CHINA by Bridget Keevil

We arrived into Shanghai at 07.45am after an eleven and a quarter hour direct flight from London Heathrow.  Having had to go to the China Visa Centre in London to give our fingerprints as part of obtaining the Chinese Visa, we were now ushered towards a sign that foreigners had to give their “self-service fingerprints”.  There was a bank of machines that scanned your passport, and then (I assume) compared the fingers you had to put on the machine to those you put on the machine in London.  Luckily ours matched, and we got the deli counter type ticket out of the machine that said “OK”.  Then we had to get in the immigration queue, and give the fingerprints again before we were stamped in.  Just making doubly sure we were still who we said we were.  The bags were well and truly ready to be collected after all of that.  They had to be scanned again after another queue (I thought it was only the British that liked to queue) and then finally we were through.  We were met by a lovely smiling lady called Chee, who took us to the car that was going to take us the hour or so into the inner ring of Shanghai.

By the time we arrived at the hotel, the Les Suites Orient on The Bund, at around 10am (having had the forethought to book an early check in) we were shown straight to our room.  State of the art toilet system – first time I have had a panel of buttons with choices of washing and drying methods!  It also comes with a beautiful river view with the skyscrapers of the East Side towering in the distance. As well as the view of the huge rainstorm that we were in the middle of.  Good time to take a not too long nap – just to help with having missed a night’s sleep but not putting the body clock out of kilter with Chinese time; 7 hours ahead of BST.  Not being able to get Gmail, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, BBC News or anything remotely like we are used to keeping in touch with home on our phones or computer looks like it will be holiday all the way…..

We are perfectly positioned in the Bund area of Shanghai – a fabulous wide promenade area that runs along the river.  Super for just taking a stroll and people watching, and even the rain stopped and the sun came out.  It seems this is a good area for pre wedding photos – every hundred yards or so the happy couple and their photographic entourage are fussing around taking picture after perfectly positioned picture.  I do believe this goes on for days if not weeks, at photo spot after photo spot. The Chinese certainly like to be centre stage in their photos – plenty of selfies going on here too.

The traffic on the river ranges from the small ferry boats to large tanker boats going in both directions.  There is plenty of immigration and police presence, including CCTV cameras from both stationery vehicles and lamp posts.  Not a lot goes on here unnoticed.  And the staff that are looking after litter are doing an immense job – and there are plenty of them too.  The place is absolutely spotless – not a cast away piece of rubbish anywhere.

The flowers and trees are all well-manicured and looking superb in full bloom.  There is even a row of walls of flowers – all made up of individual pots positioned in a grid like construction.  A lot of thought has gone in to making this area perfect for a well visited tourist spot.  The main roads were full of cars and buses, but go a block or so back from the river and bicycles and mopeds make up the majority of the traffic.  But with no noise – all of the motor cycles run on electric, and make no noise at all.  Some being very well laden – there was one transporting the kitchen sink!  We were recommended a restaurant for dinner by Chee – Lost Heaven.  Having found it quite easily we gave it a go – the food was Yunnan style and was excellent.  A good, albeit quite pricey, choice.  We paid just over 500 yuan, around £70, for a shared starter and shared main course.  The food was not too badly priced, but the drinks made up the rest.

Then back to the hotel after the “soft” first day ready for a full day tomorrow.

Day Two – Friday 7th June

So, it seems today is a National Holiday for the Dragon Boat Festival.  Which sounds very exciting, but is nothing more in Shanghai than a day off work.  I got quite excited thinking we were going to see all sorts of shenanigans on the river…but no.  Only people, people and more people.  And most of them, it seems, having breakfast in our hotel.  It was a little chaotic to say the least.  I have never heard anyone so vocally complaining about not being able to immediately have a seat – but as it was all in Chinese language I actually have no idea what was said.  And then there were the people that went to the buffet and came back to their table to find someone couldn’t wait so had taken their seat.  Oh dear…

But, we had enough to sustain us.  We met Chee in the lobby at 9.30am ready for a full day of sightseeing.  The car was waiting for us, and we set off for the first stop.  The plan we had went to pot before we started – as it was a national holiday Chee said we needed to go to the Yu gardens first as they would get very busy later on in the day.  It was very busy – but apparently it wasn’t.  It would get a lot worse.  The gardens were lovely – water full of fish and turtles complementing the trees and flowers.  But people everywhere…  The Chinese seem to like taking pictures of themselves – every bush or flower seemed to have a Chinese person posing in some unnatural state with someone taking their photograph.  Even the children have several different poses for each shot.  Whatever floats your boat..  There were several “holes” in walls around the gardens – this was meant to “frame the view”.  So even 500 years ago when the gardens were first built the Chinese were thinking about photographs.  This was the old Shanghai though – it looked very Chinese, unlike the modern buildings around our hotel.

From here, we walked through some of the small streets and came onto the local “fast food”.  Windows and windows of freshly cooked food of all sorts (well, Chinese all sorts) and even though it was before 11am in the morning there were lots of takers.  It must be good…  We met the driver again and he then took us across to the East side of the river to go to the top of the “bottle opener”.  The Shanghai Water Financial Centre is the second tallest building in Shanghai – but is under Japanese management instead of Chinese so is much better, according to Chee.  We travelled up to the 94th Floor, and then on up to the 100th.  The view from the top would have been stunning – had it been a clear sunny day.  According to Chee it was clear – not sure if I believe her!  We could see fairly far, but I am sure we could have seen further.  It was a good view anyway.  She seemed very excited to show us the glass floor we could walk on – as were several other Chinese that were having their photos taken…..

From here we crossed the river again to the West side, and visited the Jade Temple.  There was a children’s calligraphy class all set up ready to go – and several hundred people.  There were the ladies that were dressed up having a photo shoot in various corners – with not even the excuse of having wedding photos, just wanting to dress up.  We learned all about the Buddha and his several underlings – don’t think it will convert me, but there were plenty there that were taking the whole religious thing very seriously.

We were then dropped off in the French Concession district, which Chee described at Shanghai’s Covent Garden.  It was a lovely area full of outdoor eateries, and had a lovely feel.  She took us to an indoor Chinese Restaurant that was famed for having good food.  She ordered for us – a selection of six dishes that we all could try.  It was, I must say, delicious.  We learned how to eat dumplings the correct way (and with chopsticks, to boot) and with what accompaniments.  A lovely lunch – except for the special Dragon Boat Festival food that is tradition to eat on this day.  Will give that one a miss if I ever find myself in China on this day in the future.  After lunch (we were really behind schedule now) we were taken to Fuxing Park.  A delightful park that was full of surprises.  Even though it is illegal to gamble in public, there were several tables of people playing poker – some with a very large audience.  A road a little further on had music and couples dancing in the street – with a very dodgy tai chi class a bit further up.  It had a beautiful lotus flower pond – although we were a week or two too early for the flowers as they were still in bud.

We then walked through the little alleyways that housed art galleries and crafts.  A certain photograph took my eye, and summed up Shanghai to a tee.  I think that one will be coming home with me…..  Time for a quick coffee (a latte in a jam jar, novel!) before collecting the driver again and driving to the far side of the Garden Bridge at the end of the Bund.  If I had thought there were lots of  people previously in tge day, it was nothing compared to the amount on the river walkway.  National Holiday, I was told.  Everyone comes here.  There are 25 million in Shanghai – I don’t think quite everyone…

A quick history lesson in the Fairmont Peace Hotel, and then the driver collected us for the last part of the day – the ERA Acrobatics Show at the Shanghai Circus.  We got there just in the nick of time – the traffic was not good as it was a……national holiday.  It was a surprisingly stunning show.  Even Paul was impressed.  It was a couple of hours of clever, skilful and entertaining acrobatics of all sorts and variety.  Well worth going.

Chee was there to escort us back to the hotel – glad to be back after that full on day!

Day Three – Saturday 8th June

We had a choice today – Chee would take us to a waterside village around an hour from Shanghai leaving fairly early in the morning, or we could have a day exploring Shanghai ourselves.  With no early start.  Guess which one we went for?  The non-early start.  Which meant we didn’t have to get in the bun fight for breakfast.  A little later and everything in the breakfast room was calm….  Weird breakfast, mind you.  Not the best I have ever had, but certainly not the worst.

We decided (and to the horror of Chee when we suggested it) that we would walk to where we needed to go today.  She gave us various places in English and Chinese so that we could show a taxi driver should we have to hail one down.  We set off in very pleasant weather (as it has been all the time we have been here, apart from the arrival rain storm) along the Bund.  We had iphone maps (and with a cheeky vpn downloaded I managed to download google maps as well).  I now can also access facebook, gmail, Instagram and all the other websites that are normally blocked in China, so am back to the real world…..and the news that Michael Gove has taken cocaine in the past.  Dear lord – I wish I hadn’t bothered to look!

Once we got to Nanjing Road we hung a left, and needed to follow that all the way to the People’s Square.  Nanjing Road is one of the longest shopping roads in the world – but it didn’t stop it from being packed nearly all of the way down.  There were police and army controlling the pedestrians – and what a good job they were doing too.  Along with their whistles and batons, they had one side of the street walking one way and the other side of the street walking the opposite way.  Whether people were walking in the direction they wanted to go was another thing….  Luckily we were, so we went with the flow – literally.   Among the designer shops were the usual Macdonalds and KFC, along with Chinese “market stall” type shops with people shouting their wares from the door with microphones around their heads.  A very eclectic mix.

