By China Specialist Shane Murphy
On my first research trip to China, I had a serious void to fill from my previous self-planned trips there, and a hunger to experience the deeper China.
I wanted to enjoy myself; I wanted to eat good food, conquer the major cities and even escape from the tourist scene. Traveling with Audley not only changed my view on China, but my idea of traveling in general. I was able to see the cultural parts of China I had missed the first few times.
I was lucky enough to travel westward to the Yunnan province to experience the minority tribes away from the typical tourist route. I realized that every corner I cut when I backpacked may have saved me a few dollars, but it considerably sacrificed the quality of my trip.
I ate delicious food at every meal, and most importantly I was relaxed throughout the entire trip. My guide's insider knowledge provided a new perspective and it was like I had never been to China before. My research trip to China gave me insight into the history, culture, minority tribes, and truly immersed me into the country.
The untouched side of the Great Wall
No journey to China is complete without a trip to the Great Wall of China, and I was able to visit a much quieter, more exciting section than most. The Great Wall at Jinshanling had been described to me as the "Wild Wall" and I didn’t understand why until I hiked through the ruins myself.
As I marveled at the breathtaking scenery of blue skies, mountainous terrain topped with one of the most famous sites in the world I realized I was the only tourist in sight. I would have never found this place without Audley.
The Great Wall at Jinshanling
Cooking classes in Yangshuo
In Yangshuo, I had the chance to take a cooking course from a local. My experience at this course was much more than just learning a few new recipes. The journey began at the local market, where I was shown where all the ingredients were purchased. I delved deeper into the market to find a woman with a goose in her bag eager to bring it home to her family.
While some of what we saw was alarming, it was the first time I felt like an insider, fully immersed in Chinese culture. We went on to prepare some of the most delicious dishes I had in China. I brought the recipes home and use them to this day.
Local market in Yangshuo
Local encounters in Longji
In Longji, I walked along the Dragon's Backbone through the Longsheng Rice Terraces to the rural village of Ping'an nestled into the hillside. Along the hike I came across three women wearing red or black scarves working on handicrafts admiring the view. They were of the Yiao Minority Tribe. One of them briefly showed off her embroidery skills while the other crafted flower crowns.
I bought two flower crowns in exchange for a photo and continued along the hike. When we came across another village, I saw two little girls running around playing. I decided to give them the flower crowns as a gift, and they were so overjoyed to be crowned. These sorts of experiences with the locals are what really stuck with me.
Tribeswomen I met along the Dragon's Backbone hike
Minority tribes of Dali
The Naxi, Maio, Bai and Yiao minority tribes brought so much life and color to the city of Dali. In the morning I went to the backyard of a Bai minority family home to watch them create batik fabrics. Three generations of women outlined the process of these beautiful patterns and we were presented with the opportunity to purchase a homemade product out of their attic.
These women each had a different hair style: the oldest one had her hair rolled, signifying she was married while her daughter and grandchild both had single pigtails signifying they were unmarried. Just being amongst these women who led lives so different from my own felt like a privilege many other travelers don’t get.
Tribeswoman making handcrafts
Yao women near Guilin
Meeting the monks in Zhongdian
Zhongdian brought my travels to new heights – literally. I gradually climbed to a 4,000 meter elevation amongst the Himalayan Foothills acclimating to the highest altitude I’ve ever experienced. The air was thinner, the landscape was preempted by fabled tales of Shangri La – paradise between the valleys of the mountains. Life was simpler and I felt immersed in the perfect balance between discovery and relaxation.
Monks taking a break at Songzanlin Monastery
I climbed 146 steps to the top of the Songzanlin Monastery. I walked through the Temple listening to the buzz of hundreds of monks humming their scriptures. At noon the monks were dismissed for the first time in hours. A bell rang and children, teenagers, adults and elderly monks exploded from the main entrance to enjoy their mid-day break. I had never seen so many monks.
I had the pleasure of hanging out with a few of the older monks who were looking after the children. I gave a chocolate to the child (with the older monk’s permission) and made his day. I’ll never forget him.
Monk admiring the view
Shanghai's unforgettable skyline greets you with flashing lights and the feeling that you're in the future. Soon to be home of the 2nd tallest sky scraper in the world, the architecture will keep you amazed. The city is full of hidden pockets of culture that I was lucky enough to explore. Art galleries and shops gracefully clutter the streets such as Tianzifang, Moganshang and 1933 Art districts. My adventures ranged from rooftop hopping, shopping, people watching, or getting lost amongst the culture clash between modern society and Chinese history.
One of my favorite parts of Shanghai was learning about the food. A good way to learn the insider culinary tips is to take a foodie tour of the city. My local guide taught us how to eat the local dish xiaolongbao. He told us to take a small bite out of the dumpling to suck out the soup, and then enjoy the entirety of the dumpling. This kind of local knowledge I was provided just topped off the incredible cultural experience in Shanghai.