Lakes in the Desert/沙漠里的湖

(Hannah originally published a version of this article on Atlas Obscura here)


This is not a mirage, it’s an example of a spring-fed lake in the Badain Jaran Desert. Do you understand why it’s there? Neither have many others who have visited them over the years.

Nestled in-between “Megadunes” (aka some of the largest sand dunes in the world) near Alashan Youqi, Inner Mongolia, is probably one of the strangest sights you’ll find: almost 100 lakes plopped right in the middle of a desert! It’s one of nature’s greatest contradictions: sheep graze and birds swoop toward the salty water while it reflects the yellow-brown dunes all around.

Many researchers agree that the lake water probably came from concentrated groundwater beneath the sand. They say that this can form springs, which then become deeper lakes. Despite the groundwater, however, most of the lakes have a pretty high salinity level. Meaning: roughly 50% of the lakes in the Badain Jaran Desert are salt lakes.

Other researchers say it’s because of precipitation and snow melting in certain areas. You know what I say? We need more research! Luckily, this is being done to figure out where the water comes from, and why in some areas it’s disappearing.

Whatever the reason, you can still go and have a good time. To get there, go from Zhangye (张掖) in Gansu Province (on the Lanzhou-Xinjiang railway line), then get a bus to Alxa Youqi (阿拉善右旗). A driver can take you to the desert entrance, but to fully experience the desert, you’ll need a guide. A jeep for two days, one night is around 2,000 RMB, and can hold up to 4 people. Bargain liberally.

Oh, and small tip: the jeep is very much worth it. It’s not for the faint of heart, but if you like the idea of mixing Aladdin with Mario Kart, then this is the place for you.






哦,还有一个小点:吉普赛车很好玩,但是要胆子大点才能坐。如果你很想把《阿拉丁》与《Mario Kart》结合起来,那你就过来玩吧!


At the End of the Great Wall: My Journey to Every Chinese Province

Back in 2013, I stood on Jiayuguan fort, the end of the Great Wall in Gansu Province that was called “the Beginning of Nowhere.” The crenelations faced a vast and brutal desert that sentries used to guard, often watching merchants slip into the packed sand to continue along the Silk Road.

I think about this now in 2017, having just stood atop a fort on the Great Wall again, this time at the other end in Hebei Province’s Shanhaiguan — the Great Wall that enters the Bohai Sea. My hiking boots have been worn down, rips and seams gaping open and beyond repair. It wasn’t gritty sand caking my skin, but seasalt and the crashing sound of the waves below.

Great wall water 2

I wanted to end my trip at Shanhaiguan, because it’s more than the end of this trip, but the end of many trips that have taken me all over China’s diverse soil. My tattered boots and I have trekked sand dunes, mountain paths, seashores, and snow. We’ve gone all over China together for the past five years. And now, we’ve been to every single Chinese province.

Hannah boots

Back when I first got these boots in 2013, I had no intention of traveling so much. In fact, before I came to China, I had never traveled alone, period. My first stay in an international youth hostel was in Shanghai in 2012, and it was thrilling because it was so new. When people recommended a place to visit, I searched for it on my then-clean map of China thinking “maybe someday.” China on that map was like a distant star then: something I could look at but perhaps never touch.

Since then, my map has been filled not only with ink, but with memories of where I was and even who I was in the moment I visited a place. At times, I was the lost foreigner. At others, the dusty hitch-hiker. I’ve had conversations with people that stayed with me for years. I’ve had conversations that I didn’t understand.

The road my boots and I have walked through China has greatly shaped the person I am today. Where once I was a terrified girl playing at being an adult, now I’m standing tall and walking strong. Though the world can be scary, I’m not scared to be a part of it anymore am ready for new things. So, it is with bittersweet satisfaction that I write this, knowing that I’ll have to replace those boots someday (soon, probably), and that all roads come to an end.

But as a friend in Changchun told me, the fort at Shanhaiguan is NOT the end of the Great Wall. It’s actually the beginning. The name “Laolongtou” (老龙头) means “dragon’s head,” which is the starting point.

And what better place to end, than at a beginning of something new?

I did it 2

Panjin’s Red Sea

Probably the only famous part of Panjin (aside from the Panjin Crab dish, apparently) is the red seaweed that grows in late summer and fall. The seaweed in the wetland reserve begins to grow in April but turns red in the fall.

Despite what you might think, it’s totally natural and happens every year. It also covers a huge area so you can take your time as you visit. You can also check out the slightly-horrifying figurines that look like monsters turned into straw. (Let’s hope they don’t come back to life…)

To be perfectly honest, while the sights are unusual and picturesque (on sunny days) I wouldn’t recommend making a special trip just for the seaweed. Transportation out of Panjin isn’t as reliable as you’d think, and it’s not guaranteed to have the big swathes of red you might hope to see.

