Tenei te tangata!!
I have always enjoyed travelling without the aid of a guidebook. There is a certain freedom to not knowing where you're going or when you are likely to get there. China of course presents it's own unique elements to this - a non literative alphabet always makes choosing the correct bus that little bit more random, and the fact that most of the places you get to visit don't see many (if any) westerners makes you the subject of great curiosity. The last area we wanted to have a look around in China was the 'Hakka' homelands in south of Fujian province, north west of Hong Kong. From Hangzhou to there, a distance of nearly 800km our guide books only had descriptions of two or three towns so we just looked at the map, tried to find the characters for the first town on the way (Chinese bus stations have maps painted on the wall showing all the towns serviced in Chinese which is very handy - a bit of cross referencing is required together with a helping of guesswork) and set off....
For reference the towns we visited on the first 'unknown' section were :-
Yangkang - very friendly but much bigger than we first suspected. The 'PVC door capital of China' which made Anne laugh a bit. Got one of the tastiest meals of the trip - more by luck than judgment.
Lishui - we didn't really want to go there but bought a bus ticket 'by mistake'. It was on the way anyway so not a major problem. Another huge city with two bus stations. Fortunately we found an English speaking chap who pointed us in right direction to get to the other bus station for routes south.
Yunghe - this was one of my favourites. At last a smaller place, the bus station was right on the edge of town so we could go for a walk in the countryside. We also managed to get a hotel room with a computer so we could upload a stack of photos - for just over 5.00GBP.
Taishun - our map showed at least two names for each of the towns heading south from here which made buying tickets a bit more interesting (as if it wasn't hard enough already!). This town was a bit grubbier but was set in very pretty mountain scenery. I think we were the first westerners to reach here by the looks we got. Remarkable for the huge number of large coy carp living in the very polluted river.
Yashong - just a change of buses as we crossed the provincial boundary into Fujian.
Fuding - the first town in Fujian looked like a really nice place, but we had decided to head down the coast and see if we could find a nice fishing village or something. Another change of bus station assisted by friendly locals.
Xiapu - the nice fishing village turned out to be a dump and left us wondering why we hadn't stayed in Fuding. A Chinese 'new city' full of neon lights and huge monumental buildings most of which were uninhabited, or were motorbike repair shops. Brand new bus station was very chaotic.
Ningde - the only place we could get to heading down the coast. Actually an 'old' town but too early in the day to stop. The road along the coast was a brand new expressway which carved through the hills in tunnels and across the river estuaries on stilts - very impressive.
Luoyuan - another place which looked to be in a good location on the map but turned out to be a bit of a tip. We had a walk around, ate some lunch and carried on south.
The next place down the road was Fuzhou - the provincial capital and one of the few places that did appear in the guidebook. We thought that we might rest up there for a day or two, but the city just seemed to be a larger version of the previous cities - and very busy. We felt that this wasn't really what we needed and continued south on the following day to another coastal town, Quanzhou. This was much more like it, a city with a rich history (apparently it was the largest port in the world at one time - a long time ago), Quanzhou had actually managed to retain much of it's old town. It was refreshing to be able to wander down the streets looking at the old temples and houses. We visited one temple where there were a couple of impressive stone pagodas and the remains of an old wooden ship which had been discovered (complete with cargo) in the old harbour back in the 1970's. The only downside of Quanzhou was the very persistent beggars who seemed to be getting more populous as we headed south.
From Quanzhou it was only a short step to Xiamen (formerly Amoy), another huge city which has one redeeming feature, namely a small island just off the coast called Gulangyu which is traffic free. The island used to be the foreign concession and is therefore liberally sprinkled with colonial buildings and very exotic looking houses. There are a few hotels and we chose to stay there for a couple of days. It wasn't until halfway through the second day that we realised that we had actually left the mainland of the Eurasian continent for the first time since we crossed the channel back in August.
From Xiamen we left the coast behind again and headed inland to Yongding and the Hakka mansions. We had first seen these in a magazine about two or three years ago. I came home from work one night to find the magazine open with a 'Post-It' note stuck on it saying 'I want to go here' - and not being one to avoid a challenge.....
The Hakka (literally Guest) are a migrant people who were forced out of their territory in the Yangtze basin around 1000 years years ago and settled in the hills in southern Fujian and northern Guangdong. They have retained their identity and culture mostly by living communally in large fortified earth mansions. The mansions come in various shapes and sizes, the most famous being the huge circular constructions, home to up to 900 people which are, to all intents and purposes, self contained towns with their own water supplies, schools, temples, shops etc. Tourism is just starting to raise it's head in the area and some of the nicest mansions have been cleared of inhabitants and turned into museums - some with pretty hefty entrance fees. There are enough earth buildings left inhabited though, most of which provide a friendly welcome to the visitor.
Because of the size of the area we decided to hire a guide to show us some of the more exciting mansions, who as soon as he realised that we didn't want to pay hundreds of yuan to look at empty mansions, was OK. We even spent the night in an earth building, admittedly a posh one!! We found the Hakka people to be very friendly if a little bemused by the attention they are starting to receive, and their houses are very spectacular.
The Hakka homelands were essentially the end of the trip. The proximity to Hong Kong made that the sensible exit point, and as we had been there before we both comfortable with the city. We still had time to fit in another couple of 'adventure' bus travel days, the first involving no less than 4 buses and a serious 'got lost' in a complete tip of a town (Cheyang) before ending up at the very nice hill town of Dapu right on the edge of Hakka territory. We then headed back down to the coast at Choazhou (intact old city - spoilt for us a bit by torrential rain) and ended our stay in China at Huizhou, as pleasant a place to finish up as we could have hoped for, and less than an hour from the border at Shenzhen.
Hong Kong is not really China - and the inhabitants are not really Chinese (although they themselves might disagree with that statement). For a start everything in Hong Kong works and is maintained to a very high standard. There is a proper thriving economy based on firm foundations. Transport is efficient, food is better, and most of all, everything is much much cleaner. I'm sure there are many issues and problems facing Hong Kong, but after two months on the road in China it was like returning to civilisation to us. We even celebrated by moving upmarket from our previous 'hotel' in Chungking Mansions to the (slightly) more civilised Mirador Mansions two buildings away on Nathan Road in Kowloon. We still could afford little more than a shoe boxed size room, but it was very clean and had a window, a shower and AC, three very sought after extras. We had a couple of days before our flight and spent out time exploring the New Territories and the outlying islands, both excellent areas to visit.