Beijing 2008 and the theme is One World One Dream. Just a pity about the murk after all the efforts the Chinese have made to clear up the smog. Whether it is smog or whether it is fog may be debateable, but 24 hours before the ceremony, the weather is typically grey and visibility is about a kilometre. And it is hot and muggy.
Fourth trip to China in 5 years and it is still an experience. Yesterday began in Sydney at 5.30am, D kindly drove us to the airport at 6:30 and we left about 8:30. First stop 8 hours later was Singapore where we were able to get on to the broadband and do the day’s website updating. After two hours in the airport in Singapore and another 6 and a bit in the air (Lilly watched a total of 5 different movies on the way) we arrived to a massive and swept up Beijing airport. First time I have ever taken a train between customs and baggage pickup. Roads were relatively clear and we were home by about 12:15. Everything immaculate. Only about 30 degrees inside but managed a few hours sleep.
The heat is oppressive but we organise broadband, mobile, water, bank, veges, gas and electricity. Or at least Lilly does, while I look on, occasionally offering totally useless advice. We also pay a visit to the local Police Station to register my presence as an “Alien” in the local precinct. They want to keep their tabs on the whereabouts of the foreigners – everybody staying in a hotel or guest house doesn’t have to register, as their accommodation does that for them. No hassles, just got to remember to carry a little slip of paper around to prove I am a legal alien. I suppose being a man I’m from Mars. We started yesterday very tired after the move to Violet and with what we have tried to get through business-wise and after the long day yesterday it is all taking its toll. Lilly has not stopped and is sick with vomiting including out on the street into a garden. We continue on to a little restaurant but she doesn’t eat much and I am not hungry so we pack most of the food into a doggy bag for later. Taxi home, she is sick again, and into bed, I am a bit crook during the night. The problem is to know what caused it. Was it the heat or something we ate or even the water? We have priced the local beer – it is about 40 cents a 750 ml bottle and you get back about 8 cents for the empty. That is about double the price of water but still incredibly cheap. So I think I will eat little and just drink beer.
We both feel OK this morning after a reasonable night’s sleep – no getting away from the heat as Lilly doesn’t like the air conditioning on. We have 4 air conditioners including a large one in the main room. They look as if they have hardly been used, are very effective when on, but Lilly is not happy with the air they produce. Eventually we come to a compromise – the large one in the living area is turned on low and seems to keep the temp around 25 which is much more comfortable than 30 to 32. The doors to the bedrooms and studies are shut so if we need to, we go there for a sauna.
Today we tidy and clean and prepare for Jing and Ma (arriving by plane on Sunday) and Jing’s son and daughter-in-law and child (arriving Monday by bus) and Jing’s daughter Fran (arriving by bus). Jing has explained sleeping arrangements to Lilly. Like Lilly, he has everything worked out in advance. Jing’s wife can’t leave her job and Wei is too busy with the fruit season in full swing (he exports canned and bottled fruit, cherries in particular) so he and his wife will only arrive after the Olympics.
Late afternoon we visit the Rens and then J’s grandparents. Daniels’ mother Le Jun, is with the gramps. Gifts of myrrh and frankincense and all manner of spices, delicacies and other pleasantries are exchanged and I come out one bottle of red wine ahead and Lilly pockets our cash
allowance left with the Gramps by J’s Dad. He wants Aust dollars and we need Chinese yuan so we always do a swap. Will help to pay the corporate levy on our apartment which is about Y10,000 a year or roughly A$1500. The Rens reckon our flat has doubled in value over the three years we’ve had it and we are happy to accept their calculation. Sometimes we think we will rent it out, but if Beijing continues cleaning up its air we will probably spend more time here each year. September October or April May are the best months.
Watch the Olympic opening ceremony on TV – what a fantastic spectacle. I can’t ever remember enjoying such a great show so cleverly interwoven with the culture and long history of China. First gold goes to Beijing for that performance.
Bright and sunny day dawns with a bit of blue sky showing.
China has relocated huge steel works, planted millions of trees to the North of Beijing, cleared traffic from the city and taken colossal efforts to get the air cleaned up so it is good that the first day of the Games is not too bad at all.
We are learning how to organise our TV so that we have one channel going normally and as many as 12 showing what’s going on other channels in other boxes.
