The great adventure has begun at last. I must have looked a bit seedy at the airport in Sydney as I was offered a wheel chair by special assistance and a massage in quick succession. The flight was delayed 2 hours so we visited the Observation Desk and checked our emails and had a last-minute word with friends. Good flight, food and drink was plentiful and reasonably seyong (tasty).
A thunder storm surrounded Pudong airport by the time we got to Shanghai so we ended up being diverted to HongQiao Airport and landed 3 hours after our scheduled arrival. The drama wasn’t over because HongQiao is the old international airport and Immigration Officers had to be located to process the planes that were arriving. So we sat in the plane for another couple of hours and then spent at least another hour in the queue. By now the crowd was fed up. It was hot and sultry, no air conditioning. They started demanding that the AC be switched on. The local officials and the police were unmoved. Mostly it was good, not bad stuff but a few guys got heated up and it was interesting to see authority being challenged (about 10 % Westerners on the flight all very amused).
We were worried that our hotel booking may have lapsed because we were so late but there was no drama. Our room is great, the hotel old but recently refurbished and everything comfortable. Finally to bed about 5am Sydney time, 3am Shanghai time.
First thing in the morning we went down to the desk and decided to book a day trip around Shanghai. A good move, as within half an hour we were picked up by the half-sized bus and tour guide, a pint-sized young lady with a little English but plenty of Chinese. We were taken first to the Bund, which is the Shanghai waterfront along the river.
The Huangpu river flows between Shanghai and its sister development Pudong. We took some photos of the magnificent sights with some of the incredible buildings both in Pudong and along the Shanghai waterfront. People everywhere.
We then went to the Shanghai City Planning Expo which is the Planning Authority for the Shanghai Expo in 2005, Shanghai’s equivalent of Beijing’s Olympics. A building was devoted to the organisation for the Expo including a hard to believe scale (500:1) model of the city with all its streets, actual buildings, rivers, and parks – all in the finest detail and laid out over an area of 30 metres square with raised viewing platforms and special lighting. Unbelievable.
We then went to Pudong via one of the several tunnels under the river to view the Oriental Pearl Tower which is 400 metres high and has three buildings, joined by huge “pipes” which raise the lifts. The sight from the top of this building-circular/viewing was awesome, no kidding. Everywhere skyscrapers as far as the eye can see. World Trade Centre adjacent with its twin globes and the 88 storey Jin Mao Tower very impressive. People, people everywhere, in the base of the oriental pearl was a cultural and historical exhibition that would knock your socks off. The displays covered building history and both ends of society, the rich merchants to the peasants – again the scale of it was inconceivable – you could spend a week there digesting it – we were there about 40 minutes.
Then on to Huren an old street very traditional – we had lunch with everyone with me sitting between 2 Chinese lads who were keen to practice their English – one just starting Uni was reasonably articulate. After a twenty minute lunch in a restaurant we went for a stroll along a traditional market street where we experienced our first taste of aggressive selling; friendly and polite but tugging at your arm desperately looking for you to buy. Lilly was more than a match for them with same aggressive buying and some real bargains. Most stuff really cheap-about 1/5 of what you would pay in OZ.
We went to a small temple off the street after that we boarded a ferry/boat for a trip down the Huangpu river with the Bund on one side and Pudong on the other. Skyscrapers as far as the eye can see. Huge buildings, not just one apartment block but grids of them. Development everywhere, cranes fill the skyline, bamboo scaffolding and green matting stretch to the sky. The buildings are often topped by sculptures and structures all different and amazing. Barges scurry past in all directions, those without a load dance along on top, those with a load sit low in the water, almost taking it in over the sides. Huge container ships pass with horns blaring. It is an experience not to be missed. We then stopped once more at the Bund for more photos across the river from Pudong with some of the French and English influence still apparent along the waterfront.
We finished at the Bund at 6 o’clock and crashed back at the hotel for half an hour. After that we walked along a couple of blocks to Nanjing Road which is the main shopping centre of Shanghai. Before we got there we did same shopping up an alleyway where there was an incredible array of clothes and other gear. Talk about aggressive selling again of all the international brands. Galvin Klein undies, normally a million dollars in OZ, selling for $2 a pop here. Gold watches unbelievably cheap, but would they be telling the time in 5 minutes.
Nanjing Road is an incredible sight – it stretches for what seems like miles, most of it mall – development still goes on along both sides. The huge flashing Neon lights and people everywhere add to the excitement and glitter. We had a meal at the Nanjing Hotel (three courses and orange drinks for 89 yan almost the same as OZ except $1 = 5.7 yan) Crashed out like a light back at the hotel at 11.30.
Previous day we decided on a day tour to Hangzhou – a city about 2 hours by train from Shanghai. We were called at 5:30am and the bus arrived to pick us up 10 minutes early at 5:50; too efficient for that time of the morning. If yesterday was a full day wait for today! After picking up other people at various hotels we were given tickets for the rail journey and dropped off at the Shanghai railway station. About 20 of us.
It is hard to capture the experience of a train ride out of one large city at one end and into another at the other end and through the countryside. Skyscrapers and buildings abound. Every inch of farming land is used – rice, vegetable, lotus, fish ponds – It has been wet and there is a lot of water around but no evidence of flooding. There are few shacks, mainly solid concrete dwellings – looks reasonably prosperous, not the peasant, subsistence farming I expected. A lot of villages, towns and cities, huge factories and apartment complexes everywhere.
