FIND SPACE. MAKE TIME. TAKE SABBATICAL.
798: An hour bus ride northeast out of Beijing’s center is a decommissioned military factory that stretches for many square blocks. In the late-’90s, local artists looking for cheaper workspace began to repopulate the area, putting the abandoned factories and warehouses to creative use. Over the last fifteen years, 798 Art District has evolved and now houses contemporary art galleries, bookstores and coffee shops alongside vibrant graffiti, playful sculptures and public installations. The zone is one of the few places we visited where free expression seemed to be genuinely encouraged, and subtle, creative forms of dissent tolerated. It took us a full afternoon to work our way through 798, encountering fresh spectacle around every corner.
Pingyao galleries: During the national holiday Golden Week, tens of thousands of slow-walking tourists swarmed Pingyao’s new-old streets. Just beyond the crowded thoroughfares but still within the ancient walls, we were surprised to discover a row of nondescript warehouses displaying modern photography exhibits. Most of the photographers shed light on global issues, such as Ed Kashi, who masterfully depicted refugee children from Syria, religious segregation in Nigeria, and sugarcane workers in Nicaragua. Other photographers aimed their cameras at mainland China, producing black and white images of prostitutes and drug addicts, as well as a small yet robust Orthodox Jewish Chinese population. Overall, the work was stark, daring, and all the more impactful because we were the only ones viewing it.
Favorite Shopping Experience
Guangzhou: Six days in the global epicenter of product distribution, you’d think you could find exactly what you were looking for. The local hipsters were sporting grey and navy two tone blazers, and decided I had to have one. So I scoured the clothing malls around Zhangxi Road, methodically scanning storefronts, poking into hundreds of stalls, trying on scores of jackets. I navigated around Europeans sweeping the narrow aisles with industrial-grade plastic bags of knock-off brands, past in-store DJs spinning too-loud dance music for your shopping enjoyment. I left entertained, if a bit dissatisfied for failing to nab just the thing I was looking for. In the end, I ponied up $70 total for two blazers that came close enough and shipped them home.
Kunming: I’m not much of a shopper, and the overbearing customer service in most Chinese stores and stalls turned me off from the get-go. That said, I enjoyed spending time on the top floor of Zhangguanying Secondhand Market in Kunming. The original site of this three-floor market was recently demolished, leading us on a wild goose chase for the new location. What we found was a strange scene: a hodgepodge of furniture on the ground floor, corridors of empty glass rooms (zombie apocalypse?) on the second floor, and a floor-to-ceiling, dimly lit maze of clothing stalls on the third floor. Bingo! Thrifting always takes time and patience, but it took me longer to find Joel than to snag Uniqlo sweaters for a mere five bucks each and a Chinese-style, fake fur-lined vest perfect for funky parties.
Jade Emu: A few nights at Jade Emu in Dali makes you wonder why all guesthouses can’t run this smoothly. The attentive staff serves up delicious, cheap western breakfast with vegan options on the spacious open-air ground floor, which also boasts regulation size billiards and ping pong tables. We were lucky to have scored a top floor room that opened onto a massive roof terrace, which while presumably public, we had entirely to ourselves during our stay. Under the same management and just steps from Jade Emu is a bookstore-restaurant, with a massive DVD lending library for guests and the largest collection of used English books we found anywhere in China. Hard to beat for $20/night.
Honorable Mention, Seven Sages: This Xian accommodation is a large, well-run operation, and a cut above other YHA hostels. The rooms are hotel quality with frosted glass bathrooms and comfortable beds. The stone archway motiff in the courtyard incorporated ping pong tables, which I’m starting to think may be my critical factor for choosing accommodation. The in-house restaurant even served up some OK western veggie staples. Now if they could only sort out their spotty internet situation, this would be the perfect place to stay.
The Bruce Chalet: The most highly rated hotel in Lijiang was our reward for conquering Tiger Leaping Gorge, and boy did it make that two-day hike worth it! As soon as we arrived at this quiet oasis on a residential street in Shuhe, the famed Bruce grabbed our bags, escorted us to a spacious room, brought tea and cookies to our outdoor table, and then made us vegan fried rice after we mentioned we hadn’t eaten dinner. The hotel grounds are impeccably maintained, with outdoor seats and a swing amid the landscaping, and the bed was probably the comfiest in all of China (rock-hard is how the locals like it). Bruce also helped us book transportation, drove us to the main square, and offered advice for renting bikes. My only regret was that we couldn’t stay longer!