We go shopping close to the scene in the adjacent photo and nothing much else today apart from watching some of the early Olympic events.
Today’s big event is the arrival of Jing and Ma about midday. They both look unchanged from 2 years ago – in fact Ma looks better and Jing at 54 hasn’t got a grey hair anywhere. We have previously joked that Jing is a no job, two salaries man and has an easy life. The reality is, he a bit like Lilly, non-stop and intense. He wears his heart on his sleeve and is a very lovable larger-than-life character. Travelling on a bus with Jing has him talking to everyone and keeping them entertained with anecdotes and stories. This time he and Ma came by plane and the others arrived later by bus, Jing’s son and daughter-in-law and their 3 year old daughter and Jing’s daughter Fran. The son is a big strapping lad of about 26 and a little deficient mentally apparently. Seems reasonable to me but the rest are so bright. He is very good natured and considerate. Fran is about 20 and is studying to be a doctor, she can speak enough English for a slightly slow and stilted conversation.
It is a noisy household suddenly, with the TV on and everybody, particularly Jing talking at once. We have a big dinner, little drinking this time as Jing is adamant about looking after his kidneys which have given him a lot of problems in the past. Watch the Olympics.
We all watch the Games which are on constantly. China is doing well and leads the medal count so there is euphoria. All the young ones go off for the day to the Temple of Heaven which is to the south of Beijing (Lilly and I have been there) and is a huge complex (about 300 hectares from memory) housing very old buildings and a Temple that the Chinese used for sacrifices to the gods so that their crops would be plentiful. Lilly and I walk and shop a bit otherwise I am working on the website and we are all watching the Games at every chance. A cousin on Lilly’s side (Emmy) arrives for the afternoon and stays late – she is about half way to becoming a doctor and we can converse quite well with her in English. Lilly thinks she would be a good match for Daniel but apparently she has a “secret” boyfriend the family is not happy about. I give her our email address and mention a young Chinese man in Australia that she should meet if ever the need arose. Playing Cupid is not my cup of tea but have to do my bit for the family and Daniel is such a good young man. She is shy and giggles but you never know.
Up at 5:30 and off to our first event Beach Volleyball on the eastern side of the city. We are on the west side (east is rich, west is noble according to the Chinese, thank you) and it is probably 15-20k’s as the crow flies. Jing leads the 4 of us Lilly, Fran and me.
He will take the others tomorrow. We go by bus, train, then bus. The public transport system here is usually good, today it is fantastic, very little waiting around. The train and the bus at the Olympics end are air conditioned which is very welcome in the heat. We arrive about 8am, security is tight but not intrusive, just like the airports.
Events start at 9am and follow each other on the hour like clockwork. There is usually time to get up and go out for drinks or toilet in between. We are seated low down very close to the athletes who are mainly tall and slim and leap about as Lilly would say like ants in a frying pan. A TV boom gets in the way a bit but otherwise we have great seats. Well done Jing. A couple of American DJs and a Chinese guy keep the crowd revved up. The music is loud. There is quite a mix of foreigners, not just Europeans. The big event of the day is the Chinese men versus the Estonian men at 10:00. It was a struggle but the Chinese take it in 3 sets. It is very exciting – at break everybody is smiling and chatting.
Later the sun comes out and it is hot. Lilly doesn’t like me wearing a cap so I have left it behind today as it rained last night and was quite overcast this morning. It is sunny and the humidity is high. As the events go by, we seek shade. After the Chinese event it seems many of the Chinese leave and so there is freedom to sit where you like, except for roped off areas – we tried there too, as they were in the shade, but were firmly told no. By 1 o’clock the smiling faces are now tired and a bit sullen. There is competition for the shady spots. Lilly and I are quite successful but by then we are both sunburnt. My nose is beetroot red.
After the last event at 3 we make our weary way home. Air conditioned bus and train are a relief. Most of the day was very enjoyable and an experience not to be missed.
Wednesday – Friday
Jing takes Ma and son and daughter-in-law and child off for another day. Lilly and Fran and I have various things to do at home. Mostly watch Olympics on TV and work today. The broadband is slower than dial up in Australia and it makes doing anything on the net very frustrating and prolonged.
Mostly watch olympics on TV and work today.
Mostly watch Olympics on TV and work today which is shorthand for too lazy to enter diary. Lilly still not 100% but thank goodness she is relaxing a bit and letting some of the others take the strain. Touchwood, no arguments so far in China, which has seen plenty between us in the past.
