Our day started fairly early. It takes about 45 mins to get to the train station North of Xian. We arrived early enough that even though I already had our tickets for the train we would take this morning, I wanted to secure 2 other sets of train tickets we would need later that evening and next week. The ticket counter had a short line so we spent a few minutes collecting tickets, then headed upstairs to the departure area. This train station was a little different than the others, and we were having a bit of a difficult time figuring out where exactly to go, and our train would be leaving very soon. You must be at your departure point 5-10minutes before the train leaves or they close ticketing and you cannot board the train. We were getting close on time. I finally stopped to ask someone working in the train station, showing them my ticket and she hurriedly pointed to the gate we needed to go to, and off we ran! We made it with at least 5 minutes to spare, but it was a little nerve racking since that station was quite larger than I expected and structured for boarding differently than we'd experienced before.
We were riding the bullet trains this morning, riding 300km per hour. The kids thought it was awesome. First class is just a little bit more $ than 2nd class, so I purchased first class when I could. There is a higher tier, for business or supreme class, but those are lots more, in some cases almost double $$, so we stuck with first class. When they came and checked tickets on this train they dropped off a few snacks and water. There is also a lady that comes through and mops up the floors. They do the mopping in the 2nd class cars as well.
Our first stop was at another Unesco Heritage site, Longmen Grottoes in Luoyang. We quickly found the left luggage counter and stored our bags. Once leaving the train station we were quickly approached by a man using a translate app, asking us if we wanted to go to the Grottoes. We said yes, and he indicated he could drive all of us for $60rmb. We agreed, we were going to have to take 2 taxi's, but he had a mini van to take all of us. 10 minutes later we were at the Grottoes site. We arranged for him to pick us up in 1.5 hours. As we started walking away, he ran up to us and pointed, we were headed in the wrong direction. He pointed to show us to go to the Ticket window first. That was very kind of him, and in my opinion beyond what we had paid him to do.
Longmen Grottoes is a Buddhist site along a beautiful river. 1500 years ago they started carving Buddha statues into the rocks and caves here. For 500 years they carved more and more statues. There are more than 100000 statues of Buddha here now. They range in size from 17 centimeters to over 17 meters. It was fascinating to walk along the path and view all these statues.
Safely back on the next bullet train we were heading to Changsha. Changsha is just a transit stop for us. Here we will take the subway 7 stops to switch to the main train station in the city. We will then ride the local train for 4.5 hours out to Zhangjiajie, Hunan Province, to visit China's first national park. I was worried about the local train. I don't mind a local train for an hour or 2, but 4.5 hours is a really long time on an old slow train. Let's stress the "old" part, meaning not so clean. It was definitely a taste of everyday life in China. The local trains are the ones they ride in and out of the city to nearby places everyday. Luckily I only had to use the bathroom once. We survived.
At the train station, 11pm at night, we were happy to see a sign with our name on it! A driver was there to meet us, to drive us to our hotel, 1 hour away. I did tell the hotel there were 6 of us, but he had a 5 seater car. So we squished! We made the bumpy 1 hour ride, just to have to climb what felt like 1000 stairs up a mountain! We made it! Out of breath and tired! The hotel owners use a the SayHi translator app and Google translate. They work really well to help communicate. He showed us to our rooms and we got the kids settled and off to sleep. We were staying in traditional style rooms in the owners wife's grandfathers house, built 100 years ago. They'd remodeled the bathrooms to be modern with real toilets (including a heated seat on the toilet). The walls had cracks and gaps in them, but they added heated blankets to help with the chill in the air.
In the morning they had a wonderful Chinese breakfast waiting for us. Once we sat down and started eating the different things they had on the table, they started frying eggs. I think they deep fry them, they were absolutely delicious! Fried egg with a sausage dumpling and fried rice. Yum. They eat a lot of eggs here. We have had scrambled eggs many times at lunch and dinner. Oh and the peanuts. I love the peanuts! Roasted in oil and salt. So so good!
