China Holiday 2001 Diary
Holiday Diary – China Travelogue 2001
Over the summer of 2001 myself and my good friend Gill spent a month touring China. This is the diary which I kept as I travelled…
Saturday 14th July
Much excitement. We got the tube from Stockwell, London, to Heathrow, and arrived with plenty of time. I hope I get used to this backpack – it’s pretty heavy to be carrying around for a whole month. The flight to Frankfurt was followed by a flight onwards to Beijing. We caught up on some sleep.
Sunday 15th July
We arrived in Beijing late morning their time. For our first experience of communication with the Chinese we were plunged straight in at the deep end – our luggage had remained in Germany (our first flight had been a little delayed), and was due to arrive the next day – but that was fine. We knew the name of our first hotel, so we arranged for it to be forwarded on…
We changed some money and hailed a taxi to the hotel (sensibly, first asking how much it would cost in Chinese – it’s a piece of cake this travelling lark! If you’ve got a decent phrasebook…)
My first impressions of Beijing, as we drove along the large ring road from the airport were of its scale. Big cars, big skyscrapers, big highways, much like the massive roads I’d seen leading into large American cities. All fairly familiar (with road-signs in English accompanying the Mandarin, for example).
Everything became much more fascinating upon reaching the centre of the city. Chaos seemed to break out all around the taxi! Bicycles everywhere, traffic everywhere else, people crossing the roads in the empty spaces in between. A total mass of humanity, swarming together to make up the constantly-evolving organism that was the street. An abundance of trees supplied their shade to the pavements, and there were well-known Western-branded shops and much less recognizable signs everywhere.
The taxi-driver had real trouble finding the hotel from our (admittedly fairly poor) Lonely Planet map. He had to keep stopping the vehicle (seemingly oblivious to the desire of the other road users to keep the traffic flowing smoothly) in order to check our guidebook. Even more disconcertingly he repeatedly walked away from the car, disappearing for minutes at a time, presumably to ask his way around.
But then, we turned into a small alleyway, and we were there – the stone lions at the entrance to the building announced our correct arrival.
The staff at the Haoyuan Binguan (“Haoyuan Guesthouse”) spoke English, which eased us into life in China quite nicely on our first day. It was a lovely hotel – a traditional single-floor courtyard-style Chinese building. Air conditioning. Nice bath. Big bed. Etc. The room opened out into one of the courtyards, where a few big old fruit trees provided some shelter from the sun.
We set out to do some exploring. It was extremely hot, but we wanted to get a feel for the place. Absolutely fascinating – there were more familiar things from England than I was expecting, but there were so many tiny differences around, from obvious things such as the different alphabet, to more subtle aspects, such as the appearance of the low-slung electricity wires mingled with the low-hanging trees. There were people selling water & drinks – quite sensibly in this weather - on every corner, and the local people were using everything from umbrellas to newspapers to shield their heads from the blazing sun.
Negotiating the traffic at crossings turned out to be an gradually-learnt skill – determining where the stream of motor vehicles was currently flowing, using a line of bicycles as protection if necessary, cautiously edging out with the other pedestrians, until striding purposefully forward whenever the opportunity arose. At turnings you push forward, closing down the stream of cars as they cross across the road in front of you until there is only one lane for them, and then you dart across when it’s clear. Strangely, it feels safer and easier crossing these wide multilane roads here than the smaller roads in the UK. You feel you have more priority in crossing the streets, the drivers having sheepishly crept onto the traditional turf of the cyclists and pedestrians. Surprising, as the drivers certainly don’t lack confidence when it comes to dealing with other car users…
At first it was very notable to us just how few non-Chinese there were in the city streets, but contrary to what we had beforehand expected from reports, we didn’t really get any second glances from anyone as Foreigners. Everything felt extremely relaxed and safe.
Our initial investigations into the street life of Beijing were unfortunately interrupted sharply after several hours, however. Our hats (and umbrellas) were still in Germany, we hadn’t had much sleep, nor had we really eaten much. Despite having drunk what (at the time) seemed to be a fair amount of water, maybe it wasn’t enough. I started to feel sick. A vein running through my neck began to throb painfully, as dizziness started taking hold and we had to stop. I had the overwhelming urge to lie down, and was sure I was going to faint. It all flashed before me – “first day in China, and I’m going to be in hospital; luckily there’s a phrase in the book for heatstroke”. Fortunately Gill was there to support me, and just in time a knight wielding an iced bottle of water and riding a rickshaw whisked us up and charged us back to the hotel. (Or the vicinity of the hotel, at least, us managing to get very lost, and not for the last time.)
Finally. Cold bath time. Fantastic!
Sunday night – Noodle King.
We were already feeling fairly at home in this exciting city, and marched off, map in hand, to find the aforementioned Noodle King restaurant (as recommended in one of our guide books). The city was even more impressive by night. The massive skyscrapers and hotels gave the more affluent districts the air of a more upmarket Vegas or New York. Familiar brand names were everywhere – McDonalds, KFC, Starbucks, and amongst the sparkling shopping malls were clusters of mobile phone shops and clothing retailers, blasting out Western music into the streets (curse you Westlife!)
The walk to Noodle King took longer than expected. We didn’t realise that we were practically standing outside until it was pointed out by a group of kindly passers-by (unsurprisingly, it was the same building at which one of the staff was trying to get our attention from the doorway to beckon us in). We had learnt how to find places in China. Look very lost and someone will try to help.
We ventured inside. A cavernous place with much character. Very noisy – shouts filled the air, as every new customer entering the room was greeted with a yell from the many waiters spread throughout. Loads of fun - the whole place seemed electrified with excitement. We ordered a mixture of dishes from the English-language menu (which arrived after we looked sufficiently confused with the Chinese menu). We got to grips with the chopsticks (and the Chinese beer) fine. We had inadvertently managed to order absolutely masses of food, and it kept on arriving, dish by dish. Due to our inexperience we had a fairly strange mixture for this, our first meal in China – rice (a dish which the Chinese don’t eat nearly as much of as one would expect), the largest ribs I have ever seen, spring rolls and kidney beans. An unusual selection, but very nice.
We walked back to our hotel, full, happy and very content that things were going well. On the journey back we made a diversion through one of the shopping malls that were still open late. It was very upmarket, and was threaded through a complex of towering, glistening skyscrapers. We emerged on the other side of the mall into a teeming party of people thronging the streets, passing between bars and shops and amusement rides and bands and allsorts. Fantastic – the celebration of the recent successful bid by Beijing for the 2008 Olympics seemed to still be going on.
After once more becoming a “little” disorientated regarding our hotels’ alleyway, we finally retired for the night, although excitement about the holiday (and jetlag!) kept our sleep irregular.
Monday 16th July
We got up around midday feeling, fairly well rested, to enjoy a nice cup of cha. The Chinese being a sophisticated race, they ensure all hotel rooms have a large silver thermos flask of hot water as well as cups and teabags. After collecting our luggage from reception, we headed out into the heat, and via a supermarket for water and cakes (not wanting to repeat the previous days near-collapse), proceeded down town.
We ventured into the Forbidden City (a.k.a. Gugong, or Imperial Palace) to the north of Tian’anmen Square. I felt that it was magnificent. Some amazing architecture, classic trad-Chinese style; large paved courtyards and dragon-roofed buildings, some housing museum galleries; labyrinth alleyways; statues. And at the far end of the complex, a fantastic garden – big twisted trees, peculiar rocky outcrops, walkways, pools of fish, pavilions. The main architecture, especially within the main courtyard, transported me away to a different world. And away from the crowds (who were mainly sticking to the central pathway across the yard) I felt incredibly peaceful. Sitting there, gazing out across the court, within this very alien construction, the sun blasting down, gentle music drifting through the air, a very good friend by my side. I was filled with overwhelming warmth. That glow, incidentally, that I’ve had within me non-stop since arriving in this magical country – I’ve never felt better. (Although maybe that’s partially because my “normal” life is slightly lacking in excitement!)
Exiting the Palace by its northern gate, we crossed into Jingshan Gongyuan - a beautiful garden (or park), dominated in its centre by a hill (made artificially from the earth which was removed whilst constructing the Forbidden City’s moat). It was quite a climb to the top, but well worth it. The view across the city of Beijing was magnificent (and allowed us to get our bearings somewhat). There was a small temple at the top, and locusts chanting all around from the trees. The weather was perfect, and there was a clear view of the Imperial Palace & Tian’anmen to the south, a lake and river to the west, as well as a few other temples dotted around the city.
We then headed down and around the hillside for a rest in the shade, before heading back to the hotel.
