China is the world’s most populous country and is the third or fourth largest country by total area. All of China’s railway lines could loop around earth twice and more people speak Mandarin, a Chinese Dialect, as their first language than any other language in the world.
2:20 How to make life easier in China
3:43 What not to do with chopsticks
6:50 The app that almost everyone uses
11:57 Being the only westerner
14:56 Travel News
18:36 Finding the less crowded spots in China
23:35 China’s rail network
28:05 The area of China where you need a specific visa
34:00 How to feel ‘a million miles away’ in China
35:12 The country we are exploring next
“China has an unbelievable rail network. They've come so far in the past 10 years in terms of their high-speed rail. You can get from one city to another, on the opposite side of China, usually in a day and oftentimes about 12 hours or less.” – Josh Summers
“Chopsticks are just there so you can deliver that dumpling into your mouth, and that's really it. There's no need to really stress about it, as long as you get it in your mouth and not on the table or the floor, then it's great.” - Janice Leung Hayes
“I'd probably have about 40 or 50 people around me at one shop one time, and they all were pushing to see Westerner in bright clothes, walking down the street in Shanghai. It was very intriguing for them.” – Mike Emery
“…the first is the Giant Panda, which is obviously the national icon of China. This part of a Sichuan Province is one of the very few places in all of China that still has wild pandas left.” – Ronan O’Connell
Ronan O’Connell is a journalist and photographer with 16 years' experience as a reporter. He has contributed to more than 70 magazines and newspapers around the world. Ronan’s travel writing and photography work has taken him to more than 60 countries. Read his article on Jiuzhaigou National Park.
Josh Summers has lived, worked, studied and written about China since 2006. Most people know him for his work focusing on the Xinjiang region in northwest China. Josh also runs the website Travel China Cheaper.
Janice Leung Hayes is a Hong Kong-based food and travel writer. When she's not writing, you'll find her running farmers' markets, or producing videos to tell forgotten Asian stories. Read her article 5 Local Tips for Travelers to China.In 1980, photographer Mike Emery was one of the first tourists to document China. 39 years on, he has released a book immortalising the country as it was. Read more about the book in this article on The Big Smoke, an opinion site publishing original articles on news, politics, the arts, lifestyle, law, social issues, satire and business. You can order Mike’s book China’s Children here
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Explore your boundaries and discover your next adventure with The World Nomads Podcast. Hosted by Podcast Producer Kim Napier and World Nomads Phil Sylvester, each episode will take you around the world with insights into destinations from travelers and experts. They’ll share the latest in travel news, answer your travel questions and fill you in on what World Nomads is up to, including the latest scholarships and guides.
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Speaker 1: Welcome to the World Nomads Podcast, delivered by World Nomads, the travel, lifestyle and insurance brand. It's not your usual travel podcast. It's everything for the adventurous, independent traveler.
Kim: Thanks for choosing to tune into this episode of the World Nomads Podcast from wherever you get your favorite podcasts, with myself, Kim, and Phil, in which we will explore China, as we launch our latest Guide, China, Where Nomads Go.
Phil: I just have to warn you, Kim has given me all the hard words to pronounce.
Kim: I always do.
Phil: In this episode we will only scratch the surface of China because it's such a huge country, which is why we'll have a link to the Guide in the show notes, where our travel writers will take you to the depths of ...
Speaker 4: Panjiakou ...
Phil: ... To see a submerged section of The Great Wall, and to the surf culture in ...
Speaker 5: Houhai ...
Phil: Bay. The Guide focuses on those ... I'm just, where was that again?
Speaker 5: Houhai.
Phil: Thank you. The Guide focuses on those undiscovered and less visited areas of the country, because we want to inspire you to explore parts of China you never knew even existed.
Kim: You didn't feel inspired to learn how to pronounce those?
Phil: They did a better job than me.
Kim: Okay, well, as we will in this episode, take you off the beaten path, we'll explore Sichuan's Alpine Wonderland. Note, I said that myself.