Honorable Mention, The Stone Bridge: Overlooking a ravine and next to a fruit farm in tropical Yangshuo, this eco-friendly hostel was the perfect place to chill out on the porch and meet fellow backpackers. We woke every morning to the cock-a-doodling of roosters and wore our headlamps every night when we walked or biked the half a mile to town. The young manager, Frieda, cooked everyone a delicious dinner for a reasonable price, and her ex-pat friend took six of us (and Frieda's cute dogs) on a special excursion for which we borrowed bikes, swam across the Lijiang River, and jumped off some rocks. Plus, Frieda stocked cans of ginger ale, which I couldn’t find anywhere else in China.
All photos by Joel Remland and Amy Dupcak
Joel's vision of China at five years old.
Sign up for updates and more from Space-Time Sabbatical!
Where are we?
Photos by Joel Remland.
the concepts of time and three-dimensional space regarded as fused in a four-dimensional continuum.
a prolonged hiatus, typically one year, in the career of an otherwise successful individual taken in order to fulfill some dream.
Best of China
We spent nearly three months in China, carving a giant S-shape across eleven provinces from Beijing to Hong Kong. Arriving with a handful of Mandarin phrases like “how are you?” at the ready, we quickly realized no one was much interested in small talk. Thwarting the Great Firewall, we used Google Translate to communicate until we dipped south of Shanghai, where Cantonese and regional dialects didn’t compute, and we were reduced to hand gestures like a game of charades.
With thirty-five pounds on our backs, we boarded buses and overnight trains, rode bikes and planes, crowded onto subways and pounded the pavement. In the cities, the countryside and everywhere in between, China was under construction, even the natural wonders and ancient treasures. Mao’s image was the other constant, haunting every shop, building and restaurant.
Heading inland, we were often the only westerners in sight, and got used to being the object of stares, but rarely were we the only people. At nearly every attraction, we fought our way through hoards of domestic tour groups wearing matching hats - and often shirts repping NYC - as they dutifully followed their guide’s flag.
The thousand-plus page Lonely Planet became our bible, one that we repeatedly desecrated by cutting out the needed sections as we went. Most mornings we made mini sandwiches with the peanut butter and jelly we carried in our packs, and brewed loose tea in our to-go mug, like the locals. We climbed mountains, made dumplings, mastered chopsticks and squat-toilets, and trailed monks to the veggie restaurant.
Despite repressive government restrictions to keep the population in check, China seemed anarchic at street level. Locals openly flouted traffic laws, cut lines, shouted, fought and spit up a storm. Vying for space in crowded cities, restaurant seating spilled onto the sidewalk, forcing pedestrians into the street, bikes and motorbikes into vehicle traffic, and vehicles into the oncoming lane. It was organized chaos.
The internet often loaded so slowly or failed to connect we might as well have banged a stick against a can in morse code to communicate. The soap (when there was any) didn’t bubble, the toilet paper didn’t perforate, and the drains didn’t drain, but they did emanate a wondrous sewer stench. Through much of it, we just had to laugh, and embrace the differences that make China worth discovering.
Xian City Wall: While the Great Wall might get top billing as an attraction, it’s a journey that can only be done on foot. But in Xian, you can bike the rough cobblestone topping its 40 foot walls, encompassing the Old Town in a nine mile rectangle. On sturdy cruiser rentals, we took in the views along the perimeter, riding the bumpy, often unrestored route past defunct guard towers, the Lamma Temple’s blinding gold facade and an endless stream of red flags flapping in the wind. Moving at a decent clip, we finished the ride in well under the two hours allotted by the bike rental agreement.
The Great Wall: To make the most of China’s premier attraction, we signed up for our hostel’s 3-hour hike from Jinshanling to Samati. This section of unrestored wall is more rugged and authentic than popular areas like Mutianyu, which Mao rebuilt. Since we prefer the DIY experience, I was glad our tour guide set us free after equipping us with small maps, which doubled as postcards. The views from on high were utterly breathtaking -- the wall slithered across hilltops like some heavenly caterpillar as far as the eye could see. The ancient stones were crumbling, steep, and sloping, so there was never a dull moment. And for most of the hike, we were completely alone with our new international crew. At one point, we followed a “detour” sign and ended up trekking below the wall on the mountain. We then had to scramble back up like the Mongols invading!
