Thursday 6th October: Xi’an
Wake up and it’s raining. Still can’t complain after yesterday. Skip breakfast (just coffee in the room) in order to get an early bus to the Bingmayong, better known to those in the West as the Terracotta Soldiers. The hotel charge 400y each for the escorted trip. We pay 5y each for the bus, then 100y when we get there for a private guide for the two of us. The soldiers are truly fascinating. Needless to say there are lots of facts relating to the soldiers, here are just a few of the more interesting ones:
In the evening we explore the old Muslim quarter of Xi’an. Very atmospheric. An odd fusion of cultures, best described as typically frenetic Chinese with a strong hint of the Lebanon . Wonderful aromas from all the food stalls, with some of the cooking machines more like blast furnaces. Again, not a Westerner in sight, just stacks of local people really enjoying their evening out, and eating “on foot” or at the impromptu tables, a dish of food costing just 1 or 2y (7 to 14p). From bicycles, vendors sell hand spun candy floss and beautiful coloured lollipops made from coconuts. The best one was an old boy who had on the back of his bike, a little stove with molten sugar on it. From there he would dip a straw into the sugar, then blow, like a glass blower. He would mould the sugar with his fingers as he blew and after about 30 seconds would produce a beautiful animal of your choice. A wonderful skill to watch, just a shame that within the same amount of time they were then eaten.
Xi’an is an ancient capital of China and has certainly embraced the new with the old. The masses of designer shops (a whole street with nothing but mobile phone shops) and a very modern centre appear to sit quite happily alongside the old world. All makes for a very nice place to stay.
Friday 7th October: Xian – Chengdu
Beautiful sunny day. Visit the shops for a while before setting off to the airport. We fly with Hainan Airlines, who to our pleasant surprise lay on a brand new Airbus 316 and smart charming staff for our journey to Chengdu. Weather even better in Chengdu, but we are a few hundred miles further south again. Taxi beats all records and does the 18 km journey in just 15 minutes. Not bad for £3! The Yinghe Dynasty is by far the poshest hotel we have stayed at on this trip. This is a city filled with motor scooters, and unfortunately, also ATM machines that do not want to accept an Englishman’s card. Could have a problem shortly if we do not find a friendly ATM.
Now we had been warned about the Sichuan food and it would appear quite justifiably. It’s all to do with chillies. Not the whimpish type that you get in Western eateries, or even Mexican diners, but serious Sichuan chillies which are likely to blow your head off. The local restaurants are a site to behold. In the centre of your table there is a well, where a pot filled with boiling cooking oil and chillies is placed over a flame. You then select your chosen kebab and cook it at your own table. And the choice of kebabs? Chicken heads, chicken feet, chicken gizzards, pigs ears, pigs trotters, etc. So you have a choice of totally inedible food to cook in your totally untouchable cooking oil. Even the locals arm themselves with tins of coconut milk just in case they are overcome by the heat of the chillies (seriously). Just to make matters worse I don’t even like coconut milk!
So where are we going to eat tonight? Are we going to bottle it like whimpish Westerners, or are we going to be true travellers and join the locals for supper?
At 8.00 pm the taxi arrives at The Red House Pizza Parlour.
Saturday 8th October: Chengdu
Cloudy. Early breakfast and taxi to take us 18km north of the city to hopefully get us to the Panda Sanctuary for around 8.00 am. About 10km out of town the authorities decide to close and dig up main road, which throws our taxi driver completely. After asking half of the local male population for an alternative route, eventually one dear old lady puts him right.
Pandas are lovely and there are lots of them at the Panda Research Institute. You need to get there early in the morning, because as soon as the sun rises the pandas are out to play, then they eat, then by around 10.00 am they’re knackered and spend the rest of the day sleeping. Those tourists who come via the well organised coach tours completely miss out. Pandas do tend to shit a lot, but so would you if you ate such large amounts of bamboo. The whole environment at the research centre is excellent. There is plenty of space for all the pandas, an informative visitor’s centre, lovely gardens and lakes, plus the world renowned research centre. We had the pleasure of seeing a mummy panda with her little baby. The baby was only about 4 weeks hold, mirror image of its mum, but tiny in size and mum just sits there carefully holding baby in one hand. Lovely morning. Taxi back took half the time and half the price of the morning one.
