Emirates Airlines took us safely and punctually from Newcastle on Tyne to Dubai. The scheduled 4 hours wait on uncomfortable seats was extended by another hour due to technical problems on the incoming plane. This, an Airbus 380, which took us to our destination, had slightly larger seats with a little more legroom. The larger lockers overhead were all incredibly full as most people had apparently been midnight shopping at Dubai. The “strict” restrictions to one small piece of hand luggage evidently did not apply.
This is the start of our private package tour arranged over the internet by “China Highlights”. There will be just the two of us and we have been promised that a guide will be with us, all the time, except on the Yangtze cruise. They will also provide all the transportation in China. Arrived in Beijing 90 minutes late wondering:” will our guide be there?” Relief! There is a welcome sign “Walter Steiner (party of two)”, held by a smiling young Chinese woman who introduces herself as Linda (all the guides have adopted Western names). The taxi that will be ours for next few days, takes us to the Days Inn Hotel, conveniently situated in the centre. After a light supper we enjoy the well equipped bathroom, and then sink into our comfortable bed.
In spite of the time change (7 hours ahead of British summer time) we wake refreshed after a good night’s sleep. Breakfast well from the large buffet, a mix of Continental, English and Chinese dishes, all labeled in English. Meet Linda in the lobby at 9a.m. First stop at the famous Tiananmen Square, at 440,000sqm claimed to be the largest public square in the world. There are many foreigners in the large crowds milling about, and very young looking, smart soldiers standing to attention. Lots of big decorative, colorful flower beds and juniper trees, on every flagpole red flags with hammer and sickle, a huge picture of Mao. We have a good conversation with Linda during quite a long walk and ask her opinion of this leader of her parents’ generation (she is 29, looks younger like many Chinese). “70% good, 30% bad”, is her reply. She is obviously well trained as a guide and gives us a lot of detailed information on the history of Beijing and its most famous places.
Lunch at midday (incl. in our tour package) is at a Chinese restaurant. It is chosen by Linda within China Highlight’s budget, but with our help, from an amazing array of dishes. North China is “noodle country”, mostly wheat grown here, whereas further south there are lots of rice fields. We observe that most tables have parties of two or more people who are sharing a variety of dishes. The tables are laid with 2 small bowls, one with the typical Chinese soup spoon, one small (bread and butter size) plate and chopsticks – with luck some small paper napkins and, as a concession to Westerners, knife and fork. All the chair seats seem very low, and we soon realize why: In order to be able to manage long noodles (signifying “good luck”), also long strips of Pak Choy and other types of cabbage vegetables, usually swimming in some delicious kind of broth, one picks up one end of one or several of these with the chop sticks, bends over the bowl and slurps up the food. Easy if you know how, but not really considered good table manners in the West, although this way the food is conveyed into the mouth without splashing it all over table chest and lap…. We stick to cutlery and spoon and find the food very tasty. However, with at least 4 or 5 ample dishes, we cannot possibly finish it, especially as Linda and the driver have their lunch in a separate part of the restaurant – whether that is their wish or China Highlight’s order we never do find out. Some type of Chinese tea, often herbal, comes with the meal, and we can also choose between a glass of beer, coca cola or water each.
In the afternoon visit the Forbidden City with its many palaces and treasures. The front of most buildings is guarded by 2 large stone lions, male on the right, female the left – she can be recognized by holding one of her baby young under her right paw.(when looking at it from the front). All the buildings are in the typical Chinese style with particularly colorful and ornate roofs, often with small sculptures of either 7 or 9 different animal figures which have mythological significance, as do the numbers 7 and 9.
In the surrounding gardens people –mostly middle aged and elderly – are enjoying themselves. We see small groups sitting on benches or low walls playing cards and other games, musicians and a lot of spontaneous dancing, completely uninhibited, some good dancers, other just losing themselves in the rhythm, but all pleasing to watch. I wonder how many British people would be as uninhibited in public, yet still as disciplined as that.
Linda tells us that women in China retire at 50, men at 55 or 60, and then have lots of leisure time, although some have small grandchildren to look after while their parents are at work. There are some good playgrounds too. Most people live in small apartments in high rise buildings, so like to get out as long as the weather is warm. The temperature is in the mid 20’sC today, but we are told that in Beijing it will get much colder towards the second part of October. However, during the whole of our stay in Beijing the city is covered by a haze of smog, only rarely burnt off by the sun.
Later we visit a silk factory and are shown how silk thread is “harvested” by boiling the cocoons of silk worms out of which emerge hundreds of feet of very fine silky thread to be spun, treated and in some cases, dyed. The factory produces light weight but very warm duvets & covers, bed clothes, silk material for furnishings and garments, yarn for carpet weaving and embroidery threads. All very beautiful, but not cheap – anyway it is too early during our stay to buy anything.
By mid afternoon we are tired and ask to be taken back to the hotel. Linda would like us to be ready by 8.30 tomorrow morning, ready for the drive to the Great Wall, about 90mins north of the city. A kettle is supplied in the room, complete with black and green teabags, and I have also brought a few sachets of Nescafe.
After a very light supper of leftovers (butter and cheese portions courtesy of Emirate meals), and some oatcakes and fruit from home, plus beer from the fridge in our room, we go to bed early having booked a wake-up call for the morning at reception.