That being said, if you’re in the area, it makes for a pretty cool sight. It certainly put me in an autumnal mood to see fiery colors, straw monsters and all.

Travel Tip #3: Bring a Thermos/带上自己的保温杯


It may seem like a no-brainer to bring along a water bottle when traveling, but when traveling in China, you should make that a thermos. You know, the hot water container. It’s not that China doesn’t have cool water (that would be pretty weird, huh?) but that the culture is accustomed to drinking hot water. “You mean tea?” you might say. No, I’m talking about plain hot water. Tea is an entirely different matter altogether.

Why bring this up? Because if you’re from outside of China, you might be expecting to find drinking fountains everywhere. You won’t find them in China, and if you do, I wouldn’t recommend drinking the water. That’s where a thermos comes in handy! See, in lieu of drinking fountains, there are hot water machines. EVERYWHERE. All trains, major transportation hubs, hotels, schools, and other places have them. Some are pretty basic, and some look like rejected robots from the Jetsons. The point is: if you bring a thermos with, you can drink lots of free water (and pop in some tea bags or instant coffee, too!)

What about hot summer days? Or, what if I just don’t want to drink a bunch of hot water? Well, the other alternative is honestly just buying water bottles from convenienve stores (usually 2 rmb, depending on the brand, but personally I can’t taste much of a difference so…no need to get super fancy). If you don’t like the idea of buying water bottles, then you can consider boiling water in your hotel, putting it in the fridge, and then drinking it. Or, best case scenario: if you’re staying in a nice-ish hotel, they often supply free water bottles in each room. You can just take them! But…make sure they’re actually free first.

If you’re going on a longer trip, and especially for train rides, though, I definitely recommend the handy dandy thermos. It doubles as a hand-warmer for cold weather, and it’s just an all-around staple in China.

Some useful Chinese:
保温杯 (bao wen bei) = Thermos (hot water bottle)
白开水 OR 热水 (bai kai shui OR re shui) = Boiled/hot water
矿泉水 (kuang quan shui) = Mineral spring water
我还是要喝冰水 (wo hai shi yao he bing shui) = I still want to drink cold water.





Hannah’s Top 5 Chinese Provinces/中国排名的前五省


When you’ve been to as many provinces as me, it’s hard to list Top 5 or Top 10 Places, since there are just too many to choose from. Do you list cities? Attractions? Local food specialties?

For me, it’s none of the above. I’m going to share with you my Top 5 Favorite Provinces.

5.  Xinjiang
Because Xinjiang is just so different from other places I’ve seen in China, it’s automatically special. The language is different (and not everyone even speaks Mandarin!), and there’s a huge range of natural scenery. You’ve got mountains, a huge desert, ancient rock fortresses, and even lavender fields way up north. What did it for me, though, was Kashgar. I could hear the call to prayer every day from the rooftop of my hostel, and got to spend afternoons strolling through the International Bazaar. Though not easy to get to, definitely a personal favorite.

4.  Sichuan
Sichuan should be on everyone’s Top 5 list. Like Xinjiang, it also has a huge range of scenery. It’s home to many Tibetan nomads, and mountainous, western Sichuan is actually a great place to go if you want to experience Tibetan culture, but can’t get to Tibet Autonomous Region. The capital Chengdu is one of my favorite cities (and this comes from someone who generally doesn’t like big cities). You can see baby pandas here, and as any Chinese person will tell you: eat lots and lots of delicious snacks (if you don’t mind your lips going numb from the spices).

3.  Gansu
This might seem like an odd choice for some. But, with its important place along the Silk Road, and bizarre scenery, it has a special place in my heart. In Gansu, you can find rainbow-colored mountains. You can go mountain trekking. You can see (and hopefully interact with) Tibetan nomadic culture. You can go to the end of the Great Wall and look out into what ancient Chinese believed was the beginning of nowhere. Then, once you venture into Nowhere, you can go to the Dunhuang grottoes and play around in sand dunes like it’s a normal thing.

2.  Yunnan
Many would consider this a top choice, and I can’t blame them. Yunnan is like Pandora’s Box: once you’ve opened its doors, there’s no closing them: You rarely go there just once. Whether it’s the chill, artsy town of Dali, the staggering heights of the Tiger Leaping Gorge Trail, rippled rice terrace fields, the stone forest outside of Kunming, or even the tropical Xishuangbanna, you’ll defintely fall in love with something. I guess the only reason this isn’t in my #1 spot is just because transportation can be iffy at times just because of the mountains, and some spots can get quite touristy during peak seasons. But, it’s still the rare kind of place where just about anywhere you go, it’ll be almost postcard beautiful.