Kim: Chat to Josh, who moved away right to the very West, to an area of China that borders Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Notice I said those. And hear from a photographer who was one of the first Westerners to visit the country and take pics.
Phil: Before we get into it, a few fun facts about China. Every year is represented by one of 12 animals. This year, 2019, is the Year of the Pig. Put together, all of China's railway lines could loop around the Earth twice. More people speak Mandarin, the Chinese dialect, as their first language, than any other language in the world.
Kim: Okay. When you want to know something about a country, Phil, you have to go to an expert.
Kim: Janice has lived in China for 20 years, so she's aware of how the etiquette and the customs differ from province-to-province, which is why she features in the Guide. It would be remiss of us not to grab hold of her now and find out a few of those things that she's picked up on how to make life easier in China. Hi, Janice.
Janice: Hi, Kim. Hi, Phil.
Kim: The first thing that you say in your article is to stop stressing about chopsticks. Why?
Janice: Yeah. I mean, I see a lot of friends and visitors come from overseas, and we go to a restaurant, a Chinese restaurant or dim sum place, and they look at the chopsticks and they start looking really nervous. I mean, I think food is all about really just having fun, exploring the culture and chopsticks are a really small part of this, actually.
Janice: Chopsticks are just there so you can deliver that dumpling into your mouth, and that's really it. There's no need to really stress about it, as long as you get it in your mouth and not on the table or the floor, then it's great.
Phil: If you wanted Western utensils, are they available in most places?
Janice: I would say it depends on what kind of place you're at. If you're at a pretty local kind of place, then they might not, but it's okay. They'll definitely have spoons, so that's always a good thing.
Janice: What you can do is actually pick up your chopsticks and just sort of shovel things onto your spoon, and use the spoon to deliver the food to your mouth instead. Like I say in the article, it's just a means to an end.
Phil: There are a couple of no-nos with chopsticks, right?
Janice: Yeah. Like so if you're sort of talking to someone, for example, and you're gesturing with your hands, make sure you put your chopsticks down first because to point at someone with your chopsticks is considered quite rude.
Janice: I guess the second thing is, it might be tempting if you're trying to hold something quite difficult, so say like a round dumpling. It's tempting to spear it with your chopstick. We teach children not to do it, but if you really have to, it's actually fine. We teach children not to, just because it usually destroys the food. If there's soup and the dumpling, the soup just comes running out and you create more of a mess than what you began with. Yeah. We, generally, tell people not to spear their food, if they can.
Kim: Go with the shovel ideal. I find that-
Phil: Yeah, shoveling.
Kim: I can use chopsticks, but in the early days, I would get as close to the food as my nose possibly could. Yeah, I only had about an inch of space to be able to shovel it all in.
Kim: Now Chinese food though, it differs, for me, from any other Asian food, and I'm not always convinced that I'm a fan, because they use very specific herbs and spices that you don't see, for instance, in Japanese cuisine, which is one of my favorites.
Janice: Yeah. I mean, it does differ. Like China is a very, very big country. It's the size of the U.S., basically, so you go from east to west, north to south. The spices or condiments and flavors, flavor profiles are completely different, depending on where you go. If you're in South of China, for example, in Guangdong near like Hong Kong, then the flavors tend to be quite subtle, and very few herbs and spices are used, but if you go into the center, to [Sichuan 00:05:28], then you get a lot of the famous Mala, or the numbing spice. It's that pepper where it's usually quite hot as well. Then you get a sort of numbing sensation on your tongue.
Janice: Then you go sort of North to sort of Beijing and further North, and there they use, actually, a lot of cumin and they eat like lamb. Whereas in the South, it's mostly white meat and fish. Yeah, it can really, depending on where you are.
Phil: Numbing sensation. That's putting it mildly, right? I have seen people's hair sweat. Very, very spicy chili beet.