That evening we set off to find another recommended restaurant, some distance to the east. Some distance indeed… We headed through some small dark alleyways (they were quite poor areas, but full of life & colour), and then out beyond the Second Ring Road, beyond the massive skyscrapers in the financial powerhouse districts - the transition between poor and rich was crossed stark. The journey took ages. We had trouble finding the place. Only to discover that it was currently being renovated. Bugger. One of the advantages this specific restaurant would have had was that it was reputedly one of the few places open 24 hours, and it was now getting quite late this evening. Uh oh. We got a taxi back into the centre, only to find most restaurants were shutting, or at least taking no new customers (fast-food outlets aside). Fortunately, passing by a doorway, no doubt looking dangerously ravenous, we were invited upstairs into a small eatery. They had no menu in English or pinyin (the Romanicised version of Mandarin), and spoke no English, but we managed to get by with plenty of smiling & gesticulations. They were fascinated by our phrasebook, but this didn’t really help the cause. We weren’t really sure (and didn’t really care) what we would be getting in the end, apart from a much-needed beer, the ordering of which caused much excitement when asked in Chinese. We were getting very fluent at ordering beer! But we had a lovely meal, including egg-fried rice and soup. We were getting very fluent at beer-ordering.) Whilst we ate, the young people running the place were just hanging out together, watching the telly, drinking beers, and knocking food up for hungry stray individuals such as ourselves. It was around 11:00 p.m., and usually in China they eat very early in the evening, so I think we got lucky there.
We finished up, asked for the bill, & bade them farewell.
It was eye opening seeing just how much hanging-out the Chinese do do at night, at least whilst we were in Beijing. People in electrical goods showrooms (kitted out with beers and a bed) watching the TV with their friends, friends on the street chatting, hanging out in bridal shops, everyone everywhere very laid back, but not in a arrogant, lazy way.
We got lost on the way home. Again.
Tuesday 17th July
Our daytime task: to get some train tickets out of Beijing for Thursday.
Our handicap for this task : our total lack of preparedness.
We geared up for this mission with a lovely bit of lunch. Dumplings – gorgeous. Not really sure what would arrive, with a bit of pointing we indicated that we wanted “pork”, & what arrived were these fantastically juicy dumplings stuffed with pork or vegetable. Really damn fine.
It being a lovely sunny day, we decided to walk down to the World Trade Centre, where we’d read beforehand that it was quite convenient to buy tickets. It was an enjoyable walk into a new bit of town, with lots of colossal shiny buildings lining the street. We popped into a Friendship store along the way (a large, state-run department store, which sold everything you could possibly imagine – clothes, electrical goods, DVD’s, makeup, ornaments – the sizeable green jade boat costing £50,000. You don’t see that in M&S.)
We arrived at the World Trade Centre, and wandered about a little. There were a lot of offices, shops, and an underground shopping mall. Unfortunately we hadn’t really taken much notice from the book where we should actually get the tickets from. Failure one. The ink had run slightly on my Travellers Cheques due to the sweat soaking through my money belt, and for a while it looked like the Bank Of China employee was not going to change them. Happily he let it pass “this time”. Narrowly avoided failure two.
We got the Metro back towards the hotel – clean, nice, fast, efficient. The polar opposite of the London Tube.
That evening we headed back to Tian’anmen Square. The place really came alive at night. All the buildings around the Square were brightly lit, including the Forbidden City, with Chairman Mao’s portrait prominently-lit above the gate Tian’anmen itself to the north. But the people… crowds of people, families, friends, flying kites, sitting around, rollerblading. The kites were fantastic - big kites, small kites, dragons, fish, sharks, some daisy-chained to astonishing lengths, all lit-up by the mellow light from below.
We encountered our first instances of an unusual Chinese phenomenon that night. The Chinese are very into photography. Firstly, I was approached by a small gang of boys (maybe aged 12-15) in fashionable clothes, wanting their photo taken with me. It was quite bizarre, in an ego-boosting way (as long as they hadn’t mistaken me for Dan Ackroyd). Later on we were cornered by a family who wanted their sweet little daughter (dressed in traditional Chinese garb) photographed with Gill and me. Though we later saw them snapping her with a tree, so maybe we weren’t so special after all.
Talking of clothes, its quite interesting to see what everyone is wearing, at least here in Beijing. Everyone is very smart and trendy – fairly trendy haircuts, some dyed from the standard black, fashionable bright T-shirts/shirts, shorts, etc. The women are very well dressed (and very beautiful), wearing many Western styles, as well as the occasional traditional Chinese-influenced garment. Although, knowing next to nothing about fashion myself, I can’t really discuss their trends.
Wednesday 18th July
Early morning bus to the Great Wall at Badaling. After a longish journey along the busy highway we journeyed into the picturesque deeply hilly landscape to the north of Beijing. We eventually arrived at the Wall. Pretty magnificent. Due to convenience we had taken a tour that visited one of the nearest parts of the Wall to Beijing – we had considered walking the Wild Wall far away from the heaving crowds, but in the end, the ease of the bus-tour won out. So there were an awful lot of tourists near to the dropping-off point, but they pretty much filtered out further along the wall (mostly Foreigners and people hawking souvenirs to them seemed to make it further afield; I’d ward them off with a cry of “wo bu yao”, which may possibly mean that “I don’t want it”, but it seemed to work, whatever). The walk along the wall was much steeper than I had expected – climbing some of the steps was more akin to mountain climbing. There were superb views (though the weather was unfortunately a tad hazy in the distance). Masses of rolling hills, cleanly dissected by the Wall. It was Gill’s turn to be the target of the Chinese photographers this time – most amusing.
We only had a few hours scheduled at the Wall, and the direction we had set off along it became blocked after a while, so we didn’t have much time to really venture out. I was pretty much exhausted anyway, so maybe that was just as well. Those steps can really do the legs in….
The Chinese tour bus stopped off on the journey back at what we thought was just a jewellery and jade factory-shop, backing onto a small market. We sat it out for several hours, thinking it was slightly odd them giving us so much time just to do a bit of shopping and get a bite to eat. Did they think we’d break down & decide, sod it, I will buy that expensive jade statue after all? We explored further away from the factory just a little too late - we realised that a bit further out, and the focus of what we were meant to be here for, was the Ming Tombs. We took in a fleeting glimpse through the gates , and it did seem to have some interesting-looking pagodas enclosed in pleasant gardens. With only 5 minutes to go, though, we thought against shelling out the entrance-fee.
That evening’s meal was gorgeous. We asked (and pointed at the phrase to ask) for the suggested speciality of the region. They brought out a live fish, which we gave the thumbs up to, and they turned it into a delicious spicy hot noodle/fish/soup delicacy. Very nice indeed.
Thursday 19th July
A good start to the day. First of all, a fantastic lunch at Noodle King, the meal as recommended by the English-speaking waiter. Lovely.
Sadly, we didn’t give ourselves quite enough time to get back to the Hotel afterwards, to check out, to get a taxi to Xi Zhan station, & to board the train. Despite the best efforts of our driver, we got to our platform’s “departure lounge” just after the train would have left.
Gill was fantastic under the circumstances. I stayed with the luggage, whilst she spent the next few hours getting a refund and new tickets for a few days time (with the kind help of a young Chinese girl, who insisted on spending well over an hour of her time helping us Foreigners out; its apparently quite a feat getting a refund for a missed train). The people here, especially the young people, are very eager to chat, to practice their English, and to help if need be.
Anyway, with the newly-hatched master plan of staying in Beijing another 2 nights, we walked back to the Metro, and on to our original hotel, undaunted and with heads held high. Sort of. (Although, walking the several kilometres back weighed down by our heavy backpacks was maybe the punishment we deserved. A real relief to get back. And moving into the same room, it was as if we’d never left.)
Friday 20th July
Another day of things going slightly awry, whilst again remaining not too stressed – the holiday’s generally been so relaxing that it’s hard to get over-anxious.
Today we planned on going to the Summer Palace in the northwest of the city. Along the way to the Metro, we thought it might be a good idea to change my more manky Travellers Cheques once and for all, whilst we were in the capital. The big Bank of China in the centre had other ideas. It’s not that they weren’t trying to be helpful after they had told us that they couldn’t accept them – they gave us the phone number for American Express in order to get them changed or whatever. They just couldn’t do it themselves as they had got wet, although they were perfectly legible. I spoke to AmEx on the number given, but had trouble finding someone to speak to with good English (despite selecting the “English” option) – we all got our wires fairly crossed. (Fairly flustered. But I wasn’t going to let anxiety mess with my head).
