophony of music through stone.

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Here is a close up of what some of those rocks look like.

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The caves were also the perfect temperature for fermenting rice wine.

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Here are some other pictures from the caves.

And if you didn’t spot it in that collage, I made sure to snap an obligatory photo of the phallic-shaped rock.

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After a quick snack of locally steamed corn, I returned back to my hotel for an early night’s sleep.

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Day 91 (25th of May, 2016) – Longsheng, Guangxi Province, China

Bright and early this morning, I again made my way to another nondescript hotel for a transfer to Longsheng. Longsheng, also known as ‘Longji’ (meaning ‘dragon’s backbone’), is an area known for its rice terraces. In Longsheng are a number of mountainside towns, and I was staying in one called Ping’An.

After transferring vehicles a few times, I ended up on a minibus which wound its way up crumbling roads on the side of a huge mountain. It was thrilling.

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Upon arrival at Ping’An, I passed a group of Chinese wearing some traditional clothing which I hadn’t seen before. For those who don’t know, China has 56 ethnic groups. The majority group is the Han people who make up 92% of the population. Ping’An, I found out, is home to a particularly large population of Zhuang, Yao, Miao and Dong people. I asked for a picture with some women who I believe are part of the Zhuang group judging by their headpieces.

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The village was extraordinarily steep, so much so that it seemed unsafe for any cars to enter. I realised that I was entering the town of a people who, despite an influx in tourism, had retained all of their traditional lifestyles.

I passed this particular house which was drying their seaweed on coat hangers.

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Arriving at my lodge, I found myself very thankful that I had chosen to spend big in booking a hotel which I would remember. The cabin had the distinct wooden smell of a ski chalet, and it was run by a family who were very welcoming and hospitable.

After being guided through the nearby trails by the lodge owner, I set off for a hike to the top of the mountain. The walk wasn’t overly taxing, but it certainly did sap me of my energy. But, it was well worth it for some of the most incredible views I’ve ever seen in my life.

Along the way, I passed through some other mountainside villages.

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I stopped to eat in someone’s home which they had opened for lunch. The dining room had a superb view.

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I was disappointed, though, that the page on their menu titled ‘snakes’ was misleading. I was hoping that I could try some daring new delicacy.

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As I continued up the mountain, I passed tourists who had paid to be carried the whole way up.

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While passing through this particular village, I resisted the temptation of purchasing a ‘meat stone’.

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The bamboo on the way up the mountain grew thicker and greener. I love the plant not only because it is so iconically Chinese, but also because I find its structure to be so perfect in its simplicity.

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As I climbed, the terraces slowly started accumulating with each extra metre in altitude. Rice must be grown underwater, and terracing like this provides the means by which farmers can manage this.

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The terraces were different colours depending on the angle from which they were viewed.

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As I climbed higher, I passed local farmers with hoes and shovels in hand. Not so long ago these people were peasants, but I’d like to think that the tourism brought to them by a more globalised world has increased their incomes.

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After asking for a picture, this particular farmer tried very hard to convince me that he was “不好看” (meaning ‘unattractive’, or literally ‘not good to look at’). After convincing the fellow otherwise, he agreed to a photo.

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It wasn’t until I reached the peak of the mountain that I was faced with the awe-inspiring view of the rice terraces as a whole.

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As you can see in this photo taken just minutes later, it doesn’t take long for the mist to roll in and then back out again.

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Take a look through some of the other photos I took of the magnificent landscape.

It was a happy day for me! There are few places across the world where I have felt the same emotion of sheer astonishment and bliss. The villages of Shibu Onsen in Japan and Turpan in Western China stand out as the other places where I’ve felt as ‘in sync’ with the world as I did today, but it has been some time since I was last in either of those areas.

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After the long hike, I stumbled back into my room and collapsed onto the bed. I closed my eyes at around 4pm intending to nap for a few hours before dinner.

 

Day 92 (26th of May, 2016) – Suzhou, Jiangsu Province, China

I did not wake up from my nap until 3am this morning, which was very lucky timing considering I hadn’t set an alarm. My ride to Guilin airport left at 3:30am for the 7:30am flight since it was a long drive to the city. Getting on such an early flight meant that I could link up with Dad in Shanghai not long after he got in at the airport. When it’s one of the few times you’ll be seeing family all year, even those extra few hours matter.

This was the business and first class lounge of China Southern Airlines at Guilin airport.

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After labouring through a lot of the classwork I’m missing out on this week on the plane, I arrived in at Shanghai to unexpectedly meet Dad while walking through to his terminal. I couldn’t have been happier to see my old man, and that undoubtedly would have shown on my face.

