Sat/Sunday 24th/25th September: Chardstock - Shanghai
Up at 5.30, and thanks to good old Adrian, off on the 7.20 coach from Taunton to Heathrow. Easy check in, good flight and land 15 minutes early in Shanghai . Pudong is new state of the art airport, but with the same, dull, unsmiling and ponderous passport controllers you get everywhere else in the world. Ben’s there to meet us and the holiday starts here with a trip on the fastest railway train in the world, the Maglev. Down the line at 431 km/h (270 mph) to the outskirts of the city (they ran out of money at this point), then a 20 minute taxi ride to our apartment.
Meet the lovely Enya (Ben’s flatmate), then it’s all down to the city centre for lunch. First Chinese meal of tasty dumplings and other goodies. Nearly fall asleep (it may be 1.00 pm to Ben and Enya, but to Merrie and me it’s 6.00 in the morning and we haven’t slept). The walk to the city centre wakes us up and we start with a visit to the Shanghai Planning Development Building . A spectacular scale model, taking up the whole of one floor of the building, illustrates what the city will look like within a few years. Apparently lots of locals visiting the exhibition are surprised to see what’s happening, many concerned to note that the place that they have been living happily in for the past umpteen years is destined to be the new ice skating rink, or shopping plaza in 2008.
In the evening we walk down one of Shanghai’s buzzing little “eating” streets. Lack of decision making from our hosts so I plumb for the busiest restaurant. We squeeze upstairs to the only available table, eat a tasty assortment of dishes, plus lots of ice cold Tsingtao (local) beer. Realise how pathetic I am with chopsticks (will have to improve or I will starve). Magnanimously offer to pay for the meal and drinks. The lot for £3.60!
Slept well that night.
*BEING A PEDESTRIAN – You soon realise that you need a whole new set of skills to negotiate the streets in China. Traffic appears to come from everywhere. At the traffic lights, even when the little man is green, cars can still enter the road you are on from the left, traffic can also leave the road to the right, and bicycles and scooters can still do anything they want to, from any direction they care to come from or go to. In other words, it is only slightly less dangerous to cross the road when the little man is green, as opposed to when he is red. The key is not to stop when crossing the road. All motorists have a sixth sense and can judge their line of path, taking into account your direction and speed. If you stop you completely throw them! The taxi drivers give you hair raising rides, but they do appear to have an extraordinary skill in getting you to your destination quickly and safely and you soon feel quite at ease with their driving (I exclude from this statement the mad golf buggy drivers of Pingyao, they’re just idiots)
Monday 26th September: Shanghai
Ben joins us for breakfast. Interesting selection of savoury dumplings, noodles, etc. Then walk down old fashioned streets where all manner of trades are conducted from the fronts of tiny houses, to building where Ben attends his Chinese lessons. We walk to the nearby park and watch all the old people working out on the exercise machines (grannycisors as Ben calls them).
Ben gets out of school and we go to the Shanghai Museum . As the Lonely Planet says, one of the best museums you will come across. Modern, well laid out and always interesting. In 24 hours we have now seen the past and the future of this city. Then a walk down the Nanjing Road, one of the busiest shopping streets in the world. Vibrant atmosphere.
In the evening we’re off to the Bund. The buildings come from the late colonial era and were built by an assortment of foreign powers as shipping offices, consulates, etc. They still retain their grandeur, but today mainly house the HQ’s for most of China ’s banks. The Huang Pu river runs alongside the Bund and divides the city centre. Magnificent wide, working river, with busy shipping lanes. Reminiscent of the Bosporus at Istanbul. The other side of the river was mainly marshland 20 years ago, but today it houses Shanghai ’s new commercial centre and boasts a skyline of skyscrapers, nearly all displaying at night time a spectacular light show. King of the buildings is the Jinmao Tower which reaches 420m. Hyatt boast the highest hotel in the world, which starts on the Jinmao’s 50th floor. (The building now going up next door will be 460m!!).