So we headed back to the hotel. In short, my saviour Gill sorted it on the phone (after ringing the UK, and God knows who), we headed back to the World Trade Centre, where we’d arranged to meet my second saviour Coco from AmEx, who had agreed to come down to the Bank of bleeding China in person to ensure they changed out Cheques. Very sweet of her. And another victory for Gill – no more money worries.
Later on in the day, we headed to the Temple of Heaven to the south of us. We got there just as it was closing (not having really thought this day through). But we did have a fascinating time standing on a footbridge over a large set of crossroads, watching the endlessly-entertaining traffic – the bicycles flocking together, tentatively pushing up against the stream of cars, darting between single-minded buses and even less nimble trams.
We headed back to our Dumpling place for a lovely bit of comfort food, then back to the hotel. We had considered going out to some of the bars or clubs in the east of the city this evening, but I was feeling slightly low and tired of head, so we sat in the hotel’s courtyard to chat. A lovely place – traditional red lanterns round the perimeter, apple trees, mosquitoes. Very peaceful. Apart from the mosquitoes.
(As a footnote – we’ve experienced a diverse selection of music so far in our journeys along Beijing’s streets. Aqua sang in Chinese; too much Westlife; the BeeGees – aargh; Jason Donovan’s “Sealed With A Kiss” played on the classical guitar; the Vengabus is coming; generic Irish music; Heavy Metal toss. Even the dustcarts blast out poor electronic renditions of famous tunes.)
Saturday 21st July
I write on the Hard Sleeper train from Beijing to Xi’an. It’s been a good day.
We met some of our new neighbours this morning – a very nice couple from Luxembourg, who’d just this morning arrived in China. (This made up for the slight downer-combo of us oversleeping/it pouring with rain, and hence missing our planned second attempt to see the Temple Of Heaven. We sat in the courtyard and chatted with them and some French friends who we’d met previously at the hotel. Very nice. We introduced the newcomers to a bit of China in the best way we knew – we took them for Dumplings. A lovely meal.
We later got a taxi with the French family to the station. They are lovely people – very friendly. Gill shared jokes with their little girl in the back of the taxi – her fly-with-no-wings joke translated very well into French.
We got to Xi Zhan with plenty of time this time.
We are now on the sleeper. It’s very comfy and fast, and pleasantly communal and civilised. We caused a bit of a stir with the young people on our carriage, lots of them wanting to chat (some with very good English indeed. Better than mine, maybe!), telling us about their history (thanks to Jimmy Harrison) and culture and lives, as well as helping us with our Chinese language. Gill returned the favour and gave some impromptu English lessons from the phrasebook. It’s certainly been the most enjoyable train journey I’ve had. The service is a lot better than that in England as well, with more people seemingly employed on one train than on the whole of the Virgin rail network. People bring food & drink round, & there’s a reliable source of hot water for tea making.
Ah, that’s nice. Just had some chicken and rice, and am now sheltered on one of the top bunks of our berth (6 beds in a birth – top, middle & bottom) with a beer, listening to Europop over the tannoy.
Away from the city, I hadn’t realised till now how early, or how intensely it gets dark here out here. Looking out across the plains its truly pitch black. Occasionally we pull into a town or city (only once so far have we actually stopped). In these more remote towns and cities, there seems to be a lot of big expressionless concrete-block style architecture, and low-hanging sprawls of architectural buildings. A lot more obvious poverty as well. As with everywhere in the world, when it was lighter, people on the outside of the train would wave as we passed.
So far, my experience of China has been so unlike what I was expecting from what the guidebooks hinted at and what people have said. It’s been so much better. The bad aspects just haven’t been that bad. Admittedly we’ve only hit Beijing & travelled on this one train, but my reactions to the negative clichés told to travellers so far…
The weather in the summer is perfectly pleasant. It is very varied – hot but manageable or warm and damp (as per today).
People’s reactions to us – interested and intrigued, but mainly friendly and positive.
So far, everything has been very clean – everywhere seems to have become very focussed on recycling, and the level of smoking and spitting is much lower than expected, after hearing all the horror stories.
So far, I must say that I love the place to death!
Tuesday 24th July
I am writing from another hard-sleeper train, this time on route from Xi’an to Chengdu.
We had a very good time in Xi’an. Upon arriving at the station we were absorbed by the crowds of fellow rail travellers, but we were intercepted by some of the people from the hotel that we were planning on finding (Flats of Renmin Hotel) who bussed us through the town to our accommodation. The room was okay, but a tad dirty – we were still fairly green about checking out the rooms & bartering the prices down beforehand. Having arrived in the morning, we decided to make the most of it, & promptly joined the local tour from the hotel.
As the day progressed we got to know our fellow tourists quite well – a British couple (Graeme & Kate), an American couple, Omar from Pakistan, and a Canadian fellow.
The bus driver took us to a number of places, at times giving us a choice of locations. Omar spoke a little Chinese, but we knew enough to understand how long we had at each site.
The Terracotta Warriors were very impressive – there were so many of them, it was an amazing sight. The whole scale of their formation left me feeling as if I’d been shrunken down & was looking at a collection of children’s miniature figures. A very strange sensation. As expected there were an awful lot of tourists here (it felt strange seeing such a lot of Foreign tourists, as opposed to just Chinese tourists), and an awful lot of people selling souvenirs and food outside the grounds, but the site itself was large, and hence not crowded.
On our bus journey we also saw the entrance to the Tomb of Qin Shi Huang, but to the driver’s bemusement we refused to pay to enter the site (the guide books stating it was little more than a mound of earth).
Another stop was another tomb, full of miniature landscape models in a large darkened underground room. The scene was set at night, and full of twinkling lights. It felt very reminiscent of a scene from TV’s Monkey! Ah, straight back to my childhood…
And Banpo village… this was the excavated location of an early Neolithic village, and included museums and the like. Part of it had been rebuilt in the style you’d see in a tacky amusement park. It was almost as in we were stuck in the village from The Prisoner, and that they wouldn’t let us ever leave. We were in quite a daft mood by now, and found it all very amusing. Whilst we were there, at least, there was hardly anyone around, and certainly no one dressed as cavemen and cavewomen as promised by the photographs at the entrance, which was a big shame.
We had now bonded quite nicely with some of our fellow travellers, and we met a few more at the hotel, such as movie-set builder Chris from Australia. We had a functional meal in Mum’s Home Cooking (a backpacker place just down the road from the hotel), followed by plenty of drinks in Kane’s Café (located in the hotel courtyard). There we got to know the people working there, and learnt some more about the Chinese, their country and their language. We also drank far too much. This bottled Chinese beer certainly slipped down nicely… We talked well into the night.
All of the above was Sunday, however.
Monday we were a tad hung over. Gill and myself finally hauled ourselves out of bed, and wandered into the centre of Xi’an. It was another exceedingly hot day. For some reason, however, despite all of this sweltering sunny weather, we weren’t getting burnt. Useful.
The old city walls now bind the centre of the town, and are broken by relatively few gates. As a result the majority of the traffic gets concentrated just outside the walls, giving relative peace within. We headed south of the hotel, through one of the west gates of the walls, and further into downtown Xi’an. We stopped in the shade of Lianhu Park and chilled out for a while next to the lake. From there we proceeded into the Muslim quarter.
This area really was fascinating – winding alleyways, bustling with people, and cooking taking place at every turn. The atmosphere as full of colour as it was of cooking smells. By chance we happened upon the Great Mosque, an eye of tranquillity in the midst of the hectic pace of the surrounding city. It was a real peaceful place. The buildings were a fascinating mixture of Chinese and Arabic architecture. Tiny, fearless birds hopped from bush to statue to bush within the gardens of the courtyards. We sat out for a while, basking in the mood of religious reverence that such places instil.
The walk, however, had been long, and the sun was hot, so strolled back to the hotel to chat over a few more beers.
Which brings us to today, Tuesday. We had been planning on hiring some bicycles today, but the weather had turned rainy, so we felt it would be safer taking taxis instead. We visited the Shaanxi History museum – quite interesting – containing several thousand exhibits, then proceeded onto the 60m tall Big Goose Pagoda. The reward for climbing the 7 storeys was a limited view across the haze of the wet city, but sitting within the grounds at its foot, people-watching in the courtyards, was a lot more gratifying.
And then, from there, onto the station with our friends Graeme and Kate.
Wednesday 25th July
Further to yesterday’s entry, we finally got some sleep, although lights-out was the starting signal for the Chinese Olympic team’s Snoring Event training. Still, I slept fairly solidly, Gill less so.