We arrived in Hangzhou about 9am and were met by a guide and a bus. The bus stopped and started throughout the day at various places, the guide never stopped. Lilly said she was informative and educational, told jokes, related the history and took the opportunity to get some philosophical messages across.
We went first to the West Lake on the outskirts of the city. This is a big man-made lake further across than you could see but very beautiful setting and bush all around. We travelled by ferry (twice) to various beauty spots including the Broken Bridge and the Dancing Leaves Bridge. The water in the lake is replaced every 33 days. Lots of tour groups everywhere with guides using loudspeakers to ensure they were heard. The secretary and beauty of this area is up to anything you can see in NZ.
We then went to the Yui Fen memorial to a powerful man – a 330kg weight lifter who lived about 900 years ago and was executed by an emperor at the time – the public was indignant about it and 20 years later another emperor erected the memorial. Very impressive temple and buildings. Here we had a lunch of rice and fish and egg and chicken and the ground-up root of the Lotus.
Then on to a silk manufacturing company – which is run by the military – they showed us how the silk worm weaves its cocoon and the incredible strength of the silk. The silk garments are not cheap but it was interesting to see the process and the superb qualities of the silk, mainly for wearing in hot climes.
Then on to tea growing and making. In this area there were more tea plants growing on every vaguely useful bit of dirt disappearing into the clouds on hillsides. Not more than “all the tea in China”, but close. Once again a Chinese military company with a very slick presentation on the growing, harvesting and making of tea. Green tea is the best for you they said. Not me, I think but I hesitated to argue on the relative merits of Qingdao beer, given these guys were military. The leaves for the best tea are just the new tips from the tea trees which grow in hedge rows up to about waist height. We bought some Green tea which is apparently good for cholesterol and the internal waterworks (beer again is better). Must get Mother on to it (the green tea).
Next stop was a Sung dynasty exhibition, paintings at the time about 1100 years ago. A businessman apparently spent $16m on various exhibits including a huge man-made mountain, waterfalls, swing bridges and some great water obstacles that various young guys were trying. Many tour groups and great entertainment for everybody with horse and camel rides, pottery and blacksmiths.
Then we went on to the massive Buddhist Ling Yen temple, really 4 separate temples. We climbed thousands of stairs to each, which were set on the side of a hill. Giant Buddhas had been carved in to the stone side of the hill more than 1000 years ago. In one huge hall sat 500 special, middle-aged, larger-than-life men carved out of wood at that time. All had unique facial features. Some professional, some religious, some warriors, some learned, but all completely different.
On the tour today was a tiny Japanese man who smoked a lot. Only the language barrier prevented me from informing him kindly that smoking stunts your growth. What was really incongruous was the face mask he wore when he wasn’t smoking.
We ended up in a Cave of Lovers, a very beautiful spot.
By the time we got back to Shanghai, it was 9:30 – got the underground back to the hotel, went for a walk and had some noodles in the hotel before collapsing. A long day.
Distance covered the last two days after consulting with legs this morning was in excess of 2000 kilometers. We breakfasted in hotel before a walk along the Bund, then a cab to Hungshou airport for the domestic flight to Beijing. All worked perfectly with cabs and flights on time. Domestic airport in Shanghai is old but busy, Beijing much like other international airports.
The only hiccup at the Beijing end was that Lilly’s address for our destination in Beijing was not precise enough so we had to ask two or three times as we got close. A very pleasant little flat has been made available by friends and so we are having a relaxing day today to recover and re-charge the batteries.
Our friend’s grandparents also have a flat on the same floor and we meet up with them. Flat is very central in this massive city which is a bit cooler than Shanghai. Smog worse here but this is apparently a hazy day.
By the time we have an early dinner with the Gramps, had a walk around the area and looked after some of the more pressing business at an internet café, we are done for the day. The Gramps are very considerate and have apparently gone to a lot of trouble to clean and tidy the flat we are in. In this gated complex are several apartment blocks. Very pleasant well-maintained gardens with floodlit tennis court in the grounds and you would think this was an up-market Western-style apartment complex.
Up bright and early for breakfast at a hotel about a kilometre from home. Substantial breakfast of yellow rice soup, won tons, egg, pastry and flavouring cost us the massive sum of 3 yuan 80 about 70 cents.
Met up with Linda’s Dad briefly and rode his bicycle. Went to China Travel Service and booked a tour to Sichuan for next week. Lilly nearly lost 5000 yuan. Needs to be more careful!! Opened a bank account.
Then off by bus to the Temple of Heaven. A long journey cost 1 yuan (18 cents) – the cost for one stop or multiple stops. All hustle and bustle is first impression. People everywhere, horns going, bikes, people, cars, buses compete for space on the roads that are often exceptionally wide and dead flat. Organised chaos prevails. Somehow the system works. Watch your back, front and sides, remember when crossing the road to first look left as the traffic keeps to the right as in America. No trucks on the road – they are allowed only late during the night. Although horns are used liberally, drivers are considerate and I see very few accidents.
Temple of Heaven is to the South East of the city but still within the city. Everything about it is massive. This is where the emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties worshipped and prayed for bumper crops. For a start it is set in 273 hectares of trees, grass and gardens, criss-crossed by walking paths and surrounded by a wall, semi-circular at one end and part square at the other, in accordance with ancient beliefs that heaven was round and earth square.
The two main structures within the grounds are the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests and the Circular Mound Alter. The latter was for worshipping the heaven on the winter solstice. The two structures are connected by a 360 metre long raised walk on a North-South Axis. It was built first in 1420 (by the Ming) and expanded and reconstructed in a later dynasty (by the Qing). It is an absolute masterpiece of ancient architecture and grandeur. The Emporers attended annually for ceremonies to pray for bumper crops and appease the gods with animal sacrifices.