So there we were, an unshowered 18 year old with 20kg worth of backpacks on his front and back, and his collared shirt and suitcase-bearing father. What an unlikely match.

We made our way through the metro tunnels to Shanghai Railway Station – a gloomy and depressing excuse of a transportation hub. After some wait, our train arrived for the journey to Suzhou. Dad and I chose to spend the two nights together in Suzhou since it was close to Shanghai and we hadn’t yet been there. The train journey took only 25 minutes, and before I knew it I was relieved to be walking into the Renaissance Hotel for a break from my budget-hotel nightmares.

After a brief settling-in period at the hotel, we headed out to the ‘Humble Administrator’s Gardens’. Suzhou is a city known for its vast collection of Chinese gardens, and this is one of the bigger and more famous ones.

Suzhou is also I.M. Pei’s hometown (architect of The Louvre among some other impressive structures), and we passed the Suzhou Museum which was designed by him.

The garden’s sheer size was overwhelming, and Dad and I greatly enjoyed the walk through the grounds.

Before entering the Bonsai garden, we were warned by a sign at the entrance:

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Seeing the carefully grown and designed Bonsai trees was a highlight of the garden experience. The trees were like a beautiful microcosm of their much larger counterparts. They were grown at weird and wonderful angles into impressive shapes.

Nearby to the Humble Administrator’s Gardens is Pingjiang Road, one of Suzhou’s famous canal-lined streets. We ventured into its depths, tasting street food on the way to a pub where Dad drew up the new house plans for me.

For dinner, we took a ride to the other side of town to a Chinese restaurant which had been recommended for its particularly good Suzhou cuisine. The restaurant was in a beautiful part of the city.

The food was incredible with the black fungus being the standout. No, it wasn’t the acid melons fried belly tip, swimming bladder or the fried pig’s tendon.

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I ordered enough food to feed the whole family, though.

There were a few options for payment too.

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After dinner, we returned to the hotel for a few games of pool. I lost in a whitewash – it was a bit of a shame to see that my once existent (I think…) pool skills had disappeared.

 

Day 93 (27th of May, 2016) – Suzhou, Jiangsu Province, China

After a comfortable sleep for the both of us, Dad and I went for a walk up the street of our hotel to get a closer look at the architectural marvel which lay at the end.

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The building is being erected as part of a much larger complex, the scale of which would never be seen in Australia.

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Afterwards, we caught a taxi to Guanqian Road. This road is Suzhou’s shopping hub, but it is also lined with temples and other nooks of goodness.

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In one of the temples, we were greeted simply by a statue putting the finger up at us.

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I love the incense smells which fill these temples.

During a drink at a cross library/bar, Dad began training me up in ‘killer sudoku’ as a possible future weapon for the QLD Sudoku team. It looks like I have a lot of strategy research ahead of me.

A little friend joined us at our table.

We moved on to ShanTang Jie, a walking street whose 1100 years of history is embedded very authentically in all of the street vendors and food markets.

We weaved between the canals which give Suzhou its nickname as ‘Venice of the East’.

Animal rights activists would have had a field day in some of the food markets.

For dinner we ate at a back-alley restaurant. We indulged in what was one of my favourite meals I’ve had in China – flat noodles, deep-fried mooncake and egg noodles. Pictured below are the flat noodles.

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Day 94 (28th of May, 2016) – Nanjing, Jiangsu Province, China

Saturday was a day centred around transit. Dad and I relaxed around the hotel until our trains to our separate destinations left at lunch time. The trains were booked for the same time with mine heading to Nanjing and Dad’s back to Shanghai for his flight home.

It was with sadness that I said goodbye, but also with great optimism that it’s less than two months of difficult conditions in Xuzhou left until I can see everyone again (and reap the benefits of improved Chinese outside of Xuzhou).

On the train to Nanjing, I was able to finish the bulk of the rest of my classwork missed throughout the week.

The Nanjing Metro seemed to be identical to the one in Shanghai. The tickets were the only difference. They actually use tokens instead of paper tickets.

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After arriving at my budget hotel in Nanjing, I was told (for the second time in a week) that the hotel couldn’t have me. This time it was for a different reason – the hotel didn’t house foreigners. In China, hotels need a license to do business with foreigners. This hotel and the app I booked it through, despite having provided an Australian passport and using a clearly foreign name, neglected to inform me that I wouldn’t be able to stay with them. The customer service of CTrip rebooked me in a nearby hotel and paid the small difference.

By the time I had unwound in my room, it was evening. I moved out to the Nanjing 1912 District (1912 being the year when Dr. Sun Yet-sen, the forerunner of China’s democratic revolution, had his presidential office erected). I was told that this was a chic youth area of Nanjing, and I quickly realised that it was their King’s Cross. I ended up at a nice pub eating a burger for dinner and meeting some locals, which I greatly enjoyed.