Janice: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, the numbing is actually just one of the spices. Usually, it's combined with a very hot chili or a series of very hot chilies, which probably causes the sweat.
Kim: Okay. Imagine we've just finished dinner. Phil's speared his dumplings and we're all going, "Oh, Phil. Seriously?" We're going to pay for our meal. I didn't realize that almost everyone in China pays with online apps. This is a really important tip.
Janice: Yeah. It's actually, it's just within the sort of last two or three years. China changes very, very quickly, despite being such a big country. There's an app that almost everyone uses called WeChat. It's actually sort of a combination of social media, and kind of all your lifestyle necessities. Like you can order take-away on it, you can can get a taxi, and you can pay on it.
Janice: It's basically linked to your bank account, and you just, there's a QR code and you just scan it. You scan the code at the restaurant. You enter the amounts and then, literally, in a split second, it's paid. If you're a visitor and you don't have WeChat, and it's very difficult to get WeChat Pay, the payment sort of function, because you need a local bank account.
Janice: If you don't have it, I mean, cash, you can still pay, a lot of times, you can still pay with cash or if they really don't take it, then you can just give cash to your friends that are paying. It's okay. I mean, it's not the preferred way to pay anymore, but it's, for visitors it's completely fine.
Phil: Because the opposite is true of the PayWave and credit cards that you would take as a visitor there. Because most of them are linked to like American banks and what have you. You're not able to use them there. Is that right?
Janice: It depends on the situation. In larger restaurants and chains, like coffee shops and things that are global then, yes, you can probably use your international credit card.
Janice: If you're at a more local place, or if you're at a market, or if you're at, street-side store, very often they'll have their own little WeChat QR code, and all you'd need is a mobile phone. Most people, especially in cities, have mobile phones, so you just pay the vendor by scanning their mobile phone. Yeah, but if you're in a larger shop, or a mall, shopping mall, then you can almost definitely pay with your credit card from overseas.
Kim: In your 20 years there, have you, and you mentioned earlier that it just changes so quickly, how quickly? What, in 20 years, what have you noticed?
Janice: Well, WeChat is one of the biggest changes, actually, I'd say in the past few years. It just seems, I mean, these days, wherever you are in the world, people are holding their cellphones and they're always staring down at them. That's the same case in China.
Janice: The difference is this one app, WeChat. You can do everything on it, from the moment you wake up to the moment you go to bed, including all of your activities in-between. That's one of the biggest changes in the past few years, I'd say.
Kim: Social media, but is it regulated?
Janice: Yeah. I mean, it's definitely regulated. Everything, definitely everything in China is regulated to an extent. I mean, we try to ... It's known that, well, it's kind of an accepted truth that the government surveils everything. It's common that on certain days that if you post something ...
Janice: For example, on June 4th, which is the anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre. On June 4th, if you try and post anything to do with Tiananmen, or even if you post a candle emoji, your account might be blocked for a few hours, and you won't be able to use anything. That includes like China, pay for your lunch. It is, it's a fact of life, actually. Yeah.
Kim: Fascinating article, as I said. We share it in show notes, and yeah, learned a lot from it. Janice, thank you so much.
Janice: No worries. Thank you for having me.
Kim: It was a pleasure, Janice. Now, when photographer Mike Emery went to China in 1980, there was no WeChat. In fact, there was no Internet or TVs, and according to Mike, people aspired to own three rounds and a sound, being a watch, bicycle, sewing machine and radio.
Phil: Mike was one of the first Westerners to go behind the Bamboo Curtain and visit China and take photos. Mike, what did you expect?
Mike Emery: I didn't know what to expect when I got there. You've seen pictures of China as a younger person, and really, there was not much information on China available in those days. You did see the odd picture of a commune, and an odd picture of people in the fields, but really nothing of everyday life.
Mike Emery: Then as soon as I got there, I thought, "Ah, this is interesting." I'd always wanted to be a photojournalist, and I thought, "Oh, I might as well take some photos myself."
