5 Days on the Silk Road

In the last two months, I’ve managed to check off two big bucket list items. One of them was traveling to Gansu Province in the remote northwestern area of China. What’s there, you ask? Well, let me show you.

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Gansu Province, located on the edge of the Tibetan plateau, is often synonymous with the ancient Silk Road, which in itself is a pretty intriguing reason to go. But for Robert and I, the interest to travel was sparked by two things: China’s Rainbow Mountains and the Gobi desert oasis town of Dunhuang.

ZHANGYE

We started out by flying to the city of Zhangye in central Gansu Province, most famous for Zhangye Danxia Landform, aka the Rainbow Mountains. A couple of years ago I hadn’t even heard about this place, but after visiting, I’m totally blown away by the fact that these kinds of hidden travel-treasures still exist.

The Zhangye Danxia Landform is one of the most stunning things I’ve seen in China, even in the world. Not only the colors, but also the land formations are just unreal. The area wasn’t discovered until about 15 years ago when some locals – completely unaware of how unique their surroundings were – took a NatGeo photographer out to the mountains.

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My thoughts and tips for Zhangye:

  • Go, go, go! This place is incredible. You won’t regret it.
  • The Rainbow Mountains are the main attraction in the area, but keep in mind that there are two other geoparks, too; Sunan Danxia Scenic Area and Binggou Danxia Scenic Area (the last picture above is from Binggou). We visited Binggou (which means Ice Valley, love the name, very Game of Thrones). No rainbow colors there, but different types of stunning landforms and canyons. Unfortunately we didn’t have time to see Sunan.
  • The Zhangye Danxia Landform area is big. It has several large viewing platforms and you’ll be transported around by bus once you enter. Visitors are not allowed to walk freely in order to preserve the colorful surface of the mountains.
  • Some viewing platforms require more climbing, which is when you’ll notice the high altitude of Zhangye (between 2000-3800 meters). So don’t worry, you’re not necessarily in horrible shape, it’s just your body not getting as much oxygen as it’s used to.
  • As anywhere famous in China, do not visit during public holidays or high season. I saw some very scary pictures of the viewing platforms being absolutely packed, so you’ll obviously want to avoid that at all cost. So when should you go? A good time is in April-May and September-October which seems to be the shoulder season with pretty nice, dry weather. The downside is that the mountain colors are most vibrant after rain, and the high season months are also the wettest.
  • For a good standard hotel in Zhangye, I can recommend Jinyang International Hotel. The restaurant is very Chinese, but staff extremely friendly and rooms very nice.

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JIAYUGUAN

Once we were done climbing up and down hills in Zhangye, we jumped in our private car (with driver) that we had arranged for the whole trip, and drove 250 km to our next destination, Jiayuguan.

Jiayuguan is known for the Jiayuguan Pass, which was the first frontier of the Great Wall and westernmost entry point to China in the Ming era. It consists of a fully restored fortress, courtyard and wall, but in my opinion, the most fascinating part was hearing about the history with Jiayuguan being the entry point for Silk Road merchants coming in and out of China. It’s where they negotiated for Ming Dynasty visas and entry permits. It was like the immigration hall at Pudong Airport, except probably a lot cooler with camels, spices and silk.

Jiayuguan Pass is worth a visit if you’re in the area, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to see it.

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We stayed at the Plaza Holiday Inn in downtown Jiayuguan, which by the way does not seem to be a real Holiday Inn. So just fyi, haha. But the standard was ok, staff friendly and helpful, and food pretty good. Also possibly had the hardest bed I’ve ever slept on.

DUNHUANG

On the third morning of our tour de Silk Road we set out to Dunhuang. It took us around 5 hours to drive the 400 km to our next destination. I have to say, I’m so impressed that the highways even in these remote areas of China are just impeccable. It was such a smooth drive in endless, flat desert land with the occasional mountain range popping up in the distance. Beautiful. Loved it.

The city of Dunhuang is in the northwestern end of Gansu Province and right at the edge of the Gobi desert. Now, when I say at the edge of the Gobi desert, I really mean it. When you’re in Dunhuang, you’ll encounter this 👇 sight of the massive sand dunes about to swallow the city at any moment. But apparently the dunes somehow stay put and kindly let life in town continue as it always has.