Tian Tan: Any temple that rewards you for being a vegetarian is a winner in my book. On Lantau Island, due west of downtown Hong Kong and reachable by subway, the Po Lin monastery offers customers at its veggie restaurant access to a secret recess inside the glorious 85-foot bronze Buddha next door: a museum housed in its head! Almost all visitors to the island make the 268-step hike to the reach the statue, so it’s a real treat to enter the uppermost chamber by simply flashing your receipt from lunch, even if the calligraphy museum itself is a little underwhelming. The entire area offers panoramic views of the surrounding landscape.
Wuyou Temple: During our time in Chengdu, we took a day-trip to The Mount Emei Scenic Area to crane our necks at the Leshan Giant Buddah, which is the largest stone buddha in the world at a whopping 71 meters. Unfortunately, Chinese tourists had the very same idea (they are everywhere you want to be), so after battling the masses, we hiked through catacombs, walked across an arched bridge, and climbed too many steps to reach some peace and quiet inside Wuyou Temple. This wooden building, with upward angled eaves and animal doorknockers, dates back to the Tang Dynasty (618–907 AD). Incense smoke spiraled across the open courtyard, where hundreds of flames rose from small golden cups. In one large room, a series of white plaster statues with expressive faces sat in unusually relaxed poses beneath a painted ceiling.
Zhangjiajie National Park: Popularized by the CGI mountainscapes in James Cameron’s Avatar, this sprawling national park in central China’s Hunan province boasts towering rock columns that jut hundreds of feet up from the valley below. Connected by a series of cable cars, elevators, winding bus routes and hiking trails, we were able to visit the main sites in two full days, though we could have done another in the park’s southwest reaches. The most iconic formations are a tourist mob scene, with single file marching between viewpoints to jockey for a clear photo. At one popular promenade in the shadow of Hallelujah Mountain, domestic tourists lined up to have their picture taken next to plaster statues of Avatar creatures. They’re handed back a photoshopped glossy photo with the mountain floating above clouds. Away from the tourist hoopla, we found some beautifully isolated overlooks just a short hike away at the Bridge of the Immortals and Emperor’s Throne.
Tiger Leaping Gorge: As if a 13-mile hike in rural China wasn’t enough of a challenge, we passed the trailhead (a painted arrow on the side of a shack) and took an inadvertent uphill detour, setting us back two hours. Ooof! We then had to hustle to grab a room at our chosen mid-trail guesthouse, since none take reservations, and it was essential to reach it before nightfall since the path has no lights or services. Joel literally pushed me up the notoriously difficult “28 Bends” and then we flew the whole way down, speeding past hikers bedecked in neon, sidestepping horse poo, and trying not to twist our ankles or roll down the cliffs. We made it to Tea Horse Guesthouse just before dark, and their viewing platform was the perfect place from which to ogle beaming stars. At dawn, we watched eager clouds swirl over the nearby mountain range before gearing up for our second day of hiking. This time, we could stroll at a more leisurely pace and take in the sheer natural beauty: delicate waterfalls, verdant hills, and of course the gorge itself. Nowhere else in China made me feel quite as small, and quite as in awe.
Yellow Dragon Cave: Not to be outdone by Zhangjiajie's Avatar mountains, the Huanglong cave system - also accessed from Wulingyuan - stretches for almost 10 miles. Visitors first board passenger boats and glide through an underground river, artificial light tracing the contours of the cathedral-like dome in each successive cavern. Disembarking, we broke from the tour group to clamber up a massive rounded formation, before scaling a seemingly endless neon staircase to the grandiose Dragon King’s Palace. Inside, a path winds through a huge outcropping of stalagmites awash in majestic color, casting eerie silhouettes. Fraggle Rock has never felt closer.
Reed Flute Cave in Guilin: Our first Chinese cave experience was as awe-inspiring as it was bizarre. With uniquely shaped limestone formations lit by vividly colored lights, the entire space looked like my 1980s Lite-Brite come to life. About fifteen minutes into the tour, we paused for an extra-fee photo op for which each Chinese visitor posed near a glowing orb and immediately adopted a serious expression. We were treated to a hologram of ballerinas dancing atop the water, a projected 3D film involving dinosaurs, and a list of politicians (like Richard Nixon) who had apparently enjoyed their time in the cave. Finally, our Mandarin-speaking guide broke into unexpected acapella songs, and people clapped and sang along. Oh, China!