Phil: Pretty amazing opportunity with the photographs there because, you're a bit of an oddity in yourself there, and of course, a country that's not used to Westerners poking cameras in their faces, so you had a great opportunity to take a particular type of photograph. Tell us about that.
Mike Emery: Well, I am an oddity, I suppose. Walking down the main street in Beijing ... Sorry, in Shanghai, in Nanjing Road. It was a wide road with shops and stores, and I'd be the only Westerner. The people, they'd be looking at you because they, I'd say almost all of them, never seen a Westerner before, or even, never sort of tried to speak to a Westerner.
Mike Emery: I'd probably have about 40 or 50 people around me at one shop one time, and they all were pushing to see Westerner in bright clothes, walking down the street in Shanghai. It was very intriguing for them. They would say to me, "Excuse me. May I practice my English?" These were some of the older people, so sort of the students. They did have a few words of English, which I conversed with.
Mike Emery: Then suddenly, you would have, you'd have other people try to ask you questions about all different things. They all wanted to know about the Western world. They all wanted to know about America, because no information was available for them. The information was given to them, what the government gave to them.
Kim: What did you learn about their lifestyle?
Mike Emery: I learned a lot of things about their lifestyle. At the time, their lifestyle was simple, it was very pure, it was honest. Actually, it was quite unique. People were extremely friendly. They'd spend time with you, and they're inquisitive.
Mike Emery: They'd been brought up in the commune situation, where they would go to work in the fields. Whatever job was given to them, they earned x amount of yuan, and to live with, and they got accommodation. Their life was simple. They had no worries. You see in the book, you look at their faces, and there's happiness there. There's no pressure of everyday life. There was no hustle and bustle of today's life.
Phil: Do you think that was a type of pure travel? I mean, we all sort of look for off the beaten path things these days.
Mike Emery: I think it really was, because there was no outside pressure.
Kim: Well, you wouldn't get that experience now in China. Have you been back since? Are you surprised at how quickly it's progressed?
Mike Emery: Yes, yes. I was lucky enough to be back in January this year. It had been 39 years since I'd left, and I thought it was about time to rediscover some of the places I went to, and see what the changes that had been in that period of time.
Mike Emery: We managed to reconstruct several places where I originally took the photos, and compared with, compared them with today's standards. We took a picture of Pudong Bay, which you look across to Pudong, it was, in those days it was just fields and little shipyards, and boats going past. Now, it is a new city of Shanghai. You just compare with what the Chinese have managed to achieve in that period of time, it's just, it's incredible.
Kim: It certainly is, Mike. A link to his book, China's Children: A Glimpse of Life in China During the Spring of 1980, in show notes. Phil, what's your travel news?
Phil: Oh, there's nothing worse than getting delayed when you're trying to go off on a trip somewhere, you can't get to your destination. Right?
Phil: The passengers on a recent EasyJet flight must have cheered ... Actually, they did cheer when an off-duty pilot going on holiday with his family, agreed to take control of their flight when the scheduled pilot didn't turn up.
Phil: They'd been sitting on tarmac for two hours, but he said he had his license with him, and he got permission to fly the plane, and also apologized for not being in his proper uniform, but there you go.
Kim: That's cool.
Phil: That's very cool. Still on planes, did you hear about the photograph of this bloke? It's gone viral on social media. A bloke stood up for six hours, the entire six hours of a flight, so that his wife could lie down and sleep across three seats in the middle row.
Phil: Now, some people are calling him terribly romantic, and some people are calling the wife selfish for not sharing it with him. She might have been sick, I don't know.
Kim: Yeah, if she was sick, then that's a great thing do.
Phil: Fair enough.
Kim: Otherwise, he could have sat in the aisle seat, and she just put her feet up on his lap.
Phil: All right. Which city do you think had the most visitors last year?
Kim: Ah, Venice?
Phil: No. It used to be Paris and London. It used to be over in Europe, but for the fourth year in a row, it's Bangkok.