Good breakfast – some bread & cheese and apples saved for supper. Linda and driver are very punctual, but so are we. Unfortunately it is grey and foggy outside. As instructed we have brought cagoules and walking shoes, and 2 small bottles of drinking water are supplied in the car each day, as tap water in China is not safe to drink without being boiled first. The drive takes us to Badaling, northwest of Beijing. From the car park we walk up to the cable car station together with hundreds of other people, mostly local families on a Sunday outing, a few foreign tourists. The cable car assembly is wholly Chinese built. A continuous slow flow of carriages travel up and down the steep slope. Unfortunately because of the fog we can only catch occasional glimpses of the no doubt impressive landscape on either side. We then start climbing further up on foot on this open stretch of the high stone wall, designed to be wide enough between the crenellated walls to let up to 6 horsemen ride side by side. Some of the stone steps are quite high and uneven. There are substantial watch towers at frequent intervals. Most of them have 2 storeys weapons were stored below, the soldiers quarters located on top. It is difficult to visualize not only how the wall was built as far back as the 14th century (Ming Dynasty), but how they managed to maintain a regular supply of weapons and food for the men and horses. Linda is not feeling well today, so decides to wait for us at the first tower while we walk on. Occasionally we catch glimpses of the dense forests on each side and a few beautiful autumn colors. We are told that some of the trees are in fact fruit trees bearing peaches in the summer. One can see the wall stretching ahead into the far distance but only a limited section is open to the public. We return the way we came. The fog seems to lift slightly allowing some views on either side. Lots of souvenir stalls on the way to the car park. As the Chinese dragon seems to play such an important role in peoples’ mythology Walter is looking for the artistic and tasteful image of one and we finally choose an intricate wooden carving. There is plenty of evidence of a thriving arts and crafts scene in this country.
On the return journey we stop for another Chinese lunch of chicken with chestnuts, spicy green beans, stir fried cabbage, and chicken broth with seaweed and egg – delicious. We note that the locals eat their soup at the end of the meal.
In the afternoon visit a Cloisonne factory and watch various stages of beautiful objects being made, still mostly by hand. The ancient process involves putting enamel on to a bronze body, then painting this with various colored designs. We see jewellery, cups, vases, and plates being made in this way, all taking hours, days, possibly weeks for each individual piece. A very old process developed in China. There are several large ornamental vases (always in pairs), meant for palaces.
Later still we visit Hutong, a traditional old quarter of Beijing, which the authorities preserved when the rest was demolished to make way for high rise flats and wide streets suitable for modern motor traffic. We leave our car behind – by now it is raining heavily – and mount a cycle rickshaw for 2 passengers with a rather makeshift plastic sheet as roof and a very willing, smiling driver. Poor Linda has to make do with a rather basic bike, steering it with one hand while protecting herself with an umbrella in the other. The streets are narrow and very uneven; the houses on either side low, being dwarfed by the huge buildings in the surrounding area.
Although his bike is ancient without any of the Western modern additions, our driver manages to narrowly avoid various obstacles, his brakes screeching metal on metal bringing the vehicle to sudden halts, while his passengers cling on. A rather hilarious journey. When we get off Linda points out the special care that has been lavished on the front doors of buildings. There are no windows and the doors lead in fact to a court where 2 or 3 families live in quite primitive low buildings, the rooms opening out to the roughly cobbled yard. A visit to one of them has been arranged for us, and a friendly middle aged man greets us and takes us into his small living room. The furniture consists of a small sofa, low table, and 2 hard chairs. There are a TV, microwave oven, one or two books and family photographs on a set of shelves along one wall. We are offered and have some tea and are asked to put questions to our host, which Linda translates. He is married with one grown up daughter; both women are out at work. His job is with some kind of Government Energy Company, and the family prefers living in this small community rather than in the anonymous high rise flats. There is one WC and tap for each court, and a communal shower block with hot water at the end of the street. All the buildings have substantial outside walls and have been insulated on the inside. We express our thanks and leave after about 15 minutes. In the yard we see a second family having a meal in their kitchen which is small but looks well equipped, but only has a door curtain. They come out and greet us, including the puppy which wants to be stroked. It is the first domestic dog we have so far seen here. The visit was certainly interesting, although obviously officially approved and arranged – and even if we had asked their opinion of their government and living conditions we would not have heard any criticism.
Another supper in the room, breakfast bits, some delicious lementines bought near the entrance to the wall, and Chinese beer from the fridge. Also have to re-pack because we are off to our next destination tomorrow afternoon.
Part of the Palace is a theatre where we watch a little of a performance by dancers and musicians in the traditional Chinese style. Even if one does not fully understand the meaning it is fascinating to watch the dancers’ movements, especially their hands and eyes and their colorful costumes. We also walk through the Garden of Virtue and Harmony. Later follows a visit to the extensive Beijing Olympic Green where we are shown various sports buildings including the Birdcage Stadium for athletics.
After another lunch in a Chinese restaurant, Linda and driver pick up our luggage from the hotel, and then drive us to the airport for our flight to Xian. Good bye and many thanks to both. The flight takes about 90 minutes, but to our surprise we are served a hot meal, which we had been told was not usual on internal Chinese flights.
Cathy awaits us at Xian, a bit older than Linda, but a similar type. As the drive to the hotel takes about one hour, she has time to give us a lot of information about Xian, which in ancient times was the capital of China and a thriving centre of the arts, also a place where many travelers congregated as it was the starting point of the Silk Road. Today the city has 6 million residents and has become famous for the Terracotta Warriors. They were discovered by accident in 1974, not far from Xian, where there is now a museum. Excavations and new discoveries are still going on. At the hotel we discover that we have been booked into a deluxe suite, which really is extremely spacious and comfortable.