Other buildings include Imperial Vault of Heaven, Fasting Palace, Beamless Hall, Long Corridor, Longevity Pavilion, Belfry (yes, we rang the huge bell) and others too numerous to mention. By the end of the day I was footsore and even my indefatigable beloved was feeling it a bit in the legs.
Caught a bus, then underground, then another bus home. Transportation in Beijing is fantastic. You never wait long and if one bus is too full, the next will be along in a blink. Underground trains likewise.
Sample some Beijing cuisine at a local hotel. Dinner is so cheap, cooking seems pointless.
We have covered a lot of territory over the last 4 days. Decided today would not be so mileage intensive. After breakfast, organising photos, booking YanTai ticket we take off by bus to do the Hutong Tour and visit Behai Park.
The Hutong tour is to give us a bit of feeling for how the middle-level Chinese live. We are taken by rickshaw through narrow streets (hutongs) to visit the old quadrangles which are essentially a square of rooms (one deep) surrounding a courtyard. The home we visited was occupied by a retired archaeologist who was obviously a professional and a dignified man of about 75. He lived there with several sons and daughters (one at least of whom was married) and a granddaughter of 10. There were three kitchens and one bathroom. All pleasantly laid out and clean and tidy. Kitchens and bathroom fairly basic, otherwise all the mod cons including some antique furniture which he said was valued at about Yuan250,000 or $45,000.
His home valued at about Y2.5 million or $400,000. These are no ordinary Chinese. Relatively well off and probably status-wise regarded as upper middle class.
During the rickshaw tour we also visited the palace of Prince Gong, who was the uncle of the last Qing emperor. We weren’t able to get in to the palace but toured the imperial gardens, notable for the 9999 (very lucky number) figures of bats in all different places around the gardens. The Chinese word for bats sounds the same as the word “lucky” so the idea was to double the luck. 9999 luckies. Unfortunately for old Uncle Gong his luck ran out, the Qing dynasty was about to be overthrown by the people. That occurred in 1911. The lavish scale of Uncle’s palace and grounds was characteristic of the corruption and vast accumulation of wealth of the emperors of both Ming and Qing dynasties. It eventually led to their downfall.
Across the road from Uncle’s place is another huge complex, Behai Park. A park yes, but much more than a park. This was the recreation spot for the emperors. It dates back 800 years and covers an area almost a kilometre square. About half of it is taken up by a lake with swimming fish and floating lotus. On an island in the middle of the lake is a white pagoda and there are a number of other ancient buildings and structures including the Tranquil Heart Studio, The Painted Boat Studio, The Five Dragon Pavilion and the White Jade Buddha. There are caves with 60 gods signifying the twelve years of the Chinese calendar with a break every 60 years. Have I got that right? Anyway we also saw the Nine Dragon Wall and a magnificent pine tree said to be 800 years old. Bit like our tree hut pine in NZ.
Up at 6 for our usual breakfast and picked up at 7 for our trip to the Great Wall. Toured around and eventually picked up 20 in a mini-bus with fold-down seats in the aisle. Today a more mature male tour guide, who not only told us where we were going and what it was all about but tried to get across some political messages, poked some fun at leaders and former leaders and highlighted the political implications of a change of balance of power for Beijing when Jiang Zemin acceded to the throne. Beijing of course is the political and cultural centre of the country, Shanghai the commercial centre. Bit like the east of Beijing city is rich, west of the city is noble. Naturally we reside in the west. This almost yin yang approach pervades Chinese attitudes and thinking.
Today we travelled for about 2 and half hours after leaving Beijing city. Countryside is mainly cultivated (being early Autumn) with some corn and a lot of orcards, apples pears and peaches. Some looked good, others a bit scruffy. Not too big a contrast with big Western cities.
We stopped firstly at 13 Ling Reservoir which was part of a Great Leap Forward project. Four hundred thousand “volunteers” worked day and night to build this reservoir. Hello, that’s 400,000 folk. The Chinese ignored a Russian warning that the reservoir would leak. After Mao died in 1976 the reservoir dried up. In the 1980s a Japanese businessman recognized the potential of a beautiful local environment, put some money in, fixed the leak and built an entertainment complex on the reservoir and underground. He called it the Dragon King Palace and created an underground sea fairy tale which we were taken through by a moving conveyor and seats along the length of it. Quite an impressive display.
Next a film – scary – we were strapped into seats and given the ride of our lives as the huge screen in front of us shoved logs going through giant saws and we went up and down fragile rail tracks. Very life-like. Also a real ride this time down some rapids.
Then a visit to a jade producer (so we could buy) and then on to the main purpose of the tour the Great Wall, supposedly the only man-made object visible from outer space. On the way in the bus I was looking out the window and felt this not unpleasant sensation of being stroked on the arm. As Lilly was sitting in the seat in front I wondered who could be responsible. It was quite amusing that a Chinese guy of about 40 had reached across the aisle and was stroking my arm out of interest for how the hair felt. We all had a good laugh about it as we realised he was just being curious and there were no romantic notions.
We reached the kick-off point for a climb up the Great Wall too late for comfort but still managed an energy draining walk up this huge wall from the 4th turret to the 8th turret. We were taken by cable car to the 4th) The round trip took about 2 and a half hours. The wall is absolutely massive and in some parts very, very steep. Started about 2200 years ago, an absolutely incredible feat of engineering, diligence and stamina. The wall is in many sections totaling about 6000 kms long apparently and built/strengthened, manned/maintained at various times by various dynasties. Back in the mini van we were treated to videos of Chinese comedy and shows as we travelled back to Beijing.