Once we got off the main road from the Bund, the roads were also full of motorcycles and cycles.  You have to have your wits about you.  There was a little “movie set” down one of the side streets with an old car and a tuk-tuk.  We went to take a look and it was a photographer’s set up to have your photo in olden Shanghai style.  Of course, there were a queue of takers to have the trilby, overcoat and cigar and have their photo taken.  Is there no end to taking photographs of yourself here?

We arrived into People’s Park to see the pathways lined with umbrellas and shopping bags each side with notes pegged on to each one.  Some had people sitting behind them, some were just left.  Not knowing what these were, we read a few and ascertained the notes were describing people.  Jumping to conclusions, we thought they were missing people and these were parents heartbroken and trying to find them.  (They weren’t. We googled when we got wifi, and they are actually parents or grandparents advertising their child/grandchild for marriage.  Once they get to around 28 and they aren’t married this is thought to be a good way to get them a partner.  Saturday is the busiest day – and it was really busy – because if they get some takers they arrange for a date on the Sunday.  Whatever next!)

We were heading towards the Shanghai Museum, which is just at the edge of People’s Square, next to People’s Park.  It is a beautiful modern building – with queues of people (mostly Chinese) waiting to get in.  Oh well, we walked all this way we might as well wait.  Thirty minutes later we got in.  It was just as nice inside as out.  A lovely spacious building really well laid out.  All sorts of Chinese history were in the various exhibition halls.  Goodness knows how much the huge collection of Ming vases (and even older) was worth.  There was a whole section that had only been excavated in 2014.  Amazing that so much history is still buried – what are we going to find next?  Some of the sculptures and paintings went back to BC – and they were still in very good condition.  It was all extremely interesting.  And there was a nice café for coffee and cake….

Then came the walk back – same way as we came.  Except there were even more people, and even more police and army.  Not one sign of any trouble whatsoever though.  In no way did we ever feel unsafe.  Except when we had to cross the road at traffic lights – the green man comes on and it is like two sides in a battle meeting in the middle.  There are that many people all trying to cross at once.  That is when the police don’t have the one side walking north and one side walking south…  We walked back along the Bund, and passed our hotel to get to the Indigo Hotel.  Chee had recommended the bar on the 30th floor as a good place to watch the sun go down.  It had an open seating area that overlooked the magnificent Pu river with all the high-rise buildings either side.  It was a tad cloudy, but the sun was visible on and off as it went down.  And then as darkness fell the lights of all the buildings came on and the whole area transformed into a neon frenzy.  The river was full of boats taking people up and down on a little cruise – to be honest the view was probably better from the Bund.  Sounds good though.  We had dinner in the open air on the 30th floor watching the sun disappear – excellent way to finish our stay in Shanghai.  On to the next part of the China adventure tomorrow – and looking at the weather radar we might need the raincoats…

Day Four – Sunday 9th June

This morning Chee collected us from the hotel to take us back to Pudong Airport to get the flight to Guilin.  To sum up my thoughts of Shanghai:  people use umbrellas when it is not raining (most young girls and ladies have an umbrella up to shade their skin from the sun – there was even an umbrella machine that you paid a deposit and a small amount of money to get an umbrella if you left home without one), people have wheelie cases when they aren’t going on holiday (there are men and women dragging cases just as an everyday occurrence to put shopping in, school work – in fact anything!), many people wear tee shirts with English writing on the front that makes absolutely no sense whatsoever (I assume the manufacturer knows what he wants to put on it but it gets a little lost in translation), if you want to go to sleep – no matter where you are – just go to sleep (we saw people asleep on the stairs, on a park bench, even at a table with children) and no matter where you are it is a selfie opportunity.  Whether this is just Shanghai or all over China only time will tell…

We got back to the airport in just under an hour for our Shanghai Airlines flight, and Chee came in to make sure we got off OK.  Even though this was just a domestic flight, the security was just as tight.  We had to scan everything as we went into the terminal, and then again when we checked in.  My checked in bag was pulled to one side as I had a “prohibited item” in it – it turns out it was my spare camera battery.  Will have to remember to put that in my hand luggage for the rest of the trip.  Everything else went smoothly, and we left on time.  The nearer we got to Guilin the darker it got – and we were then told that we could not land as the weather was too bad at Guilin Airport.  Reminded me of a Bruce Willis movie….

After half an hour or so of circling it seemed as if we made a dive for the airport.  It was a bit bumpy, but we got down in one piece – but it was raining rather hard.  Paul had his raincoat in his hand luggage (smug) but luckily the new airport that had opened last year meant we didn’t need to go down the steps and get soaked, we had the covered walkway attached to the side of the plane.  We got through to the baggage area, and very thoughtfully there were luggage carts all spaced out around the carousel.  When the bags arrived they were rather wet, so I think the poor baggage handlers were having to work in the deluge.

Our guide here is Chen – could be confusing with only one letter difference.  As we were almost the only white people on the plane I think we were quite easy to spot.  We met the driver out the front, and even though it was still raining cats and dogs (her words, not mine) I didn’t get wet at all!  It was about an hour to the Shangri-La Hotel, and on the way Chen was telling us a little about the area.  She also said because of the bad weather some roads had to be closed as the river had burst its banks and flooded the areas either side.  Our hotel was right next to the river, so once we were checked-in I decided I was going to go and take a walk down to the river side.  Paul, on the other hand, decided that the Executive Lounge was on “wine time” and that was a far better option!

It had stopped raining when I went out, and it was a pleasant temperature.  The roads either side of the river had completely disappeared.  There were traffic lights and speed limit signs in the middle of the brown and fairly lively flow.  My goodness, it must be a couple of metres higher than usual.  The tops of some little tents that used to have crafts for sale alongside the river path were the only parts that were visible.  Some poor chap had parked his tuk-tuk just a little too close to the waters-edge, and that was virtually all covered.  No-one seemed to own it – wouldn’t like to be him when he comes back to get it.  The main road bridge that goes over the river was covered with slow moving traffic as everyone was trying to look.  The motor cycles were just abandoned by the side of the road whilst the drivers got off to take some pictures.  The bridge was full of spectators looking in awe at what used to be the road.

Meanwhile, on the lower levels of the road that had been flooded there were people with fishing nets (not sure what they thought they were going to catch) and children paddling and playing in the water.  It wasn’t a particularly nice colour – and several trees and logs were sailing past along with plenty of rubbish that had been swept into the flow.  And flow it was – it was quite a speed that it was transporting anything and everything that happened to be in its way.  The clouds were quite low, and the very different scenery from Shanghai had mountains popping out of the top.  It looked as if it was going to be quite beautiful – if we get the chance to see it in better weather.  Hope so, but for now a Campari in the Exec Lounge is the order of the day…

Day Five – Monday 10th June

The weather when we woke up was somewhat not good – the view from our window that has a beautiful backdrop of mountains at the far side of the river struggled to even find the river.  The fog meant you could hardly see the hand in front of your face.  That was good enough for Paul to decide that he didn’t need to spend two hours in a car to take a picture of a grey mountain covered in mist. He would spend the day “at leisure”.  I, on the other hand, was somewhat more optimistic.  Adorned with my walking boots and rain coat, I was not to be put off.

Chen picked me up at 9.00am and we set off for Longji.  It was meant to be a very scenic drive through the mountains to Longsheng Province, but it rained so hard the only thing you could see was the inside of the mountain tunnels where the rain couldn’t reach.  There was a disembodied voice in one of them – apparently telling you to drive carefully in the wet weather.  Spooky!  It actually took nearer to three hours to get there, as one road we went down had a landslide blocking the road so we had to turn around and go another way.  As we climbed the final mountain there was nothing to be seen either side.  I was beginning to think that Paul had chosen correctly.  The roads were among the worst I have ever driven on – if we think we have bad pot holes in England you need to drive along this stretch of road.  Another one of Chen’s sayings – “Shaken not stirred” comes to mind.  We didn’t park where in the normal car park, as this was undergoing some sort of construction.  That put Chen off – she didn’t know where she was going when we got there.  I think for two hoots she would have got back in the car and come home if I had said so.  It was only drizzling (still extremely foggy) so the raincoat went on (she had an umbrella and plimsolls) and we went to find the way.  She told me to leave my camera in the car because it was too wet.  She doesn’t know me very well….

We made our way around the “backside” of the mountain until she recognised where she was.  She pointed out the restaurant we were going to have lunch in, and said we would go up to a viewing point – but the main viewing point was closed for renovation.  Getting a bit of a theme going on here….  But then the rain stopped, the fog cleared, the raincoat came off and the camera went into action.  Boy, would I have been cross if I had left the camera in the car.  The views were spectacular – the rain had lifted into a mist that hung through the mountains.  It looked amazing.  The rows and rows of rice terraces were immaculate.  Full of water and no rice yet (the planting is at the end of June) but just row upon row of farm land ready to go.  A few were being worked on, but most were just empty.  The Chinese “tribe” that live here are the Red Yao – the ladies do not cut their hair, so consequently it gets very long.  They wear their hair curled around their head, and under a scarf – to show it to you they require a little incentive (money).  Depending on where the pony tail is positioned on the head depends on if the lady is married, and if she is if she has had children.  They can apparently cut their hair when they have given birth, so the lady I saw had two pony tails in her hand as well as one on her head!  Novel.