It is now early morning, and we’re winding our way through a river gorge – muddy brown, occasionally turbulent waters at its base. Earlier on, the valley walls were shrouded in cloud; now it is fairly clear. The mountains are all stepped with terraces – each and every one seems cultivated to a degree.
The train passes intermittently passes through a diminutive village or hamlet. To our left, solitary farmers, often with lone cattle, stand on the dry mud-banks of the river basin, or beside the rail-track, or on the hillsides. In places the slopes are replaced by towering rock faces cut sharply into the mountainside. Rickety wooden-slatted bridges cross the valley in places.
The train frequently plunges into deep but brief tunnels, before emerging onto yet another awe-inspiring view.
In places the mountains on either side of our river are tremendously large, yet terraced all the way, and dotted here and there with hut or a small pagoda or a settlement.
We enter into yet another tunnel, this time fairly long.
I feel strangely inspired and at one with the scenery, somehow. I feel beautiful inside.
Here the yellow-brown river is as flat as glass, and the mountainside’s reflection continues down deep into the water.
And now, the quiet tranquillity is broken by a burst of wholly inappropriate music over the train’s speaker system…
Another tunnel, and we’re clear again.
It may be a fine sunny day, but very high above the ground a few clouds are suspended overhead, creating a dappled morning light.
We now pass some reasonably luxurious-looking houses, clinging to the slopes, in firm contrast to the ramshackle huts that also litter the landscape.
Small boats on the river. Fishermen.
As we emerge from yet another tunnel, the valley widens, and a large town spreads out to fill the space between the hillsides and the river. Into another tunnel, and it has gone – we are deeply back in the mountains.
Just across the river now, a small, single-tiered pagoda desperately clings to the rock face overlooking the river.
The instrumental music may be doing its best to spoil the atmosphere, but it is failing. This is all too magnificent. (Just as long as they don’t play any more instrumental versions of the popular wartime classic, “Hitler Has Only Got One Ball”, as happened yesterday, that is).
The train swings round and the sun emerges from behind a mass of rock and earth, cutting brightly through the slight haze.
Several hours later, the valley has now widened significantly, and the valley walls have risen likewise. The track is criss-crossing between the river and the valley’s right-hand wall, plunging through paddy fields and pools and lakes and buildings. The landscape seems extremely lush and fertile here.
And the train carries on….
Thursday 26th July
I write this on our second day in Chengdu (in Sichuan province).
Yesterday, our train arrived in town. We had tried to find out when it would arrive beforehand, but we had trouble communicating with the gentleman whom we approached, who seemed more fascinated with my hairy arms…
Debarking from the train, we got a taxi with Graeme & Kate to Sam’s Backpacker Hostel.
First impressions of Chengdu as we drove through the streets: big, but strangely quiet and laidback. Very mellow in fact. And then we noticed the thing that was missing – sound. Unlike everywhere else we had been, here the motorists didn’t seem to use their horns at all; in Beijing and Xi’an, they had used them to signal anything and everything to other vehicles, pedestrians and cyclists – a car passing a cyclist would honk so as to make them aware where they were. And, maybe because they no longer had access to this early-warning system for other road users, they seemed to drive relatively sensibly. Relative to the other Chinese, that is.
The city seemed very clean and tidy as well, with wide-open spaces, sparkling glassy skyscrapers, and no real litter problem. Indeed, the building sites were hidden behind high whitewashed barriers, written upon which propagandist slogans in Chinese and English would urge the populace to improve the city and its environment.
We arrived at the hostel – Sam owned several wings of a larger hotel, the Rongcheng. However, the only rooms he had available today were for 4 people with no bathroom (with communal showers and squats). After much deliberation we went for it – it was clean enough, spartan, but very cheap.
The four of us went out for a walk and a meal. Chengdu seemed very nice. We stopped off for a drink along the way, and found ourselves by accident in what might be classed as a European-theme bar. Despite out cravings for local Chinese beer, they sold only European beers, at European prices too. Still, it was a pleasant enough place to sit and chat.
We headed off for food, yearning for something cheap and genuinely Sichuan – the area is famous for its fantastic food. The first place we looked at had the definite air of a place where we’d end up spending a lot more than we wanted, so we moved on. The next restaurant we entered was chaos-incarnate. We wandered around the downstairs area of the courtyard – many, many people eating, but no free tables. We also weren’t sure how we’d go about ordering – whether we should sit down first, when possible, or queue for a ticket (but a ticket for what?) We made our way upstairs. Here it was much less hectic, and it looked like we’d be ordering from a menu as per normal. We sat down at a massive round table (the only table we could find), but were soon informed that we were too few for this table. They escorted us to another room, where there was plenty of room. Too much room! No people at all, no atmosphere. So we departed.
We finally decided to head to a canteen serving what looked like good Sichuan food (plenty of small dishes, packed with wonderfully exotic spicy tastes). It was quite busy and bright downstairs, and we approached some stairs to the second floor, and were whisked upstairs by the waiter. And into a very peculiar world. A dark restaurant – at least it wasn’t bright like downstairs. Very non-Chinese stuff adorning the walls. A big TV on the wall showing clips from movies such as Basic Instinct. As Gill pointed out, it was like something out of some clichéd old Hong Kong movie. We sat down, they lit our candles, laid our napkins on our laps… they were trying to hard to make it similar to a classy Western restaurant, although it seemed to be run by people who’d never seen a true Western restaurant before, but had just heard from Chinese Whispers what elements they should include. They’d put together all the constituent parts but in the wrong order. I can’t deny that they were very nice people. But they were very wrong. After inspecting the menu, one of our party asked if they had any Chinese food – the answer was “Why do you want to eat Chinese food?” So there was steaks, chips, ketchup, knives and forks. The waitress dutifully kept topping up our glasses with water; however, that meant that Kate’s Sprite was diluted several times!
We did get some proper food later for Graeme, who couldn’t bring himself to gorge on Western food, being a culinary connoisseur, and I shared some good local beers with the couple in the Rongcheng bar whilst Gill planned our next movements back at the room.
Today, Thursday, we moved into some very nice new hotel rooms in the guesthouse. The rooms were very clean & sophisticated, but also quite traditional (or “quaint”) in style. Our new wing was attached to a lovely traditional Chinese back garden - full of plants, fountains and the odd peacock – where one could sit out and relax on the sheltered patio.
Also today, the four of us travelled around some of Chengdu’s tourist sites.
First of all was Renmin Gongyuan, the People’s Park – containing a boating lake, some nice gardens, and a large crowded teahouse. We tucked into a decent lunch of noodles and dumplings (less than £2 for 4 people’s meal!). And then tracked down what we had been mostly looking forward to…
An amazingly bizarre underground railway ride. It was a very rickety train in an old air-raid shelter, which took us through outlandish artificial landscapes – space, dinosaurs, the Wild West, for example – filled with some inexpensive, fairly shoddy models and dummies. The train rattled along the short distance of track before coming to a halt and returning the other way, at which point all six of us passengers changed seats to look the other way. Fantastic!
Other visits today – Qingyang Gong – a magnificent Taoist temple. A marvellous atmosphere – the smell from the many incense sticks and burning pots hanging in the air, lots of separate buildings and prayer halls, a large number of Buddhas, statues, the sun high in the sky, serenity. Once again, the architecture was fantastic, and working your way through the complex, just when you thought you’d seen it all, another building would present itself.
Next on the agenda was another set of gardens whose centrepiece was an underground tomb – Wang Jian Mu; this wasn’t too stunning, but the gardens were nice, and it was good to get out of the sun, albeit briefly.
After a quick drink in a bar, we carried on.
We got a taxi ride to Wenshu Si (Hollow Wood Temple). Again, extremely beautiful architecture. When we arrived there were many monks running around the buildings, getting prepared for their dinner. The place was very peaceful; like a snapshot out of history. Again the air was filled with incense fuming out of the many burners dotted around. There were multiple courtyards and halls, traditionally carved sweeping rooftops, and dark cool rooms housing huge, imposing Buddhas. Each courtyard seemed to lead onto yet another, the open corridors to the side leading off to the monks’ living spaces. Away from the main buildings we happened across a peaceful garden, filled with exotic trees and plants, and twisted, volcanic rock outcrops. A large pool in the centre of the gardens was teeming with terrapins, and around it, people resting in the shade of the trees, taking refuge from the searing sun.
This evening’s meal – Mongolian Hotpot. There were two sides to the bowl into which we tipped our chosen ingredients, and a gas burner blasting away beneath the table. One half of the pot’s juice was fairly hot, the other extremely hot (“half and half”). It was very good indeed. But very very hot!