While stinky (or fermented) tofu is a delicacy across China, the spicy version served up in Yunnan Province gets the full treatment with no less than eight spices, including paprika and cumin, caked onto its surface. The silken but still textured tofu is chopped into inch squares, and served piping hot with a bamboo skewer to stab at it. After a few experiences where the stinkiness stank of something other than tofu (meat or fish sauce?) and upset my stomach, I ordered only from vendors whose sole endeavor was frying up the rankest of bean curd.
My other street food favorite was fried veggie bread or “bing”. Round, oily, stuffed with cabbage and carrots, it beat back my hunger-boredom on a long bus ride out of Changsha. A few hundred miles later I bought another, and learned on the first bite that it doesn’t only come in veggie variety.
On the restaurant circuit, it was lots of veggie and rice dishes, prepared in any number of ways. Sweet and sour mock pork was a standout, and while we had our share of artfully prepared wheat or soy-based meats, I found button mushrooms - breaded, spiced and fried - to be the most flavorful and pork-like. Or so I imagine, having never tried the real thing myself.
I’ve always enjoyed a side of eggplant with my meal, but the eggplant in China was tender, savory, and perfectly cooked. Whether we ate at a Buddhist temple restaurant or an unnamed mom & pop shop, I almost always ordered eggplant and I was never disappointed. Another delicacy that stole my heart was the vegan spare ribs at Veggie Lifestyle -- a rather upscale restaurant we frequented in Shanghai, Ningbo, and Chengdu. The chef stuffed watercress inside this flavorful appetizer to give it a “bone”-like crunch. Clever!
When it came to street food, Xian’s Muslim Quarter was a popular place to munch. A sensory overload, the smell of spices nearly knocked us off our feet. We enjoyed large sesame breads fresh from the streetside oven, but our most delectable treat was a vegan pastry filled with almond and sunflower paste. That sweet, gooey filling warmed us from the inside! The street food I ate most was corn on the cob, available nearly everywhere in China. No salt, no butter, just plain and simple corn served hot, cheap, and downright scrumptious. New York food vendors, take note!
Favorite New-Old City
Tongli: While it didn’t appear to bother the locals, the “new-old city” phenomenon - whereby an ancient village is demolished then rebuilt on the model of an ostensibly authentic but historically fictitious and commodified version of its former self - might dissuade some western travelers. Not that China really needs the foreign tourist dollars. Still, traditional villages like Tongli, a day trip from Suzhou, manage to retain a modicum of character. Motivated by the kitsch factor of visiting the town’s sex museum, the only one in the country, we quickly discovered it had been permanently closed. We paid the steep town entrance fee anyway, which earned us admission to a series of pleasant, if boring, gardens that weren’t in bloom and historical buildings like a dendrite museum. On our way out we spotted some cormorants perched on a fishing boat, soaked up the village life charm and nibbled on some street food before making our way back to Suzhou.
Lijiang/Shuhe/Baisha: Their inherent superficiality and consumerism notwithstanding, China’s new-old cities are adorable, and Lijiang was especially quaint. Walking through a maze of narrow cobbled streets, we came across Buddhist temples, worn prayer flags, and a sprawling hilltop park, along with shop after shop selling yak meat, bongos, flower crowns, beaded bracelets, and tchotchkes, doodads and thingumajigs galore! It made me happy not to make any purchases. In the open squares, girls in Naxi dress posed beside wooden water wheels while a man with a leashed falcon entertained crowds. Food courts served up traditional dishes, red lanterns hung from every awning, and the willow trees, vibrant flowers, and bridges arching over canal waterways created a cinematic atmosphere.
Nearby, the city of Shuhe had slightly fewer tourists, more outdoor cafes, wider streets, and the occasional horse and carriage. We rented bikes and took a scenic ride to Baisha, which is on its way to becoming yet another Shuhe or Lijiang. This old town was still covered in dust, with much of it under labor-intensive construction. We visited a medicine man named Dr. Ho who must have been nearly a hundred years old but still prescribed herbal cures for any client who stepped into his lair. Though we went home empty-handed, meeting him harkened back to the real old-China.