Today we are re-gathering our strength for the days ahead. We are off to Tianamen Square by bus. It is huge, flanked by the People’s Hall on one side, Mao’s mausoleum on another, a museum on another and the Forbidden City to the North. The square is big enough to hold a million people. Today it is being prepared for the October 1st National Day celebrations and we take photos of mountains of flowers and plants being placed by cranes.
After that Lilly and I head for the shopping centre for lunch with Mr & Mrs Ren at the Quan Ju De which has a proud history of being Beijing’s top restaurant. It has five floors of restaurants and we have a delicious meal of Peking duck wrapped in pastry skins with flavouring and duck liver and duck soup and salad. Very tasty, almost up to Lilly’s dumplings. Then shopping in centres up to the standard of Chatswood Chase, Westfield. Quality good and prices expensive because most of this stuff is imported. In a book shop (of more than five floors) I buy books on a history of China and a “Glimpse into China’s culture, plus a set of tapes for learning conversational Chinese. I get talking to a local guy who taught himself English and wanted to check his progress. Quite good. We watch a water display in the street outside and went off-street and down-market for some much cheaper wares from Paddy market-type stalls. Home by bus.
Off quite early towards the Summer Palace but first stop at dental hospital (teeth must look good before visit palace where emperors frolicked in the cool during hot Beijing summers) to see if they can fix my tooth that had dropped out. Dentist with quite good English explained it needed root canal treatment taking at least a month. She was professional and competent, as was reception, nothing third world here.
Notwithstanding missing tooth we press on to Summer Palace, like anything dynastic, huge and impressive. An area 2km long and 1 km wide, 75% of which is a huge man-made lake with an island in the middle and a huge hill at one end. That’s where all the excess material went because Beijing is as flat as a pancake. Unfortunately the water level of the lake has fallen dramatically and there is only limited boating on the lake. We walked and walked between monstrous hills and temples and pagodas, the most impressive of which was the “Hall of the Buddha in the Temple of Gratitude and Immense Longevity in the Gardens of the Clear Ripples”. Other buildings equally impressive with beautiful and descriptive names. We walked over a bridge to the “island” and roamed around. Along some streets in another part of the palace we picked our way along the water’s edge, sometimes precariously in the absence of hand rails.
In one of the stalls, an old wizened Chinese man was doing calligraphy. He had a long wispy grey beard and looked as if he belonged to an age of antiquity. As we came up to him he announced in clear and loud English “fortune teller”. I said no I’m merely a financial adviser. It was lost on him so I didn’t bother adding that it was pretty much the same line of business. He then asked me how my fortune was. I said it was good enough thanks. He had obviously learned a couple of key English phrases (both better than any of my Chinese) but he could not otherwise communicate. Pity we couldn’t talk about his professional fee for a consultation. He looked about 300 years old so I hope good fortune smiles upon him too.
The Summer Palace, also known as the Garden of Perfect Harmony, was and is the largest imperial palace and garden preserved to this day. It recognized by the UN as a National Heritage treasure and is particularly notable for its garden design and landscape. Back home by bus.
Up today at 6:15 for an early breakfast and off by bus to the Forbidden City. First we intended to visit Mao’s mausoleum at the southern end of Tiananmen Square but the queue, which was 6 abreast and inching forward snaked out of the huge building, stretched a kilometre down the square and disappeared around the corner. For all we knew it ended in Outer Mongolia; should we take a train to join it to see a tomb perhaps of some significance to Lilly but only of passing interest to me. Instead we headed right in to the Forbidden.
The first hall we encountered was not a hall but the Tiananmen Gate, a sizeable hall with a raised viewing area for politicians and dignitaries to review military parades on occasions such as the forthcoming October 1st National Day celebrations. We took some photos of us waving to crowds in the vastness of the Square. This is where Mao addressed up to a million people during the Great Leaps Forward and Cultural Revolution.
From there we made it through another large square to the Meridian Gate, the main entrance to the city which is the bang in the centre of Beijing. Well it would be of course. This after all was the imperial palace and home of the Ming and Qing dynasties and was constructed 600 years ago. It has not been occupied since 1911, when the last of the Qing emperors was overthrown. Unfortunately, it has not been all that well preserved and in many parts is obviously in need of repair and renovation. This massive task, the palace has 8700 rooms and occupies an area of about 70 hectares, has already begun. We spent most of the day there and estimated we saw about a fifth of it. There is a moat around it 52 metres wide and the outside wall is 10 mteres high and 3500 metres long. It is or was in essence a fortified castle. Inside are a number of palaces and halls where the emperor and empress and wives, concubines lived and played and if they had to, handled affairs of state. Corruption pervaded every level of society during the Ming and Qing dynasties and this is where it began and was at its most insidious. The people were enslaved by feudal lords, landed gentry and favoured lackeys, all overseen by the imperials. This was a collection point for the wealth of the nation – to subsidize every extravagance on a grand scale. No wonder it was so forbidding to average Chinese.
We covered a lot of ground, seeing exhibitions of warriors, jade, gold, bronze and countless precious relics. Many of the rooms had original beds, chairs, lights and furnishings and it was fascinating to see how the royals lived. Or died. In one place we saw a well where one of the concubines was thrown into and died. Her crime: supporting reforms that the Emperor wanted to introduce in the face of opposition from his Mother, the former Emperor CiXi. That will teach you son for crossing me, say good bye to your favourite concubine.