Kim: Ah, right. I was going to say Tokyo.
Phil: No, it's Bangkok.
Phil: Bangkok, with 22.8 million visitors.
Phil: Paris and London, about 19 million. In fourth place, Dubai, 15.9. Singapore, Kuala Lumpur were in fifth and sixth. New York, Istanbul, Tokyo and Antalya in Turkey made up the top 10.
Kim: That wraps it up.
Kim: Well, it was in 2005 that Josh Summers got married, and a year later, he decided to move overseas and start a life in China.
Phil: They didn't head to the populated cities. Josh and his wife went way out West, to the beautiful region of Xinjiang that borders Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and other central Asian countries, so why?
Josh Summers: Well, honestly, so the fun thing is, is my wife and I both studied Spanish in college.
Phil: Really useful out there.
Josh Summers: Not really, right. We tried to get in part of the Peace Corps and getting a couple placed, apparently was going to take a year. We were like, "Screw that. We can't wait that long." It was like one of these ideas where it's a connection of a connection of a connection that knew somebody that had a job offering for an English teacher, and so that's how we started off. We packed our bags, just basically a newlywed couple, and decided, "Ah, let's have a little bit of an adventure."
Kim: It was just the desire to live overseas that led you to China. I know that they do offer a lot of teaching positions, so it almost fell in your lap.
Josh Summers: Exactly. It did. I'm glad it did, because I don't think I ever would have chosen that place, ever. Like it's not one of those places that people look at a map and go, "You know what? I'm going to go here." Because it's just, it's out of the way, it's inconvenient, but it's amazing and it's gorgeous.
Phil: Okay, so what was your idea of what it might be like, and what was the reality?
Josh Summers: Oh, yeah. I mean, I was told before we went out that it was going to be beautiful. I mean, I was told there was going to be mountains. It was a very less crowded part of China, which appealed to me. I didn't really want to go to Beijing where there's what? Like 12 million people, and there are 20, I think now. I don't know, but just like crowded-in with a whole bunch of people.
Josh Summers: The idea of going to a place that was less crowded and in a little more of a nature setting really appealed to me. When I got there, I literally found out the city that we first went to used to be a desert, and the only reason the city exists is because they dug and found oil. They literally dug out canals to bring water to this place, and a city sprung up in the middle of a desert.
Josh Summers: I remember driving from the airport of the capital city to this other city, which is about four hours away and just thinking to myself, "Where are these mountains that they told me about?" All I'm seeing is flat desert, and then with 20 minutes left to go on the drive, all of a sudden this city kind of pops up like a, almost like an oasis, and there it was. The city's name was Karamay, the region is Xinjiang, and that was the start of our time out in China.
Kim: Stunning countryside.
Josh Summers: Absolutely, yeah. I mean, the great thing is there were deserts, like I was saying, there are mountains. Like when you get an area that big, you really have all sorts of different kinds of natural terrain, and it was pretty cool.
Josh Summers: I mean, if there's one thing that I learned being over there, and it's something that kind of caught me by surprise. It's that the world we live in is not completely discovered. As travelers, we kind of go about with the assumption that we're going to find everything in a tour guide book, or we can look it up on Wikipedia. Everything has been discovered. We kind of live under that assumption, and it took me years of living in this really remote place to realize, that's not true.
Josh Summers: There are places I was finding that even the locals didn't know about. Things that I was getting to, I'm not going to say "discover," more like rediscover, especially for an English speaking audience, and go explore and realize, "Hey, I'm getting ..." I'm not even going to say I was an Indiana Jones or anything, but I'm getting to like play like I was for a little while, and it was fun.
Kim: 2005, you went there with your ... You got married, then you went there with your wife. You've since had two sons. Were they born in Central Asia?
Josh Summers: No. There were lines my wife wasn't willing to cross, and giving birth in the kind of rural hospitals was not one of them, so, no. We went back to the U.S. for that, but they returned and went through a little bit of schooling in China.