The higher we got the better the view – after every turn you could see a different angle and more definition.  The first view point we got to was the “Moon and the seven stars”, a round hole (the moon) and seven mounds (the stars).  Magnificent.  If it had been up to Chen we would have come back down to lunch then.  But I saw a couple going up another set of stairs.  Chen said the viewpoint was closed, but as they didn’t come back down I thought it best to follow them.  When we got to the top it pointed to the “Nine dragons and five tigers” viewpoint.  I raised my eyebrows and said we should go there.  After being told the path was too muddy, and it might be closed, I said we would see how far we got.  Surprise, surprise – we got all the way.  It was about another forty-minute walk around a, very small in places, path, and very wet in other places where the water was coming down the mountain in torrents.  But my shoes were waterproof….

The view from here was probably the best of all.  It really did look as if it was the backbone of the dragon.  No idea where the other eight dragons were, or the five tigers, and neither did Chen!  We took another few photos (amongst several professional looking photographers with ultra-long lenses, and those women that had worn full traditional dress and crowns to walk up the mountain to have their photo taken in front of the view) and then made our way down towards the village.  Chen wasn’t quite sure where to go – but I suppose as long as we were heading down it was the right way.  She was more worried about us getting lunch I think.  We made it to the restaurant for about 3.30pm – a late but excellent lunch.  Sweet and sour chicken and sizzling beef.  It doesn’t taste like that at home.  We were the only people in there (we certainly had missed the rush) with the view all to ourselves.  Just as we were eating the rain came down again – someone was looking after us today!

We made our way back to the car (the rain had stopped again) and started the journey back to Guilin.  And the stunning scenery that we missed on the way up was in full view on the way back.  There were fields and fields of farmland – all being worked by hand or with water buffalo.  The motor cycles were overloaded with goods, and tractors shared the road with us.  Then we went through a very industrial area with high chimneys bellowing out smoke – several cement works.  How the scenery changed dramatically from one minute to the next.  Then we got to the outskirts of Guilin and the traffic started, making the last few miles very slow.  But just in time to get back to the Exec Lounge to hear about Paul’s “busy” day and for that well deserved Campari…

Day Six – Tuesday 11th June

This morning was meant to be an early start to catch a boat from Guilin to take us to Yangshou, our next destination.  It should have been a leisurely four-hour sail down the River Li – with our luggage going by road.  But the boat had been cancelled for the last two days because of the height of the water (not that it has to go under any bridges, but there are electric cables hanging across the river.  Not a good idea to get tangled up with those!).  Today was deemed to be too high also, so we drove to Yangshou along with our luggage.  We didn’t need to be ready to leave at 7.15am for this, so we weren’t!  9.30am was decided upon with a short tour to a part of Guilin that we hadn’t yet seen.  We drove to the Rong Park, which housed a thousand-year old banyan tree, as well as an original city wall dating back to the Song Dynasty.  There were groups of ladies tai chi/dancing under the tree – good use of shade.  There was actually a smidgeon of blue sky this morning, and no sign of rain.  We walked around the park and saw the bridges and the island (like the summer palace in Beijing apparently, although I would like to think that one will be a little grander).

We then set off through the constant stream of traffic to head south out of the city.  The motorcycles are absolutely everywhere – when there is a red light they all set off from their little separate lane of the motorway in the midst of all of the traffic just like ants swarming all over the road.  It is amazing we haven’t seen any accidents yet – they seem to be a law unto themselves including which way they are headed and irrelevant of where other traffic is.  At least today they haven’t all got umbrellas up (every motorcycle has an umbrella attached to it if it is raining) so the one behind can have a slightly better view of what is going on ahead.

As we will get to Yangshou earlier by road than we would have by boat, we take a small diversion off the route to go to a spot that would be one of the highlights of the cruise – to see the magnificent limestone cliffs of the Karst mountain range that line the river.  Our poor little car seemed to struggle a bit to get up and down the hills to get to that point, but it made it.  The village at the end of the road is normally a dead end – but the water is still up and over the walkways by the side of the river and still encroaching on the road.  There is a car and a pair of wellingtons at the bottom of the road.  Wonder where the owner of those are?  Some people that live on the little shacks that have a bamboo bottom are floating rather than on hard ground.  One lady needs to get to the road so has to get on a raft and be punted to terra firma.  The lions that normally proudly flank the city gate have only their heads above water.

The journey to get to Yangshou takes us around three hours total including the diversion.  We are staying at the Li River Resort on the banks of the River Li – far enough up to not be in any danger of being flooded!  After a short break, our next activity is a bike ride.  After seeing all the traffic in the town – Yangshou is a bustling market town, maybe not as big as Guilin but in places seems to have the same amount of traffic – I was not looking forward to having to weave in and out of accidents waiting to happen.  But I didn’t need to worry – we drove to the bike shop, which was on the edge of the most delightful area I have ever cycled in.  Paul didn’t seem to be too impressed with having a bike with a basket….  There were very few cars, a few motorcycles and other bicycles, but very, very safe.  It was fine to stop and take photos whenever I wanted, the roads were flat (the bikes had no gears so that was a bonus) and it was the most enchanting scenery.  Rice fields flanked by the limestone mountains, the odd lotus flower field and a few small villages.

Our route took us through an ancient village where the houses dated from around a thousand years ago.  We rode on the small paths the workers in the paddy fields use to get to tend their land – in and out of the waterlogged rice crops that were being tended to by people up to their knees in water.  There were water buffalo sharing the paths – they were more interested in eating than us, thankfully – as well as chickens and abandoned cycles and mopeds that belonged to the people in the fields.  It was one of the best two hours of the trip so far – and to think I was not really looking forward to that bit.

On the minus side, there are plenty of mosquitos here.  Being by the river and with the warm humid weather it is ideal conditions for them.  I bet they have eyed up a couple of whiteys coming in that they will be able to get their teeth into……

Day Seven – Wednesday 12th June

Today started off with a dash of blue in the sky – so a lazy breakfast and a swim in the outside pool overlooking the river.  Until, that is, the towels and mattresses were being collected very quickly either side of us.  Did they know something we didn’t?  Yes, they did!  In about two minutes there was thunder and lightning and then it was followed by torrential rain.  Not good for the evening light show we had planned this evening.  Chen called to say that the show was off – the river was still far too high.  The stage was on the river, which consequently meant that it was underwater.  Oh dear – this wet weather was somewhat hampering our plans.

Chen collected us this afternoon, and we went to see one of the infamous cormorant fishermen.  Once the government says the river is too high for boats, no-one goes out.  Not even the fishermen.  So, we had to be content to see the birds on the bamboo with the fisherman, and any questions we had Chen translated.  The two birds he had were 12 years and 4 years – their normal life expectancy was around 25 years.  He trained them specifically for the job – the older one helping to show the younger one how to do things.  As they are naturally fishing birds, why do they catch the fish and then give it to the fishermen?  He ties grass around its neck so that it can’t swallow.  Not sure that is totally PC in this day and age.  The fishermen do not do this as a livelihood anymore, it is purely now for the tourists.

We then drove to an ancient town called Fuli that is famed for its fan and scroll painting.  We walked along the narrow alleyways down to the river, which is normally the area that you would be encouraged to take a bamboo raft trip.  Not today – nothing is moving on the river.  Except the very fast brown coloured, very high water.  Oh, and a few water buffalo that have been allowed to take a dip to cool off.  The electric wires and fuse boards were not quite up to UK standard either…

The colourful lanterns and posters on the doors covered very poor, ramshackle houses.  Along one particular alleyway the workshops that made the fans and scrolls were open for business.  Their wares were being shown, and we had a demonstration on how they were made.  I bought a fan from the Peng Family Fan Painting Technique Factory – apparently so did Bill Clinton.  Not sure whether that was a good thing or a bad thing.  But the lady assured me that the one I bought had been painted by her 89 year old grandfather.  I can’t paint as good as that now, let alone at 89!  We hurried back to the car, as the cracks of thunder and black skies were overhead again.  Not too different from the UK – except about 20 degrees hotter.

Day Eight – Thursday 13th June

An early start this morning as we have to head back to Guilin to get the train to our next stop.  Chen wants to pick us up at 7.45am – as the breakfast doesn’t start until 7.30am it was looking as if it would have to be toast only and they were not forthcoming in getting anything ready for us earlier.  We made it down to breakfast at 7.25am on the off chance that we could get a flying start – flying flop was more like.  The staff were only just wandering in, nothing was on (not even the lights) and the coffee didn’t even arrive until ten to eight.  Not a good finish – Paul’s request to have a banana was even refused.  Not on the breakfast menu!