Thousands perhaps tens of thousands were visiting The Forbidden today and it was yet another day requiring leg and foot stamina. We made it home via two buses for dumplings with the Gramps.
Wake up to the usual sound of Tai Chi outside our window. We are only 2 floors up and have a good view of the Tai Chi exercises by young and old and can hear the music. About 15 regulars. This morning they are using swords and standing a bit further apart than usual. Not surprising. The movements are very controlled and deliberate and follow the music, mostly quite slow but occasionally quick. The older guys are better at it, while some are obviously learning.
We have been very lucky with this place Lilly’s ex has made available – the Gramps have made it comfortable and it is a real haven to come home to at the end of the day. Deliberately a quiet day today as we leave for Sichuan at 5am tomorrow. Lilly tells me in the old days nobody would have wanted her as their wife because she eats too much and has big feet. She could have been a dragon or a donkey as long as the feet were small and the appetite tiny.
We have called people about arrangements for tomorrow, cleared emails and are back home by midday for rest and reading. Lilly having eaten water melon and started on a mound of peanuts is planning lunch. Late afternoon off to get travel instructions and shopping for table tennis bats and balls in this vast complex. Dinner at night with the Rens, finally on us this time.
Friday – Lilly is up at 4:30, me at 5 to catch a cab to the airport for our flight to Chengdu, the capital and largest city of Sichuan. (pop 7m) The city is in a basin and is apparently always covered by fog, cloud or mist. They rarely see the sun. Today was no exception. We flew in blind with visibility at about 200 metres. Chengdu is noted for its tea cafes, with some people able to get a Ph.D in pouring tea from a long spout into tiny little cups.
We did not stay in Chengdu but started off immediately on our journey. Our flight left Beijing at 7:30, we landed about 10:00am, took off in the tour bus about 10:30 and finally arrived at our destination in the mountains at 9:30pm.
There are 24 of us. All of us young folk (25-30, give or take a year or 3 in our case) apart from one Chinese couple, she is 71 and he is 75. The highways out of Chengdu are wide, not that many vehicles and plenty of room on the road. Many of the houses are painted white with horizontal brown lines and flower patterns. Later the flower patterns change. A lot of the farming is subsistence with rice and other crops. Distinctive little teepees of rice; straw everywhere. Millions of flocks of geese (or should that be gaggles, better google it) and the ubiquitous fish ponds.
Two hours out of Chengdu we have lunch in Sichuan’s second city Mianyang (pop 4.6m) 20% bigger than Sydney and I had never heard of it. This is a high tech city with more than 50% of its income derived from computers and electronic industries. 43 research institutes, aircraft testing, wide roads, very clean and tidy. At some intersections in this city they show in large red or green numbers the seconds to go before the lights change. After a good lunch we drive on through what seems like more prosperous country with larger farms and better homes. We drive past the home of Li Bai, a major poet of the Tang dynasty, often referred to as the golden age of classical Chinese poetry. Beans grow on teepees, much corn is hung out to dry in the eaves of homes. Once we get into the hills the road narrows and we climb steadily throughout the afternoon. I had no issues with driving when there were four lanes and plenty of room, but now find the driver is aggressive and driving too fast for the conditions. Particularly when overtaking, forget about solid white lines or solid double lines, anything in front of us has to be overtaken NOW. The bus lurches around and what should have been a pleasant trip is downright scary. Very likely nobody else on the bus drives a car, so they are oblivious. I eventually get to grips with my nerves and try to sleep.
We arrive at this place called Juizhaigo, have a good meal of rice and veg and collapse into bed in a hotel called the Red Diamond. The bedroom and facilities are above expectations with all the mod cons and we sleep well.
Saturday – This area of 800,000 people is deep in the hills and apparently not all that far from the Tibet Autonomous Region. The ethnic minority, one of 55 in China, is the Zang (Tibetan) but there are others in the area. This morning we are up at 6:30 and picked up at 7:45 for the first days travel in this picturesque area.
We drive to the foot of the valley only about 5 minutes away where we are processed along with thousands of others very efficiently through turnstiles and on to special buses (using LNG to preserve the environment) for the trip up the valley. We drive past many lakes and waterfalls in the 14km to the top of the valley. It is a beautiful sight – the lakes are blue or dark green, the water is fresh and the waterfalls spectacular. The steep cliffs and soaring peaks on each side of the valley remind me of NZ, particularly where they are covered by trees like poplar, spruce, cedar and all varieties of pine. So essentially we start at the top of the valley in the morning and meander down (by bus and walking at various intervals) throughout the day to see the best sights. The scenery is magnificent with Autumn colours, mist around the high peaks and tree lined mountains, shades of the Buller Gorge in the north of the South Island of NZ.
At the top of the valley is the Long Lake and the Old Man Cypress (age about 500 years). Progressively we see rapids, green lakes, deep blue lakes and virgin forest. It was a big day, capped off by a concert by the local people in a very civilized venue. Distinctive for the variety of performances, brilliant costumes and pretty girls and fit young blokes dancing and singing.
We were served wine and tea in our seats and some of the audience danced on stage with the performers after wine and invitations. The Zang and Cheong minorities featured and in an audience of about 400, I think I was about the only foreigner. The show ended with the performers coming out in to the audience to toast us and give photo opportunities. An unforgettable experience at an unforgettable decibel level.