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I’ve never been to the desert before, so seeing a tiny part of Gobi was a major moment for me. We spent the whole first afternoon riding camels and climbing up and down the dunes. We got awesome orange sand boots for CNY 30 to make walking in the sand easier, but it was still exhausting.

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Dunhuang is famous for two things, the first being the Crescent Moon Lake, an absolutely unreal oasis in the middle of the dunes. Somehow this mysterious crescent shaped body of water has survived endless sandstorms through thousands of years. It’s truly a stunning sight. Unlike at the Rainbow Mountains, there’s a lot of activities and entertainment built around the dunes by the lake, making the vibe a bit touristy. It’s not bad, but I would of course love to experience this kind of place feeling more connected to nature.

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The second well-known thing about Dunhuang is the Mogao Caves. As Dunhuang was at a religious and cultural crossroads on the Silk Road, it ended up being a cradle of Buddhism in China. 1700 years ago buddhists started to carve out caves for meditation and worship in a mountain wall, and over time it turned into 492 grottoes, or temples, now containing one of the most important collections of Buddhist art in the world.

The Mogao Caves themselves were an incredible, unique thing to see. However, the setup around visiting the place was maybe a bit different from I had expected. Before being able to enter the actual cave area, visitors have to watch two films about the history of the caves, around 30 minutes each, in two different auditoriums. After that, you’re transported by bus to the caves, where you join a guided 75-90 minute tour to see 7-8 grottoes.

It was fascinating to learn about the history and see the beautiful carvings and paintings, but I didn’t expect it to be such a restricted, fully guided experience with not much freedom to explore on your own. Visitors are only allowed in certain parts of the restored area, whereas I would have loved to see more of the non-restored mountain wall as well.

Definitely worth visiting though, just know what to expect.

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Unfortunately I didn’t get any shots of the paintings as photography isn’t allowed inside the caves.

YANGGUAN PASS

Our last major stop of the trip was Yangguan Pass about 100 km from Dunhuang. The place isn’t overly famous and I really didn’t have any expectations, but our guide, Peter, recommended it for seeing some of the westernmost ruins of the Great Wall. And it turned out to be such a positive surprise. In true China style, there was a big touristy complex built with staff dressed up as Western Han Dynasty soldiers in a massive fort and courtyard, but we just skipped that part entirely, hired a donkey and carriage and headed out to the desert to see the ruins.

And this place was magical. But for us, it wasn’t the ruins of the Wall that made the biggest impression. It was the incredible landscape. I don’t know how long we spent just running around the beautiful little hills, taking photos trying to do the scenery justice, and just sitting there looking into the endless distance.

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My thoughts and tips for Dunhuang:

  • If you go, make sure to research tours and things you can do in the desert aside from activities in the touristy Crescent Moon Lake area. I didn’t do this – huge mistake! – and if I ever go back, I would definitely do an overnight camping trip out to the desert, and some sort of longer Jeep safari in the dunes.
  • Lamb is a common food in Dunhuang, we had some amazing local lamb dishes.
  • We stayed at the The Silk Road Dunhuang Hotel and I can highly recommend it! They have a very cool, exotic silk road-vibe, but with a pretty high standard all the way through. The breakfast was a bit disappointing considering that everything else was so memorable, but it covered the basics. Stunning views from our room and the hotel rooftop restaurant towards the desert dunes.
  • Dunhuang, and particularly the hotel in Dunhuang was the only place during the entire trip that had good coffee available. If you need a guaranteed coffee fix every day, make sure to bring your own. The hotel was also the only place that served any kind of Western food during our five days in Gansu Province.

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TO SUM UP…

This trip was just beyond any expectations. I chalk it up to two major reasons: 1) Gansu Province having incredible nature and so many awesome things to see, and 2) our private tour guide, Peter + the private car and driver making everything incredibly smooth and convenient for us. Specifically Peter was truly a lifesaver. He’s lived in the US and pretty much only works with foreign clients, so he understood our standards, culture and concerns about things like food safety and hygiene. He’s also local so he knew where to eat and sleep to make sure we’d feel comfortable throughout the trip. I can’t recommend him enough, and please send him tons of regards from Robert and Jenna if you contact him. 
(Scroll down for Peter’s contact.)

Make sure to check out many, many more pictures and videos from our trip on my Instagram Stories Highlights under Gansu Province.