1.  Inner Mongolia
Are you sensing a theme? Indeed, I love big swathes of nature, and Inner Mongolia is exactly that. Inner Mongolia still maintains a sense of wildness, while also being fairly accessible for travelers. (I say “fairly” because it’s friggin’ huge, almost spanning half the width of China). Not only that, but it’s not yet being overrun by tourists outside of public holidays. If you go out east by the Russian border, you’ll be met with sprawling grasslands. In the west, the Gobi Desert (and the Badain Jaran Desert, where there are LAKES IN THE DESERT!) I’ll admit that I’m a bit biased, since I did my epic hitchhiking trip and desert jeep-riding here. I’ve also been told that Inner Mongolia’s climate is most similar to my home-state, Minnesota. All the same, of all places I’ve been in China, Inner Mongolia has left me with the deepest impression.

That’s all for now! What about you? What are your favorite places? Let me know in the comments below. And if you have questions/want travel advice, don’t hesitate to ask!









Hard Sleepers/卧铺


In another post, I talked about the different kinds of trains, and also touched upon five different types of slow train tickets: soft sleeper, hard sleeper, soft seat (sometimes), hard seat, and no seat. I’ll write about hard seat/no seat soon enough, but for now, let’s dive into the wonderful world of hard sleeper tickets!

First off, when is it a good idea to get a hard sleeper?

Well, I personally think hard sleeper tickets are the most cost-effective way to do overnight trains. True, you can save a lot of money by getting a hard seat (and if money is a big issue for you, then you might not have a choice), but the major downside to a hard seat is that you probably won’t sleep. (Unless you have buns of steel). For some, it’s a worthwile trade-off to save that much more rmb. However, as I’ve come to appreciate more and more, sleep is a GREAT thing! Get a hard sleeper if you have a long ways to go, and enjoy your night’s rest. (Tip: bring earplugs and a face mask, in case your bunkmates are there to play poker all night…that, or join them!)

So, okay, you’ve chosen a hard sleeper. Which bunk should you get?

I’ve slept in all three beds (top, middle, bottom), and there are advantages and disadvantages to each one.

Bottom bunk: This one is indisputably the best. The ticket is slightly more expensive than the others because of this, but for good reason. As a bottom bunk, you don’t constantly have to climb in and out of bed, AND your bed doubles as a seat with its own side table for when you want to enjoy the scenery. The only disadvantage: others may crowd your bed to use it as a seat, too. But most respect you if you want to lay down. You just have to speak up!

Middle bunk: This is my personal LEAST favorite, if only because it’s the most awkward for me to climb into. Others may have no problem whatsoever getting in, but not me. I have to weirdly swing over from the side ladder and unceremoniously plop into my bed while shimmying in the rest of the way. Some (*coughmostcough*) are more flexible than me and don’t mind. Alas, this one feels awkward to me. Though, two major perks: you can look out the window from your bed (because it’s not too high) and you can still reach the side table by the bottom bunk to leave your water bottle at night.

Top bunk: This one’s the cheapest, and most people don’t like it. I like it more than the middle bunk, if only because it’s easier for me to climb into. I just have to go all the way up the ladder and then fall onto the bed. True, there are some major disadvantages: you have no side table access, you can’t see out of the window, and if you’re tall like me, you also can’t sit up without hitting your head. Major perk: you can easily access your luggage from the top rack, which for a fatty like me who likes to snack, this is a great thing.

Once you get a hard sleeper ticket, the rest is pretty straightforward. The conductors take your ticket and give you a plastic card in exchange so that they can keep track of when you need to get off. There are side tables by the windows across the aisle and enough walking space if you need to stretch your legs.

Sure, planes are faster ways of travel, but sometimes, it’s nice to take the longer route, and this is a good way to do it.











Qinghai Lake/青海湖


One of the most well-known places to explore in Qinghai would undoubtedly be Qinghai Lake. It’s also one of the most congested places, depending on what time of year you go. If you go in July-August, when college students are on summer vacation, the road along the lake will be very crowded with cyclists, all vying for the same “off the beaten track” adventure…in a giant crowd of people doing the same thing. Any other time of year will be less crowded.

Should you avoid biking it altogether because of this? No! It’s a circuit that will take you around the famed salt lake in 3-4 days (depending on your speed) and will show you scenery ranging from snow-capped mountains, to herds of farm animals grazing, to nomadic Tibetans in the fields. You’ll see temples, prayer flags, and of course, the lake!