Drive out to the lovely Summer Palace and have a long walk along the colonnade on the shore of the beautiful lake. A boat ride is on the program but unfortunately it is too windy, although beautifully sunny. Part of the Palace is a theatre where we watch a little of a performance by dancers and musicians in the traditional Chinese style. Even if one does not fully understand the meaning it is fascinating to watch the dancers’ movements, especially their hands and eyes and their colourful costumes. We also walk through the Garden of Virtue and Harmony. Later follows a visit to the extensive Beijing Olympic Green where we are shown various sports buildings including the Birdcage Stadium for athletics.
After another lunch in a Chinese restaurant Linda and driver pick up our luggage from the hotel, then drive us to the airport for our flight to Xian. Good bye and many thanks to both. The flight takes about 90 minutes, but to our surprise we are served a hot meal, which we had been told was not usual on internal Chinese flights. Cathy awaits us at Xian, a bit older than Linda, but a similar type. As the drive to the hotel takes about one hour, she has time to give us a lot of information about Xian, which in ancient times was the capital of China and a thriving centre of the arts, also a place where many travellers congregated as it was the starting point of the Silk Road. Today the city has 6 million residents and has become famous for the Terracotta Warriors. They were discovered by accident in 1974 , not far from Xian, where there is now a museum. Excavations and new discoveries are still going on. At the hotel we discover that we have been booked into a De-luxe suite, which really is extremely spacious and comfortable.
12th: Awake to fog and rain.
There are not many guests in the breakfast room, and there are more Chinese dishes served here including thin rice porridge and a lot of salads. We meet Cathy and our driver a 9am with the warriors in mind. First stop is a government factory which has the sole license to produce replicas of the terracotta warriors in varying sizes – all are finished by hand and quite impressive. There is also a large collection of handcrafted and decorated furniture, pottery and jewellery, as well as items made from silk. The silk embroidery is particularly beautiful. We watch some young women doing intricate decorative painting on a wooden chest, others are painting crockery, and one is busy weaving a beautiful silk carpet (price said to be RMD 580 000 (for £ divide roughly by 10).
We then pass on to what used to be Xiyang village and is now the famous Terra Cotta Warrior Museum. In heavy rain a series of electric cars take visitors from the entrance to the museum buildings. After watching a short introductory film we pass to the main building. There in the entrance hall sits the man who as the village headman in 1974, when the site was discovered by farmers who were laying a drain. He is now considered a hero because he thought the find important and reported it to the authorities in spite of the likelihood that this might disrupt and change the life of the village. He is now employed by the authorities to sign the official book about the find. There is a queue for his autograph, and Walter succeeds getting one in our copy. The old man is chain smoking and looks neither happy nor well, but is probably financially much better off than when he was a farmer.
The history behind the find is interesting. In 247BC on the death of the King of Qin, his son, Ying Zheng, succeeded him. Until he was 22 his mother and a prime minister ruled the small country. After he had taken over he proceeded to conquer the surrounding small states until he was supreme and became the first Emperor of a unified China. He introduced a series of unifying policies, including a standardized system of weights and measures and a standard form of handwriting, and ordered the width of carriage axles to be exactly 6 feet. To ensure the security of his empire a network of roads was built and the construction of the Great Wall begun, based on existing primitive walls. In addition to building numerous palaces, this first Qin Emperor began the construction of his vast tomb in order to preserve his remains for all time. A replica of his kingdom was constructed below ground together with a complete army of terra cotta soldiers, with weapons, horses, chariots etc. to guard it. Every soldier shows signs of his ethnic origin and has an individual facial expression, as well as rank. They were all were colored, but when found the colors had disappeared altogether or had faded badly. What remained deteriorated quickly on exposure? Except for a sole figure, all were in a damaged condition due to the collapse of the underground roof.
Most people have seen pictures of the reconstructed army in print or on screen, but nothing can compare with the impact of being confronted with the actual figures, even though only a fraction has so far been recovered. Also discovered were mass graves of civilians, presumably of workmen involved in the building work who were killed when the work was completed. The actual mausoleum is situated some way away buried under a hill and, so far has not been touched.
After 2 fascinating hours we walk back to the car and drive to lunch. Today we are booked into a clearly up market restaurant, which has a reproduction of David’s ‘Napoleon crossing the Alps’ in the lobby. Why? It is fully booked by large parties of Chinese, so Cathy and the driver have to share our table. We welcome this, because their budget, provided by China Highlights, is clearly smaller, and after initial hesitation they enjoy sharing some of our ample food – once again, very tasty.
Outside it is still raining when we drive to the city wall, which at a circumference of nearly 9 miles, is the longest one still surviving intact in China. It was built during the Ming Dynasty in the 13th century. The Bell Tower and Drum Tower also date from that era, large wooden constructions built without the use of nails, and again with very ornate roofs.
The rain has stopped. After breakfast we once again stow our luggage in the car as we are due to fly to Chongqing later this afternoon. First stop: Shanxi Provincial Museum (Xian is the capital of this province), which tells us a lot about early Chinese history. This is followed by a nice walk in the Big Wild Goose Pagoda Park on one of the hills above the city. Lots of beautiful trees, some obviously quite old and a tall pagoda.