Enya and Ben could not have picked a better place for dinner, The Jin She Dao, a roof top terrace on the Bund, overlooking the river and with the lights of the new city as the back drop. One of the most spectacular settings for dinner we have ever enjoyed, and the food was superb (if you go here you must have the sweet ‘n sour fish!). Minimum spend for dinner at this venue, but despite ordering virtually everything on the menu and trying to drink them dry, really struggled to spend the required amount for the 4 of us, 320y (£22)!! (However, be warned, go with someone who can read Chinese character, as the same menu in English is twice the price!).
Tuesday 27th September: Shanghai
Busy day and can’t exactly remember the sequence of events, but they included the following, after the two of us had walked around the artists quarter, had lunch and waited for Ben to finish whatever bit of business he had to do that day.
The Yu Yuan (Yu Gardens) are the most famous in Shanghai, dating back hundreds of years to the Ming dynasty (1368 – 1644).
At lunchtime we took our first trip to the other side of the city and went under the Huang Pu river by boarding a little glass capsule and going through a psychedelic tunnel. A light show accompanies you through the tunnel, I suppose an appropriate experience considering the light shows that emanate from the new skyscrapers on the other side of the river.
Not the tallest, but probably the most striking building is the Pearl Tower. A telecommunications tower, which doubles up as a viewing platform for those who wish to look down on the vista of Shanghai. When you are up the top, the first thing you realise is just how much smog there is in Shanghai, indeed the whole of China. The edges of the city are dulled by the thin veil of smog and the sky has a dull, not a bright, shade of blue. On the way out of the Pearl Tower is a sign for the “timewalk”. May as well visit it as it is included in the price of the ticket. The timewalk is far more spectacular than the views from the tower above. A substantial exhibition covering acres of space, beautifully put together and taking you through the whole history of Shanghai up to the present day. Paying the £6 to go up the tower wasn’t really worth it, visiting the timewalk below certainly was.
In the evening we’re off to the French Concession, the area to be in, in modern day Shanghai . There is a clear desire, not just from ex pats, but also the locals, to experience all things western. The French concession is where most things western are located. Tonight we are booked into a suave and trendy western (French?) restaurant for dinner. All smoked glass, polished steel, discreet lighting (to be honest….bloody dark!) and with the kind of staff that treat you as though you are fortunate to be allowed to dine in their establishment. I did not like this place at all, and luckily for me, neither did Ben. I didn’t even look at the menu. We all got up, walked out and found another cracking little Chinese place down the road, where we met up with Ben and Enya’s friends, Ralph and Mandy. Unlike the venue we had just left, here you were clearly allowed to chatter, laugh and enjoy the company of your fellow diners. This place was for eating and enjoyment, not for posing.
*SPITTING – If when Beijing host the 2008 they decide to allow gobbing as an Olympic sport, China will take every available medal. I’m not sure whether it’s the smog or the smoking, but the Chinese certainly like to spit. Not your discreet, quiet little spit, but a fully revved back of the throat job which is duly splattered all over the pavement, or as we even saw in one place, on the restaurant floor!
Wednesday 28th September: Shanghai – Beijing
Catching a plane this afternoon, so we need to get a proper travel bag for Merrie. Only the designer gear in the shopping plazas and not cheap, not even by UK standards. So it’s a quick visit to the Xiangyuang market, where we find a North Face travel bag for a mere £7. No need to pay a fortune in the shopping malls. Back to Ben’s apartment and pack Merrie’s new bag. Strap snapped and zip broke.
Quick lunch of dumplings cooked by Ben, then taxi to airport. Made it at the second attempt after going back for Ben’s passport. Get on the 4.00 pm flight to Beijing and thoughtfully stow our travel bags in the plane’s hold. Why we bothered I do not know, as the Chinese clambered on board with suitcases the size of coffins. Arrive safe and sound, taxi to Hotel and then round the corner to the nearest place to eat (recommended by our hotel). The restaurant in question looked like a cross between a Little Chef and a Spud-U-Like, but what super food the Thai chef produced.