We had eaten plenty this trip – we were hardly going to starve.  It seemed to be a lot quicker getting back to Guilin – we made it in heaps of time.  Could have had that breakfast after all…..  Chen took our passports to get the physical tickets – the reservations had already been made.  We had to go through security – the cases had to be x-rayed (very similar to the airports) and the names on the tickets had to match our passports.  Very strict for an internal journey, but I suppose this is China.  The CRT bullet train from Guilin West station left at 10.52 and arrived into Chongqing at 15.51.  Absolutely perfectly on time. It was a fast train, with speeds shown on the notice board ranging up to 260 km per hour.  It didn’t seem to go that fast – it was very smooth.  We had first class seats – the carriage was quite empty.  The only place to put the cases was behind the back seats, so I am glad that there wasn’t a carriage full of tourists with large cases. The scenery was interspersed with many tunnels – we were coming into a very mountainous area.  There was a huge amount of construction on the way – both buildings and infrastructure.

We arrived into Chongqing Station to see Ian (our guide for the transfer to our river cruise ship, the Yangtze Explorer) waving a bag of bananas at us through the window.  Would that have had anything to do with our experience at breakfast I wonder…?  He boarded the train and took our luggage – what service.  He knew which carriage and seats we were on from Chen – she had already given us his name and number just in case we couldn’t find him.  Not a chance he wouldn’t have found us as we were quite different from the rest of the people on the train!

He explained this was a fairly new railway station in Chongqing (which actually has a population of 34 million people – a third more than Shanghai).  It was amazingly clean and well laid out.  We went down a lift to a parking area where the car was waiting for us.  He even gave us bottles of water that he had taken home and put in his freezer so that they would still be cold when he gave them to us.  What a shame we are only in his company for the transfer.  He was an extremely knowledgeable gentleman.

It took around forty minutes to drive to the port.  There was a stark difference in traffic here – with the absence of motor cycles.  Compared to the thousands in Guilin, there were hardly any here.  Ian said most people had upgraded to cars.  When we arrived at the port a porter came to take our luggage – putting both cases on a bit of rope and tying them to each end of a bamboo he put them on his shoulder and away he went like a mountain goat.  We were told that this was the first day of June that they hadn’t had rain – it was a beautiful blue sky – and the boat had not been able to get this far up the river for the last trip.  The next three days (the duration of our trip) is meant to be fabulous weather. Yippee!

We boarded the Yangzi Explorer, which from the outside looked as if it needed a lick of paint.  Inside was a different matter – it was lovely.  After the little “negotiation” on an upgrade, we ended up in the Jade Suite at the front of the ship.  Beautiful.  I told Paul it would be my birthday present!  Dinner was superb – I don’t think we will be losing any weight on this part of the trip.  We set sail at 9.30pm and had a great view of all the river boats, buildings and bridges lit up as we sailed out of Chongqing.  The current was still running fairly fast, but I think it will take a lot to make me not sleep tonight.

Chinese transport

Day Nine – Friday 14th June

Earlyish start this morning, as we have an excursion leaving the boat at 8.15am.  We docked some time very early morning at a town called Fuling.  The water level is much lower in this season, and with the Three Gorges Dam,  there must have been two or three hundred yards of steps to climb.  I needed a rest by the time we got to the top! There was a choice of two excursions – we have gone for the 816 nuclear bunker project option.  Sounded very intriguing.  We had a coach journey of about 45 minutes to get to where the bunker is situated.  This was a top-secret military project started in the 1960s to extract plutonium and uranium to make nuclear bombs.  Or, if you believe the 20 year old guide who had read the script that morning, it was to make power and it would maybe produce a by-product which could make the bomb.

Whichever way, it is the largest man-made underground tunnel structure in the world.  It took thousands of soldiers 17 years to get it where it is today (unfinished) before the government decided not to go any further.  Around ten years ago, they then decided to make it into a tourist attraction.  We got on an oversized golf cart and were taken into the entry tunnel.  We went into a huge room that was full of neon lights and movie type music surround sound.  There was nothing in the room except a picture of a nuclear explosion and a model of a missile – bizarre.  We walked (so we are reliably informed) up and down 450 steps to walk some of the tunnels and into some of the rooms that were all completely empty.  Except one that had vats of wine in – no explanation as to why or how, but only that it wasn’t for sale.  And one that had rows and rows of gauges that looked very James Bond impressive, but probably weren’t, and never had been, connected to anything.  The guide couldn’t answer any of the questions, but there was a professor-type guy there that seemed to know a little about it.  Paul taught him the word “awesome” (which was describing the building rather than the guides knowledge) and he went on to use that word to subsequent people he was talking to down the line.  At one point the guide even asked us some questions as to why etc.  Not sure she was the right person to have shown us around there, but apparently she was the best English speaker.  If we had had someone with us that had helped build it, and could use some stories to help bring the empty concrete rooms to life (and could speak English) it could have been so much better.  But we are in China, and English is not their language so this does have to be taken into account wherever we go.

Oh well, it was an interesting morning and kept us fit going up and down the stairs.  We took the coach back to the boat, and then had those steps to go back down to the river.  It was a lot easier than when we left and went up!

Soon after we arrived back the boat left and started it’s journey along the river again.  We were sharing the river with many, many other river boats for tourists, as well as boats that were transporting containers and other materials.  It is a very important “highway”.  The areas we passed were green and lush one minute, with the odd house or flats, then huge industrious areas with smoke belching out of chimneys the next.  And I would not like to count how many bridges they have built over this river – they just keep coming!

There were plenty of activities on board to keep you busy if you wanted – you could learn about Chinese medicine, how to paint on silk scarves, tai chi and much more.  Or you could just sit on the balcony and read a book.  Hmmm.  The weather had been overcast again today – there has been the odd flash of blue sky, but it has also drizzled a little.  The weather has not turned around that much.  There is always tomorrow – but looking at the weather radar, I’m not going to hold my breath.

Day Ten – Saturday 15th June

We had a schedule change posted through the door last night – instead of our transit through the three gorges beginning at 9.00am we had a new “optional” excursion to something called the White Emperor City.  As I had no idea what it was – the name was the only clue – I thought I had better go for it.  It had been blowing a gale during the night, and there had been a rope or something banging on the roof of our cabin.  It had kept Paul awake (it had been sorted by around 2.00am) so he didn’t fancy having breakfast and being ready to go by 7.45am.  It was an optional excursion, and cost 300RMB (around £36).  We were moored against another boat, so had to go through them before hitting land.  It looked, to start with, as if we had another feat to get up to the top of the stairs, but after a couple of flights an elevator took over.  Very clever!

The bus took us around ten minutes down the road, and dropped us off in a huge parking area.  We were going to walk over a footbridge to a little island in the middle of the river, and climb 328 steps to the top.  Which sounds awful until we were told that before there was the dam, there was over 1400 steps.  We walked over the bridge, and saw a huge stage next to it that has a sound and light show every evening (weather permitting of course).  Once we got over to the island, there were many young (and not so young) men with sedan chairs that would take you up to the top for 100RMB if you didn’t think you were going to make it.  Why take the easy way out?  We walked up slowly, with the sedan chair men running past us in both directions – they must be very fit!

When we got to the top the guide was doing her best to explain all the Chinese myths and legends about this little island.  It has strong historical interest for the Chinese people, but I must admit as I do not know much about the history it did lose me a little.  There was a temple at the top with very, very old statues as well as rubbings of Chinese characters.  The more important ones were behind glass with a little padlock on – either not that important or quite trusting.  But all open to the elements.

The top was also the best place to see the start of the “Three Gorges”.  The area that we were going to sail into, Qutong Gorge, or the gate to the gorges, had the perfect view from where we were.  Well – next to where we were.  The place with the very best view was roped off with a photographer standing on a chair where you could pay to have your photo taken.  Naturally, there was quite a queue.

It was quite beautiful up there, albeit inundated with Chinese people.  I have yet to see many Western tourists at all.  We then had to make our way back down again – a lot easier than going up.  The parking area was full when we got back down – this obviously is very popular!  We took the ten minutes bus ride back to the boat – although we didn’t quite get there.  They dropped us at the end of the road and we had to go past lots and lots of people selling things.  Not only did they shout at you, if you by any chance made eye contact they ran after you.  Not anything I either wanted or needed, so didn’t chance even looking…

We got back and made to set sail very soon after.  The only problem was we were sandwiched in, and we were the jam.  We had to wait for the three ships in the line in front of us to leave, then the one on our outside.  We were fifth in line to start entering the gorges, after one of the boats ahead belched out horrible black smoke as it pulled away.  I thought the amount of boats may have a negative effect on our experience, but it didn’t really matter.  The scenery either side was stunning.  This first gorge is meant to be the most beautiful, and it certainly was.   Wherever you are, you are sharing it with several other boats, be it cruisers or cargo ships.  It is an important part of the transport system, so busy it will be.  And from our front balcony it was the ideal position for the viewing!

The scenic part lasted around four hours and then we docked near to the Shenning Stream.  This was an included trip – again, not really sure what to expect, but went for it anyway.  We got from our boat onto a very basic ferry boat, where we went down a tributary for around one hour.  It was stunningly beautiful – except for the weather.  It was raining now, but even though we were on the top deck it had some sort of canopy over so we didn’t get wet.