*EATING AND SLEEPING – The Pandas reflect the Chinese people in their habits. The Chinese may be generally small people, but do they eat. In the hotels they will eat 3 or 4 full plates of food for breakfast. The English may take a thermos and a sandwich box to work, the Chinese take their cookers! They will sit in their shops or offices, light their stoves and cook a full blown meal or two during the day. And then they sleep, and they can sleep anywhere, in any position. Early afternoon and you will see street cleaners, traffic cops, etc asleep in doorways, park benches, anywhere they can lay their head for an hour or so.
Spent the afternoon strolling around the city. There are many tea houses in Chengdu , including a beautiful open air one in the middle of the town’s main park. It appears that everyone over 50 spends their afternoons here drinking tea and playing Mah-jong.
Today’s unbelievable site was at the ornamental goldfish pond in the middle of the tea rooms. The pond itself is no more than 3 metres square. Around the pond are half a dozen blokes with fishing rods, keep nets and all the accompanying gear.
Hate to admit it, but another Western supper as we just couldn’t face a meal of chilli fried badger’s armpit. Gave the taxi driver a 100y note for our 21y journey. Didn’t have any change so insisted we didn’t pay. After some persuading eventually took the one 5y note I did have, gave a big smile, thanked us and hoped we had a nice stay in his city.
At long last found an ATM that would accept my card, bought airline tickets for our eventual return to Shanghai, then it started to rain again.
Sunday 9th October: Chengdu – Chongqing
8.45 am and it’s a 4 hour journey in a very comfy coach to Chongqing . The drive is through a very mountainous area (to illustrate the point, the same train journey is 12-14 hours and we were strongly recommended to fly). A sub-tropical part of the country where every bit of available land is cultivated in tiers. The upper tiers are cultivated with fruit and veg, and as the tiers get lower they get wetter and are used as mini paddy fields for their rice. There are trees and shrubs, the lower wetter tiers have banks and ducks and geese abound. The whole meticulously cultivated countryside is a picture, just a shame about their houses. There are no roses round the door cottages in the Chinese countryside. There are just utilitarian, square, flat, grey and ugly houses.
1.30 pm and we arrive in the Detroit of China. Chongqing is the manufacturing centre for all of China ’s cars and motorbikes. Built on the steep sides of the Yangtze, the city is an enormous expanse of skyscrapers. A mixture of old and new, but unlike Xi’an, not very pretty. We are still in Sichuan province so take care with ordering lunch. Both have a bowl of noodles and meat sauce in a point and pay place. Tasty and not too hot.
Down to the dockside to look for our boat. Eventually find it and we’re first on board. When we set sail in the evening the skyscrapers of Chongqing are all lit up, and what an amazing site the city becomes. Few people outside China will have heard of Chongqing, yet it can claim to be the largest city in the world, the municipality having a population of 32.4 million. At night time when the boat pulls away, you look back at the skyscrapers with their amazing light shows, which for miles ascend steeply from the riverside to high on the hills. Now you realise just how big Chongqing is. Just a shame that as we were on the boat we could not get a good photograph of what looked like a futuristic city from another galaxy.
Lovely accommodation on board, the entire side of the cabin is glass, giving great views.
*NO SPARE ROOM – Travelling through the country and you soon realise that there is absolutely no spare space in China. Every square inch of usable ground is used. It is either cultivated or lived on. There is no such thing in China as open countryside. China may be bigger than Europe, but 2,000 million inhabitants need every single bit of ground to live on or provide a living. Goodness knows what will happen when they get the car in serious numbers!