Favorite Historical Attraction
Yungang Grottoes: Hopping off the local double-decker bus from Datong, we first passed through a swank visitor center, then a grand temple, to reach this ancient sculptural marvel. Each of the nearly fifty caves currently open to the public contains images of Buddha in his various incarnations, meticulously carved from the rock by devoted craftsmen in the 5th and 6th centuries. Ranging in size from tiny to gargantuan, the details of many of the 50,000 plus Buddhas have suffered the effects of erosion, while others have been defaced - in some cases beheaded - by ideologues during the Cultural Revolution. Yet enough of the grottoes retain their phenomenal artistry to make Yungang a worthwhile stopover point between Beijing and Xian. Before leaving, we visited a quaint temple a short hike uphill from the main outcropping, then practiced our archery at a reconstructed ancient village.
Terracotta Warriors: It's hard to imagine how much painstaking effort went into making these life-size warriors, and all the horses they rode in on too. In 246 BC, a staggering 700,000 workers began crafting the Terracotta Army, and the tomb in which they were buried, to protect Emperor Qin in his afterlife. Today, over 7,000 earthen relics have been excavated and recovered from three archaeological pits, a process that began just a few decades ago and continues daily. A video in the museum does a wonderful job of showing just how long it takes to dig out, piece together, and clean up a single warrior. Each one boasts a distinctive, realistic face and detailed armor with remants of paint.
Favorite Bike Ride
Yangshuo: Punctuating the skyline like a mouth full of jagged teeth, the town’s mammoth cone peaks dominate the terrain while leaving plenty of relatively flat stretches for excellent biking. Our first epic ride in Yangshuo took us 6 miles along the dusty highway leading north out of town, before cutting west through a sleepy village to the Yulong River and its historic Dragon Bridge. We tossed our bikes on the back of a bamboo raft and floated downstream, glimpsing young couples posing for wedding photos along the way. Hopping off on the opposite bank, we biked another 6 miles along a scenic route that wound through a half dozen tiny villages before crossing over the river and circling back to our hostel.
Honorable Mention, Hangzhou: We spent most of our three days here on bike, circling the city’s star attraction, West Lake, and its surroundings. Because roughly half of the lake perimeter is pedestrian only, we alternated picture postcard-worthy waterfront gazing with hectic detours through the crowded downtown to the east. Still, we managed to visit an apothecary, a massive pagoda, parks, promenades, and happened upon a public freeclimbing clinic on a mountaintop.
Dali: Dali’s countryside is picturesque, and exploring it on bike was the ideal way to soak it all in. As we traveled along the western shore of Lake Erhai, popular with local fishermen, we rode on cobblestone roads, ducked through courtyard alleys, and explored a dozen or more sleepy villages. We practically rode up to people’s doorsteps, yet nobody stopped us, aside from a generous man who offered to share his fish. The sun shone down onto endless fields -- dotted with cows, rows of crops, burning plants, and farmers wearing conical hats -- as the Cangshan Mountains (which we’d hiked the day prior) loomed in the distance. We rode a total of 30 miles and had to take the single lane highway home, competing with smoking trucks and honking driver’s ed cars. Our butts, legs, and backs were aching, but Dali’s unspoiled beauty made up for the pain.
Jewish Refugee Museum in Shanghai: When the rest of the world was either unaware of or apathetic to the fate befalling Europe’s Jews in the 1930’s, Shanghai carved out a neighborhood to resettle some 30,000 Holocaust refugees. Established to honor this humanitarian act and the vibrant community that evolved from it, the Jewish Refugee Museum comprises multiple exhibition halls celebrating the lives and contributions of these refugees through photos, video, and historical artifacts. Attached to the museum is the preserved community synagogue.
Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Center: With a population of around 24 million, Shanghai is a complex metropolis, and the Urban Planning Center does an excellent job of putting its past, present, and future into perspective. An illuminated full-scale model affords an aerial view of the entire city, while a CGI film in the 360-degree theater simulates flying through each district. Elsewhere in the museum, smaller models, photographs, blueprints, and various interactive media reveal the city’s diverse architecture -- from the futuristic Oriental Pearl Tower to the historical buildings of The Bund -- to prove just how much Shanghai has evolved. Looking ahead, artists, scientists, architects, and engineers share innovative and eco-conscious plans so Shanghai can lead the way for cities far and wide.
Honorable Mention, Piano Museum on Gulangyu Island in Xiamen: Over 100 gorgeous pianos from Europe and elsewhere are displayed here, and most of them are centuries old. If only they let you play them!
Favorite Art Gallery/District
a prolonged hiatus, typically one year, in the career of an otherwise successful individual taken in order to fulfill some dream.