We then arrived at a souvenir shop in the middle of the river – or so it seemed.  We went through here and all then got on smaller traditional Chinese boats.  Luckily, we all got on without any catastrophes – quite amazing looking at some of the doddery people that were attempting the transition!  There were four rowers and one “captain” (who was steering) to each boat.  This was an age-old tradition of how the people used to get about – and the rowers looked very much as if they came from that time.  One of the rowers on our boat was eighty years old – I don’t think I could have done what he did now let alone at eighty!  A couple of them jumped out at one point with a rope, ran up the cliff to a small path and pulled the boat for a distance.  Worse than hard work!

They all seemed to be enjoying themselves…..  We then came to a bit where there was a “U turn” sign half way up the cliff, so obediently they all did a U turn and we set off back to where we had come from.  This time they all decided they needed a bit of a Chinese sing song.  Oh well – at least by not knowing the words I had a good excuse not to join in.  It had decided to rain quite heavily, but again, we had a tarpaulin thing over the top and managed to keep dry.  Not sure how much longer we are going to keep that record up.

We got back onto the ferry boat and set off down the river back the way we had come.  Some of the rowing boat men had rowed down the river ahead of us and were scrambling up the side of the cliffs by the time we caught up with them.  The guide said they live on the other side of the mountain, and that’s how they get home each day.  Old, but certainly not decrepit! We got back to our boat and soon set sail for the final leg of the journey.  There was a magnificent Chinese Banquet for dinner tonight – we must have had twelve courses.  Some very good – some very dubious…..  But very filling.  So much for thinking I might lose weight coming to China as many others have said.

On the water - China

Day Eleven – Sunday 16th June

An early start this morning – but not as early as some.  The boat docked around 6am, and some were off immediately with early flights to catch.  Our departure time was 7.45am when we were travelling to see the actual Three Gorges Dam on the way to Yichang.  Those that had early flights were going to miss this part altogether – I would put a complaint in to the travel agent!

The bus journey took around thirty minutes to get to the Dam Tourist Centre.  It is a huge fifteen square kilometre site, guarded by the military and vehicles are only allowed in if they have official tourist transportation status.  Because we had all of our luggage with us, all of it had to come off the bus and be screened.  It went straight back on the bus, but they were taking no chances that we may be up to no good.  If the dam was compromised, it is thought that over half of China may be flooded.  Best to be safe than sorry then.

We first went over a bridge just down from the dam so that we could see it from downstream in all its splendour – including the locks that the larger ships pass through and the ship lift that the smaller ships pass through.  All passage through the locks is free – but you may have to wait in line a few days before your turn comes around.  Very irritating, I would think.  We first went into the centre that had a large model of all the dam site – hugely impressive.  The dam is 185 metres high – and instead of walking up steps to get to the top level they have a series of elevators to take you to the top.  Very handy, and becoming a theme…

When you get to the top there is another area where you can climb up another few stairs to the top of a structure to get a birds eye view.  And there is a rock at the top for the obligatory selfie or to have your photo taken next to.  Everywhere you go…  It was all very clean and well laid out, and by this time what seemed like millions of Chinese people swarming the place.  All with phones in hand and people posing at the end of their arms.  Follow a few steps down and you get to the best place to overlook the locks – there were ships (of course) in the locks going up and down as we watched.  When we went down to the bottom there were golf carts available for 100RMB to take you to the best spot to see the upstream side of the dam, which was a twenty-minute walk.  Everyone decided they would walk, which all of a sudden reduced to seven minutes.  Nice try!

At the final area of the site almost next to the start of the dam on the river side we were higher than the river, but lower than the top of the dam.  It looked absolutely amazing, all 2.3 kilometres of it.  How on earth it was constructed I will never know – and probably wouldn’t understand if I was told.  A trip well worth doing, and actually one of the highlights.  All to do then was to find bus number 539 amongst the parking area of rather a lot of identical buses.  Easy.  It was the one with the lady with the flag outside of it…..

We travelled for around another forty-five minutes to get to the town of Yichang, where our next guide (Frank) was waiting for us.  We had another journey of around thirty minutes to get to the Imperial Hotel where we had lunch booked – a beautiful table and room just for us two.  Spoilt!  More Chinese dishes that we hadn’t come across before (although the fish had a look on its face of pure horror) but will add to the growing list that we are making during this trip.  He then took us to the Yichang Museum, which was a bit bizarre.  It was closing because there was a new one being built, most of the exhibits had been moved, but there was one art exhibition left.  To be honest, it looked as if it was a High School exhibition – the proportions in the paintings looked very odd.  Didn’t like to say anything in case it was a famous artist that was one of Frank’s favourites.

We were then taken and dropped off next to the river – there was a park than ran 17 kilometres alongside it.  We wandered down looking at all the fisherman (even though there were signs up to say no fishing) and people just sitting and generally relaxing.  It is Sunday, I suppose.  By the time we were picked up again we had walked around five kilometres – a very delightful walk (no rain again) learning lots about the Chinese way of life.  We had one last stop at the Urban Planning Museum of Yichang which turned out to be much better than I imagined.  Yichang is a huge town (not in Chinese terms though) which has another dam.  This one was built before the Three Gorges Dam, and at the time it was built it was the biggest hydropower station in China.  It has been eclipsed many times now, though.  This museum also showed China through the ages, and how things have changed.  It looks as if change has not stopped, and will only keep on going, here at least.  Probably over all of China..

Our next drop off was at the airport for the one and a half hour flight, and only direct one of the day, to Chengdu on China Eastern Airlines.  Above the clouds, it was a really clear night.  I think it may have been like that for all of the trip!  Our new guide Eva was there to meet us, and transfer us for the forty minutes into the city centre and The Temple House.  A really funky and quirky but lovely property.

Day Twelve – Monday 17th June

After a late arrival last night, we had a fairly early start this morning as we were going to see the famous pandas.  After one of the best and fastest breakfasts of the trip, we met Eva at 8.15am for the thirty or so minute trip to the Giant Panda Breeding Research Base.  I am not a great advocate of keeping wild animals in captivity, so did not have great expectations.  I couldn’t have been more wrong.  The whole place (if a little Disney in places, with swarms of people wearing panda ears…) was really well set out.  It had a very distinct air of difference with the clientele here too.  There were many American voices as well as many Europeans.  I think we may have hit one of the places that is a holiday hotspot.

There are 195 pandas in the centre at present – they breed them and then set some of the free into the wild.  There are always babies being born (we are at the start of the season for when the cubs are born) and there are three that are under two weeks old.  They begin their life in an incubator – and there is one that is on show today.  That bit was not too well done – the baby is on show for thirty minutes only.  The queues to walk past the incubator (behind glass) are worse than an opening day for a new Primark, and there is no decorum.  Well, when is there in China?  There are loud speakers asking you to keep your voices to a whisper (really?) and guards shouting at you to move along if you stop to take a picture.  Not sure they quite understand the message that they are trying to put across.  The baby panda looks more like a rat than a panda – they are born with no fur and very, very tiny.  The other two are too young to be put on show yet.  Not the best experience of the day.

Apart from that, the morning is the best time to see the pandas at their most active.  Many of them were busy stripping the bamboo for their breakfast.  They all seem to be very happy, although I’m not sure whether I am fit to make that assumption.  I could have spent many more hours just looking at the pandas going about their daily business, they are mesmerising.  It is a bit like a bun fight though, as every Chinese and their mother need to have a selfie with every panda in the park.  Oh well, I didn’t really expect a private audience…

There were also Red Pandas in the park.  I didn’t actually know that a red panda existed – and it doesn’t actually look like a giant panda either.  It is red (obviously) and looks more like a fox or a raccoon.  Not at all as cuddly looking as the black and white bear type panda.  Nor as photogenic.  They look a little feisty rather than friendly.

We left the park and moved on to the Panda Restaurant for lunch, which happens to be just opposite our hotel.  Another list of Sichuan area dishes to add to the growing number of delicacies we have tried, including today lotus flower vegetables.  Think I will give that one a miss in future, although we did have a lovely chicken dish which we had to avoid chewing the “tongue numbing” peppers that were in it.  Hmmm.

We had a few hours r and r until we were collected at 5.20pm for our evening “Foodie Tour”.  There is a tour called the Lost Plate of Chengdu that involves local dishes at local establishments – but that was full, so we got another one!  Eva took us to meet our guide on the corner of a really busy junction – there were bikes and motor bikes going in every direction.  The street was full of street food and vendors selling everything from mobile phone covers to flowers.  We then met Cecile and the driver – of a bright red, battered and very old tuk-tuk.  Our transport for the evening.  It actually had “luxury upgrade” on the side – I’m glad we got the business class version!

We set off – and joined the throng of bikes that travelled in every direction and, of course, in and out of the traffic.  This is going to be an adventure!  Our first stop was at a small side street café full of locals.  The outside tables were full, so we had to sit indoors in the “sauna”.  We had pancakes here (I am sure there is a different name, but that is basically what they were).  One spicy, one not so spicy and one sweet.  All very edible, albeit not the Michelin star restaurant standard one could become accustomed to.