Friday 27th July
A very wet day – torrential - but Gill and I got a taxi out of town to the Giant Panda Breeding Research Base. The taxi-ride was fairly hairy in places, what with the rapidly forming road lakes, it not being helped by our insane driver – one near-crash had him (and us) laughing like a madman. Though he did buy Gill a small nicely scented flower at some traffic lights, possibly to make up for it.
The panda conservation area was very interesting. There were lots of wide, open spaces for the animals to explore, and it seemed very natural, very lush. Despite being great lovers of sleep, the pandas were an amazing sight. You could really sense their power and strength, with their vicious-looking claws and teeth. But at this moment in time they looked so peaceful, clinging to a tree, or sprawled across a log, yawning now and then. Further round the park we happened upon another panda, mid-breakfast. He’d knocked together a makeshift bed of bamboo, which he was eating off his stomach with gusto. We also saw a couple of baby pandas, only 15 days old, tiny hairless pink little creatures, cradled within a life-support unit.
They were all such beautiful and powerful animals, it’s such a tragedy that they are on course for extinction. Even if their habit can be preserved and if their problems with breeding could be solved, their gene pool is now so diminished that the lack of genetic variety could well spell their species’ end.
As well as the Giant Pandas, the Base had conservation areas set aside for the Arboreal Red Pandas – cute little inquisitive fellows. A lot more active, and a lot greater in number than the Giant Pandas. Great fun.
The day was completed with Karaoke in the hotel, where we were joined by Kate and Graeme. Very entertaining it was too. We had a few problems at first choosing songs – very few had titles written in English, despite being Western songs. So we chose what we could, the four of us singing together from our table. “Careless Whisper” – murdered. “My Heart Will Carry On” – slaughtered. “Take My Breath Away” – massacred. “Delilah” – carnage. “She Drives Me Crazy” – transformed (it not being the song we were expecting). Thankfully the place was near empty! A good night then.
Saturday 28th July
Today myself and Gill travelled to the North Bus Station (as recommended by the Lonely Planet) to start our journey towards Emei Shan, one of the 4 holy mountains. We were leaving most of our kit at Sam’s, and would collect it upon our return. Unfortunately, no one in the station spoke a word of English, people we approached could not use pinyin, and our use of Chinese from the phrasebook was failing us somewhat, probably due to frustration. Someone somehow imparted the information that there were no more buses from this station to Emei Shan until eight o’clock the next morning. Bugger.
We jumped in a taxi, and headed to the Xinanmen Bus Station in the south of the city, where we had much more luck. A very helpful girl sorted us out & packed us onto the correct bus to Baoguo.
The journey southwest was fast and comfortable, and the time passed quickly with an amusingly poor film being shown on the bus VCD.
The weather was noticeably cooler at the other end, the bus having slowly but steadily gained altitude. We were met off the bus by a mad old lady in a taxi, who drove us to her place of lodging in Baoguo town, and after a small bit of haggling (always amusing when you don’t speak each other’s language), we chose to stay.
We had a nice spot of dinner out in town, and a quick walk along the “strip”, which was illuminated by fairy lights in the trees and along the roads edge. Not quite Vegas, mind. Then back to the room to watch some Mathew Broderick/Meg Ryan film with the sound switched off – an unexpectedly entertaining experience.
Sunday 29th July
After a spot of breakfast, we got another bus to Jinshui to begin our climb. The day was quite grey with a fine drizzle hanging in the air. From the bus one could see some quite beautiful scenery – the route followed the path of a swollen, turbulent river, and waterfalls cascaded down on either side (even onto the road in places), it having rained in the night.
We got to the base of the climb, bought our tickets, and set off.
Over the course of the day we climbed over 2000 metres on foot (the peak of Emei Shan being 3099m high). The pathway was paved, and there were steps pretty much all of the way, which proved hard going, but well worthwhile. What scenery we could see when the mists cleared was quite wonderful. It was fabulous being so close to the forests and mountain vegetation and the wildlife, even if the route was fairly well trodden (there being paving and an occasional handrail maybe took something away from it, but having said that, we would never have been able to make such good progress otherwise). The drizzle was a godsend, the fine cooling spray allowing us to keep on going without extreme exhaustion.
Some points of interest along the route:
· The lower slopes – the animal sounds were very intense, with exotic birdcalls filling the space in the air between the sound of the insects. As we climbed higher, these petered out, and all was silent, save now and then for the cry of the odd isolated bird.
· The trees and vegetation were lush all the way along the route, though it was very evident that different areas and heights supported different varieties of plant life, including much pine and bamboo. Some areas the trees were thick and tall, elsewhere low and drooping.
· Wild monkeys – we came across a number of these over the course of the journey. Some remained in the trees, others were sitting confidently on the pathway. Particularly appealing was a mother monkey sitting there with her babies playfully dashing around.
We stopped at a small open restaurant early afternoon for noodles and meats. Very good food. There were a fair few monkeys hanging around this place, scampering up the walls, and jumping the gaps between buildings. Gill even encountered one in the toilet. Poor monkey.
· Aside from the monkeys, we didn’t actually see too much wildlife. However, there were absolutely thousands of butterflies. This was something that we saw in other countryside areas of China too – the air was often thick with butterflies. Lovely. Despite this preponderance of butterflies, the purple and white flowers growing on the mountainside were unusually few and far between, although the temple areas were often bordered by large rhododendron bushes.
· As we climbed higher, the further into the thick of the clouds we pierced. On a clear day, the views would have been stunning. At times the landscape dropped away dramatically to either side, and we’d be looking straight down into the bright whiteness of cloud. Even without being able to see for miles, this otherworldly feeling was both moving and beautiful.
· Along the climb there were a number of active temples. Indeed, as this is a holy mountain, many Chinese would come here to worship, many of whom would be portered up and down the steps by men with stretchers.
The temples were all very beautiful and peaceful, and perfect for resting in after a hard stretch of climbing. Though after sitting down, sheltering from the rain, incense burning nearby, chants echoing through the corridors and courtyards, it could be quite a strain getting moving back on your feet again.
After an entire day of climbing, we finally arrived at the Golden Summit Monastery near the top of the mountain, cold, wet, tired, but happy. By now visibility was very poor, as the sun must have been setting somewhere beyond the swirls of cloud. We had asked at places (such as shops and other temples) where the monastery (or “Si”) was towards the end of the route, and the answer always seemed to indicate higher and further. We finally asked some builders, who it turned out were taking their unfeasibly large planes of wood to where we wanted to go. And it was a great relief to see the monastery loom up out of the cloud.
We made our way in, and Gill tried her best to haggle the room price (currently at about £2 or £3 each) down. The monk seemed to very much enjoy our attempts and dropped the price precisely zero. We agreed, pleased with our bargaining, and booked into a very nice large room containing 5 big beds, just for us. The place had an electric atmosphere – noisy and alive, and somehow timeless. We were on the second floor (the first floor in the UK), and the floors of the place were very uneven. It was very solid and dry, but it was ramshackle enough to add real charm.
After a quick nose around outside (although as it had got dark on the top of a high mountain swathed in cloud, it was hard to really see much), we returned to the monastery for an evening of chocolate Oreo biscuits, tea, and television. The rain was really pouring down by now, and it was quite cold at our height, so we snuggled up together for a night of intermittent, but atmospheric, sleep.
Monday 30th July
We were woken in the morning by the endless drone of calming chanting echoing throughout the building. A perfect alarm call. We got our belongings together, and headed back out into the open. Our clothes (including our change of clothes) were still completely wet through from the day before, the land was still cloud-drenched, and it was pouring with rain, so when we got down as far as Jieyin, a small inhabited area where we could get a bus back to Baoguo, we went ahead and did it, so as to push on with our journey across China.
From Baoguo we headed on to the warmth of Chengdu, and booked into a nice, clean, recently renovated modern room in Sam’s Guesthouse, at the same time as booking our Yangzi River cruise for the next evening.
That evening we had a good Hotpot followed by a walk around the centre of town. It felt very strange, not having to negotiate endless steps in order to proceed, but it felt good.
Tuesday 31st July
Bus to Chongqing – a pretty luxurious coach in fact, and a decent, fast freeway. We enjoyed 2 top films along the way – “Enemy of the State” with Will Smith (a story confusing enough in English at times, let alone in Chinese), and a Hong Kong action-comedy James Bond spoof, “From Beijing With Love” – superb!
We only had a couple of hours to spend in Chongqing. After arranging accommodation in and train tickets from Wuhan (as our cruise will arrive quite late at night in 3 days time) we had a small scout around.
The city was bustling with people, and seemed, at least in the small area which we wandered, somewhat more removed from the West than the cities we had previously visited.