Today’s big event for us (Jing, Ma, Lilly and me) is the evening at the National Stadium or Bird’s Nest. We leave at about 4 so that we can be there by 7 for events that start at 7:30pm. I had no idea what events we were to see, just happy to go. The tickets were hard to come by with each ticket for tonight costing us Y800 (about $150) whereas the tickets to the hockey and beach volley ball are only $15 to $20 each. The transport gets us there in good time and we can wander along to the outside of The Cube (swimming centre) and take photos. The Cube and the Bird’s Nest are adjacent to each other sitting astride a North South Axis that runs up the centre of Beijing and through the Forbidden City. The Bird’s Nest is absolutely massive (about 27 stories tall or is that a tall story) and deserves to be one of the seven wonders of the modern world. We are seated right down by the track and can see the athletes close up. However, we miss a bit of the perspective of the running events, which we can see better on the big screen.
Val Villi, Veni, vidi, vici, a little bit of latin for Valerie Villie, who came saw and conquered with her first mighty shot of the evening. She raised her arms high immediately so she must have realised she got it off perfectly. From memory she later threw close to it but the rest were also rans. After the first throw she got a lot more attention from the media and the crowd. We were just across the track from her and got a good view of all the huge women strutting their stuff. When she did her victory lap I screamed out well done kiwi in my best NZ accent, she heard and turned but did not stop. Fancy being there almost inadvertently for NZ’s first athletics gold since John Walker in Montreal. Capped off by a world record in the 100 metres by a Bolt from the blue or rather from Jamaica who also passed within a couple of metres of us.
Download last night’s rugby for $11 to watch it and find that NZ had a great day yesterday (beating the Boks in Cape Town 19 nil and I think getting 2 golds a silver and 2 bronzes at the Olympics after zilch to date) Taking it easy at home mostly. Lilly and I spend a couple of hours walking around a beautiful park (with a lake in the middle) which is only a block or so away. Take photos, stop for cha by the lake and talk about how we can best help Ma with what she wants to do in Yan Tai.
Take the others to the hockey today, leaving about 7. Jing and Ma stay home. The others get bored and leave after the first game. Lilly and I watch both games and then head home. Resolve not to get tickets to something like that (no matter how cheap) unless our own countries are involved. Stop for a late lunch (delicious) at a shopping centre up about 5k’s to our North (on the same street). Very expensive up market shopping centre with virtually no one there. Don’t know how they pay the rent.
Bit of drama between Jing and daughter-in-law who complains at having to look after her child all day and says tickets were given to them only because Jing didn’t want to go. Little family squabble, Lilly of course thinks Jing spoils them all rotten and the daughter in law expects far too much. I agree with my beloved, as usual, and keep low profile.
Drama continues into today which is the last day for everybody except Ma. All others are going home about midday. Jing has a friend in Beijing who has a van and they are all going back with the friend. Problem is the son has gone missing. Jing is livid. The son went off to get a refund on a ticket deposit and can’t be found. So they all go off together, one missing. Son arrives 15 minutes later. Lilly phones Jing, he persuades his friend to wait and Lilly and I take the lad across the city by taxi to where they are waiting. Fran sees us first and warns the son to listen to Father and not say anything. Jing is fuming. After a while they cool off and we take photos and peace is restored. Lilly and I are the peacemakers, strange roles for us both considering.
While we are in this area (north east of city but not too far out) we decide to walk a bit and have lunch in an up-market place which is very salubrious. Beautiful area and we walk again before taking bus to a main train station then by train to Qiannemen at the southern end of Tiannamen Square. We walk through a recently update area into an old area with narrow lanes not room for cars. It is a part of old Beijing with the Hu Tongs – rooms built around a courtyard. There are Chinese flags all along. No one but a few Chinese around so we make our way back to the busy streets for shopping (Lilly) and looking (me) for objects d’art. Lots of tourists in this area. Train then bus home late afternoon by which time we are tired. Lilly had left beans in a pot which burnt while Ma was asleep setting off alarm outside our flat. All ends well except for a pong. Jing the ping has gone and all we are left with is a pong. A bit desolate as well without Jing who has something to say about everything. We will visit him in a few weeks probably. Watched Nick Willis get a bronze in the 1500 – a great tradition for NZ. J’s friend Rod also got one in the same event in Munich 1972 I think. I can still remember all cities and the years where Olympics have been held every four years since London in 1948, so some bits of memory still OK. London 1948 to London 2012.
