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In Ping’an, the rice terraces rolled across hill after hill under blue skies.
Alexandra Sieh / For the Colorado Daily
In Ping’an, the rice terraces rolled across hill after hill under blue skies.

As our speedboat rounded the final corner toward Bingling Temple outside Tianshui in east central China, great rocks appeared over us. Against the muddy-colored water, the formations looked haggard, almost ominous. From the dock, I looked back and stared. These were mountains like I hadn’t seen before — not really, anyway.


“I guess they’re sort of like the (South Dakota) Badlands,” I mused to Manfriend, “but more jagged … and by a river, of course.”

He nodded. We took our photos. Whatever the view reminded us of, it was stunning.

In fact, damn near every scene on this trip had amazed us. Our holiday had taken us all over the map, unveiling landscapes I’d never dreamed China had.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m well aware China is an incredibly diverse country. Look at the size of it. Look at any geological map. It has it all, nature-wise.

And yet, while I’ve lived here for four years, I’d never really seen that. My travels, until now, had been to cities. Shanghai, Nanjing, Kunming — they were all unique, yet oddly similar. Even the cities we saw this trip — Chengdu, Guilin, Chongqing, Lanzhou — had their specialties, but they all seemed to blend in my mind. There was always a corner or a street that would look just like Beijing.

And so until this past month, that sameness had me fooled. It had me feeling like a lot of China was a little repetitive.

I needed to get out of the cities to create a more accurate mental picture.

So out into nature we went.

Standing atop a platform in Zhangjiajie National Park outside Wulingyuan in east central China, I looked out at formations so utterly unique, it was otherworldly. Known best for the “Avatar” film adaptation of them, the views were spectacular — like they were based on the film, and not the other way around.

Alexandra Sieh / For the Colorado Daily
The extraordinary formations at Zhangjiajie stretched on for miles.

Floating down the Li River, karsts lined the water’s path toward nearby Yangshuo. From Mount Xianggong, fog crept in as quickly as the sun could rise. By the time the sun was up, the entire town below us was gone, hidden by the clouds. Only the tips of those karsts remained in sight.

Hiking among the Longji Terraces, I felt we had walked into an ancient painting. Rice terraces unrolled beneath us — every angle we saw them from felt new and enthralling.

This country, it really did have it all.

As our bus pulled away from the station in Xiahe, up in Gansu Province, I felt a twinge of sadness. This little city — it felt a little like home. Like a mountain town with Chinese characteristics, nestled among peaks all shrouded in clouds.

Driving through those same mountains,  back to lower ground, Manfriend and I agreed: We would need another grand China adventure to really see it all. And with each stop, we’d gain an even better, larger picture of what this country was all about.

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