The Haoyuan Hotel is an ancient Ming building (1368-1644) that has only 12 rooms. The rooms border two separate courtyards, the trees in the courtyards have birdcages and the setting, for a city centre hotel, is very peaceful…………..and Tony Blair’s stayed here!
Thursday 29th September: Beijing
Quote – Lonely Planet: “September to November is the ideal time to visit Beijing . Warm with endless blue skies”
It poured down all day!!
Not the best day of the holiday.
To hell with it, let’s all go and have a good meal.
Went to the Quanjude Restaurant. I am assured that this is the restaurant, established in 1864, that made Peking Duck famous and that people come from all over China (indeed the world), just to eat their ducks. The place was packed, lovely lively atmosphere, and we were served with Peking Duck number 80,626 and we have the certificate to prove it! Came with all the trimmings that you get in the takeaway in Chard, i.e. pancakes, plum sauce, spring onions. The duck was carved in front of us and we ate the lot. Interestingly it tasted exactly the same as the duck you get from the takeaway in Chard.
Had a lovely evening. Better day tomorrow……..and it was.
Friday 30th September: Beijing – The Summer style='font-size: 14.0pt'>Palace
In terms of size, believe it or not, Beijing is the same size as Belgium. Weather had cleared up so I thought we could walk to the Summer Palace. However, I was outvoted by Merrie and Ben and a taxi was summoned. After a good hours drive trekking across at least half of Belgium we finally arrived at the Summer Palace. I had to concede that Merrie and Ben may have been correct about the taxi………….only may have been.
The weather was dry and warm, but unfortunately not sunny, Great shame, because with blue skies and the apparently pea green lakes, the colours would have been wonderful. Even so, the Summer Palace was elegant. Acres and acres of beautiful lakes, gardens and buildings (like the marble tea rooms below. No it didn’t float). You could walk for a day or more without retracing your steps.
Had to leave about 4.00 pm because Ben was flying back to Shanghai. We all had a very late, but another very good lunch, at what had become our favourite little restaurant round the corner from our hotel. This meant that the two of us would not want a full blown evening meal. There is a street in the centre of Beijing famous for its food stalls, so we decided to pick and eat there during the evening. The food we chose was inexpensive and scrummy, the food we left looked anything but. The Chinese certainly like their kebabs, and they have moved a few steps beyond the bits of lamb, chicken, tomato and onion on a skewer. Whilst these more traditional offerings were available (presumably for whimpish tourists like ourselves) the Chinese seemed to favour the skewers with live seahorses, crickets and scorpions. And I mean live, the scorpions legs (and tails!!) were still wriggling away despite being skewered, however, they quietened down somewhat when submerged in the pots of boiling oil.
*PYJAMAS – it is most odd to see Mr and Mrs Chinaperson doing the Saturday morning shopping in their pyjamas. In the olden days, wearing pyjamas was deemed to be a sign of wealth (you did not need to work, therefore you did not need to dress), but today there seems to be no reason. Quite simply, some days people get up, decide against putting on their levis and Benetton sweat shirts and just walk into town in their jimjams. Most odd.
Saturday 1st October: Beijing – The Great Wall
Left hotel at 7.45 am and joined the rest of Beijing in leaving the city for the start of the national holidays. Took 5 hours to get to the Great Wall, but never bored. Watching the Chinese drive is one of life’s great experiences. The main road north to the Great Wall is a decent 4 lane highway (2 lanes each way). However, as there was far more traffic leaving Beijing than going to it, the drivers took it upon themselves to use all 4 lanes to head out. Fascinating, even more so when some poor unsuspecting commuter going into Beijing for a bit of overtime comes round the corner to be confronted with a solid 4 lanes of traffic heading towards him. Somehow nobody ever gets hit, the wave of outgoing traffic seems to part like a biblical wave and the few lone inward bound drivers appear to pass through, presumably coming out somewhere further down the road nearer the capital.