The view was amazing. Green Mountains all around. Quickly after breakfast they asked to help us make plans in the park. They pulled out a map and showed us where to go and what to see. We came up with a 2 day plan to see most of the park. They drove us 5 minutes to the closest gate to the park and I finally looked up to see the towers of rock all around me! Incredible. This park was the inspiration for the floating pillars in the movie Avatar. It often rains here and the clouds settle in, that when you look from above the pillars it does look like they are floating. Absolutely stunning. We purchased our park tickets. A man approached us to try to convince us to hire him as a guide. David spoke with him for a bit while I was face timing with the little kids at home. We decided we would tour the park on our own and it was a good choice. They have buses, and well signed pathways, trams, and elevators all over the park. I had never been to a park so accessible.
The red fabric is tied onto the railings. They represent wishes the people make as they visit the mountain. They purchase the red ribbon and tie it where they would like, and make their wish.
Our first day it was beautifully sunny, so no floating pillar view for us, but it is truly beautiful with the sun shining. The park has a free bus to take you from place to place. The maps are hard to read and understand as they are not drawn to scale. We figured it out though. We rode the cable car up to the Yuanjiajie area where we took a short bus ride to the Avatar mountains area. Here we hiked around enjoying the many view points. It was beautiful. We took the worlds highest outdoor glass elevator down to the bottom and than took a 4.5 mile hike along the Golden Whip Stream. Spectacular scenery all day. The end of our hike landed us back at the same entrance we started from so it was easy to send a text thru WeChat (an app widely used in China) to our hotel asking them to pick us up.
World's longest outdoor elevator!
This monkey is a thief!!!! He jumped on me from out of a tree and stole my bag of root chips and ran off. I didn't even know what was happening until he was gone. I thought I had run into someone on the trail as I was looking the other way when the animal jumped down on me!
We were thoroughly exhausted, but the kids found energy to run around and play with the hotel owners little kids. The couple running the small hotel had 2 cute little girls. It was fun to watch our kids play together, occasionally using the translate app to communicate. They cooked us a delicious dinner. I headed to bed with the kids and David visited for almost 2 hours with the owner asking about the hotel, his expansions, his life in China, and the area. It's amazing how technology can help us. The translate app works so well you can have conversations.
In the morning after breakfast we packed up and said our goodbyes. We were then off to the Tianzi Mountain part of the park. We would leave our bags in the car and they would pick us up from the wuylingan exit to take us back to the city of Zhangjiajie that evening. We rode a different cable car to the top of Tianzi Mountain to explore and hike the area. After visiting all the viewing points we stopped for lunch at the McDonalds on the top of the mountain. They have lots of local food vendors cooking meats and corn, and fruits all around, but my stomach was catching up with all the different foods we'd been trying. The street food still concerns me, no matter how good it looks. So we stuck with McDonald's today. After a quick lunch we headed out to hike down the mountain. And it was down, down, down. So many stairs! But a beautiful hike. We even passed under an arch. We made it out to the road, and onto the bus, out to the Wuylingan exit of the park to meet our driver. We were a few minutes early so we headed to bathrooms where Benjamin experienced his first time using the squatter for #2. He enjoyed telling us all about it afterwards. He was unsure of how to do it, so he removed shoes, socks, pants, and underwear to not get anything on them. He hung them on a hook. I can only say I am glad they keep the bathrooms clean. I hope his was! We had a chat about how to squat with your clothes on.
David using Google Translate to ask about the sticks in the rock wall. We passed them several times on different paths, and he finally decided he had to ask. The Chinese are quite superstitious in everything. The sticks represent supporting others or asking for support.
We were waiting our turn to take a family photo in this view point. And the family before us asked to have their picture taken with our kids. (wasn't the first time, won't be the last) The lady in the purple coat picked Benjamin up and hugged him and called him a cute baby! We all had a good laugh. Benjamin, now 10, did not think it was very funny, to be called a cute baby!