I will admit that Qinghai Lake has definitely been touched by the hand of Chinese tourism, meaning that many of the prettiest spots have been given poetic names and have entrance fees. Local Tibetans in this area are also well-tuned to the tourist part of this lake, charging people to take pictures of their sprawling fields of rapeseed flowers. There will be random spots where you can ride horses, yaks, and in the small portion with sand dunes, even sled down sand. If this sounds like too much for you, Qinghai has other areas to enjoy, but if you’re like me, you can enjoy this scenery while avoiding the slap of tourist attractions for the most part.

If you want to bike around Qinghai Lake, most start at a small town called 西海镇 (xi hai zhen) and take 3-4 days. There are also buses that go along one half of the lake, to 黑马河 (hei ma he) which is generally seen as “the sunrise spot.”

Or, you could take a gamble like me, and hitchhike. I made my way around the entire lake in 2 days purely by hitchhiking, and even lucked my way into a kind Tibetan family on my way back who took me for a spin in a roadside temple. All things considered, Qinghai Lake might not be the natural getaway you’d hope for, but it’s certainly beautiful nonetheless.


这么多人说明你要放弃把青海湖绕一圈吗?并不是!这一条路会化3、4 天时间把这个有名的盐湖绕一圈(但是也要看你的速度)。你会经过雪山,大群野物,还有藏族农民。你也会看到经幡,寺庙,等等。




Travel Tip #2: Toilet Paper/卫生纸


Now, some of you may already know this, but many of you don’t: most Chinese bathrooms DO NOT have toilet paper in them. Yes, Chinese people still use toilet paper (obviously), it’s just that everyone is expected to bring their own. I’ve speculated about this, and have a couple theories: 1) China is trying to reduce toilet paper waste, 2) With such a large population, it’s easier to make people bring their own rather than constantly have workers stock it, and 3) China hates me (just kidding).

Anyway, the point is that you need to bring your own! You have a couple of options. The most common is buying small packets at really any convenience store in the area (for usually 1 RMB per packet). Some travelers opt for buying them in bulk from a grocery store and using them throughout the trip, which really only works if you’re going to be stationed in the same place for an extended amount of time…otherwise, you’re stuck carting it around. Others pack a small roll of toilet paper before even coming to China (which I recommend if you’re coming from overseas and don’t want one of your first Chinese adventures being “let’s buy toilet paper before I pee my pants”).

But what if you don’t want to constantly buy toilet paper? Well, you have options, good ones being: McDonalds and KFC. Yes, Chinese cities have many of these chain stores, and these friendly reminders of consumerism can be your saving grace. Their bathrooms are almost always reliably stocked with toilet paper (and you don’t have to buy anything to use their bathrooms). Don’t like this choice? Another option is to always ask for extra napkins when you buy/order food. Better yet, pad your pockets with it if you’re staying in a hotel. (Hostels may or may not have their own toilet paper, depending on the price range/quality). You can get pretty creative with where you get your toilet paper, but the biggest takeaway here is that YOU HAVE TO HAVE IT ON YOU!

Maybe even bring extra. You might make a friend.

Useful phrases:
卫生纸 (wei sheng zhi)= toilet paper
餐厅纸 (can ting zhi)= napkin
多给我点餐厅纸吧 (duo gei wo dian can ting zhi ba)= Give me some extra napkins
洗手间在哪里 (xi shou jian zai na li)= Where is the bathroom?





Travel Tip #1: Bring Your Student ID! 带上你的学生证!


Yes, yes, growing up is a beautiful thing, and we should all embrace it. But, if you look even remotely young enough to be a student, bring along your ID. I’m talking about the crappy plastic ID that’s probably faded from being crammed into your pocket for too long. I’m talking about the one from undergraduate days. THAT one. Doesn’t matter if it’s expired, bring it. (Especially if there’s a lot of English on it.)


When you go to the ticket counter, show this to them. I try to put on a “I’m so sorry, but this is all I have to prove I’m a student” face and am gently insistent that it’s the real deal. Some don’t even need the effort. If it works, you get half price, which when you’re traveling in China is a really big deal. Everything in China has an entrance ticket. Lakes, mountains, certain parks. This is where the student ID comes in to save the day.

Of course, it’s not fool-proof. Some ticket vendors know exactly what you’re doing or only accept Chinese student IDs. (Or as I unfortunately discovered: only accept undergraduate and below student IDs…as if we grad students are just rolling in the dough…) If they turn it away and refuse the discount, don’t get mad. Because really, you have no right to be mad. Just try again another day.