Phil: I know you're in a city of three million people, so I imagine it's reasonably cosmopolitan, but there must be a dress style, and there must be a number of things which are unique to there. I'm kind of guessing you probably stuck out like sore thumbs when you first got there.
Kim: Oh, yeah.
Phil: How have you adapted to that?
Josh Summers: Well, honestly, I didn't stick out as much as my two blonde kids.
Josh Summers: Like those kids, I mean, they would get stopped in the street, and I mean, people would take them and take selfies with them. I literally had one woman grab my young son, who was I think one at the time, and bring him into a shop. I mean, it freaked my wife out. She was, "Where are you bringing our boy?"
Josh Summers: She was just bringing him in to show her husband because, apparently, she thought that was, the coolest thing she'd ever seen was this little blonde boy, but yeah, we would, he would get that all the time.
Josh Summers: I mean, I would, yeah, I mean as a white, tall, relatively tall, I'm 6'3", what? 1.8 meters, and so I would get some stares, but most of the time people could care less because I kind of looked Russian. People would think that I was Russian, and they'd kind of just brush me off, but my boys, they got brutal treatment.
Phil: Loved to death. Yes.
Josh Summers: Oh, yeah.
Kim: Are you still teaching? Or are you making a living out of your website, Travel China Cheaper?
Josh Summers: I am making a living out of the website, and that's something else that I've learned along the way. Because most of the travel blogs you see, and the ones that I follow myself, they're very general travel blogs. I travel anywhere I want to go, and I've got blog posts and articles written about places all over the world.
Josh Summers: I did something that I feel like was just a little different, and that is I kind of plugged myself in one place and stayed there for a decade. Even after that, I still didn't feel like I was an expert at the place.
Kim: They say it takes 10 years to be an expert in anything.
Josh Summers: Really? I haven't heard that before.
Josh Summers: I mean, that makes sense. It really does.
Kim: Yeah. Well, it does because I said it.
Kim: Got to trust the source though, so yeah.
Josh Summers: I was able to take just a single focus website, so a website. There's actually, let's say there's two of them. I had one that was specifically on our region. Then you mentioned Travel China Cheaper, which is China, the whole of China, and really just used that laser focus to make a living.
Phil: All right. Can we put you on the spot? Give us two or three tips on how you might travel China cheaper?
Josh Summers: Yeah. Well, my number one tip, and I think this goes for all over the world, but it's especially in China, is that China has an unbelievable rail network. They've come so far in the past 10 years in terms of their high-speed rail. You can get from one city to another, on the opposite side of China, usually in a day and oftentimes about 12 hours or less.
Josh Summers: What I always tell people is there are overnight trains, they may not be as fast, but if you can get on a train at 8:00 p.m. get at your destination at 9:00 a.m., you've just saved yourself an entire hotel stay. Plus, it's just, I mean, I love sleeping on a train. Personally, I mean, that's just me, but it's a great experience.
Josh Summers: Not only do you get a cool cultural experience, but you save ... It's a whole lot cheaper than flying, but you save some money on a hotel. That's one of the first things that I tell people that are traveling out to China.
Josh Summers: Second is, if you are willing to get out of your comfort zone in terms of hotels, you can ... There's a rule in China and they do this, I think, more to save face. This idea of face is really huge in China, and they don't want you to stay in anything lower than a three-star hotel. Technically, legally you're only allowed to stay in hotels that are three-star or higher, which means obviously, more expensive.
Josh Summers: Now, you can get into hostels that are meant for the locals at really cheap prices. You can get into hotels, but you have to be willing to just walk in and say, "Hey, I'm here. I want to get a hotel without a reservation." I've done that, and usually, 60 to 70% chance that they'll just say, "Okay, whatever," and they'll let you in because it's another paying customer for them. For you, you can save up to half on the hotel stay.
Kim: The third tip.