The driver took us 1 hour back to the train station where we walked to a nearby grocery store to pick up snacks for breakfast and our next stop. We grabbed another quick meal at McDonalds and waited for our next ride. We were headed to a rural farming village 2 hours away. The driver found us in McDonald's - we are easy to spot- and walked us to his van. The drive was over a bumpy winding narrow road through the mountains. It quickly got dark so we could no longer see the scenery and it started to rain.
We arrived safely and were met by YeYe. He is a 70year old man, who speaks no English, but a lot of Chinese. He quickly showed us to our room and told us to go to bed and turn out the lights. He was very friendly and kind and did his best to try to understand and communicate with us. We tried the translate app with him, but once the phone would translate our question, he would just start speaking and not wait for the beep to tell him when to speak. It was quite entertaining. We were tired anyway so it was a good time to head to bed.
In the morning we could see that we were indeed in the mountains in a very small village. YeYe's son built this house for him and his family. The village has been preserved by the government for it's traditional practices of farming and homes. YeYe's home is new in the last few years, but it had to be built in the traditional way. I was sad to find this included the bathroom. He showed us after we arrived, the bathroom is around the corner from the house, a separate building with a squatter style. Well, it was clean, and we will survive. I'm calling this the camping portion of our trip.
David flew his pocket drone around, and it freaked out and landed in the wet field and fertilizer.
The view is beautiful. This is our time to rest and relax, and just enjoy the peace. We sat outside on the porch all morning watching 2 different farmers. One was carrying manure to his field in baskets over his shoulders. The other was using a cow and a wood plow to plow and hand seed the field. We walked around the village and met the village chief. Everyone is very friendly. Of course someone asked to take a picture with us. And the village Chief wanted to know why we were here. With the help of the translator app we were able to talk with the village people. Without that app, there would have been hardly any conversations as no one speaks English.
For Lunch and dinner we went to Ayi's house. She lives close by and cooks meals for YeYe's guests. She was much quicker to pick up on using the translator app. She is a cheerful old woman, and her meals are simple and delicious. She grows vegetables in her back yard and is curing pig meat over the fire in her kitchen. She uses a huge wok to cook, built into a counter top with a place to put wood coals below to heat it. She lets the kids help her peel and cut vegetables for our meals. It is so peaceful here in the village. We have enjoyed resting and taking a slower, simpler pace.
Isabel helping to make fried peanuts
Both Ye Ye and Ahi had beehives outside their houses. YeYe stuck Benjamin's hand inside the hive one day to show him he did not need to be afraid of the bees.
After the cave David, Isabel, and I went on a short hike with YeYe, up the hill behind YeYe's house and around the village ridge line. It really is a beautiful valley, and I bet in a few months with the rice and corn growing, it's even more picturesque.
After dinner we paid Ayi for her yummy meals and said our goodbyes, we would leave early tomorrow morning so we could have half a day to spend on Mount Tianmen.
Ye Ye was helping Benjamin work on his Chinese posing.
Tianmen Mountain is in the city of Zhangjiajie. So we made the 2 hour drive back through the mountains on the windy narrow roads. YeYe went a short distance with us, the driver dropped him in the closest small town where many many people were out shopping on the streets. Between the people, scooters, cars, and trucks there were traffic jams just trying to get through this small town. David hopped out after awhile to figure out what the hold ups were and to tell people who were blocking the road for no reason, to move.
Before YeYe hopped out to go shopping he reminded us that we owed him 100rmb for hiking with us and going to the cave. David paid him and off he went!
Calvin had been feeling sick that morning, I think the food had caught up with him. The locally cooked food I think was a little much for our stomachs. It was delicious to eat, but maybe he ate too much. Luckily I had a spare ziplock bag handy as he did indeed vomit about halfway through our drive.