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ITINERARY

Day 1:
Flights: Shanghai Xi’an, Xi’an Zhangye.
Arrive in Zhangye, check in at Jinyang International Hotel

Day 2:
Depart hotel at 5am for sunrise at Zhangye Danxia Landform
6am-10am See the Rainbow Mountains (Zhangye Danxia Landform)
10:30am-12pm See the Ice Valley (Binggou Danxia Scenic Area)
12-1pm Lunch at Zhangye Danxia Geopark
1-4pm Drive from Zhangye to Jiayuguan
4-6pm See Jiayuguan Pass
7pm Arrive at Plaza Holiday Inn hotel

Day 3:
Depart hotel at 8am
8am-1pm Drive from Jiayuguan to Dunhuang
1pm Lunch in downtown Dunhuang
2pm Arrive at The Silk Road Dunhuang Hotel
3pm-7:30 pm See the sand dunes and the Crescent Moon Lake, camel ride
8pm Back at hotel

Day 4:
Depart from hotel at 8:15am
9am-12pm See the Mogao Caves
12:30-1:30pm Lunch in downtown Dunhuang
1:30-2:30pm Drive to Yangguan Pass
2:30-5pm See Yangguan Pass and ruins of the Great Wall
6pm Back at hotel
Dinner and sunset with sand dune views from hotel rooftop restaurant

Day 5:
Flights home: Dunhuang-Lanzhou, Lanzhou-Shanghai

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RESOURCES

This article has so much useful information for anyone considering going. It’s written a couple of years back but has tons of valuable tips.

Private tour guide: Peter Sun, tel. +86 189 198 2954, email 1300797890@qq.com

Harbin, baby!

Summer is just around the corner here in Shanghai (or at least that’s what I’d like to believe), but before switching into total spring-mode, Robert and I decided to head up north to Harbin for some serious sub-zero temperatures. The city of Harbin isn’t very well known outside of China, but out here it’s super famous for its annual International Ice and Snow Festival that’s been running every winter for over 30 years. Here are my top takeaways from the trip:

The Ice and Snow Festival is AMAZING
That’s right. Ah-mazing! So worth the trip. Obviously I had seen pictures of the ice sculptures, but seeing them in real life was something else. The area is huge and the scale of the sculptures is incredible. Check out the pictures below and you can see how tiny people are next to them. We visited the Ice and Snow World park, which I believe is the biggest and most famous one (apparently there are a few different ones). We timed our visit so that we got to see everything both in daylight and beautifully lit up in the dark – recommended! This is one of the coolest things I’ve seen in China so far (and the crowds were not bad at all!).

A weekend will do
We arrived late Friday evening and flew back home on Sunday morning. And that was enough. Sure, it would have been interesting to see more of the city, but one full day was definitely enough to see the Ice and Snow Festival plus a little more. Besides checking out the ice sculptures, we strolled around the city center for a couple of hours, and even had time to visit a Siberian Tiger Park that was surprisingly good. We expected to see one or two tired tigers, but there were literally hundreds of them running around big fields!

Bring warm clothes
Harbin was freezing. The temperature was around -20 Celsius, and even though we packed our warmest winter clothes and boots, we still had to buy ski-pants on the street to keep us from freezing to death. Luckily there were plenty of heated indoor areas at the ice festival park (like Pizza Hut and KFC, haha), so it was easy to pop in and warm up whenever we got concerned about losing body parts to frostbite.

Choose a hotel with a great location
We stayed at the Holiday Inn in Harbin city center, and the excellent location definitely made a huge difference to our trip. It was right at the end of the most popular pedestrian street, so we had easy access to restaurants, famous sights, shopping etc. Very convenient, especially when you’re in town for a limited time.

Get a car and a driver
Holiday Inn’s awesome concierge hooked us up with a car and driver for almost a full day for only 300 RMB. This was quite literally a lifesaver considering the intense cold. We had no idea if it would be easy or difficult to find a taxi around the remote ice and snow festival area, and we didn’t really feel adventurous enough to find out. The car took us around town all day and waited for us until we were done with whatever we wanted to do and see. And our super friendly driver always kept the heater blasting.