Our next stop was very different.  We had to climb in through the window.  I thought she was joking, but no.  We had to climb up the steps, in through the window, and down some more steps inside.  Unfortunately (or fortunately) it was then closing so we were too late.  Not a problem, says Cecile.  The family owns another one down the road.  So, in the tuk-tuk we got again and drove (or wound around cars, bikes, pedestrians and anything else that looked remotely as if it would get in the way) to the next place.  No tables anywhere – so they just went and got one and set it up further down the wall. We had pork dumplings here – one lot in a plain soup, and one lot in a spicy sauce.  Not too bad again – but there were far too many, so we got a take-out bowl for Cecile to have later.  She tried to teach Paul how to say “I love pandas” in Chinese.  The best he came out with was “I love chest hair” which seemed to amuse her immensely.

The next place had a pan of beef cakes frying out the front.  We had one of those, together with a bowl of what looked like noodles and vegetables.  The beef pattie thing was quite tasty – a bit like a sausage roll but with beef in the middle instead of pork.  The noodles were another matter – and they also had a bit of pig’s intestine as a dressing on the top to add to the taste.  No.  It didn’t add to the taste at all.  The noodles were made with sweet potato flour – the lady decided that we needed a demonstration so she made some and showed us how they were cooked.  It sounded as if it should have been edible, but it really wasn’t.  Perhaps it was the pigs intestine that put me off…..

Onwards.  We actually turned up outside a restaurant that looked half decent – well I say that as opposed to where we had been in the last couple of hours.  Here, we were having a cold hotpot, sweet noodles and a glutenous lump of what looked like blancmange in a sugar syrup.  OK.  Let’s start with the cold hotpot.  It was actually skewers full of chicken feet.  In for a penny – it was a bit hard biting off the end because you could actually see the outline of the nail.  I had a couple of toes and that was enough.  Paul declined….  The sweet noodles were OK, but the blancmange blob was quite tasteless.  Then the guide decided to ask me why I had chosen Paul.  She commented how unhappy he usually looked.  Ha!  It probably had something to do with trying to feed him chicken feet and having to climb through windows to get to a table.  She told him to smile more.  Let’s see how long that lasts…..

That was a very interesting evening – not exactly full of food that I would readily order again (and some that I would definitely avoid) but a really good experience.  We ate at the restaurants that Chinese locals frequented, we ate with a local, and we travelled like the locals.  Nice to come back to a five star hotel though…..

China - native animals

Day Thirteen – Tuesday 18th June

I will actually start today’s blog at around 11pm last night.  About 100 miles from Chengdu there was an earthquake at around 6 on the Richter scale, which shook our hotel and lots of others for several miles around.  We were on the tenth floor, and the bed and walls shook quite violently – but nothing came down and we were all quite safe.  I say they shook quite violently – Paul woke me up to say that he thought there had been an earthquake.  I slept quite peacefully through it all….  There have been notifications that a few people have died and many injured in the countryside nearer to the epicentre, but most of Chengdu was going about their business as if nothing has happened this morning.  Earthquakes in this region are quite common, and buildings are built to withstand up to an 8 so we had room to spare with this one!

After breakfast we were taken to the railway station for our bullet train to Xi’an.  We had to go through the usual scanning of the cases and security as before.  An English couple in front of us were not being allowed in, and they had no guide with them so could not understand why.  Our guide intervened, and it turns out their train had been cancelled.  I cannot emphasis enough how important it is to have someone with you that speaks Chinese.  There always seems to be something you have to do, or somewhere you have to go, and very few people speak any English at all.  It makes life so much easier.  Eva said goodbye to us here as we had a porter booked to take our luggage, and then take the luggage to the train when it was ready to board.  He had a phone that he talked into and it came out with the English version.  One way to get around things!  We had business class seats on this leg – which are better than first class.

Our journey on this CRH train was just over four hours, and we settled in to watch the scenery go past in our very comfortable seats.  We even had lunch served at the seat this time.  The train stopped at several stations, but made speeds up to 250 km per hour again in between.  We went through many mountains, as there were several tunnels again.  We arrived into Xi’an at just before four o’clock.  A porter came running up to meet us to take our luggage with an Exsus sign on his phone – I wonder how he knew it was us?  Oh, might have been because we were the only white people on the train again….

The station was huge, clean, and very, very busy.  The Chinese stations certainly put our railway stations in their place.  We went down to the parking area under the station, and met Ryan (our guide) whilst in Xi’an.  We had a thirty-minute journey that took us through the old city walls to the Hilton Hotel, which will be our home for the next two nights.  The last but one stop – where has the time gone?  A quick check in and change for our food trip of the day – this time it is the Lost Plate Tour.

We met Michelle, the Lost Plate guide, and our three other American companions who were going to join us this evening.  We walked a short way, where our mode of transport for this evening was an electric tuk-tuk.  We were going to eat exclusively in the Muslim quarter at four different eateries and then end up in a brewery.  Michelle had a cooler full of beers and soda for us to take into each place as we went.  The first two were strict Muslim and didn’t allow beer to be taken in,  just the soda.  After last night, I was beginning to wonder what we were going to have to eat.  This could not have been further from the food we had last night.  The first stop was a family business that had been going for over twenty years.  They made their own noodles (which we witnessed at the entrance to the shop) and then we had them served with beef and vegetables.  They were the best noodles I have ever tasted.  Michelle had told us to pace ourselves – and this was a big bowl.  If we finished this, we may not be able to fit everything in.  Reluctantly, I left half in my bowl.

After another short ride (we had two tuk-tuks, driven by a man and his wife) we came to a little shop with a gentleman barbequing some beef on skewers.  He took the raw meat, basted it with a special secret sauce, then sprinkled on chilli powder, cumin and salt.  We all had several skewers each with some flat bread.  It was absolutely delicious.  This restaurant was on its fourth generation of family and sells over 1,000 skewers a night.  Once they have gone, they shut up shop.  And they only have one thing on the menu.  Very popular.

The next stop was dumplings, but in a much bigger and busier place.  Apparently, the owners moved to bigger premises as their dumplings were renown to be the best, and they were always packed out in their original smaller restaurant.  The dumplings were lovely – we had chilli sauce and soup to go with them.  Not that keen on the soup, but I was getting pretty full by now, and was glad I didn’t finish off that first bowl of noodles.

One more stop to make – and it was a very unusual restaurant.  It was so tucked away you would not have known it was there, and it was absolutely beautiful in a very basic sort of a way.  We had fried chicken here – but not the KFC sort.  It was a whole chicken, that had been first boiled, then steamed, then fried.  And when I say whole, I mean whole.  The head was still attached, as well as the feet.  The bit in the middle was alright – but I left his extremities for the others…  We also had Chinese donuts (donuts without the sugar, which were surprisingly good) a carrot (but with spices added) salad and a fungus (which was a black mushroom that grows on tree bark).

We rounded off the evening with a visit to a brewery, which was more like an English Pub.  They brewed their own beer of wheat, or milk stout, or coffee stout, and two others I can’t remember.  I don’t drink beer, so didn’t try them.  The smell put me off.  I don’t think they went down too well with the others either, as it didn’t seem to get that many good noises after trying them.  Couldn’t have been that bad as all the tasters went though, and a couple more pints were ordered after that.

We said goodbye to everyone after a lovely evening, our driver came to collect us, and we headed back to the hotel as we have a very busy day tomorrow.

Day Fourteen – Wednesday 19th June

We met Ryan at 8am for our hour-long trip to the site of the Terracotta Warriors.  We had to go out of the city walls, then out of the city.  Apparently, this was the first highway in China and was built to take traffic from Xi’an city centre to the Warriors site.  The parking lot was enormous, and luckily for us it didn’t look too busy.

We bought the tickets and walked into the main area – it is absolutely huge and not a bit as I was expecting.  We had a ten or so minute walk through a very peaceful park area before we got to the building that held Pit Number 1.  This was the first pit that was excavated, and has the most warriors intact.  This is only because of the painstaking preservation work involved – none of the warriors were intact when they were found.  The farmer that found them in 1974, when he was looking for water, still lives in the village next door.  They had been buried for 2200 years – that is a mighty long time!  The front part of the pit was almost full, with the soldiers being stood in the battle formation that they were buried in.  When they were first buried around the tomb of the Emperor they had wooden stanchions surrounding them holding matting over their heads, with earth on top.  A few years after that some troops raided the site, taking all of the weapons out of their hands and setting fire to the whole site.  This burned all the wooden chariots and posts holding up the roof over their heads, so all of the earth collapsed on top of them.  And there it stayed for over 2000 years until a lucky find by a local who came upon them.  The whole site was marked out, so that they knew how big an area they were looking at, but it will take another fifty or so years to dig all the remaining pieces out of the earth and stick them together.  There were several archaeologists working there today, as they do every day.

We were very lucky with the small amount of visitors there too – we were told that in high season there is usually six deep to try and look over into the pit.  That definitely would have been not so good.  As it was, we could wander and take pictures as we needed with hardly any interference (except for those who were having selfies with the warriors, of course).  It was awe inspiring to think how they were all made and put into place all those years ago, and for them to be able to be brought back to the state that they are in now.  I did have a quick flash of “The Mummy” and wondered if they were all going to come to life at any minute and march out!