Once we reached Zhangjiajie the driver dropped us at the Cablecar office. I had read many stories about having to wait in long lines, for a couple of hours to ride the cablecar up the mountain. Indeed there were lots of people outside the cable car building, but we easily purchased tickets right away, hit the bathrooms really quick, and then maybe had a 10 minute wait in line to get on a cable car. Maybe we just picked the right time of year to come. It was a beautiful Sunday, Easter in fact. If we were home we would be watching General Conference in our Pjs in the morning, but here in China, it was still Saturday night back home and we were without access to General Conference. So it's a perfect day to enjoy the beauty God has created in the world for us.
This Cable car ride is the longest Cable car in the world. It took us about 30 mins to reach the top. It starts over the city and then up into the mountains. It was a little cloudy so it was hard to see far in the distance. But we did get a good look at the road we would later take down the mountain via bus. It is called 99 bends road, and for a reason.
Finally we had reached the buses where we would take the 99 bend roads down. you see the pattern right. 99 bend road, 999 steps. We loaded on the bus and got seats in the back. It was like being on a roller coaster. I was sitting in the aisle seat and had to put my seatbelt on and tighten it just to help keep me in my seat. Otherwise i was going to end up in the lap of the stranger across the aisle from me, and i don't think he would have appreciated that. I was fun and crazy and a beautiful ride and I was glad no one got sick on this drive. We reached the bottom where we switched buses again to ride the rest of the way back to where we began in the city at the cable car office.
It was time to pick up our backpacks from storage, then look for a store nearby to grab some snacks and then head to the airport. We hailed a taxi expecting to take 2 to the airport, but the taxi driver told us a set price instead of the meter and seemed willing to fit all 6 of us in his 5 seat taxi. The price was reasonable so we all squished in.
I had read that flying in China can be somewhat unpredictable. Flights are often delayed or cancelled. We experienced none of that. The airport in Zhangjiajie is new and beautiful. It was easy to check in and get our boarding pass. Security was easy, and we quickly found our gate. We even found a lounge associated with my fancy credit card and were able to spend a half hour in there "relaxing" and snacking. The kids loved that! Now they are spoiled. The flight left on schedule. However, just as we were in line to board Calvin (who I had advised to not eat too much because he had thrown up this morning) declared he didn't feel good and that he thought he was going to throw up. He ran for a nearby trash can and I handed David boarding passes for the rest of the family.
When Calvin finished vomiting he ran to the bathroom to clean up. I told him he did not have time to use the bathroom, he'd have to board the plane. He told me he thought when he was vomiting that he may have messed his pants at the same time. So on the plane we went and we dug out a change of clothes for him to change before takeoff. Otherwise it was a pretty easy flight. We flew into Hangzhou where we took 2 taxis to the Hangzhou east train station about 45 mins away. This train station was HUGE! We had enough time to enjoy a McDonald's ice cream before boarding our train. We were taking a fast train to Shanghai, 30 mins away. This would land us still 45 mins from where we were staying. Once we arrived at Shanghai Hongqaoi train station everyone was rushing around. We studied the subway map, then headed to buy tickets, when the machines shut down. We headed to the subway and rode into the city, but when we went to transfer to our next subway line we were unable too. The last subway had come, earlier than the online schedule said, and the line was closed for the night! This left us a little frustrated, however, we found that more people spoke English here, so that was helpful. We even found a minivan taxi to take all of us to the apartment, and we noticed the city was quiet. It was 11pm, but sooo quiet. They have a no honking ordinance in Shanghai and wow does it make a difference! Because the rest of China, honks like crazy!
We reached our apartment but could not find the key to get inside the building. It was not where it was supposed to be, but luckily someone came through the door and we were able to get in the building and found the apartment. It had a beautiful view of the city and it's skyscrapers, but we were tired and had an early morning to prepare for! Shanghai and the Water towns await!