Monday 11th October: The Yangtze River
Good night’s sleep and wake up to our panoramic view of the Yangtze. No need to have the curtains closed and no need for the air-con, just open the windows wide for the night. Excellent buffet breakfast (best of the tour).
Our boat, The Serenity, is spacious and has accommodation for just 178 guests. However, on this trip there are only 114 of us. One party of 80 Chinese, one party of 30 French, 2 charming Germans (Christina and Ziggy) and us two.
Beautiful sunny day and we spend the morning on the top deck watching the scenery go by. Very green and lush pointy hills with little houses dotted all over them. Superb lunch (again) on board, then a trip to the White Emperor City in the afternoon. Not actually a city, indeed not actually a village, but a beautiful mountain retreat of an Emperor from a bygone era (below)
Early evening we sail through the first, and the smallest, of the 3 gorges. Our guide for the afternoon was a local, well educated young lady and her briefing was very enlightening. Among the enormous number of facts and figures there are about the 3 gorges damn project is the logistical problem of moving out 1.3 million people. However, they are not being moved out as such, more being moved up. As the river is flooded from its original level (75 metres), to its eventual level (175 metres), the houses at the bottom are emptied and the residents are moved to the new houses further up the river bank (as seen below – the top of the path in the centre of the picture will be the new river level in 2009). The old houses are squalid, the new houses have such luxuries as running water, toilets, etc. You get the impression that most people in this part of the world think this is all quite a good idea. The Yangtze really is a working river and all the better for it.
(Well worth travelling independently. The 80 Chinese had their one guide and the 30 French had theirs. The ship’s thoughtful management ensured that at every stop a local guide was commandeered for their two English guests).
Another excellent on board dinner in the evening, then a floor show from the staff in the ballroom. Sounds really corny, but actually it was excellent. The Chinese are naturally musical and the young ladies performed their traditional dances beautifully.
Tuesday 11th October: The Yangtze River
Another beautiful sunny day and we are on our way to the next 2 gorges. To be more precise we are on our way to the last 2 of the 3 gorges, the 3 lesser gorges and the 3 mini gorges. They’ve always been there but they’ve just changed in character a bit. Originally in the main gorges the cruisers had to sail through one at a time, you navigated the lesser gorges by sampan and walked the mini gorges. With the water level now 60 metres higher, there’s easy two way traffic in the main gorges, you sail the lesser gorges in a smaller cruiser and now use the sampans in the mini gorges. So you get the same spectacular scenery, its just all moved round a bit now.
At 6.00 pm off by coach to see the construction responsible for the raising of the Yangtze’s water level by 100 metres. The 3 Gorges Damn may be controversial, but it is also spectacular. When completed in 2009 it will drive 22 turbines and produce enough electricity to power the whole of the Shanghai basin, around 5% of China’s power requirement. To get shipping from the upper to the lower Yangtze there is a lift for smaller ships and the most enormous stair of locks for all the other shipping. To get an idea of the size of these locks, I watched 7 major sea going vessels (cruise liners, container ships and fuel tankers), all appear from just the one lock when the gate opened. If the damn ever collapses god knows what will happen. But it will certainly take more than Barnes Wallace to breach it. The thickness of the damn increases from 60 metres at the top to 120 metres at the bottom.
Lovely balmy evening so I decide to stay up and watch our ship go through the lock system at half past midnight. Unfortunately, with cold beer in hand, fall asleep on deck.
Wednesday 12th October: Yangtze – Yichang – style='font-size: 14.0pt'>Shanghai
We must have made it through the lock system as we wake up sailing away towards our final destination, Yichang. We moor up and everyone starts to disembark under the guidance of their tour guide, except for Mr and Mrs No Mates from England (even the Germans had employed a guide to meet them). No problem, the ship’s charming River Guide, Dina, lives in Yichang. She invites us back to her flat where we drop of our baggage, then she takes us on a tour of her home city.