Sunday – On the move again today with breakfast at 6:30 and in the bus fully packed by 7. Today we start back towards Chengdu, travelling most of the day before reaching Juanlong at 10pm. First stop is a precious stone purveyor where we see some magnificent pieces of quartz and precious stones and a lot of necklaces, trinkets and gems. An hour or so later we emerge from the forest areas and suddenly find ourselves in a landscape almost devoid of vegetation, a bit like Broken Hill. The air is chill. Every now and then we pass through a village with some cultivated fields around and yaks grazing.
We stop at a fine meats purveyor to sample some yak products and hot flavouring. Lilly buys some dried meat and if we get hugely hungry we may eat it. Yaks are grown at over 3000 metre altitudes and the meat is supposed to contain all the herbs and natural stuff they eat that is also found in Chinese medicines. Naturally at the next stop was a huge range of Chinese medicines but we didn’t buy but because it was all very expensive. Nether did we need to because we are just naturally healthy.
We then climb (by another bus) up a winding road a bit like the Takaka Hill (in NZ), precipitous and at times above the clouds. At one point we are at 4328 metres almost half the height of Everest and a lot higher than our own Mt Cook (3754m).
A little bit later we stop at about 3500 metres to have a walk through beautiful forest and to view some lakes. The air is thin and some people complain of feeling oxygen starved. We can buy Oxygen bottles for about $9 but Lilly and I decide we would give the walk a go without. The walk is 3.km much of it steep. Porters were carrying people up for Y220, about $35 but neither were we having any of that. Four hours was allowed for the walk – Lilly and I covered it easily in two and half with frequent stops for rest and photos. I think we proved to ourselves that we were fitter than most of the young folk half our age. At the top of the walk we see some calcified lakes with water cascading gently from one lake to the next in terraces. Quite a panorama and well worth the visit. Lilly felt a bit sick afterwards from the altitude effects but within an hour or so of descending had fully recovered. Some of the others, in particular the old couple were not well.
After the walk we travel by bus for about five hours following a river to Huanglong (close to Songpan). The tour guide is great. She is a little thing with a big heart and an even bigger capacity for talking. She also sings well and had everyone singing today, even me despite my half-hearted protests that I was oxygen starved. We had one pit stop for corn and apples to eat on the bus. At 10pm we eat another good meal and collapse into bed at 11 after another memorable day. Hotel is fine and I am asked to complete a form required for foreigners.
Monday – Fourth day of our trip to Sichuan. We are in Mao country today travelling on a different route back to Chengdu and following the same river as yesterday. The river is fast flowing with lots of rapids and the valley is huge with steep cliffs on one side and villages where there is any space, on the other. The road alternates from one side of the valley to the other. Apples are grown where there is soil and space (goldens and red delicious) and as this is the season everyone is selling them. This is the area of the Qiang minority but I may have that spelling dead wrong. Homes are often of stone with mud the binder. Better homes are painted with different patterns on the walls. No such thing as graffiti in China.
Our first stop is for a presentation by a local lass on tea and tea drinking which this area is famous for. 24 of us sit in 2 circles on small stools around this low table and this young lady tells us all about tea and the local cultures. She had everyone laughing at her anecdotes and stories, except for me. I enjoyed it all anyway. The tea here is grown on trees that reach 16 feet in height and the leaves are harvested from the top by ladder. The locals don’t inter-marry with the Han Chinese (90% of Chinese are Han) and there is a matriarchal system with the women doing the farm work and the men staying at home and looking after the home and the children.
A host of tour buses compete on the roads everywhere here with bikes, pedestrians, tractors, trucks and the odd horse. Size and weight prevail with large trucks dominating. The tour drivers are all aggressive and horns go constantly.
We didn’t see any Pandas but learn they eat 25kgs of bamboo leaves daily and drink a lot of water. The combination makes them inebriated and they then lie prostrate. They may have two offspring at a time, in which event one will be ignored and die if left to nature.
DuJiangYan (pop 600,000) on the Min River is the highlight today. It has a huge water diversion project that had its beginnings 2200 years ago when a famous Chinese water expert Li Bin came to the river and diverted it for irrigation purposes. The idea was and is to separate the water carrying silt from that not carrying silt and to use the latter for irrigation, drinking and industry. There is a dam that the main river flows towards. Only 50 metres before the dam is a shallower off-take area that is formed and the “top” water flows naturally into an inner river. There are swing bridges over both rivers and the whole area has been made a scenic spot. Included is a memorial to Li Bin. Well worth it even if a 10km section of the road just before it was a shocker. An expressway is underway and they are not bothering with the old road. In Nigeria potholes could swallow small cars. Not quite that bad here.
We then drive in to Chengdu which we reach in reasonable time for an evening free to fend for ourselves. Catch a cab 10kms to the centre of the city where we find a mall a bit like Nanjing Road in Shanghai; only on a smaller scale. Lilly and I wandered along but couldn’t find anywhere that we could agree to eat and end up not talking to each other over a hamburger at McDonalds. As we enter the restaurant a young bloke ran out of the next door apartment store with something in his hand. A security guard took off in hot pursuit but they rounded a corner so we didn’t see the outcome.
Tuesday – Left the hotel this morning at a leisurely 8 am on the tour bus for Leishan. Warm with little visibility, typical for Chengdu. The highway out was impressive. Not many vehicles, three lanes each side and divided by a middle strip with neatly trimmed hedges and flowers. Hedges and trees along the flanks and now and again a spaghetti junction. A lot of land land with small plots of mainly rice. Every now and then a man or woman is sweeping the highway with a broom. Later the countryside is a bit hilly with beans and tea. It is difficult to generalise about China. You can’t characterize the eastern cities as being modern nor the inland cities as being 3rd world. Chengdu and Mian Yang are modern cities in many respects. Some areas of this province of Sichuan are manifestly poorer as are some areas of Sydney or the outback. Wherever you travel, there are sharp contrasts, some places are neat and tidy and modern and others are dirty rundown and basic. The question is: how long will it take to close the gap?