It is a pity that we do not have more time in this city and the surroundings, but after a buffet lunch we are off to the airport and have to say goodbye to Cathy and the driver.
The plane is delayed, and then there is a sudden rush to board. Fortunately the flight only takes just over one hour. When we arrive in Chongqing, Gisela waits at the Baggage Collect, whilst Walter wanders off the find our guide. When he tries to return he is stopped by two police women, who first make him go through security, then demand his passport. Eventually they escort him back to Gisela, who discovers she has lost both passports. Deadlock ensues, but suddenly the policeman tells us to go away as quickly as possible. A mass of passengers from the next plane is approaching! When Peter, our guide grasps the situation, he rushes off. After ½ hours agonizing wait he returns in triumph, the passports having been handed in by a cleaner. They must have dropped off when Gisela fell asleep on the plane. When we arrive in Chongqing, Gisela waits at the Baggage Collect, whilst Walter wanders off the find our guide. When he tries to return he is stopped by two police women, who first make him go through security, then demand his passport. Eventually they escort him back to Gisela, who discovers she has lost both passports. Deadlock ensues, but suddenly the police tells us to go away as quickly as possible. A mass of passengers from the next plane is approaching! When Peter, our guide grasps the situation, he rushes off. After ½ hours agonising wait he returns in triumph, the passports having been handed in by a cleaner. They must have dropped off when Gisela fell asleep on the plane. During the 1 hour drive to the Eling Hotel Peter gives us a short introduction of what we are going to see during our short stay here. We are given another nice room and have a quick supper from the buffet in the dining room.
14th: Rain and fog!
We have a little more time this morning as Peter will only collect us at 10am. The breakfast buffet is almost exclusively Chinese with melon, salads, vegetables and Congee (rice or millet porridge), but there is an egg chef who is cooking eggs scrambled, fried, poached or as omelettes, on request. Our first destination is Goose Neck Park on Eling Hill, the highest elevation above Chongqing. The rain has stopped, it is still foggy but mild. Time for a nice walk, among lots of bamboo and other greenery. At the Three Gorges Museum we admire the longest original wall painting (so they say) by a specially engaged artist, which depicts the landscape before the new dam was built and what it is now that we shall see on our cruise. It is most interesting and at last one can imagine the tremendous changes that took place and how it affected landscape, people and animals. We buy a small replica of the original painting(which covers several walls) knowing that unfolding it at home will mean one person holding one end near the back wall of the living room while another walks with the other end into the kitchen!
There follows another tea ceremony, slightly different from the one in Beijing. The small sips of tea really do seem have a reviving effect. We buy some Oolong with Ginseng tea, also some black tea and two of the tiny Chinese tea cups.
Today’s lunch is in a posh restaurant: pork with mushrooms and peanuts, “mildly” spiced” Chongqing style, requiring lots of cold beer and, of course, Jasmine tea, also noodle, tomato and egg soup, and some green vegetables.
Then follows the visit to the Zoo, mostly to see the Pandas. However, as they are still having their siesta we wander around in the beautiful surroundings and look at other animals. There are lots of different water birds on a large lake. The other visitors are mostly families with young children, a lot of them coming to see the Pandas once these are awake.
When we get back to their enclosure three of them have come out to feed – but sadly, although they have quite a lot of space it does not resemble their natural habitat. They do not have to forage for their bamboo, it is all there laid out for them, so they can lazily settle down to munch. This zoo has six of them – the other three must still be asleep- but we know there is a successful breeding centre in a nearby nature reserve, established several years ago. What we do not know is whether they also manage to grow enough new bamboo in the wild to be able to set some of these new animals free.
We then drive to old Chongqing, called Ci Qi Kou Zheng Jie, view some traditional Chinese houses and visit the temple, led by a good special guide. The art work is beautiful.
With guide Peter’s assistance we later board the ship which will be “home” for the next three days, then say goodbye and thanks to Peter and find cabin 204. Few other passengers have so far arrived, so we are able to get to know the ship and its facilities and meet Susan, the guide for the English speakers, who tells us that there will be a meeting of her group at 8.15p.m. Time for a rest and a snack supper of hardboiled eggs and crackers with a hot drink (a thermos with boiling water is provided, also some bottled water). At the meeting it appears that we are the only British people among the 140 passengers. Among the members of our “family” there are 3 from New Zealand, 2 Australians, 2 Americans and 6 Indians (some of whom live in the US). We hear about meal arrangements on the ship, the usual safety advice and tomorrow program, then retire for an early night.
The wake up call over our loudspeaker comes at 6.30am, breakfast buffet is available between 7 and 8, then we are off for our first excursion off the boat, which had travelled while were asleep. Destination: Fengdu, “The Ghost City”, having reached the shore via a makeshift gangway and a short drive in electric cars we walk to a cable car station as we do not fancy climbing up 600 steep steps. This is different from the cable car we used to get up to the Great Wall. It is more like a ski lift. A sign on the floor indicates where the next 2 passengers must stand, facing uphill. The seats are moving slowly forward all the time, the 2 passengers next in line get “shoved” into their seat by 2 attendants and a security bar slammed in place. Off we go, watching a long line of leaving visitors passing us on their way down. Up on top we are smartly removed by another 2 attendants. We find lots of temples, statues depicting good and evil spirits, and candle offerings. The originals were mostly destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, but have been faithfully reproduced. Many of the oriental visitors are superstitious or fear unknown forces and are prostrating themselves and lighting candles in front of statues, also touching them reverently. As near all the visitor attractions, there are lots of traders trying to sell souvenirs.