As charming as Dina is, don’t think we will be holidaying in this city. Yichang is China ’s answer to Wolverhampton . But, and it’s a big but, the food is totally different to the rest of the Sichuan province, back to the really yummy stuff again. At lunch time it’s a busy place where clearly all the businessmen eat. This time we have a whole chicken, beef with pack-choi, spicy greens and garlic, rice, melon and drinks. £6 the lot and none of us can move. Today’s memorable site was the bus we used in town. The floor was an assortment of bits of sheet metal riveted together and the seats that were bolted on to it were those stacking chairs you see in school halls. Plywood seats with tubular frames. Still what can you expect when the maximum fare is 7p.
Back to Dina’s, pick up the bags and then about a 25 mile taxi drive to the airport, along a road that was so seriously pot-holed I thought we had lost the taxi a couple of times. Plane nowhere to be seen, but a 757 finally arrives 1½ hours late. To speed up the boarding the authorities thoughtfully use both front and rear doors of the plane. However, clearly they had not reckoned on a party of Americans, who being allocated seats in rows 3 and 4, thought it would be a good idea to get on the plane via the back door. (The first and only Americans we met in China ………thank goodness).
Plane lands back in Shanghai at 6.40 and the queue for the taxis is enormous (must be 200 – 300 people). On the advice of Ben we leg it to the departures upstairs, jump in a taxi that’s dropping a passenger off and we are back at our apartment in 20 minutes. He can be clever some times our Benjamin. Ben brings round some cold beers and we debrief on the last 10 days. Early night.
*FASCINATION WITH WESTERNERS – There still are relatively few Westerners seen in China, and away from the odd Saga group visiting the Great Wall or Pandas, seeing a Westerner is a very rare experience for a Chinese person. During our travels Chinese mums and dads would approach us and ask to have their photographs taken with us. Today in Yichang was typical when a young lady asked to take a photograph of me holding her little girl. On the buses they just turn round and stare indefinitely at you. But they do appear to really like Westerners and, perhaps apart from staring at you, do have meticulous manners. The youngsters especially will always want to talk to you and practice their English.
Thursday 13th October: Shanghai
Leisurely, in-between day and nothing much to report. In between travelling mainland China and travelling the Shanghai basin. All boring stuff:
Friday 14th October: Suzhou (eventually)
Plan: 1.Early Breakfast. 2.Taxi to station. 3.Train to Suzhou arriving about 10.30.
1 and 2 went fine, but these Chinese trains get so packed so early that we could not get out of Shanghai until 11.33. The train was then delayed and we did not arrive in Suzhou until gone 1 o’clock. Then needed to buy our return ticket (don’t ask me why but you cannot purchase return tickets on Chinese trains). Timetables written totally in Chinese character, so after much head scratching a charming young chap from Taiwan (studying in the US at Hale) steps into help. The return train has to be the 17.10. By now it’s 13.45, so not much time to see the famous old Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) gardens of Suzhou. Our new found friend from Taiwan is studying architecture in the US and viewing these gardens is all part of his course work, so he is able to direct us to the two best gardens in the city.
Back to the station for the 17.10, but it’s rush hour and we can’t find a taxi. The 3 of us end up on a rickshaw, then it starts to rain. On the way we pass a dead body being tied up and loaded into the back of a van. All good fun. Just about make the train in time. Had told Ben and Enya we wouldn’t be back until late, so we find another good local restaurant for dinner that evening.
Saturday 15th October: Shanghai
Off to explore the old town today. Antique market first. Lovely set of dominoes in an old antique box, then I notice that most of the stalls have the same genuine antique dominoes in the same genuine antique box. Don’t suppose you can expect genuine Ming dominoes (with original box) for a fiver? Down to the main market.