After visiting another crystal and precious stone purveyor and getting the usual commercial oriented presentation we headed off to see the Great Buddha. He or she is located at Leishan about 2 hours drive from Chengdu. Leishan is a city of only 3 million people situated on the confluence of three rivers (including the one we have followed for 2 days). 200 kms downstream the river then flows in the Yangtze. We are now in the middle of this great river system. Transport by boat is possible in this area as the river is slower and wider and deeper, where previously the river was one continuous rapid movement over boulders.
The Great Buddha is an international attraction, being carved out of rock during the Tang dynasty. It is 71 metres tall and was built over three generations from about 730 AD to 810 AD. It is an Indian style Buddha and is absolutely immense. We started at the top and to one side and walked in single file down the side of this cliff on concrete steps with a guard rail to prevent falls. The sensation of walking back and forth downwards to the foot of the statute was an experience in itself as at times you looked straight down the cliff face to the river 50 to 60 metres below. There followed a presentation about tea and local culture and beliefs.
Arrived back at the hotel in Leishan at 5:15pm. Our room was on the 6th floor, no lift, no shower separation, had dinner at 6pm with the group and then Lilly and I walked to the centre of the city about 15 minutes away. This is also the food area where you can sample the local delights such as rabbit heads or whatever takes your fancy. I have lived on rice, fruit and veg the last few days and refused meat and fish. Virtually everyone in the group has been sick or had the runs, so either I have been lucky or the policy has paid off. Nothing tempts me tonight – to the contrary.
Lilly is congratulated tonight by at least three people on her excellent Chinese. Many people think she too is a foreigner and we all have a good laugh when she tells them she is Chinese. Back at the hotel for an early night.
Wednesday – Up at 6 this morning and in the bus at 6:50. A lot of our group are sick and the 4 star hotel comforts are no consolation. At least two stay behind today unable to tackle the new day. We drove a short distance to a tour bus depot where we are loaded on a different bus. We climb up one side of a beautiful valley with a fast running stream sometimes a 100 metres down and large boulders at the bottom. This is the legacy of millions of years where huge rocks tumbled down the almost sheer cliff face and have been rounded by the water. Very beautiful area, reminded me of New Zealand even more here because of the lower altitude and the similarity of the trees and luxuriant undergrowth. After about 20 minutes up this valley – passing donkeys on the road and squeezing past other tour buses sometimes with wheels only inches from the edge – we make it to my great relief. Everybody else is too sick to worry about it or completely oblivious to the road.
This mountainous area is Emei and we were there to see temples and monks on the one hand and monkeys on the other. It was about an hours walk up the mountain but because of time constraints, we all took the 8 minute cable car ride. The views were spectacular and the ride breathtaking, up and over hills and valleys with streams and the forest below. All over too soon. At the end we walked up many stairs to a succession of temples – all beautifully maintained – with many buddhas and incense and shops selling trinkets. The whole enormous complex looked very prosperous with flowers, bonsais and walkways. In stark contrast were the hukkas who carted people up and down the mountain and the sturdy short men who shouldered logs and other large loads up the mountain from the very base. No cable car for them. Some of the loads carried by these guys were unbelievable, topped off by three or four live and mature hens going to their maker at the top of the mountain. One of the tour members remarked that the whole thing was just too commercial but the tour guide (a local Sichuan girl) would have none of that. The money had to be made from the tourists otherwise the complex would not be maintained. I am a bit cynical when religion feeds off commerce and this all seemed a bit overt. I also had some sympathy for these poor guys carrying huge loads up the mountain. What happens to them if their livelihood goes? Perhaps they would live longer!
After viewing the temples, we head off in a half hour walk through a beautiful valley with a raised walkway between cliffs and with a stream below. We see a lot of monkeys, cheeky little buggers, grabbing stuff off you, quick as lightning and with a good head for heights. Lilly took photos of me with the monkeys but was not so keen in being photographed with them. Was she thinking I had more of an affinity with them because of my relative IQ and hair colour?
It was a long walk back afterwards and with lunch under our belt (at least in some cases) we set off for the airport at Chengdu. Two hour drive through classical farming areas, mostly rice, sometimes tea and beans to the airport about 3pm. We bid farewell to our guide who gets full marks for organisation, empathy with our needs, personality and entertainment value. She only looks like a kid but is probably mid-twenties.
On reflection this was a trip that delivered a great look at some beautiful areas of Sichuan and some not so attractive areas. Which is what we wanted. The only negatives were that too much crammed in to too few days and the driving was too fast and often just outright dangerous. Either cut back on some activities or extend the schedule by a day would fit it. And hire drivers who have heard of something called passenger comfort and safety.
Our overriding impressions of Sichuan will be of magnificent scenery, vast and spectacular river valleys and the contrasts between modern cities and struggling country areas.
Thursday – Monday – The last few days have been a blur and I have completely lost account of time.
We arrived at the military jet-ringed Yantai airport to be met by Wei and his wife and two friends. Suzy their daughter was picked up and we all travelled to Ma’s place. She looked a bit frail initially but seems pretty fair and well.
The first day we seemed to have endless drinks and food and that has been the pattern for over most of the last few days. The whole family has made me feel most welcome. This is a close family, completed when Jing arrived on Friday. On Saturday I went with Wei to his place to download emails and search for suppliers for him. We drove through the city and by the seaside. Very attractive.