Back on board at 10.30am for a short rest, then another briefing by Susan. She gives us detailed information about the Yangtze, named so some believe, by
Marco Polo. We hear about the geography, the new dam and future projects, of diverting some of the southern river flow to the Yellow river area, where there is a shortage of water.
Buffet lunch, but Walter is not feeling well. While he rests during the afternoon I attend a Calligraphy and Art demonstration but find that apart from Susan, who acts as interpreter, I am the only “pupil”. Apparently the artist is well known; I have his full attention and enjoy the hour long session. Walter not feeling better but forces himself to come to the “Captain’s reception”. He sticks to water rather than Chinese champagne, then goes back to bed feeling feverish, while I go in to supper. Afterwards I ask for freshly boiled water and make some tea, then dish out antibiotics which Marion had prescribed for just this sort of case. We have experienced similar problems on previous long journeys. A disturbed night follows.
16th: Sunshine, only a little haze on the water.
Since the drainage in our shower room is unable to cope, I take the opportunity to go to the hairdresser. Although the girl does not speak English the hairdresser understands that I just want my hair washed and then gives me a lovely scalp massage, followed by my neck and shoulders – bliss – and inexpensive.
Walter is feeling well enough to come on deck for a short while when we pass through the Small Gorge. Lots of snaps as the surrounding nature is getting increasingly grand. We have an early lunch, Walter sticks to plain boiled rice and tea, then all passengers are transferred to a ferry which takes us on tour through “lesser” gorges. There is an English speaking guide who gives us more detailed information about the gorges and the effects of the new dam on landscape and people, as well as pointing out special sights. Before the water level rose a lot of small farmers were growing crops on the fertile banks. 1.3 Million people had to be resettled further up, villages were submerged and some wildlife suffered. However, larger vessels can now pass through the gorges, not only with passengers but also freight. When one of the tourists queried the change of life for the displaced people, the guide’s answer was: “well instead of having to work hard on the land they now find jobs at McDonald’s and in the tourist industry”….
The afternoon sunshine is hot. Walter is feeling better and taking lots of photos. The cruise lasts 3 hours. When the guide broadcasts sheer endless information in Chinese I find a comfortable seat near an open window and rest whilst watching the amazing scenery move by.
Back on “our” ship there is a special last night dinner. All the English speakers sit around one table, where the food is served on a large turning tray in the centre. Various cold foods for a starter, followed by dishes of rice, small pancakes, fried chicken legs, assorted bits of meat and a whole fish (catfish?), lastly and rather belatedly, a very tasty dish of fried Pak Choi. “Pudding” consists of small portions of a special cake, slices of water melon and pineapple, served as always, with “Oolong” tea, (said to be good for digestion and have other benefits too.) We say Good Night early, pack, then go to bed.
17th: Ship Lifts at big Dam
Soft Wake Up music wakes us at 6am for breakfast at 6.30, so as to be off by bus at 7.30 for the Dam Gorges Dam and Project. The local guide bombards us with yet more information and government propaganda. It is a huge project, only the last 2 generators remain to be installed. The finished part has been cleverly and attractively landscaped and we see more evidence of new settlements for re-housed people.
Back on board by 10am for final bits of packing, then vacate cabin 204, to wait at the appointed spot near the
exit for our new guide to pick us up. He is Peter, and we are in Yichang from were we shall fly to Shanghai later this afternoon. Peter takes us to a Government owned shop, where we watch young women in local costumes doing exquisite silk embroidery on a long piece of tapestry. When Peter has left us at the airport we are in need of a coffee which turns out to be extremely expensive, over £10 for 2 cups. Our fellow travelers are almost exclusively Western tourists, next to us sits an adventurous, rather talkative youngish Canadian lady, who tells us that she lives on her own on some land on Vancouver Island. When we land at Shanghai we meet Lucy, our guide, who speaks very good English, is knowledgeable and has travelled abroad. We enjoy our conversations with her.
At the GoldenTulip Ashar Suites Hotel we find a Superior Room, and fall for the advertised “Hungry Eaters Buffet” as we did not get much lunch on the plane. This proves to be a mistake as we only find small titbits on the buffet, and the glass of Red wine (buy one, get one free – but it means “one each”), costs about £6. This supper lies heavy in my stomach, I suspect the wine – should have stuck to beer.
After a bad night I do not feel fit for sightseeing in the morning. However, after a “peptalk” from Walter I have a little rice porridge, yogurt and tea for breakfast, and feel better, while he is fit for eggs and bacon, apple juice and coffee again. We share the table with an interesting elderly Australian couple, who turn out to have lived in Britain for some time and have travelled far and wide. Good conversation, a pity that they are off to Hong Kong today.
Lucy first takes us to the Jade Buddha Temple. The centre figure, an unusual lying Buddha, escaped being destroyed during the Cultural Revolution by a foresighted monk who had it hidden inside a false addition to the wall, which was then covered with a large picture of Mao – so this for once is the original very old sculpture. There are many native believers genuflecting, burning incense and giving money to buy oil for the everlasting flame in the lamps surrounding the Buddha. As there are long queues for the famous TV tower, which is on our schedule, we decide to give that a miss and visit the Shanghai Museum in the basement instead which we find very interesting and gives us a good introduction into the development and life of this city, including the various trades that flourished here in the past and, of course, the period during which the British established an important trading post to take advantage of the geographic location. Many Europeans lived in the city in the late 19th and early 20th century, and scenes of their home life are on view.