One of the most baffling sites of the day was a chap very carefully laying a sand base inside terracotta pots. These pots were to be seen all around the pet market. After some investigating it transpired that these pots are used as fighting rings for duelling crickets (seriously). Betting in China is banned, but there is needless to say a large underground betting business, and cricket fighting is one of the favourite forms of betting. When a cricket loses a limb, or simply stops moving, the other cricket is declared the winner. At least it sounds more exciting than World Series Baseball.
Walk the Bund in the afternoon. The boats and the backdrop of the commercial centre look just as magnificent during the day as in the evening.
Back to watch Ben at his tennis lesson (about as good as his father), then shower, meal and off to the Shanghai Circus for the evening to see the acrobats. Absolutely wonderful! Chinese acrobats performing to Western choreography and stage setting. The highlight (and believe me there were many) was the old wall of death performed in a metal framed sphere about 30 feet in diameter. Watching one motorbike rotate inside at all different angles I have seen at the circus before. What I have not seen was their eventually building up to 8 motorbikes roaring round and round, at all different angles and in between each other at breath-taking speeds. Wonderful, wonderful show. They say a trip to China is not complete without taking in the circus or the theatre. How right they are.
Sunday 16th October: The Chinese Grand Prix
Beautiful day for a Grand Prix. Ben and I are down in the city centre at 7.45 where we catch our coach to the circuit, courtesy of Fosters.
Great circuit with a new state of the art train system terminating at the centre of the site. But appears, just like the Maglev, they’ve run out of money again, so no trains. Great for viewing as you can see 90% of the circuit from the stands.
The Grand Prix itself was nothing to write home about. Alonso won, Renault won the constructor’s Championship. The rest you can read about in the sports pages.
The Chinese spectators seemed far more interested in the totty that accompanies the race teams, rather than the racing itself. (Just shows that not all Chinese girls are short!).
Merrie and Enya went shopping all day.
All back to shower, let my credit card cool down, then off to a little Japanese place for dinner. Gorgeous little informal place. What looked tasty was the fish wrapped in all rice and vegetable leaves, etc. What did not look too appetising was just the plain, raw fish. Oddly enough it was the plain raw fish that was tasty, and the pretty wrapped fish was quite bland.
Monday 17th October: Shanghai
The plan was originally to go out to Zhouzhuang, but could not get a taxi in time to get us to the coach station, so put that idea off until tomorrow, and today visit the French concession.
An elegant part of Shanghai where all the streets are lined with Plane trees. Despite its name, nearly all the residents were and still are Chinese, by and large the more affluent (and no French to speak of). In the Xiangyuang market Merrie bargains hard for a Gucci leather belt for £4. Delightful lunch in a local Thai restaurant. Definitely going to Thailand next if there food is like this.
Walked and walked all day.
*THE RICH / POOR DIVIDE – You will not see it any more pronounced than in China . The most disturbing sight in China is the beggars. These are not “big issue” beggars, but truly destitute people, most having severe physical disabilities. Many are blind, have limbs missing and/or severe disfigurement. Why? I was advised primarily industrial accidents. In the UK after an accident, we call in the Health & Safety Exec and walk away with a compensation cheque. In China you get fired for being careless!
Tuesday 18th October: Zhouzhuang
Managed to get a taxi this morning and arrived at the coach station at 8.20. So in plenty of time to get the only coach to Zhouzhuang that leaves at 9.05. Or so we thought, until we purchased tickets number 41 and 42……………for our 42 seater coach.
Zhouzhuang is China ’s answer to Venice. Most of the properties are from the Ming and Qing Dynasties (1368-1911). Probably the best examples of ancient buildings that we have seen in China. Two of the properties boasted 70 and 100 rooms respectively. The numerous boats that travel the canals are something of a cross between an Oxford punt and a gondola. The ladies that pilot them sing you a sweet ditty as they paddle. Not exactly “One Cornetto” style. As with Pingyao, the main streets in Zhouzhuang are crammed with tourist shops. Without exception all properties are either shops or cafes, and like Pingyao this definitely takes away some of the charm of the place. Again, far more interesting when you explore the back streets, or in this case, the back waters.