 

Day 95 (29th of May, 2016) – Nanjing, Jiangsu Province, China

This morning I visited the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall, which was my main reason for coming to the city. The Nanjing Massacre is a part of history which has always fascinated me amongst all other forms of history, and so this was a museum that I particularly wanted to see.

For those who aren’t aware, the Nanjing Massacre (a.k.a. the Rape of Nanking) was an episode during the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1937 of mass murder and rape by Japanese troops against the residents of Nanjing. The massacre is known for its particularly inhumane killing methods and the targeting of the unarmed.

The first thing that you notice walking into the memorial is the presence of the number ‘300,000’, that being the number of Chinese fatalities over the six weeks of the shocking killings.

The number becomes etched into your mind as you descend through the ruined Chinese military bunkers and read the names of all those slaughtered.

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The museum included some of the most confronting exhibitions I’ve ever seen. So confronting, in fact, that I won’t include some of the pictures in this blog. Images of skewered infants in the hands of laughing soldiers, swords in the abdomens of raped women and the heads of Chinese soldiers being used as footballs  are simply too much to look at.

There are some pictures which I will show though, simply because of how sobering they are in making you realise the value of a human life.

Here is a deceased infant who was shot at point blank by a Japanese soldier. Look at how the inhumanity of a soldier turns the victim into exactly that – inhuman. It looks like a China doll, not a once living child.

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Or here, looking at the terrified faces of soldiers facing their impending death as they are executed before crowds of families who will follow.

Included in the galleries was a whole exhibition on people who were killed through acidic erosion. Some were forced to drink acid while others were thrown into pools of it.

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One of the most solemn sights was that of the mass graveyard of 10,000 people. You could still see their bones scattered around in the pits.

Monuments outside of the museum pledged a future of peace and humanity when dealing with conflicting interests.

Seeing the videos of some of the Japanese soldiers repenting had me thinking that they really could have been any one of us – brainwashing is that powerful. In some respects, the soldiers who committed the acts aren’t the ones who should be the brunt of all the anger.

Further than that, I fail to see why a country like Japan is yet to apologise for such an event which was so clearly unnecessary in the larger picture of the war. That also got me thinking why the U.S. refused to apologise for bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki when Obama visited the memorial just recently.

I feel like there are some events in history which are universally looked upon as dark times, and a simple apology would go a long way in moving on from those moments.

After the memorial, I moved on to Xinjiekou to search for some books which I have been meaning to buy. I ended up buying 哈利波特 (Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, the Chinese edition), 小屁孩日记 (Dairy of a Wimpy Kid, the Chinese edition) and an HSK 5 textbook to complete during my July and August travels between semesters.

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It’s good to see that in many of the metro stations there is advertising for tourism in Australia. They’re eye-catching ads and the language use is clearly authentic Chinese. Good work Tourism Australia.

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I sat down to write much of this blog at a Japanese restaurant in a nearby foodcourt.

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I then caught a train to Xuanwumen to visit the Xuanwu Lake and the famous Hunan street. I was exhausted, and part way through walking to the lake I realised that I was doing it more out of obedience to a sort of “expectation” rather than because I genuinely wanted to go. After convincing myself that my travels shouldn’t be defined by Tripadvisor lists and guides, I moved straight to the pedestrian mall instead. I’ve seen my fair share of lakes.

Unfortunately, the mall seemed to be completely under construction.

I enjoyed roaming the nearby streets, though.

Nanjing’s main tower reminds me very much of Chicago’s Willis Tower with its almost gothic and dominating stance over the city. I really like it’s addition to the cityscape.

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After some Uyghur street food for dinner, I returned to my hotel for the evening. Tomorrow I return to Xuzhou to continue studies until the end of the semester. It’s been a successful week of travel.

Until next time,
Xavier.

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4 thoughts on “The Backpacker

  1. Xavier brilliant man , thank you for the great blog . !!! love the photos . now i live in fear of hotels in China !!! i will make certain Taff is in charge of finding me a hotel there !!!

    Like

  2. Xave,
    Thanks for the blog. Great photos and I am concerned with your eating every day you seem to be eating out. We really look forward to catching up on your return. Our Aussie custom welcomes all types into our hotels, renting and even help them to get established in our country, where sadly some dont want to accept our way of living and religious beliefs, and when we suggest they
    should try we are classed as racist. What would happen in China if you did that, sadly there would be no more blogs.
    Love
    G & P

    Like

    1. You’d be more concerned about my health if I was cooking – the state of the kitchen in this dorm is revolting. I agree re the hotels in Australia. Seems like an odd stance for China to hold.

      Like

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