We headed up the steps of a steep hillside street and further into town. We stopped for a while beside the city’s sports stadium where a large number of young people were playing football in the training grounds. We also got chatting with an elderly gentleman from Thailand (I think), who had learnt English many years ago, before moving to China. He was very eager to talk about his life, and ours, and showed us some of the shops owned by friends and family. He insisted upon buying us cakes, but then we had to leave, in order to make the ferry’s departure time.
We booked onto out boat, and eventually it set off. Looking out at Chongqing across the water, it took on a new light – it reminded me of the skyscrapers of New York, as seen across Madison Bay, as the sun was setting behind it.
The boat continued into the night.
Our room is a very nice double, allowing some much appreciated privacy (something which we would not have had, without forking out for a first class cabin). We’ve even got our own bathroom and shower!
After a spot of dinner, we headed up onto the top deck, and chatted with a couple of German girls who were studying Chinese in the country, and Australian Mark, who was travelling the world.
We also endured the bureaucracy of the guys dealing with passengers’ security – they were incredibly thorough, counting up how much money we had in each currency, before sealing the package with Gill’s fingerprint for safety!
But most enjoyable for me, was just sitting out on top, the wind in my face, the moon and stars shining brightly above, watching the twinkling lights on the bank of the Yangzi drift by.
Wednesday 1st August
I had a wonderful nights sleep last night, being gently soothed by the movements of the boat.
After some tea we headed back up top. It is a very hot and sunny day.
The river has been incredibly brown all the way – it’s like its made of molten chocolate. It’s also very wide at the moment, despite it being fairly fast moving (the buoys which light the way at night are positioned on little stationary boats which seem to cut deeply through the strong current). Aside from the sounds coming from the boat, pretty much most of the time the only sound is the very distant hiss of crickets – massive in breadth of noise, but low in volume out here.
The valley walls at this early point in the journey are very green – mostly clearly terraced, with some wooded areas. As we head further through to the Three Gorges things should get more barren.
Again, there are numerous buildings scattered on the hillsides – the Chinese certainly are populous. Other areas are more notably sparsely habituated. Very occasionally we encounter a town, often made up of grim, concrete blocks of buildings. Others are more pristine. The difference between wealth and poverty is written on those walls.
We have now just passed under a very impressive bridge – very similar in style to the Golden Gate Bridge. Bridges across the Yangzi are quite rare, but when they are built, they can be built with style.
As the cruise continues the walls of the valley get steadily steeper, yet they still remain terraced. At times the river widens out, bolstered by tributaries, the hillsides stretching up high on either side. The occasional fisherman toils on the bank, although it’s hard to imagine life thriving in such brown waters.
All said and done, the scenery is very beautiful.
Further along the river, we have now left the rural hillsides behind, and are heading into a built-up industrial area. Cargo vessels struggle against the current, and decrepit-looking factories cling to the edge of cliffs. Everything looks scorched and sun-baked. And, higher up on the hillsides of this place, dozens of new, modern blocks of buildings are springing up.
Cranes at the waters edge tend to the cargo vessels, their loads being shunted on tracks up the steep slopes using hoists. Again, further from the water’s edge, a lot of building development going on. The foreground : drab, grey, hotchpotch of buildings. Midground : the new city, mid-development, modern, clean, shiny. Background : barren mountainsides, unchanging. And now the boat turns around, and a whole new side to the city is revealed – lightly developed, low-rise buildings, separated by large expanses of greenery.
Later in the day, the boat stops to allow the passengers to visit a nearby temple, and to grab a few items of food and drink. We bought some cooked sweet corn and potatoes. The sun was setting in the west – it had just sunk below the level of the mountains lining the valley. The sky was a beautiful reddish-purple colour, mainly clear, with a few sun-splashed wisps of cloud dotted around – an amazing scene. This splash of fading colour hanging over the river to the west was in sharp contrast to the muted grey-brown building blocks of the city across the river to the north, and the striped arable hillsides to the east. And behind us, a small village nestled at the base of the hillside, with an ancient temple, a small waterfall sweeping down, elderly buildings, people jostling amongst one another, and then the sound of firecrackers being released.
Thursday 2nd August
I couldn’t sleep last night. I listened to music, and gazed out of the window. As usual for late at night, the boat was moored, and I watched the lights of smaller boats occasionally pass. There were distant electrical storms raging beyond the mountains, soundless from where we were tethered, the only evidence being the sporadic flickering across the skies.
Morning came, and we pushed our way to the front of the boat to witness our entry into the first of the Three Gorges proper.
Simply stunning. Walls of rock quite close by on either side. Swirling whirlpools and torrents whipping at the water’s surface. Very wild and barren.
The gorge opened out further downstream, and towering mountains swept up from the waters into the sky. The sun slowly emerged, surrounded by a purple halo, from behind one of the peaks. Countless shifting reflections of the deeply orange disc were scattered across the tumultuous rapids of the grey-brown water – thousands of fragments of the sun, breaking and coalescing in the swirling waters. Beautiful.
As the sun rose higher and higher, it washed the mountainsides flanking the river with colour…
The cruiser stopped further downstream, and pretty much everyone departed, so as to embark on the smaller boats that would take us on a tour of the Lesser Three Gorges (Xiao Sanxia). It was maybe 25-30 people per boat, each of which was very low in the brown waters – you could dangle your hand through the large windows into the river – and the roof of the boat slid back, giving a clear view above.
Before the tour really got going, myself and Gill were very tired, and kept drifting into sleep. The scenery soon got very impressive, however, and tiredness faded.
The river Daning, a tributary of the Yangzi, cut through sheer vertical cliffs of rock on either side, scaling thousands of feet into the deep blue sky. Trees and shrubs clung to the cliffs in places; where waterfalls cascaded the plants were much more adventurous, their roots intermingling as one with the falls. Up above the towering walls of rock, the distant shell of treetops. Where the gradient of the walls was less steep, plant life had gained a further foothold, the vegetation being lush, and the bird life plentiful. There was so much variety, so much colour, so much beauty, it’s all too much to describe here. It was heaven.
There were several stops along the route, traders selling food and souvenirs. The first stop was a trip over a hill, the pathway being lined with stalls selling everything from noodles to jade to fossils to statues. On the other side of the hill, we rejoined the river, and reboarded our boat. Further down the river, another stop on another stony beach. There were masses of stalls here, mainly selling food. For a small fee, we paid for the privilege of leaving the crowds and heading off along the sides of the gorge, along a suspended pathway set into the rock, and over a very rickety bridge over the river. Again, the scenery was quite incredible – so green, so steep, the river so richly brown. Just beyond the bridge, a branch of the tributary was full of tour boats, each empty except for their pilots enjoying their siesta.
The sun blazing down, we returned to the beach, where we shared chow mein with our German friends. And then it was back to the tour-boat. A couple of Chinese students translated some of the descriptions of what we were seeing (the Chinese tour guide speaking just a tad too fast to keep up with from our phrasebook!). They pointed out the holes in the rock, high up on some of the cliffs, where the richer citizens of past-China had been buried. And the rectangular holes all along the gorge’s walls, indicating where a path used to be suspended, before it was deemed too unsafe.
After a complete day on the smaller boat it was time to return to our main cruiser. The main Three Gorges had been impressive, but the confined, towering beauty of the Lesser Three Gorges was truly magnificent.
Friday 3rd August
The final day on board our boat. The scenery today, after emerging from the majesty of the Gorges and passing the dam construction site, has been nothing really special. The river has widened out to a major extent – in some places one can’t see the far riverbank. It’s like being on a chocolate-brown English Channel, however with baking hot weather. We’ve done a fair amount of sunbathing up on deck, but when the heat gets too much, we’re grateful we have a nice cabin to hide away in.
One final stop included a visit to a slightly bizarre site, including a pagoda, a temple and waxworks. It was very good to stretch our legs properly at this stage, and to escape from Mark, who was getting sporadically irritating.
We eventually arrived in Wuhan late in the evening. Upon disembarking, we luckily found a man with Gill’s name written on a large board, and promptly lost him again in the crowds. We followed a group of what we thought would probably be our group. We eventually arrived at a bus (not being totally sure if it was out bus), got on it, and it took us to a hotel (again, not being totally sure if it was our hotel – the name was spelt differently, in both Chinese and pinyin.) But we finally got to a room, and collapsed, hoping that the train ticket we had pre-booked would be waiting in reception for us…
Saturday 4th August
Morning. We received a few incomprehensible phone-calls to our room, and Gill headed down to the reception with the phrasebook whilst I had my shave. Wrapped in my towel with a face full of foam, I received a visit from the incomprehensible man, who obviously had news, but no way of communicating it. His eyes lit up when I said “piao”, meaning ticket, but that didn’t really help us out of the confusion. I threw my clothes on, & headed down to find Gill and the phrasebook. We finally discovered that the train tickets had not been booked, and we renegotiated. Fingers crossed.