Now lots of tourist towns have their signature food goodies that they sell (Lake District – Kendall mint cake / Cornwall – clotted cream), but in Zhouzhuang the shops are filled with piping hot roast legs of pork! We actually did not see anyone buy one, but apparently they will box them up for you (like a KFC) and presumably you either eat it on the coach on your way back, or warm it up when you get home. Most odd.
An open air theatre also performed regular shows throughout the day to enthralled audiences.
In the evening we meet up with Ralph and Mandy again and eat in an ethnic Northern Chinese restaurant (Manchurian I think?). Kebabs, pitta type bread, salads, noodles, pasta, eggs, tomatoes, etc, etc, plus the statutory crate of beer or two. Our hosts kindly pay the bill tonight, £14 for the 6 of us.
Wednesday 19th October: Shanghai – last day!
Keeping up the tradition for the last day, it’s shopping and pressies. First visit however is to another tailors to get another pair of Merrie’s trousers shortened. This time it was a pair of Levis and the tailor insisted on restitching the hems exactly in the way that Levis are stitched. £1.40 later and the jeans are perfect.
Back down to the Xiangyuang market for most of the pressies. Authentic Gucci ladies watch (for £4), the newest Ping G2 driver (£14) and other bargains too numerous to mention. Will be interesting to see just how long these items work / stay in one piece. Later in the afternoon and it’s a taxi to the silk market, just off the Bund. Merrie had chosen the two materials that she wanted a few days ago. In the meantime she had given the tailor her measurements and also had e-mailed across her sister Clare’s measurements. The two pieces of silk had now been transformed into two beautiful ladies jackets. Unlike the Xiangyuang market, this is genuine silk and top quality workmanship. Two beautiful made to measure ladies silk jackets, £11 each.
Final meal for the 4 of us and I chose the Jin She Dao roof top terrace restaurant on the Bund again. Great food and spectacular setting. Unfortunately the wind was blowing in off the river and we had to sit inside, but right next to the panoramic windows so we still had the views. Finished with a real banquet: Prawns in soy vinegar, sweet ‘n sour fish (again), roast goose, barbequed pork, chilli chicken with pancakes, spicy mushrooms, assorted green vegetables, special fried rice. All washed down with Great Wall red wine and an endless supply of Tsingtao beer. Even this final extravaganza only cost us £24.
At the end of our last supper in China. The four of us framed by the Pearl Tower on the left and the Jinmao Tower on the right.
Thursday 20th October: Shanghai - Chardstock
We get a taxi to the airport, as believe it or not the Maglev does not run before 9.00 in the morning, nor after 5.00 in the afternoon, because it is too expensive to run. So just a bit more about this train. The Maglev (magnetic levitation……doesn’t actually touch the track) cost £1.2 billion to construct (for just 20 miles of track!), 10 times over budget. The authorities ran out of money by the time they got to the outskirts of the city, so anyone using the train will always have to find a secondary means of transport to get to and from the city end of the Maglev. A taxi from the centre to the Maglev station will cost you around 40y, then if like us there are two of you, the train tickets set you back 100y. Total 140y. Or you can simply jump in a cab from the city centre, and like us, the cab will take you right to the departure lounge at Pudong Airport for 126y. No wonder the Maglev is struggling. The train reaches a speed of 431 km/h, but the maximum speed for the train is actually 475 km/h, however the operators advise that when the two trains pass each other at a combined speed of 600 mph, the wind / vacuum created between the trains can significantly destabilise them. Apparently this is not desirable when travelling at this speed. The good news is that it is British engineering, the bad news is that it is rumoured that Gordon Brown wants to build a Maglev from London to Edinburgh when he becomes PM.
Flight leaves on time.
Flight arrives on time.
Coach to Taunton leaves on time.
Coach arrives at Taunton on time.
Adrian kindly picks us up again and takes us home.We sleep well………..what a holiday!