Lunch is at the Seagull Restaurant, where we eat sparingly and, as usual have lots left, but enjoy the tasty clear soup.
Later have a walk to the old city, an area of traditional, carefully restored Chinese houses, and visit the 400years old Yuyuan garden which is privately owned. Dotted among lovely old trees and bamboos are cool meeting houses for merchants, small ponds with carp and fountains.
The Nanjing Road, a major shopping street, leads down to the Harbour and the Bund, built as the centre of European trade in China. The large buildings along the Bund have been carefully restored in their original classical styles and are in use as large banks and businesses. Lucy advises us to return here after nightfall to see the spectacular lighting. On our way back to the hotel we ask Lucy to stop at a shop selling CD’s and with her help buy one of typical classical Chinese music, which Walter hopes he can use to make an AV show with some of our pictures. The cost, roughly £2 for two is a bargain. As we have internet connection in our room we deal with mail, then have a hot drink and rest before taking a taxi back to the Bund. We need some help from a hotel employee for this as taxis are in great demand after dark and keep on being snatched up by young locals. We had noticed the flower shaped light bulbs in the trees along Nanjing Road during the day, now they are all lit up in different and changing colors, giving an imaginative display, especially as our driver appears in training for Grand Prix racing. Lucy was right: the buildings along the Bund, the harbor front and vessels are all glowing in various colors, and huge crowds are watching and photographing the display. More than even in Beijing one gets the feeling that this is a metropolis. Time for a taxi “home” and bed.
We have a “free” day today, and after early fog there is hazy sunshine. After breakfast we walk down the Nanjing Road towards the water. All the “big” designer names are represented in the traffic free area along the road, we even see an M&S. About half way down we find the “Civilized” Park (should that be Citizens’?) – it turns out to be both, with all the ingredients for a typical Chinese garden: a collection of trees and shrubs, water, rocks, flower beds, playgrounds, people enjoying themselves, some doing exercises, others making music. A young couple stop to greet us and want to make English conversation. There are grandparents with pre-school children – we notice that there seem to be far more little boys than girls.
The streets are bustling with well dressed shoppers, we have yet to see the “sloppy” kind of dress prevalent in Britain, especially among the young. In spite of warm weather no naked flesh is shown on midriff or thighs. Prices seem too high for present buying here. However, when Walter enquires about the cost of a camera he might like that seems to be cheaper than in Britain – only British customs might pocket the difference or more.
When we feel like some lunch we follow a crowd of young Chinese into a”Subway” shop and unashamedly enjoy a Western snack.
On the way back we find a nice bread shop selling a large variety of loaves, rolls and buns, and buy some rolls for supper in our room.
8.15am start with Lucy to the airport. During the journey we show her some photos of Longlands and our family, as promised. Goodbye and thank you Lucy and “hello” to Le-le when we get to Guilin. It is obvious from his looks that he is ethnically different from the majority of Chinese we have seen so far, and he proudly tells us that he is in fact a Zhuang, part of a large, mostly Muslim minority, many of whom live in this area. They have Mongol features, and are broader built.
Guilin lies on the Li River and is surrounded by “sugar cone” shaped mountains.
Lunch at the locally well known McFound’s Restaurant: chicken soup with mushrooms and noodles, steamed green vegetable with garlic, thin filled pancakes, all tasty and for once largely disposed off.
After a walk along the river, looking at the Elephant Rock (leaf covered limestone) and life on the river banks we visit the Flute Cave, also limestone with lots of ancient stalactite and stalagmite formations. These are at intervals shown up by colored illuminations setting imaginations working and cameras flashing.
China Highlights have their Head Office in Guilin and Grace Wang, their assistant customer relations officer, who arranged our tour with Walter on the Internet, has said that she would be in her office today and was looking forward to meeting us. Le-le arranges a meeting for 5p.m. and we walk up to the big office building where China Highlights have their offices high above the city. Grace looks much younger than on her photo she sent us over the Internet. She is quite jolly but very keen to get feed back from us as to how we have liked our tour so far, whether guides and accommodation were satisfactory, etc. An “official” photo is taken by a colleague, which perhaps is meant to join the many of her satisfied customers displayed on one wall. We are then shown the wonderful view they have from their large terrace out over the city, river and mountains on the other side. Quite a change from the views from our various hotel room windows so far which showed us nothing but high rise buildings with traffic filled roads far below and no landscape in sight.
Our room in the Eva Inn Hotel is very satisfactory with a full bathroom and e-mail connection. We go up to the roof top bar for a beer and peanuts, where we also have a nice view and lovely fresh air. Small supper in the room.