(And if you think “Wow, this is shady and morally wrong and I think you’re a bad person, Hannah,” you should know that there was a time I signed on for an English tour of the Terra Cotta warriors, and the guide specifically handed out fake student IDs to all of us just to get the discount. My fake ID was a French student, though I forget the name.)

Useful Chinese phrases:
有没有学生票? (you mei you xue sheng piao) = Are there any student discounts?
这是我的学生证。(zhe shi wo de xue sheng zheng) = This is my student ID.
我学生证就是这样,没办法。(wo xue sheng zheng jiu shi zhe yang, mei ban fa) = This is just the way my student ID is, nothing I can do about it.

**If the ticket vendor is still not giving you the discount, count your losses and just pay the full price. No need to make a scene.

你到买票的地方, 就给那里售票员看。我经常用一个“我真不好意思,但是就没办法,学生证就这样”的表情,然后温暖地迫使他们使用。有的时候也不用费力。如果有用的话,票会半价,在中国这就是很宝贵的因为任何一个景点都要门票:山,湖,公园等。所以学生票对你大有帮助!



Trains! 火车!

Trains, hands down, are my favorite way of traveling China (behind hitchhiking, of course). They’re economical, and they’re more scenic than taking a plane. If you have the time to spare, hop on a train!

On my last trip out west, I rode very long trains: a 36-hour train out to Xining, a 21-hour train to Lhasa, and then a 48-hour train back to Shanghai. In my time in China, I’ve managed to ride every type of train there is (even the Maglev in Shanghai). While I’ll get into more details about the different places to be within trains, let me first do a quick run-down of train types.

Fast trains
There are two types of fast trains: the G train (高铁, gao tie) and the D train (动车, dong che). These trains are pretty damn fast, and also tend to connect bigger cities together. There’s even a line between Chongqing and Shanghai!

What are the differences between a G train and a D train? A D train is the slightly older model that runs ever-so-slightly slower. The G train is the newer model. A G train is more expensive than a D train, by a little bit.

For example, as of writing this, a G train to Shanghai takes 45 minutes or an hour, and costs 73 rmb (about 10 USD). A D train takes one to one and a half hours to get to Shanghai, but costs 56 rmb (about 5-6 USD). It’s a slight difference, but a worthwile one to know. That being said. There aren’t as many D trains, so the tickets sell out very quickly.
The major perk of the high-speed trains is that, obviously, you get to your destination faster. The hot water machines and bathrooms tend to be cleaner. The only downside (for some) is that people tend to be a bit less chatty on fast trains. Then again, that might be a nice thing, too.

Slow trains
There are several types of slow trains. There are the T trains. There are the K trains, the Z trains, and the trains that are a string of numbers without a letter. These are the trains that tend to make overnight trips, and have different cabins: hard sleeper, soft sleeper, hard seat, and sometimes soft seat (but don’t be fooled: the seats aren’t actually that soft).

The T and Z trains are the faster ones of the bunch, though the K train is also decent. (Fun fact: the Chinese names for these trains all mean “fast,” but in different degrees. T is 特快 which means “especially fast,” Z means 最快 or “the fastest” and K means 快 which is just the plain ‘ol “fast,” which isn’t to say that any of them are actually all that fast. Oh well!) The string of numbers train is definitely the slowest, though depending on where you’re going, you might not actually have a choice of train type. Most train booking places show the amount of time it takes to get there.

I actually do like these slow trains when I have a longer journey to make. They’re meditative in their own rights, you meet an interesting array of people, and you get to see the scenery unfold. If you’re going a short distance (like from Hangzhou to Shanghai) and a fast train is available, though, I don’t really recommend this route. Because for short distances, the slow speed is maddening.

With any luck, you can avoid the L train, which is a very old model sometimes used out west in Xinjiang. How old is it?! The AC unit is just a fan bolted into the ceiling. The hot water machines are still powered by coal. I mean, it was cool for me to experience, but given the choice, I might have chosen a T or K train.

Crazy fast train
This would just be the Maglev. It goes over 300 km/hour, and it’s currently in Shanghai, connecting the airport with the downtown area. When is it a good idea to take it? Aw, just take it. It’s pretty wild to experience something that goes that fast!

So fast it doesn’t exist yet train
Is there something faster than the Maglev? Maybe in the near future! If you check out this link, you can read about some of the super-fast trains that are bound for China!

Those are some train types in China! Stay tuned for more information about hard sleepers, hard seats, and so on.








如果我要去比较远的地方,我其实很喜欢慢车。游客可以聊天,你可以见到各种各样的人,也可以看风景慢慢的改变。但是如果你要去稍微近点的地方, 我并不建议你坐慢车。去那么近坐那么慢的车会让人疯掉。