China can be rough. It can be dirty, polluted, and oh-so-crowded. While these were certainly not new obstacles for me after spending time in other megacities, they seemed to suddenly weigh heavier. Particularly in Beijing.

My first week in China turned out to be a most comfortable introduction. After spending day one in a hostel, I was upgraded to five-star accommodation, courtesy of the lovely Jas and Shiba and their adorable son Ayaan. A UK-based family temporarily uprooted to China, they decided to make the most of their adventurous years abroad, particularly in choice of residence: the 40th floor, glass-walled apartment overlooks the Huangpu River and the entirety of west Shanghai. The guest room, which became my room, has the same view. Absolutely stunning, completely surreal.

From this luxurious home base, I explored Shanghai. While more a piece of “real China” than Hong Kong, it simultaneously embodies an international edge due to its many expats, making navigation far easier than other Chinese cities. I found the recent urban development and beautification – wonderfully displayed in the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition (as well as in real life) – over the past decade to be especially impressive. China can certainly get things done.

This sentiment was made even clearer on my next stop, Hangzhou, just a few hours away by train. The city surrounds a beautiful lake enclosed by gorgeous Chinese gardens, making it a lovely place for strolling and cycling, particularly as Hangzhou maintains the largest bike share in the world with 66,500 bikes as of January 2013. New York’s newly opened Citi Bike, now the largest bike share in the US, has 6,000 bicycles. I had the opportunity to meet with one of the primary international advisors on, as well as the initiator of, the project, which was started in 2008.

After presenting the idea to the Chinese government, Bradley only had to wait a few days for approval. Once the “yes” was made, things moved quickly – a benefit of a Communist government – and the program was ready for use ahead of schedule (whereas Citi Bike opened after a year of delays). China now operates bike share systems in 19 cities, something I was quite thankful for during my time in the country: a glorious return to the pleasures of transit by cycling.

From Hangzhou, I made the amazingly quick (relative to distance) trip to Beijing at 300 km per hour (186 mph), my one splurge on China’s high-speed rail. I felt it “necessary” to try, if just for comparison. The train brought me safely and speedily to the country’s capital just in time for Chinese Labor Day – a grievous mistake.

The Chinese do not have very many national holidays, giving few opportunities for travel. Chinese Labor Day is one of those few times. “Where better to spend this three-day vacation than the Beijing?” said apparently everyone. The city was PACKED. Adding a ridiculously large influx of tourists when the local population is already 20.7 million does not make for fun sightseeing.

On top of the crowds, I had to adjust to the high level of pollution and long commutes. I was CouchSurfing quite far outside of the city center, which meant taking one of the subway lines to its terminus followed by a bus – almost two hours time for most of my destinations. Add smog so thick you can stare right at the sun and maybe you can understand why I was not Beijing’s number one fan. But man, is transportation cheap! The incredibly robust subway network costs only CNY2 (about $0.30) for any length of ride – a great example of equitable transit.

This aside, Beijing was draining. My host was not what I expected, and I felt isolated. Luckily, my third day brought a most welcome presence – two more travelers at the apartment.

Tobi and Sarah were (and still are) in the midst of a most exciting year, particularly for medical students. As opposed to following the traditional path of education, they opted to complete their final year of internships in different hospitals around the world. They were en route from their previous internship in New Zealand to their final internship in Germany, stopping in the Pacific islands, South Korea, and now China along the way. Mid-August will bring them back home – a year from when they started – making our travel windows only one week different.

I spent the remainder of my time in Beijing exploring with Tobi and Sarah, completing changing my view of the city. What a gift to be with two other people at exactly the same place in a year of travel! – to share stories, excitements, worries, and laughs. While the specifics have of course been different, our overall experiences are utterly relatable, yet completely foreign to most of the world. For this, I am most grateful.

After Tobi and Sarah left for a plane to Europe, I too said good-bye to Beijing – and good-bye to the respiratory side effects of pollution. I boarded a train for the 24-hour journey to Zhangjiajie National Park, the inspiration for Avatar’s hanging mountains. Not only would this provide a much needed breath of fresh air, but the park is conveniently located in same province (Hunan) as Zhuzhou, the temporary home to fellow Vanderbilt alum Jacob and the other English teachers I traveled with in mainland Southeast Asia.

A wonderful reunion in Zhuzhou, unbelievable scenery at Zhangjiajie, and the deliciously spicy food of the province made Hunan an easy win. It proved a perfect antidote to Beijing’s hardships and a wonderful resting place before beginning a spectacularly arduous journey through my most anticipated province in China: Yunnan.

Oh my, what a place!

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