We then headed into the centre of the Hankou district to change some more money, and to find somewhere for lunch. The Bank of China building was a mighty, Victorian-style building, with columns, chandeliers and a high panelled ceiling. Most unlike regular Chinese architecture. Very cool and majestic. We then found ourselves a fantastic Hotpot for lunch – it was just the right spiciness, and as we could choose our individual ingredients from the layout on the tables, we got a perfect mix of different elements. Very tasty.
We caught a taxi to the Hubei Provincial Museum on the other side of the river. A very impressive museum, with much background information on the exhibits, and plenty of facts about the ancient burial sites and rites that have been unearthed.
After the museum we headed off for a pleasant walk around part of the massive East Lake (Dong Hu); it was very peaceful, although the smell of the decomposing dead fish drifting in the lake was at times a little off-putting. Across the lake we could see where they harvest the oysters for their pearls – telltale wooden beams crisscrossed the waters. The section of the bank we walked around was wooded, a good thing considering the intensity of the sun. On the far shore we could see several pagodas amongst the distant hills, much too far to walk on this day.
Nearby was Chairman Mao’s old villa (and swimming pool), which we toured around with the help of an English-speaking lad whose aunt worked there (her husband having apparently worked under Mao). Quite a spacious but spartanly decorated building, but interesting to see.
After talking with another of the guides, and experiencing a peculiar-tasting bean curd icelolly (free of charge, it still cost too much), we were given a buggy ride through the grounds to the shop on the other side of the park, where we were shown how they gather the pearls from within the oysters.
A walk back through town took us through some of the rougher, more atmospheric smaller roads, until our feet finally conceded defeat and we caught a taxi back to the hotel.
Evening – we went to the MeiMei bar and disco. A wonderful night out. We warily headed into the building, and carried on into a dark, fluorescence-filled room, with fairly modern dance music thumping away, a bar, and waitresses hanging around expectantly. It was early evening, so as yet not many people were around, and we (attempted to) ask for a couple of local beers. We were then shepherded into a very different adjoining room. This room was brightly lit, with a stage as its centrepiece, a microphone, and a stage proclaiming it would be the “Best Show”. We were led to seats at the front of the stage, and ordered a couple of bottles of Carlsberg (being unable to order anything else from the lady in the Carlsberg T-shirt.) We saw the microphone on the stage. Uh oh, we thought, Karaoke, and we’re right at the front of the stage, the only Foreigners in the place, and will be expected to sing. Thankfully, it turned out to be a night of professional singers and dancers and stand-up comedy (some at our expense, by the looks of it, but we just laughed along, trying to look knowing!) The dancers were very sexy, the singing very powerful, and the compare’s looks and style were identical to that of a Chinese Ricky Jervais! Quite entertaining.
After a while we moved back into the nightclub room, where the music was more our thing. A couple of friendly Chinese students introduced themselves, and we hung out with them for the rest of the evening, sharing jugs of beer and bowls of popcorn. It was quite a brilliant feeling just letting yourself go on a bustling dance floor full of young, hip Chinese kids, and being made to feel somewhat special. I got a real John Travolta complex! It was incredibly hot and sweaty out there, but it felt good bouncing around with the rest of them.
So, after all, it was a superb evening. We were fairly drunk by the end, but our taxi driver delivered us right to our door, and we hit our beds sometime just after 2 a.m.
Sunday 5th August
Hung over. Very nice lunch at the hotel – a decent selection of meats, prawns, vegetables and dumplings.
We caught our Sleeper train from the station just before 3 p.m., the journey lasting about 14 hours. Time rushed by. It was a very nice soft sleeper compartment, 4 beds to a self-contained berth. Very upmarket.
We arrived in Guilin in the southern Guangxi province at around 5 a.m., and were pretty much bundled straight onto a sleeper-bus for the 90-minute journey to Yangshuo.
Monday 6th August
Yangshuo is a revelation. The surrounding scenery is the most beautiful I have ever seen in the world. The town itself is very Foreigner-friendly, very accessible, but without taking too much away from its charm. It seems very strange now seeing so many non-Chinese around, and to speak to the staff in restaurants in Chinese, only to find them speaking fluent English back to you. Still, this all just makes it different from the towns we have visited before.
We found ourselves a very nice hotel, the Hotel Explorer, right in the heart of the pedestrianised tourist-centre. The room is very clean and comfortable, and we have a good view from our balcony.
Anyway, I shall fill in these entries at a later date.
Friday 10th August
I am writing this from Guilin airport.
The week in Yangshuo was awesome. We did a lot of cycling through the gorgeous surrounding countryside. The traffic on the main roads was fairly light (and once again it was very aware of us cyclists), and we managed to find a number of tiny pathways and dirt tracks to ride down, which took us through some tiny villages, past farms, and small settlements. The weather was absolutely lovely, and the breeze generated by cycling made it cool enough to stay out in the sun for fairly long periods.
The first day we rode for some way through the valleys away from the roads. There were many hardworking people tilling in the fields, tending to the crops in the waterlogged paddy fields, picking and transporting their loads of vegetables, or watching over their cattle. The cows were, to the very last bovine, bathing in the streams, trying to keep as much of their anatomy submerged as possible. As elsewhere, the skies were filled with beautiful butterflies and dragonflies.
Some of the areas we rode to felt quite remote, and some of the tracks tapered off to nothing as they reached their destination, at which point we would turn back in order to try another path.
As well as enjoying the splendour of the lush agricultural land, it was quite absorbing studying the peasant culture that we had infiltrated. And the landscape… I felt a real sense of awe being amongst the massive mounds and banks of tree-covered, rock-strewn hills and peaks (known as karsts), reaching into the sky all around for as far as the eye could see. All of this, plus the exhilaration of cycling through the heat, culminated in a fantastically exiting week.
(And the feeling of collapsing on the comfortable bed, being blasted by the ice-cold air conditioning of our hotel room at the end of the day was even more appreciated than ever).
Tuesday we cycled out to Moon Hill. Another wonderful hot day (we had to constantly top up our liquid supplies), and there was heaps more magnificent scenery – definitely the most impressive I have seen anywhere, in all my travels. Moon Hill is so called as there is a large crescent-shaped natural archway cutting through the rock near its summit. Compared to Emei Shan the duration of the ascent was nothing, but in this heat, with legs now accustomed to cycling rather than climbing, it seemed, to me at least, much harder going. The lower stretches were largely sheltered from the sun by the trees, but higher up, where there was no cover, we were totally bathed in sweat. We eventually passed through the crescent, and hauled ourselves up the final section to the top (my tired self lagging some way behind Gill at this stage). It was well worth it. After quite some time spent catching my breath, grasped away from me in the heat, I found the reserves to look around.
Our hill was surrounded by dense clusters of tall peaks, deep green in colour, sprouting up for as far as the eye could see. The Li River meandered through this terrain, the valley floor being further crisscrossed with a lattice of irrigation channels and streams, and textured by the flat, waterlogged squares of the paddy fields. It was very quiet on top of the hill, some hikers perhaps having not made the final steep part of the climb, with no shelter from the sun hanging in the brilliant blue sky. It was so peaceful, with just the sound of a few birds breaking over the constant drone of the crickets hanging in the air.
After a while, we descended to the base of the hill for some much needed lunch (noodles, plus various meats and vegetables), and a well-deserved sit in the shade.
Riding back to the hotel, the back-wheel on Gill’s bike was punctured. We didn’t have much money with us, and the sun was really searing into us at this stage, and we were slightly concerned how long we would take to get back, without much liquid.
We eventually passed a shop where a girl, seeing our predicament, called us over using the universal we-repair-bicycles hand-signals. We put together the Mandarin for something along the lines of “I’m very sorry, we don’t have much money, will this do?”, and after much clattering, we were back on the road.
Over the ensuing two days we ventured further afield on our bikes. We explored more postcard-perfect small dirt pathways into villages and farms, initiating endless choruses of “Hello” from the youngsters playing outside. We stopped in some idyllic places to rest out tired legs. One pleasant spot, just off the road, was beside a small pond bursting with white ducks a tiny brick bridge crossing the corner to our left, a farmer’s wide-brimmed hat occasionally popping into view above the trees to the right. Classical music, originating from some unseen radio, bounced around the wooded hillsides. There was what looked like a small religious shrine just over the road to our left, past which, now and again, a bicycle or pedicab would trundle, the passengers calling out a welcome to the strange, hot Foreign people sitting in the midday sun by the pond.