Pit Number 3 held the High Council figures, with horses and higher-ranking officials.  This was not as impressive as Pit Number 1 – getting a little picky now…  Pit Number 2 had fewer whole figures, but had a map of how many they think are in that area, and who they are.  There are kneeling archers and standing archers, horses and chariots and infantrymen in their hundreds if not thousands.  It really is going to take someone with plenty of time and plenty of patience to do that job.  Some of the figures rescued so far have still got a faint paint colour left on them – they were all painted when they went down there in the first place, but once they were opened to the air again the colour quickly disappeared.  They have put plastic coverings around the warriors in place now to stop this happening to any new figures that are excavated.


There were also a couple of museums that held figures that were found belonging to the following dynasty to the one that buried the warriors, and also had a historical pictorial journey from when the warriors were first found to present day.  The most surprising part of the day, though, was walking back to the car – I thought we were walking out of an American Theme Park.  There was McDonalds, KFC, shop after shop and the whole area just looked so different to what I expected.  It was all very clean and orderly, but I wonder if it really needed that level of touristification?

We then headed to a Hot Springs Resort midway between the warriors and the city to have lunch – and added a few more dishes to the Chinese repertoire we now have.  Very nice – but didn’t quite match up to the street food we had last night.  We were then driven another short way to meet another guide who was going to take us on our afternoon adventure…in a Chinese Jeep.  Any thoughts of dropping off after lunch in this car were firmly quashed!

“Rocky” (who had spent some time in the States, surprisingly) was taking us out of the city and into the villages to meet the local people.  We drove up into the mountains, and there were caves that people used to live in all along the side of the road.  The cave we went to look at was empty, but apparently 20 million people in China still live in caves.  We had a little history lesson, as Rocky’s dad lived in a cave originally as did Chairman Mao, and the present prime minister.  I think the last two were voluntary, and for reasons not linked to not having anywhere else to live.

We then went further into the villages, and stopped at the local blacksmith’s house.  Rocky explained that farmers could not afford to have only farming as a form of income, so they either needed to have another skill or they had to go to the city to find work.  The blacksmith was kept busy when he wasn’t farming by making or mending all sorts of things, and was a skill that his father and his grandfather had passed on.  His hobby was to make weapons – his array that he had in his back room was very impressive.  He could certainly look after himself if anyone untoward called on him.  His shed, however, resembled Paul’s.  It was the biggest mess – but I am sure he knows where everything is.  We went into his house where his wife had just made steamed bread – a bit like a bread roll that looked as if it is ready to go in the oven, but is actually the finished object.  It didn’t taste too bad – still prefer the hot baked variety with plenty of butter.

We then went to a lady that was a paper cutter.  I wasn’t really sure what one of those was, but she gave us a very good demonstration (as well as giving us a plate of cherries that had just been picked off her tree, which were extremely good too).  She took around thirty minutes to take a plain piece of paper, and without any lines or drawings to assist, used only scissors to cut and cut and make a beautiful dragon.  This skill has also been passed down from mother to daughter, but alas the electronic laser means that there will be no need to pass this on.  Some of the cuttings she had framed in her house took two or three days to complete.  She was the person to go to if you wanted a bespoke framing for a wedding or other celebratory occasion.

We then were taken to have a Chinese Hamburger.  I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but we pulled up outside another street food shop in the “High Street” of a large village.  We had a flat bread roll with pulled pork inside handed to us in a little paper bag that did remarkably resemble a hamburger.  There was chilli sauce on the table (no ketchup in sight) and it was very edible.  If you know where to get the beststreet food, it is so nice.  After Paul and Rocky decided to arm wrestle on the table (Paul said it was a draw but I think Rocky was just letting him not lose) we headed for home in an absolute downpour.  We went past a grassy mound that held the tomb of an Emperor (not the Emperor that the terracotta warriors are protecting), but as we were told that there are around 72 of these scattered around it wasn’t made a big deal of.  The only other obstruction we had on the way back to the hotel was a herd of goats on the road, that didn’t seem bothered if they moved or not.  They weren’t afraid of the rain..

Terracotta warriors - China

Day Fifteen – Thursday 20th June

Today is another day of travelling – and looking at the weather app for Xi’an for today is a good job.  There is a huge swathe of rain coming in and is set to be there for the next couple of days.  The journey to the high-speed railway station (around one hour) was fairly wet and murky all the way.  Ryan left us at the entrance to the station after making sure we got in OK, and handed us over to a porter that would make sure we got on the right train.  No problem at all if everything runs OK, but it is when your plans throw you a curve ball that it is good to have back up.

Our train left at 10.03am (on time, as had every train we had taken) and took five and a half hours to get to Beijing.  We had business class again, which is such a comfortable way to travel.  So much space.  We left the rain behind in Xi’an – the nearer we got to Beijing the better the weather.  There might even be a chance that we will see some sun here!

Just a small blip when we arrived – we left that train and a porter came over to get our luggage, as Ryan had told us there would be.  He would then take us to our guide for this part of the trip.  The only problem was, the porter wasn’t the right porter.  He didn’t speak any English, even though he was taking both of our cases he was off like a rabbit.  There was a little confusion as to where we were going, but it then seemed the porter that was supposed to meet us found him.  We then passed entrance four, three, two and then one where thankfully the guide (Laura) was.  I was beginning to think we might have to put our Chinese into action (only problem was we could only say Hello, Thank you and No.  Not sure how far that would have got us).

Laura met us and took us to the car, and we set off for the forty minutes or so to get to the Rosewood Hotel.  A beautiful hotel that will be our home for the next four nights, and the last stop on our Chinese escapade.

Day Sixteen – Friday 21st June

A start this morning at 9.00am from the hotel, to make our way to Tiananmen Square.  We were dropped off just outside the square and I was horrified at the length of the queue to get in.  I thought it would be just like Trafalgar Square where you could wander in and out as you wished.  I needn’t have worried – as we were with an official guide there was another entrance, with no queue at all.  Everyone queuing up had to go through security and have bags searched, but we just walked straight in.  Apparently, if you are with a guide you are deemed to be “nice people”.  There are railings all the way around, and even railings inside to stop you from getting close to certain places. Chairman Mao is laying “in state” (is how I think you would put it) in a mausoleum in the middle of the square.  We decided to queue to go and have a look at him – we were prepared as we needed passports to get into this bit.  The queue was not too long, and it went down quite quickly.  We had to go through security again here – Laura didn’t queue up, she waited with our cameras and bags so that we didn’t have to wait to have them searched – and then we walked up into a large entrance hall that would not be out of place in any five-star hotel lobby.  At intervals along the queue there were white flowers for sale which nearly all of the Chinese people bought.  Once we got into the lobby, they were laid on a large table, I assume as a sign of respect (there were hundreds still in their cellophane, and stacks at the back of the room so it wouldn’t surprise me if they were “recycled” and were taken off to be sold again!).  We then went through to the back room and there the man was – lying on a table (behind glass) for all to see.  I must admit, if I had to guess I would have said it was a plastic head.  It did look a bit like something out of an old horror movie, but I suppose he has been dead since 1976 so if he has been “pickled” since then he probably will end up looking a bit plastic.

We walked around to meet Laura and pick up our bags, and continued to the other end of the square.  Or is it a rectangle?  Square or rectangle, it is absolutely huge.  It can, apparently, hold one million people.  Chinese.  I think they are somewhat smaller than British or Americans.  There were some beautiful flowers growing (or so I thought, they are replaced every two to three weeks as they die) in one corner.  I wondered if there was some recognition anywhere of the massacre in 1989, but although Laura did know about that (that was somewhat surprising) her knowledge did not extend to what we know outside of China and it seems quite an insignificant event in their history.  The main government buildings are located within the square, and around the square, so I suppose that will keep the tin lid on most things that are anti-government.

Just over the road from the Square is the entrance to The Forbidden City.  We went through an entrance to a park next door, that had no queues whatsoever.  The main entrance was heaving.  The park was full of serenity – old people practising Tai Chi (that will be us tomorrow!) and beautiful flowers and houses part of the moat that surrounds The Forbidden City.  We happened to stumble upon some of the army having a little practice of doing their Monty Python march.  It was quite enthralling to watch actually – especially as they were quite vocal as well.  Sounded very scary!  I was told in no uncertain terms not to take any photos.

We then went into The City.  With thousands of other people.  Up to 80,000 people visit here a day – we are in relatively low season so according to Laura there was hardly anyone there!  The buildings were all in very good condition – not what I expected.  Until Laura said most of them had been rebuilt and renovated not so long ago.  I know they have probably been made to look very like they were originally, but it was a little disappointing to think we were looking at a fairly new village, as such.  The stories that we were told brought a little to life, so I had to put the Disney feeling out of my mind.  All sorts of poisons and shenanigans have gone on in here over the years.  The main thoroughfare was fairly packed, which is where most of the tour groups go.  If you veer off to the sides to see some of the other buildings there aren’t so many people there.  Except if you go into the Treasure Gallery to see some of the original artefacts.  The Chinese were at their best (or worst) queueing and pushing and shoving in here.  I gave up!