Josh Summers: I'd say that my third tip would be that there is a very little known rule or policy with China's visas that is starting to get a little more attention. I've written about it recently, but it's really confusing. That is that there is an actual visa-free entry into China. Most of the time, especially for Westerners, like a visa to China costs 180 bucks, 100 and, somewhere between 100 and 180 bucks, depending on what country you're coming from.
Josh Summers: On top of, that's the Consular fees, on top of any other fees with services that you have to do or shipping, and so it can ... It's pricey, especially if you've got a family that's going. If you actually transit through China, so let's say you can go and plan a trip to Japan or Korea, and you stop in China, and let's say you stop in Beijing, you can stay there for up to 144 hours, which I think is six days.
Josh Summers: I mean, you can go to The Great Wall, you can go to the Forbidden City, all of those places, without a visa, and then travel on to Japan. It saves you, gosh, that's I mean, depending on how big your family is, with my family, it would save us like, 700, 800 bucks.
Kim: Finally, can you spell Kyrgyzstan, without looking, Josh?
Josh Summers: K-Y-R-G-Z-Y-S-T-A-N, I believe.
Kim: You've got your Z and your Y around the wrong way, but not bad, not bad.
Phil: You were looking, Kim.
Kim: I was looking, yeah. Well, thank you for that insight into that particular area of China.
Phil: My pleasure. Yeah, of course, it was great. I really appreciate you guys allowing me to join you.
Kim: Thank you, Josh. A link to Traveling Cheaper in China in show notes. Now, don't forget to join our Facebook group, by the way. Just search for the World Nomads Podcast. You can look behind the scenes, get news on upcoming episodes, and join the conversation about the show, your travels, and people you'd like us to interview. We love suggestions.
Phil: Please, yes, do contact us. Ronan O'Connell has written an article for the Guide on a beautiful and very remote national park.
Ronan O'Connell: It's called Jiuzhaigou National Park, and it's in Sichuan Province, which is the Southwest of China. It's a particularly remote section of China, where this is located just on the edge of the Tibetan Plateau, the eastern edge of the Tibetan plateau.
Ronan O'Connell: A lot of people, when they hear the word or the name Tibet used, they think that this refers to just one particular area, almost like a country. In fact, that's what most people think of as the Tibetan autonomous region, which is actually, essentially, a closed off area of China where you need a specific visa to go in. You can't travel freely.
Ronan O'Connell: In fact, bordering that whole area are provinces of China, which are not controlled in the same way, but are Tibetan in culture and they all, at one time, played into each other. This is one of those areas which is very strongly Tibetan in character, and has had ... Was first discovered, as I understand, by Tibetan tribespeople more than 2,000 years ago.
Ronan O'Connell: It's only really in the last 30 years that it's actually become in any way known to the outside world or to most of the people in China. Because previous to that, it was really just a completely cut-off area of China where there was Tibetan tribespeople living.
Phil: How did you find yourself there? I mean, how difficult is it to get to, and how were you received?
Ronan O'Connell: I've been there two times. The first time I was here was in 2012, and it actually was pretty quiet when I got there. I took a bus from a city called Chengdu, which is one of the biggest cities in Southwestern China. It's a massive city of more than 10 million people.
Ronan O'Connell: From there, I caught a bus. Took me nearly 10 hours. It's roughly north of there, up towards the Tibetan plateau and to this Jiuzhaigou National Park. Those roads are very rough, particularly once you start getting up into the mountains. They're quite steep, and it's very slow progress, particularly in a bus.
Ronan O'Connell: The trip itself is only about 450 to 500 kilometers, but because it's such slow progress, it takes nearly 10 hours by bus. You can actually fly there direct from Chengdu, so that's the other option. That's only about 45 minutes, and that lands at an airport that's on the edge of the Tibetan Plateau at about altitude of around 2,000 meters. From there, you can get a 90 minute bus to Jiuzhaigou National Park.