Later I went with him and his wife and daughter to the UBC restaurant where we had a good meal – or at least I did – of steak and chicken. On reflection they didn’t seem to eat much. Afterwards we dropped off wife and daughter at the train station, they were off somewhere together. Wei and I stopped at a bar just up the road from Ma’s home and together we put away a lot of beer. Empty bottles filled all the space on our little table. I don’t know what the time was. I can’t remember what we talked about. Much later I had to drive his little van around the corner to Ma’s as Wei was quite unable to.
On Sunday we went for a long drive through the countryside to Laizhou and beyond. We paid our respects at Lilly’s Father’s grave which we had a bit of difficulty finding just beyond a little village where he had come from initially. We also went on to Lilly’s grandmother’s grave later in another area. In Shahe we visited Lilly’s first cousins, who looked after Ma when she was here by herself. We had a chat about their daughter’s university intentions and finished off with an enormous lunch, including huge brawns and plenty of gumbays.
In many parts of this area there are obviously a lot of poor Chinese, but the land is generally flat and obviously fertile. Orchards prevail, in other areas corn in particular and also grapes. In some country towns, wide roads are almost filled by corn seed spread out to dry. A four lane road can be reduced to one by all the corn and all drivers take care not to run on it. We visited other cousins including Smily and and his elderly and very fragile Mother and collection of pigs, hens, goats, pigeons and dog. We also met his entrepreneur wife and daughter who also want to study abroad. We visited Lilly’s homes in both Laizhou and Shahe where she lived and took photos with the locals.
It is impossible to capture the life and scenery, the sounds and smells in words or even in photos of this amazing country. Everything is massive by our standards and there are people everywhere. There are huge contrasts between the expressways (often with very few vehicles because the tolls are expensive) and country roads filled with bikes, tractors, pedestrians, cars, trucks and a sort of hybrid motor cycle with a trailer fixed on the back. There is poverty and wealth.
Today we went looking for a new car for Jing. We visited about 10 car sales yards and saw a wide range of 2 and 4 WD vehicles ranging from imported Mercs and Lexus to locally produced by joint venture to solely Chinese made. The range of quality was reflected in the price range. A locally produced 2 WD van was as low as A$8500 new but for an imported Merc C200 you would pay A$140,000. The locally produced stuff had obvious defects particularly with the finishing. Give the Chinese a few more years and the distinctions will start to fade. Before too long nothing will beat them for cost/value.
After all the eating and drinking we eventually manage to get a whole day on Monday to ourselves to recover from the alcoholic haze, do some reading, dig over the garden and generally relax. In the evening we went for a walk in the neighbourhood and along by the shops on the main road. Fairly run-down, poor shops, endless little restaurants and drinking spots and internet cafes. Although in most respects the accommodation we are in is fine, the kitchen and bathroom is very basic and the finishing both inside and out is sub-standard to put it mildly. This neighbourhood for Ma is not great and she is separated from Wei by at least half an hours drive. He visits her about once a fortnight and comes when he is needed. The intention is to let or sell them and there is also a possibility of a developer building here and Ma/Jing getting flats as compensation. A lot of the houses and flats around here do not appear to be occupied suggesting an over supply of accommodation.
On Sunday evening Wei drove us through the Yan Tai economic zone where we again saw the contrast. Wide roads, much better tended trees and gardens and hedges with manufacturing and office buildings. Up to international standards. A different world for China. Along the beach front we saw a number of restaurants, many of the huge and many also apparently unoccupied. Impressive looking but few people around and are we looking at white elephants.
Tuesday-Thursday – The days are running into each other, I apologise dear diary. Mainly we have been staying at home or going to Weis for email and to assist with an enquiry he is making for the supply of plastic jars. On Tuesday Jing arrived back and we all had our favourite dinner at the hotel. Fondue with meat, lambs intestines and all manner of veg and flavouring. Getting use to the sauce which looks like sloppy dog poo and initially tasted like it too, only guessing.
On Wednesday Jing and I cleared out his garage and I drove a hole through a low concrete wall on the roof to let the water drain off easier. Jing is a charismatic and hyper character with an excellent mind. We finished off the day with a lesson on Confucianism, the three principles (of Emperor guides man, man guides woman and man guides child) and the five tenets (kindness, respect, integrity, vision, and wisdom). Jing taught history for 6 years in his earlier days and he has the intellect and recall of a scholar and teacher. He recalled his classes were spellbound when he lectured them and I can well imagine it. Lilly’s birthday Wednesday not Thursday as I had thought but no one seemed to notice it.
On Thursday we went to the Penglai Pavilion about 70km away. About 1000 years old including a tree in the grounds of the same age. The Pavilion is not the former residence of of an Emperor of the Ming dynasty, but some of it dates back to the Northern Song. That’s much earlier but how much I forget. Rather it is the supposed point on the Penglai coastline where the eight ancient immortals came ashore. These immortals had been tested in various ways and had special strengths and qualities. The pavilion and grounds, like most everything else, is massive. We spent three hours walking up and down stairs, looking at temples, halls, pavilions, buddhas, the immortals, a museum, a plank walkway, a bell tower and still we didn’t see everything. Next time a full day here. Jing rounded it all off with an historical overview of the immortals.
We went to dinner with Wei and his buddy and wife who we met in Sydney and who picked us up at the airport. Food OK, beer plentiful. Keeping pace with these guys when they toast and drink is a big challenge. Quite enjoy rising to it.