There are basically two trips to the wall. (1) The Saga trip: Coach to the wall, walk 200m along a flat bit of the wall, buy a souvenir to prove you’ve been there, have lunch, coach and back to comfy hotel. Or (2) The Backpackers trip: Coach to one part of wall, walk 11k along the wall, get someone from coach to carry you back on board and take you back town. We did option (2). You may see photos of a pristine Chinese Wall, but believe me, most of it is quite derelict and difficult to walk on, very steep, and a really tough walk. But what a fantastic walk! The wall quite literally is built along the ridges of the mountains and it is a very hard, but a truly stunning walk. Despite the fact that the rest of the backpackers group were all under 30, the two of us completed the walk before any of them.
The coach trip back was far quicker than the outward journey, but just as entertaining, mainly due to the fact that the Chinese appear reluctant to turn their headlights on. So the same rules apply (or rather lack of them) as on the way out, but in the dark you don’t know about the traffic coming towards you ‘til the last minute, when the driver decides to flash his previously unused lights to advise you of his presence. Great fun!
Back at hotel at 10.00. Quick shower (and was it needed!), then round to our favourite place for bitter melon chicken, pack choi and garlic, special fried rice and loads of cold beer. £4 this time.
*TIPPING – One of the joys of China is there is no tipping. It is not expected and never has been, not even in restaurants or with taxis. Unfortunately with the growth in American tourists, and their total obsession with tipping everyone and everything, things may change. But hopefully not for a long time.
Footnote: Often quoted “The Great Wall is the only man made object visible from space”
Actually………..that’s rubbish. It may be 5,660km long, but it’s only about 3 to 4 metres wide and could never be seen from space.
Sunday 2nd October: Beijing
Lovely sunny day. Due to not being able to book train to Pingyao, have had to move to another hotel round the corner for another night in Beijing. Tian Rui Hotel, modern and nice.
Spent the morning meandering through the Hutong. This really is old Beijing. A large area of town with single story houses, with no internal running water or loos. The Hutong may be poor, but it is certainly not desolate or destitute (for that visit the back streets of Lisbon ). Happy smiling people, working and living quite happily in their one or two room houses. Old ladies wandering along the streets in the early morning to empty their little buckets containing the families’ ablutions. Visited one little house, a tailor, to get Merrie’s trousers shortened.
Sunday afternoon walking in the Jangshai and Beihai Gardens. Beautiful and extensive gardens, with virtually no foreign tourists, nearly all Chinese families. Numerous groups of people either singing, playing their musical instruments in informal bands, reciting poetry, acting plays, dancing, etc A truly lovely sound and sight on a Sunday afternoon and showed just what a cultured society China is. I struggle to imagine such gatherings in an English park at the weekend.
The park at Jingshai is something of a mini mountain, unusual for Bejing as it’s flat as a pancake. Apparently the old palace was demolished, and the remains of it and the earth from the moat of the new palace were all used to form this “mountain” park. Gives spectacular views over the Forbidden City below.
Sunday evening. Don’t mention the taxi ride. Decided on a recommended restaurant a few blocks way. Got the hotel reception to write the name of the place in Chinese character for the benefit of the taxi driver. One hour and 42y later we’re back at the hotel. Thank goodness taxis are so cheap. Never mind, back to our favourite place again around the corner for a supper of squid in 3 cup sauce, sizzling beef, stir fried snow peas, special fried rice and even more Tsingtao beer. This place gets better every night.
Monday 3rd October: Beijing – The Forbidden City
Another beautiful day with the temperature in the 80’s.