The staff in the breakfast room seems unprepared for early morning guests at 7.15am. Eventually hot drinks, orange juice, toast and marmalade arrive. We have a quick walk along the riverbank in front of the hotel and watch someone collecting seaweed, others fishing and some people doing morning exercises. At 8.30 we are off for our boat trip on the river Li le. Le-le has reserved us to seats at a table in the main cabin, which we share with 1 Canadian and 1 Swiss couple, and where we shall also have lunch. The beginnings of a buffet can already be seen in the centre. When looking down from the top deck one can see the open topped kitchen with several people hard at work. All around us are similar boats about to cast off. The water level of the river is not high, in fact there are almost dry patches in some places so this flotilla of boats, although welcome for the tourist trade, is not entirely beneficial for the country. The water level will only increase in the spring when the snow on the surrounding mountain ranges starts melting. These mountains around us were covered in haze earlier but, as the sun comes out, are slowly coming into view in their distinctive sugar cone shapes. We see cows and water buffalos grazing on the banks, with mountain goats up on the green slopes. Small local boats are supplying the ships with fresh vegetables and other items. Larger barges pass with freight. Occasionally we see signs of human life and habitation among the trees. Lots of photo opportunities. Le-le has a seat with other guides on the lower deck but occasionally appears to point out particular sights, like the coffin high up in a cave like opening in the rock. The buffet opens for lunch at 12 and during the meal there is lively conversation particularly with the well travelled couple from Canada. The husband obviously is a senior employee at Penguin Books in Canada and interesting to talk to.
We arrive at Yangshuo at 2pm, where Le-le walks with us through a busy local market to the” Aiyuan!” Hotel where we shall spend the night. We get a “room with a view”, complete with kettle but no fridge. The view is on to the street in front, a colorful scene of various stalls and shops and lots of people – not a high rise building in sight. A taste of small town China. We walk to the nearby supermarket, where the food on sale seems to consist largely of endless packets of sweet biscuits, chocolates and sweets, sweet fizzy drinks and such. We had noticed before that the Chinese have a “sweet tooth”. Buy some biscuits hoping they won’t be too sweet, also water, beer and some kind of “fire water” (proves to be almost undrinkable), a fruit dessert and sachets of Nescafe. Le-le has recommended one particular side street for places to eat where we look for some supper. There are lots of different establishments offering a great variety of Chinese and Western food. While Walter chooses an American Hamburger I have fried rice with vegetables and egg .Afterwards we have a little walk further down the street, then return to our room for a coffee and the fruit dessert. The news on TV (in English) predicts a Typhoon to hit Hong Kong tomorrow – That is where we are supposed to go. Will the planes take off?
After a longer night and a simple good breakfast we have a free morning. We pack once more, then store our luggage in the luggage room and go for a walk along the river front. Some young girls stop us and ask in English whether we will talk to them. They tell us that they are from Hainan Island and here on a three month vocational course at the local college. Today their teacher has sent them out to “interview” some English speaking visitors as proof bring their name and addresses, which they ask us to write down for them. We are glad to do that as they ask nicely, we think they are about 14 or 15. When we ask them are amazed to hear that they are in fact in their twenties. On the way back to the hotel more stalls have opened and we look for and find some little presents. Also buy – and eat – some very nice juicy clementines. Meet Le-le at 12.30 for lunch. The much praised local speciality, Beer Fish, is not up to much and very bony, also too salty, prefer to stick to sweet & sour chicken with rice, green beans with bacon bits and corn soup. Water melon to finish off the meal.
The drive into the country in an open sided taxi is another new experience for us after visiting large cities. The road is bumpy and largely unmade, at the entrance to the village is a “triumphal” gate, a few scattered houses on one side, small rice fields at various stages of development on the other. Le-le tells us that farmers here have two rice crops a year. The villagers are mostly elderly, their children having left to work and live in the city. However, they do return to help with the rice harvests. We also see citrus fruit groves, cotton fields and gardens growing green vegetables.
We stop at an old, rather larger than average farmhouse for an arranged visit to an elderly widow of a farmer. She shares house and farm with her late husband’s brother and his wife. She shows us her kitchen in a small outhouse which is covered in soot as it has no chimney. She cooks on a hearth with two openings above the open fire underneath, fuelled by dried bamboo and brushwood, one for a large cast iron pot, the other for a Wok.
Her bedroom contains a large double bed, curtained by a mosquito net (needed mainly in July and August). We notice a large picture of Mao in her small sitting room. The larger living room belongs to her brother and sister-in-law and contains some rather worn furniture. There is also jar of medicine containing a pickled millipede and snake. The mind boggles! We have to sit on a small bench and are given some of their home grown citrus fruit; she also put more into my bag – lovely and juicy. In the corner we notice and electric slow cooker, as Le-le explains it is for their favorite hot pot. House and ground are shared with various animals, hens running around. She demonstrates how she pumps water in the back yard, also the cape of heavy animal skin that is used when working in the rice fields in bad weather. On our way out we see two coffins in the barn made of large hollowed out tree trunks one painted black. We are told people always try to have their coffins ready and when they reach the age of 80, it will be painted black. Well, our hostess is 76, and seems hale and hearty. I get a kiss when we say good-bye, and as instructed, we leave some money in a special box.
After a short visit to a calligraphy shop we return to the hotel to pick up our driver and luggage to drive to Guilin Airport. Le-le has not been able to find out whether our plane will be delayed because of the Typhoon.