Harbin Ice and Snow Festival Shanghaista Blog

Harbin Ice and Snow Festival Shanghaista Blog

Harbin Ice and Snow Festival Shanghaista Blog

Harbin Ice and Snow Festival Shanghaista Blog

Harbin Ice and Snow Festival Shanghaista Blog

Harbin Ice and Snow Festival Shanghaista Blog

Harbin Ice and Snow Festival Shanghaista Blog

Harbin Ice and Snow Festival Shanghaista Blog

Harbin Ice and Snow Festival Shanghaista Blog

Harbin Ice and Snow Festival Shanghaista Blog

That’s one more destination checked off my China Bucket List, wohoo! Have a great weekend guys, and don’t forget to follow me on Instagram @shanghaistablog!

Chinese New Year in Koh Phangan

One of the perks of living in China is having the 7-day Spring Festival national holiday to celebrate Chinese New Year. Everyone is off work and school, which translates into the largest human migration in the world. People pour out of big cities, and most streets, restaurants and shops become eerily quiet and deserted for one week. Locals travel back to their hometowns to spend time with their families, and most expats take the chance to travel around Asia Pacific.

Robert and I originally wanted to travel to Palawan in the Philippines, but we started looking into it waaay too late and missed out on good deals and reasonable prices. We decided to push Palawan into next year’s travel calendar and go for comfy and easy beach adventures in Thailand instead. Good choice, although Thailand is maybe just a tiny bit too touristy for my taste… But whatever was lacking in authenticity, was certainly made up for in gorgeous turquoise waters, infinity pools, coconuts and mango sticky rice!

We extended our 7-day national holiday to a proper 2 week beach vacay, which is pretty much the best thing you can do in the middle of a cold and grey winter, right? We stayed at the beautiful island of Koh Phangan, which is (unfortunately) mostly known for its infamous Full Moon and Half Moon Parties. But luckily there’s so much more to the island than drunken backpackers, and we headed up to the northern parts to some beautiful, more quiet beaches for a more “grown-up” holiday.

We spent the first week in the north-western tip at Maehaad Beach. Now, our hotel was absolutely gorgeous in every way – huge oceanview-rooms, AMAZING pool, nice beach etc – but it had the grumpiest staff I’ve ever encountered. So much for the famous Thai hospitality! Robert and I had of course read all recent TripAdvisor reviews and knew not to expect top-notch service, but it was still bizarre. They were definitely in no way rude or making us feel uncomfortable, but just grumpy. Oh well, we had a nice stay nonetheless, it’s not like we relied on the level of service to make or break our holiday.

For our second week we moved along to the north-eastern part of Koh Phangan to a little peace of heaven called Buri Rasa Village. And let me just say, wowza! So, if you imagine the grumpy staff at our first hotel, and then imagine the TOTAL opposite — that’s Buri Rasa Village. These guys were the nicest, most service-minded, yet relaxed people ever! And the hotel itself and the surrounding nature with dramatic hills, white beaches and crystal-clear turquoise waters made this place so gorgeous. We had a ridiculously nice stay at Buri Rasa, I honestly can’t recommend them enough.

All in all, great trip and it certainly served its purpose. I could have easily stayed at Buri Rasa for another week… or month! Now we’re back in Shanghai, which has by the way been absolutely beautiful this week – sunny and 15-20 Celcius – but in a few hours we’ll be heading north for the weekend to subzero temperatures in Harbin to cross off another destination on my China Bucket List! Brrr and woohoo! Stay tuned and head on over to my Instagram for more updates. x Jenna

Koh Phangan Shanghaista

Koh Phangan Shanghaista

Koh Phangan Shanghaista

Koh Phangan Shanghaista

Koh Phangan Shanghaista

Koh Phangan Shanghaista

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Koh Phangan Shanghaista

Koh Phangan Shanghaista

Koh Phangan Shanghaista

Vietnam Vibes

Last week China celebrated it’s annual 7-day National Holiday known as Golden Week. The country pretty much shuts down for a full week and the busy, crowded streets of China’s megacities become deserted and quiet. Most locals take the opportunity to travel to their hometowns to be with family, and most expats leave the country either to visit home or to travel around Asia-Pacific.