To start with, the Forbidden City is the size of an old city (City of London / Vatican City). This is where the Chinese Rulers lived, and no citizens at all were allowed in, until the end of the Dynasties in 1911. Now many of the UK’s 56m population may take a couple of weeks off during July and August and some places in the West Country may get a bit busy. However, all of China’s 2,000m population take the first week in October off…….and about half of them were visiting the Forbidden City at the same time as us. Clearly they are also getting ready for the Olympics in 2008, as much of one side of the city was closed for restoration. Despite this, the city is truly spectacular and we would advise anyone considering visiting to put a whole day aside. Surprisingly virtually no Western visitors again, but plenty of locals who wanted to take photos of us with their children.
Came out of the wrong gate and spent the next hour walking back to our hotel to collect our belongings. Taxi to Beijing West station. Now this is what you call a big station, it makes Clapham Junction look like Axminster Station. Once again, could not work out the system in the cafeteria so went into the station restaurant and had another excellent meal (you just can’t seem to get a poor meal here, not even in the railway station). The Chinese operate their railway stations like airports. Not surprising considering the number of people that travel by train (estimated that at any one time 10% of China is on the train!). You go to a departure lounge, each departure lounge is the waiting area for 3 trains at any one time, and there must be 20 departure lounges. Each train will also have at least 18-20 carriages, many of them double deckers. At least the Chinese use numbers, or we would be stuck.
Onto the sleeper train for Pingyao (12 hours) and we are sharing with a family of 4 Chinese. A young couple with his (or her) parents. Lovely family and we are soon getting on well. The form on these trains is that 4 of you sit on the bottom 2 beds (there’s 3 bunks either side), the other 2 on the seats just outside in the corridor, and you drink tea and eat whatever food you have brought, and pass away the time together until bedtime. Very friendly. The stewards, or whatever they call them in China, sell everything from their trolleys. My new Chinese lady friend and I both decided to buy very stylish gyroscopes, which not only light up when spinning, but also play a very cheerful Happy Birthday song. We had a lot of fun for 30p each. At 10.00 pm the lights go out, on the dot. Merrie clambers her way along the corridor to the loo, then we both undertake the ascent to the top bunks on either side. All beds in China , not just train beds, are very hard. I love them, Merrie hates them. Night night. Tomorrow Pingyao.
Tuesday 4th October: Pingyao
6.30 am. “Pingyao station?” I ask. That was the last station our new found friends tell us. Great!!! Thankfully their English was not perfect and what they meant to say was not last, but next. 7.00 am and we arrive at Pingyao. The guard actually came and called us, I think he realised just how inept these two hairies were. (by the way, hairies is what the Chinese affectionately call Westerners).
Pingyao is an ancient city made famous (and very rich) 6 or 7 centuries ago through banking (apparently the Country’s banking system was invented here). The fortifications are amazing. The 2 mile square wall, 30 metres high and surrounded by a moat looks more impregnable than Fort Knox. It is difficult to describe Pingyao , except through photographs. Ancient alleyways with ancient houses, where people still live and work with no running water. Apparently it hardly ever rains here. The city attracts hoards of Chinese tourists, and those that were not at the Forbidden City yesterday, were here. The two main streets that run east/west and north/south are all tourist shops and whilst they are very photogenic, getting off these streets and exploring the hundreds of back streets is far more interesting and rewarding. Especially as this is where all the locals (if not in the tourist shops) live and work. We buy a card that allows us to visit the top 20 buildings in the town and by 5.00 pm we have visited most of them. No cars in the old city and the taxis here are golf buggies and we soon come to the conclusion that they are all driven by bloody idiots. One continuing source of amusement was the English translations to the numerous signs around the town. I reckon they probably got Stanley Unwin to do the translations. E.g “The bank staff travelled widely”, read- “the bank stuff travelled wildly”. Bet some spoil sport eventually corrects all the signs. Shame.
Back to the Tianyuankui Hotel for the night, which is another lovely old Ming Dynasty building, with rambling alleyways, rambling bedrooms, rock hard beds again and pillows filled with rice! (yes, they are comfortable). Have a lovely evening meal and I decide to have the sweet n’ sour pork, just to compare it to the English version. Far better, less sweet, more delicate and a sauce, that unlike its English version, would not register on a geiger counter.