There is some confusion at the airport, but although our flight departure is as yet unknown, we are eventually checked in and taken to the VIP Lounge (courtesy of a special arrangement of Guilin airport with China Highlights, even for Economy travelers) Good bye to Le-le, then we find seats in the comfortable but rather worn upholstery. It is very crowded as lots of flights have apparently been put on hold. There are free hot and cold drinks and an assortment of sweet biscuits and cakes (the Chinese sweet tooth again) on offer, strangely combined with a bowl of Cherry tomatoes. The debris left on the tables shows that many travelers have been here a long time, and the staffs keep on having to replenish supplies. Internet access is free too, and Walter gets a slot at one of the computers eventually and can inform our children about the situation. The news on the large flat screen TV is in Chinese, but the frequently shown weather map seems to show that the dreaded Typhoon has not hit HK itself, but landed further up the coast. We understand that our delay is due to many planes not having been able to take off from other affected airports in the area. We nibble, read and wait. Finally, there is a “stampede” to gate 3 and the flight to HK, where we land at the Chinese Shenzhen Airport at 11p.m. A driver awaits us, an obliging man, but of few English words – he seems keen to get home. After a drive of 75 minutes on the right hand side, we enter HK territory at the “Boundary”, have to get out, fill entry forms, and on exit immediately notice that here we drive on the left and most signs are in English.
We arrive at the Stanford Hotel in the very early hours of the morning. Reception sends us to Room 503 and hands us a message from Chas, our guide for an introduction and half day tour of this city, at 9.30a.m. Short night, good breakfast. Chas (in his 30’s?) is an amiable, well educated guide. Our hotel lies in Kowloon, the main shopping district, whereas HK Island on the other side of the water is the centre of big business and banking.
There follows a ride up to the top of the island past expensive looking properties, which Chas confirms is very expensive here. Have a short walk and take in the views, before another drive down to Repulse Bay, HK’s seaside, although we are told that most of the beautiful sand has been imported from Hawai. It is sunny and we are informed on a large notice board that the temperature is 28C. Let’s soak up the sun – the weather forecast for NE Britain shows us that there is frost there… Chas finds it cool, as they are used to a steady 35-38C in the summer.
There is a small garden with all sorts of statues, male and female Buddhas, good and evil spirits, small bridges and buildings, most denoting or promising good fortune, long life, happiness, wealth etc. Plaques inform us that most of these were donated by former British High Commissioners, who must have known how to please the population. Again we watch worshippers genuflecting in front of Buddhas and/or touching a particular part of their body, and the Bridge of good Fortune is crowded with people.
At Aberdeen Bay Chas suggests that we should hire a Sampan, an old fishing boat whose owner has retired from fishing but
earns some money by showing tourists the harbor. We get a super ride and see everyday scenes on the large fishing vessels – men repairing nets, fish being air dried, small boats on fishing trips as well as a series of expensive looking moored yachts. Lots of photo opportunities.
Back at the hotel a 1.30pm, we realize that although Hong Kong is now part of China we shall not be able to use our RMD currency here. Chas offers to change some money for us and gives a better exchange rate than the hotel is offering. We now have HK $$, and as the afternoon is free ask Chas for advice about good photography shops and also one specializing in silk clothing. He is most helpful, but then takes his leave until tomorrow night when he will collect us for our flight home.
After some coffee, biscuits and fruit and a short rest we set off once more to the shops – window shopping mostly. Chas had predicted the Saturday afternoon crowds once offices, schools and other places of work, except shops, have closed. The wide pavements are crammed full of shoppers. This is unpleasant and tiring, besides we are unable to see any bargains; so we return to our room and then have dinner in the bar. Later we take a taxi to the waterfront which, like in Shanghai, is all lit up and looks impressive. More photo opportunities.
Our last day, free until tonight. We have paid for the full day plus tomorrow’s breakfast and ordered the latter in “take-away” form to be collected late in the afternoon and become today’s supper. After breakfast we start off for the shops once more. It is not as crowded as yesterday, and we find lots of camera shops. However, to Walter’s disappointment, not only are prices no cheaper that in Britain but they do not even seem to stock the latest Sony digital SLR cameras. We do find the silk shop recommended by Chas and I buy a silk blouse for myself and one for Susan as a birthday present. Decide to walk to the ferry terminal and on the way try just one more camera shop where Walter finds a knowledgeable salesman with time on his hands and eventually buys an additional lens. I get a new strap for my camera, the good man insists on cleaning our lenses and “throws in” a free lens cleaner.
We have been told that pensioners get a free ride on the ferry to HK Island and are quite prepared to show our passports. That proves unnecessary – one look at us is enough for the guard to direct us to the free entry channel – sobering experience…
Having taken a few pictures during the crossing we return on the next ferry and start walking back towards the hotel, looking out for some suitable place for lunch. This we find in a typical Chinese café and have garlic chicken on rice (W), and pork Wonton soup (G) and tea. Good inexpensive meal in clean surroundings and with plenty of opportunity for “people watching”, as the place is crowded.
Back at the hotel it is rest, change, wash, pack, then collect our packed breakfast/supper. It consists of 2 hard boiled eggs each, ham and cheese sandwiches, an apple and an apple juice drink. We leave an egg each, perhaps the staff will eat it, but have another cup of tea.
Chas meets us at reception at 8.45p.m., for the 75mins drive to the International airport on Lantum Island. On the way we pass large container terminals, all brightly lit, which demonstrate how important HK is for international trade.
Good bye to Chas, China Highlights and this amazing country, of which we have only glimpsed a minute, but select part.
The flight home is punctual; we get a little sleep and 2 breakfasts with very nice omelettes (how do they manage to serve them so light and fresh as part of an airline meal??)
Arrive at Newcastle at midday and are very pleased to see our friend Peter is there to collect us. Outside temperatures just above freezing, when 36 hours ago we basked in hot sunshine on a Hong Kong beach.