Robert and I spent our holiday at the calm beachy island of Phu Quoc, Vietnam (checking off Vietnam on my China Bucket List, wohoo!). We stayed at the northern tip of the island at Peppercorn Beach Resort, a small boutique resort that was absolutely perfect for us in every way. A beach villa right by the ocean, turquoise warm water, kayaks and snorkels to borrow anytime, the most friendly staff and delicious home-cooked Vietnamese food… Ahh just brilliant. I haven’t felt this relaxed after a holiday for ages!

There’s not much exciting stuff to report from our vacation as we spent our days lounging, reading, eating, drinking delicious Vietnamese drip-coffee, reading, swimming, reading some more, and so on. After four very hectic months with moving back to China and adapting to a new life here, I didn’t even realize how much I needed a real break. Sometimes you don’t notice it until you just stop for a moment. But thanks to Phu Quoc and Peppercorn Beach I’m back feeling invigorated and energezied, all ready for the fall!

Hope you guys had a great Golden Week! Where did you go?Please share any good SE-Asian destinations or travel tips in the comments below. :)

shanghai expat blog

shanghaista shanghai expat blog

shanghai expat blog

shanghaista shanghai expat blog

shanghaista shanghai expat blog

shanghaista shanghai expat blog

shanghaista shanghai expat blog

shanghaista shanghai expat blog

Vitamins in the kitchen! I don’t know how I’ll be able to live without this every morning.

shanghaista shanghai expat blog

Phu Quoc produces loads of high quality pepper, so there are pepper plantations all over the island. We stopped to check out what pepper actually looks like when growing on trees. 

Phu Quoc Vietnam

Phu Quoc Vietnam

shanghaista shanghai expat blog

shnaghaista shanghai expat blog

shanghaista shanghai expat blog

shanghaista shanghai expat blog

shanghaista shanghai expat blog

Don’t forget to follow me on social media!
Facebook: @shanghaista
Instagram: @shanghaistablog

A visit to the DMZ in South Korea

Hello dear friends, I’m back from radio silence! It’s been a bit hectic for the last couple of weeks, especially since we’re in the middle of finally moving in to our new apartment, yay! We also went on a quick two and a half day trip to Seoul last week. Robert had to go for business and luckily I was able to tag along, and we even had a full day together for some touristy stuff. This was my second time in Seoul so I didn’t plan too many activities for myself. I was really looking forward to just walk around and feel the vibe of the city, and hang out with my lovely Korean girlfriends who I met during my summer Chinese course at Jiao Tong University.

But as mentioned, Robert and I had a day to do something interesting and different. We were discussing and researching quite a bit whether or not it would be worth to visit the Demilitarised Zone, or the DMZ, which is the neutral area between the South and North Korean borders. It’s pretty crazy how close North Korea is to Seoul. You really don’t think about it (at least as a visitor) when spending time in a super modern and international city like Seoul. But there it is, only an hour away by car.

Some TripAdvisor reviews claimed that the DMZ is a huge disappointment and visiting is a waste of time, others were extremely positive describing the place as an absolute must-see. We kept going back and forth, but when we thought about the fact that we would actually be able to look in to North Korea, this extreme, controversial country that is so mysterious and closed, we just knew we had to book the tour. And I’m so glad we did.

The negative reviews were right in the sense that there really wasn’t that much to see, but the super bizarre atmosphere of the place definitely made up for it. The tour took us to three areas in the DMZ: a secret tunnel that the North Koreans built to invade South Korea, a modern train station that has a track to Pyeongyang but is currently not in use, and an observatory from where you can look over the DMZ and in to North Korea. Out of the three, the observatory was by far the most exciting. You could only see fields, mountains and the so called propaganda village (an attempt by North Koreans to convince outsiders of how nice and prosperous their country is), but it was easy to spot small details immediately giving away that something just isn’t right on the other side. For example, there are barely any trees left on the North Korean side, yet the DMZ and the South Korean side is filled with them. Why? Most trees have been cut down for heating and light due to the lack of electricity.

In addition to the unique, almost freaky vibe, our tour was made very good by our tour guide, Hana. She covered a lot of super interesting Korean history and gave us great insight on how everyday life is when North Korea is your neighbour. Very fascinating stuff.

All in all I’m extremely happy that we went on the tour and I would absolutely recommend it to others. But I can also understand that someone who isn’t very interested in the topic might find the place boring and disappointing. We booked with Seoul City Tour, which came recommended on TripAdvisor. They definitely get a 5 star recommendation from me too.