Now the bad news. We can’t get a ticket for the 10.29 train in the morning to Xi’an (despite being assured when we phoned that reservations were not required for day trains). Again, the only train from Pingyao. Can we get a train to Tianyuan and then get a flight? No. We may be able to get standing tickets for the train, but the train will be jam packed (still the holidays) and the journey is 10 hours. Bugger it! Let’s have another couple of beers and see what happens in the morning.
Wednesday 5th October: Pingyao – Xi’an
Bags packed and the first task is to find a mad golf buggy driver to get us to the station, preferably in one piece. The friendly hotel owner summons us with a nice smile and offers to take us both to the station. On the way we discuss the issue of our train tickets. At the station he kindly goes to the ticket office and manages to get us 2 tickets, even if they are standing tickets. Gives us a bottle of water and a pack of tissues each, smiles, then back to the hotel.
Board the train at 10.29 and it is packed, I mean packed! Reminiscent of a Michael Palin travelogue somewhere in central Africa, although slightly less people on the roof with this train. So here we both are, in the corridor next to the toilets, travel bags between our knees, faces flat against the toilet wall, and as the only place you can smoke on a Chinese train is the corridor, surrounded by dozens of Chinese guys puffing away at full blast. Never mind, it may be 10.30 in the morning, but we only have to stand here until 8.15 tonight. A charming little Chinese girl suggests we might get some luck if we go to the guard in coach 9. Merrie is volunteered for this task. Twenty minutes later she is back, despite the guard not being able to speak a word of English, she believes she has made progress, as apparently he put his thumbs up and smiled at her. We load our luggage above our heads, clamber over half of China as we head out of coach 5, and another 20 minutes later we are back at coach 9. We are then directed to coach 10, open the door and lo and behold there is a completely empty dining car. Probably built in the 50’s in art deco style, the young waitress directs us to a table and brings along a couple of cups of tea. For the first time in my life I actually enjoy a cup of tea! It soon becomes evident that the dining car if for genuine diners only……….and of course, poor lost English people. Others who try to get in are immediately thrown out by the security guards. We sit at our table and watch the Shanxi countryside go past (very much the heart of the country with endless coal mines and open cast pits). Lunch is now served and a few lucky people are allowed to join us. British Rail could certainly learn from this exercise. The lone chef works from a small galley with his woks and produces a wonderful lunch. The charming little waitress even has a store of ice cold beer. At the end of lunch those diners who have not got up and left voluntarily are moved out by the staff, except of course for us, we are welcome to stay. In the afternoon we moved into the Shaanxi province (not to be confused with the aforementioned province with only one “a”). We change from coal to cotton and endless roofs that are covered with corn on the cob, and as the evening approaches we travel over the enormous expanse of the Yellow river (second only in size to the Yangtze). Time for dinner and another excellent range of dishes from our on board chef. At 8.15 on the dot we arrive at Xi’an station. A security guard goes into the jam packed corridor adjacent to the dining car and moves everyone back from the door a good 5 yards (including the Western passengers from the sleeping cars). Another guard opens the dining car door for us, and when the train has stopped, opens the train door and out we step. When their honoured guests are safely on the platform, the guards duly allow the rest of the train to disembark. From the dining car window the waitress and the guards wave us goodbye. From the platforms, hoards of scrambling passengers give us some very curious looks, no doubt wondering who the hell we are.
Taxi to the Bell & Drum Tower Hotel……………instead of The Bell Tower Hotel! (well something had to go wrong), but with the help of another charming young Chinese lady, it’s just a short walk via a maze of walkways under the pedestrian square to the correct hotel.
Quite some 500 mile journey………….and as we could only get standing tickets………..all for £2.80.
Some days you just wake up lucky!