Another memorable break was a “pop-stop” to refill on liquids (our bodies being absolutely bathed in sweat from the strenuous summer exercise). We were in an out-of-the-way settlement, and conspicuous shops as we knew them were not apparent. Then we passed a building with an open door, through which a fridge was evident. We asked in Chinese for two bottles of water, but all they had was a very cheap, brightly coloured liquid. This stuff was not usually too palatable, but when you are parched and lacking much blood glucose (despite our large breakfasts of eggs and ham and fruit salad and toast and jam), this strange green or orange liquid was absolutely nectar! The thoughtful old lady in the shop offered us small stools, and bowls to drink out of, and a few sweet treats from her jars. We looked around the place. Her husband was dozing in the corner of the room, and a touching portrait of the couple hung on the wall, amidst various religious images, and some pictures of flash red cars parked outside expensive villas – a real contrast of imagery.
On the Wednesday, we took a siesta off our pathway, and settled down by a stream. There were four bemused-looking cows just metres away, almost fully submerged, tethered to a tree. A large top-heavy tree arced overhead, providing shade, creaking in the breeze as we relaxed. (A top tip for having a siesta, by the way. Don’t use a silver emergency blanket as a groundsheet. It will soon turn into a paddling pool of sweat!)
Thursday’s travels included a long ride along a highway, most of which was one roadwork after another. Our first attempt to break free of this road was relatively short-lived – we made a certain amount of headway into a lovely picturesque collection of dwellings, ponds, waterlogged paddy fields and small waterfalls, much to the delight of the local children, before coming to a dead-end. Later on, we managed to break further off the beaten track, getting off the pathways completely, and across some grassy plains. Again it was very hot, and we found a little shade under some trees on the hillside overlooking the valley blow, where distant farmers tended to their vegetable plots, and we took a siesta for a few hours.
Once again, our journey home was enlivened by incident, this time with the pedal falling off my bike. After asking around several places, we sought out a man with a soldering iron, and we were soon home.
It really was a magical few days that we spent in Yangshuo and its environs. The town itself nestled up to the Li River, and in the evenings, the Chinese flocked there to bathe. The presence of so many tourists within the town didn’t seem to have eradicated the traditional parts of normal life for the people there – we still passed through markets selling anything and everything edible or otherwise. But in the pedestrian-only areas around West Street, those missing their Western tastes could visit French restaurants, pizzerias, bars showing films, whatever. Still, these were all built seamlessly into the fabric of the small town, rather than spoiling its beauty.
It was a real mix of contrasts – from the restaurants and shops being staffed by people eager to improve their English (often asking for advice on new words), to the most amazing scenery, to the genuine long-established rural way of life in the countryside.
With much sadness, we got a taxi on our final day to the airport, and took a flight back to Beijing, before booking ourselves back into the Haoyuan Binguan.
Saturday 11th August
(I am now writing this diary retrospectively having returned to Europe)
The flight back had been very comfortable, and the airports very modern. It was fairly strange being back in the relative familiarity of Beijing – it almost felt like returning home now.
Saturday we jumped on the metro to Xizhimen, followed by a taxi ride to the Summer Palace, where we entered through the east gate. The grounds of the palace were massive. Within the northern end, Wanshou Shan (Longevity Hill) - a large tree-shaded hill. A vast lake (Kunming Hu) makes up two thirds of the area of the park, crowded with visitors on rowing boats, pedalos, motorboats, tour boats and ferries. And stretching up from the water’s edge, and climbing up the hillside, the magnificent palaces themselves.
We looked around the more ruined buildings at the periphery of the park, explored the hill, then circled around the lake’s edge. From the lakeside, the vista of the hills and the pavilions beyond the water was very serene. We carried on round back to the north bank, and explored the brightly-painted palace buildings near the water’s edge, before climbing up the hill through the main palace, where the view across the city was expansive, and on to an exclusive (read “expensive”) tea house.
That evening we visited Sanlitun Lu in the east – a street full of trendy bars. We chatted for a while in one bar (bizarrely named “Windows 98”), before exhaustion got the better of us, and we returned to the hotel.
Sunday 12th August
Two temples and an opera.
I was not feeling so good today – slightly tired, under-the-weather, and pretty down about us leaving China the following day, and especially after having seen so much culture over the course of the month, maybe didn’t appreciate today’s temples as much as I should. Still, I can’t deny that they were impressive. The various imposing buildings making up the Temple of Heaven at Tiantan were spread out across a large, peaceful park, and were well worth the journey.
Afterwards we caught the metro to Yonghe Gong – the largest Tibetan Lama temple in China. By now I was extremely templed-out. There were a great deal of tourists here, which disturbed the peace somewhat. Nonetheless, it was a very colourful complex, and we saw the World’s Largest Buddha, as confirmed on the plaque by Norris McWhirter!
Our final meal in Beijing was at the Dumpling house on Dongdan Bei Dajie, were we had eaten several times before, and by now I was feeling a new lease of life. This was just as well, as this time we were sitting downstairs where there were no English menus or English speakers, and we had to think on our feet. Luckily our Chinese was sufficiently proficient to get exactly what we wanted. Juicy dumplings filled with pork, veg and egg, delicious sauces to dip them in, beers, tea.
Talk of dumplings has reminded me of one of the previous day’s good food experiences. We had travelled across town on an exploratory mission. By now we were no longer getting lost in Beijing, so we headed into virgin territory, and saw some remarkable sights. We explored some incredibly jam-packed hutongs – thousands of people swarming amongst stalls and food vendors, a solid mass of Chinese bodies, pre, post or mid-digestion. Street traders would be selling unfamiliar creatures with legs (the bodies skewered on sticks), pots of rice, noodles, countless meats and vegetables, insects, whatever. So many people, so much eating! A truly vibrant amorphous mass of people. And amongst the homogeneic throng, the odd face-painted, brightly costumed individual, part of a gang of street opera performers, milling about the streets.
We finally extricated ourselves from the crowds, emerging back in the less densely populated main streets, and wandered down to Tian’anmen Square to enjoy the display of people and their kites. A young student from Xi’an (who was studying in Beijing) introduced himself to us, and we chatted about our lives and his. Gill and I started gibbering on about how much we loved dumplings at one point (our stomachs talking), and it turned out that our new friend was staying near to a very cheap little place which apparently served the most delicious dumplings. We were led to the place through the labyrinth of tiny narrow hutongs to the south of Tian’anmen – Old Beijing rather than New Beijing. And it did seem to have been largely untouched by the waters of change that were sweeping through modern Beijing. Very dark, bustling, confusing alleyways, very foreign to us but not at all threatening.
We relied on our Chinese friend to read the menu and to order a good selection of dumplings, pre-empted by a very tasty vegetable dish. We ate and drank to complete fullness, whilst a group of the staff sat at the next table, individuals kneading the dumpling mixture, creating balls of the fillings, or thumbing the constituent parts into a completed dumpling. A very good meal, and a very interesting evening.
But anyway, back to the final day, the Sunday.
After our meal, we took a taxi to the Qianmen Hotel to the south of the downtown area to catch a performance of Beijing Opera at the Liyuan Theatre on the first (i.e. ground) floor. Normal Beijing Opera is usually over three hours long and largely incomprehensible to Foreign ears and eyes, but the Liyuan Theatre puts on a tourist-friendly performance – less authentic maybe, but more enjoyable to the newcomer with little time. A screen to the side of the stage displayed an English language translation, essential to understand the humour of some of the acts. One of the company introduced each of the three pieces, in order to set the scene, and to offer some explanations as to the basis of what we would see. It was a fabulous evening of song, dance, comedy, some very impressively graceful martial arts, and some absolutely breathtaking acrobatics – spinning, flying, tumbling, juggling, all tightly choreographed together – exhilarating.
After the performance we shared a few beers with an American named Mike who we’d met at our table, before the long walk home. We opted to walk, it being our final night in China, so as to chat and savour our last experience of the nighttime Chinese street life, and to put off the holiday’s inevitable conclusion.
A long walk, and full of a great amount of sadness. We had fallen in love with this great, mysterious, exciting place, the country and its people, and it felt heartbreaking to be bringing the holiday to its end.
Monday 13th August
And then, back to the airport, and back to Europe. A place that looked so different from how I had left it a month before. Although the only thing that has changed is myself.
And over time, and with sadness I slowly revert to who I had been before, as the magic fades. But China will always be with me, and I long for the chance to return.
© Starbuck Powersurge 2001-09-05