We left the city (following a lady in stiletto heels – how could she have walked all around the 70 odd hectares here in those?) by another gate and crossed the road into another little park.  There was a hill in the middle of the park with a viewing point at the top that you could climb and get a good view over the whole of The Forbidden City and further.  Up we went then…  Laura was feeling a little dizzy, so she waited for us at the bottom.  That put a little sweat on to go with the 30 degrees heat we have today.  Very good views and worth the climb though.  Would have been able to see all over the city if the smog hadn’t been quite so thick.

Lunch stop next – and when in Peking what do you have?  Peking duck of course.  Along with various other “snacks” – we passed on the pickled sea cucumber, something cooked in duck’s blood and a few other entrees that just didn’t appeal…

We then drove to the old part of the city – the Hutongs.  All the little alleyways intertwine with houses that several families share, living in one room but with shared kitchen facilities and no bathrooms.  There are several communal toilets and showers, but even so it is very crowded living.  We went into one of the houses which was one of the biggest – it had two rooms instead of one.  Even though they are on prime land, their lease from the Communist Party expires on 1st October this year so it is thought that they will all be rehoused somewhere else and the land “reused”.  We had a short rickshaw ride around the alleyways, joining in with the motorcycles, cycles and even cars at one point.  Apart from having a head on collision with a tree at one point, we survived!

We then got in all the Friday evening traffic and headed back to the hotel in the central business district at the end of another busy day.

Chinese architecture

Day Seventeen – Saturday 22nd June

The sun was shining this morning – clear blue skies all round.  My goodness – what a difference it makes.

We were collected for a 9.00am departure to head to the Temple of Heaven.  This is in a large, peaceful park that is used for all sorts of things.  Seniors over 60 (local only) are allowed in without charge, and the park is full of them.  There is a huge area a little like Muscle Beach in California where there is exercise equipment that Chinese of a certain age were hanging off and using like twenty-year olds.  I want some of what they have!  There were groups of elderly sitting around having chats – and there was the Beijing Marriage Market here too.  Minus the umbrellas – the children for “sale” are demoted to just having their details on a laminated piece of paper on the ground.  But it must work – it happens in all of the major cities in China.

We went up to the Temple, where Emperors have come to worship since the Ming Dynasty.  There were not too many people as a whole, but the heat that the sun is giving out (it must be around 40 degrees today) made me decide to give up trying to look at anything that the clutches of Chinese wanted to look at.  If you don’t push, you don’t get in.  I gave up – I have had enough pushing, especially with the killer umbrellas up today.

We then met our Tai Chi master, who was going to give us a lesson in Tai Chi.  A very basic lesson, as neither of us have ever attempted any before.  He was an old guy who arrived on his bicycle, 67 years old and very good at it.  He showed how the exercises could easily help with self-defence, if the situation arises.  Not sure whether I would be able to put any of that into practice, but I certainly wouldn’t like to get in a fight with him!  He showed us what to do in four simple moves (for him, but for me it was a bit like trying to pat your head and rub your tummy at the same time) and told us to do them for twenty minutes every day.  Good plan…..

I gave up and said I would take some pictures – I noticed there was a lady at the back that was joining in too.  There are so many ad hoc lessons or just classes going on I think the general thing is you can join whosoever you like whensoever you like.  What a lovely thing for the elderly to do.

We then headed off for an early lunch – apparently we have to have an early lunch to be able to fit everything in today.  Wasn’t really hungry, but managed to make a big hole in another few new dishes.  However, we managed to avoid the snakes head soup and the donkey….

We then headed off to the Summer Palace.  The traffic today, being a Saturday, wasn’t really any less than on a weekday – I think there is horrific traffic here every day.  On the way in we had a quick look in one of the street food stores – barbequed scorpion, millipede, dragonfly and spider to name but a few.  Who buys that?  The sun was really bearing down now.  I am beginning to think the cloudy days we have had have made our sightseeing a lot easier than what it would have been if the heat was like it was today.  Not only do we have all the hoards of people going in all directions, most of them have an umbrella up as well.

The Summer Palace was beautiful.  It is by a man-made lake lined with cypress trees, and with the sun shining it was idyllic.  Apart from all the people of course.  I am sure when the Dragon Lady Cixi lived here she didn’t have that trouble.  More shenanigans happened here of course….  Our itinerary read “you will spend a lazy afternoon playing royalty amongst the pagodas of the Summer Palace before taking a carefree drift across Kunming Lake”.  The reality was we sweated regally with thousands of people, walked with little shade in the heat of the afternoon, queued up and got on a boat like kippers for ten minutes and then left.  That wouldn’t really sell it though, would it?

Back in the traffic again to get across town for a Kung Fu Show at the Red Theatre.  It was only an hour long, but was full of energy and I even saw a few of the Tai Chi moves in there at times.  Very good seats with snacks to eat and a bottle of water, and a very entertaining hour or so wondering how long it would take practising Tai Chi before we could do what they did…

Chinese culture

Day Eighteen – Sunday 23rd June

Last day in China – and it should be a good one.  This is the one that we have been waiting for – a hike along the Great Wall.  Laura doesn’t “do” the wall, so we have another guide today, Jack.  We left the hotel around 9.00am to travel to a quieter area of the wall, which was one and a half hours away (could be up to two and a half hours depending on traffic).  The normal area for the wall in Beijing is around one hours travelling time, but is horrendously busy, so I feel it is well worth the extra travelling time.

We arrived at Jinshanling after travelling north out of Beijing.  The high-rise buildings soon gave way to mountains – we could have been in a different country.   But then, this is what the scenery is like wherever we have travelled – one minute you are in the city, the next you are very rural.  The area around where you get on to the wall is immaculate.  Over the last two years, this area has been completely renovated so everything is very new.  The people that lived here in the past have all been moved on – according to Jack very happily…..

The ticket office, the entrance to get in,  the shuttle area to the cable car is like a ghost town.  Nowhere have people been so conspicuous by their absence on this holiday.  No queues, no umbrellas (and there would have been many as the sun was out again today) just peace and quiet.  You can walk to the cable car, and if you don’t want the cable car you can walk up to the wall, but it is a hot day and we needed to conserve our strength.  Good excuse…..

The cable cars were like being in a little greenhouse – very small, covered in plastic with the sun beating in.  It would have taken less time to walk – it must have been the slowest cable car ever.  But we got to the top, took a very scenic path to get to the wall, and we were not disappointed.  The wall stretched as far as the eye could see in both directions.  It made its way along the top of the mountain range with the watch towers jutting out every few hundred yards.  Whoever built this (this part was mainly the Ming Dynasty) did a very good job.  Some parts have been repaired and renovated, but some of the hike we did was on original bricks.  It had crumbled a little – considering it was nearly a thousand years old, not too bad though.

And we had it virtually to ourselves.  Why would you go with crowds of people, when you can come here and just marvel at the audacity of someone building a wall this big and this long (reminds me of someone else!) with no-one to interrupt your thoughts.  Of course, there were the odd people that we met (or overtook us!) but generally we had it all to ourselves.  Incredible.  This was definitely the highlight of the trip, in more ways than one.

Bridget and Paul and the Great Wall of China

After a couple of hours we took one of the exits off the wall available (just after we had bought an ice cream in one of the watch towers – they never miss a trick) and started to make our way down the mountain path back to where we started from.  There were posts every few hundred yards with loudspeakers on that had patriotic music accompanying your descent one minute, and a voice telling you what not to bring (including flying bomb materials) the next.  The disembodied voice was rather like the voice in the space age films where everyone is chipped and it comes across to tell you to “go to your check in station immediately”.  With all the cameras in the whole of China that may not be too far away…..

We got to the bottom, and had all the “Disney” type shops and food places (this is the not so good side of it) to go through before we got back to the shuttle station.  But with no-on else in sight we got through very quickly.  We ate at someone’s house – they have opened a small restaurant within their property to serve food, and it is just outside the new area so has been here for several years.  One of the doors was open and you could see right into their bedroom.  The food was all cooked fresh, very quick, and absolutely delicious.  I will miss this aromatic food when we get home.

On the way back to Beijing we passed lots of trucks – they have a time limitation of when they can drive within the city limits – who were making their way to the outskirts ready for their entry time.  This made the drive much longer going back than coming, nearer to the two and a half hours.  We made one last stop before we got to our hotel – at the Olympic Park.  We walked around and saw the tall pagoda with the Olympic Rings on the top, the Birds Nest Stadium and the Ice Cube (swimming stadium).  It was a beautiful evening, and was lovely to wander around here in our last few hours.  I should imagine that several things were demolished and people moved to make way for this large area in the City – but one old building that was still standing was a temple.  Apparently when they started to dig here there were hundreds of snakes that came out of the ground, so all building was stopped.  Think I might have stopped as well!

A lovely end to a lovely day and a lovely holiday.  I can certainly recommend China – there is something for everyone.  Our flight out of Beijing will take us directly back to Heathrow, having had a fabulously different experience in so many parts of this wonderful country.