Ronan O'Connell: I think, probably, it's interesting too, even the way that I did it was I took the bus up there, and then I flew back. That way, you get to see all the scenery on the way up there, but you also get the convenience of not having to do the return trip by bus, which is a little bit arduous.
Phil: Yes, and downhill, which can be ...
Ronan O'Connell: Yeah, with no brakes.
Ronan O'Connell: No, no. They've got brakes, they got brakes.
Kim: Well, no wonder you say it's truly remote. You also say it's fiercely protected. Why is that?
Ronan O'Connell: Well, it was basically just a very remote, untouched area, which was inhabited by Tibetan tribespeople up until the 1970s. Then in 1975, loggers came into the area and started, basically, just devastating it because this is an old growth forest area. Obviously, that's very appealing to loggers who are looking for that kind of prime timber.
Ronan O'Connell: They did seven years of really serious damage to what is now Jiuzhaigou National Park. Then in 1982, the Chinese government finally stepped in and decided to declare it one of China's first protected national parks. They put in place pretty strict environmental conservation limits. No one was allowed to build any accommodation there. People couldn't start coming in and trying to build restaurants or anything like that inside the park.
Ronan O'Connell: Very similar to what we have in Australia with the way the national parks are protected. They also built a limited number of roads so that tour buses could go through the Valley.
Ronan O'Connell: I think the most impressive thing that they did was that they built more than 50 kilometers of wooden walkways, which wind all the way through the park, from the very bottom of the valley, all the way to the top.
Ronan O'Connell: Basically, the way they've built it is that these walkways skirt the edge of all of the most scenic parts of the valley, so that at any given time, you're basically in the best possible location to enjoy the view around you. Yeah, I think it's that they've done a very good job of protecting it.
Kim: It is beautiful. What sort of wildlife exists within the park?
Ronan O'Connell: There's more than 200 species of bird. There are two particularly significant animals that are there, because both of them are very much endangered creatures. The first is the Giant Panda, which is obviously the kind of, in animal form, the national icon of China. This part of a Sichuan Province is one of the very few places in all of China that still has Wild Pandas left.
Ronan O'Connell: That's one reason that they've really tried very hard to make sure that there hasn't been any development happening in the park, apart from just a little bit of tourist infrastructure, is because they want to keep this Giant Panda population alive.
Ronan O'Connell: The fact that they do still live there gives you a sense of how lush and pristine this area is, because these Giant Pandas, as I understand it, are pretty picky in terms of what they need from the environment around them.
Kim: In closing, Ronan, would you say that despite its remoteness that this is worth putting on your list of places to visit in China?
Ronan O'Connell: I also think that the advantage of the fact that it has an airport there, that you can go to Chengdu, which is a city that I would recommend extremely highly, because I just feel that it's very much an overlooked city. It's really only known because of the fact that it has a Giant Panda center there, but it's the most fascinating city in the Southwest of China.
Ronan O'Connell: It's a huge city. It's got a lot of old neighbourhoods and a really fascinating culture there, and quite incredible food. Really, really spicy food. I would definitely recommend that people check out Chengdu. Then from there, it's only a 45-minute flight to Jiuzhaigou, and yet it feels once you get there as if you're really, I mean, a million miles away from civilization.
Ronan O'Connell: Yeah, and the fact that it mixes then with the Tibetan culture, because there's actually nine Tibetan villages that are spread throughout the national park, and you can visit these villages and they're still living in very traditional ways. That adds just a whole different element to it. The fact that it's not just somewhere that's naturally incredible, but that it's also got very rare culture that's still surviving there in an authentic fashion.
Kim: It does indeed sound very beautiful, Ronan. Now, to get in touch with us, you can email [email protected] In the meantime, where are we exploring next, Phil?
Phil: Well, it's somewhere that we found it hard to find people who have actually been there. If you'd like to get off the beaten path, this is the place for you. It's Suriname.
Kim: See you then.
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