Lilly is in recovery, cleaning and tidying mode. I am working a bit and Ma and I are watching Olympics.
Ditto except it rains today and is much cooler. It is a long time since I have done so little for ten days on end. We watch a lot of the Olympics as China is doing well and 5 stations provide coverage of everything Chinese and the rain of medals. Jing phones to advise NZ now has 4 gold but I can only find 3, shot, rowing and wind surfing. Lilly has a tummy bug again today and when we take off for a walk and to the bank, she is sick again virtually in the same place as the other night. We turn back and on the way back in the bus it happens again into a plastic bag. After a sleep and green bean concoction, Ma gives her the full range of Chinese remedies including slapping, cuffing, pinching, pushing and massaging. While the slapping goes on, I suggest Ma give her a couple for me too, just to make up for periodic naughtiness in the past. Seems to do the trick because my beloved feels hungry and wants to go out to buy veges for dinner.
Much the same as other days, spent watching the Olympics; another beautiful day, not unbearably hot. We go to Sanlihe by bus to the bank and bring back a load of groceries. Resolve at long last an outstanding OCV share transfer problem by calling Computershare in Melbourne through SKYPE. That brings relief because there is a bit involved. SKYPE worked well for this call so we will use in future to avoid direct toll calls to Australia, should be much cheaper too. Otherwise peace and quiet prevails. I sneak out late in the day and buy some cold beer. The bloke in the local store is sitting down and I have to open the fridge and put in the bottles into my bag – no expression crosses his face but when I go to pay at least he gets off his bum to count the bottles in my bag. He misses one so I get a free beer and a good laugh with Lilly when I get home. Maybe I should do all the shopping in future. Cheap beer is even cheaper there.
Mostly lazing around watching Tele. Late afternoon we go shopping to a big centre down Sanlihe and across one. We don’t buy much but get some ideas. Still have a few things to complete, like a coffee table, pictures, perhaps a 2 seater come bed for the study. No hurry for any of it.
As above. How can I be so lazy? It is still hot and that seems to induce drowsiness. Late afternoon Lilly and I take Ma for a walk to an area that we thought was salubrious and where we looked for a flat originally. Not far from here. Glad we bought here and glad we bought what we could see and not off the plan. Never get into that as the glamour and promises are never fulfilled. Lilly says the previous owner told her our flat featured in some TV awards and they had cameras along here shortly after it was completed. I don’t doubt this as the marble and finishings generally are all quality. So we were lucky to find it and buy at the price we did. It is far and away superior to one we saw for almost 3 times the price in Inner West, so safe to think we have at least doubled our value here in less than 3 years. The next five will be the same, pity we couldn’t borrow and buy another. Watch closing ceremony, another real success for the city. Huge fireworks display across the city that we watched from our windows as the ceremony ended. It went on and on.
Up in reasonable time to watch a downloaded Boks v Wallabies test from Saturday night. Otherwise, updating website and almost pretending to be busy. Major decisions to be made like where are we going to tour and when? Wei and wife are apparently going to come thru to Beijing for a while but we don’t know when or for how long. Lilly is more industrious today, cooking, cleaning, tidying and commanding.
Daniel’s Mother came around to see us this afternoon and after water melon, peaches and a chat we all went off to the Purple Bamboo Park. She is a very mild and uncomplicated person – it is easy to see why Daniel has such a pleasant nature. After wandering around a tiny corner of this huge park and taking photos of the ducks and the fishing we all had dinner at a nearby restaurant including Peking duck and a whole fish. The fish they brought live to the table, jumped out of the bowl and slid along the floor; all part of the performance. When I wondered aloud whether they showed the same fish to all diners to prove they are about to get very fresh fish, they all thought what a cynical sod. Lilly and Daniel’s mum have several pushing contests over who is going to pay for dinner. She is not big and Lilly towers over her, eventually prevailing.
Today we went off by bus to the big complex selling furniture, appliances, household wares and everything except elephants and sub prime mortgages. We were looking for inspiration and a few wall decorations. Instead we got perspiration and a few blisters. By late lunch time also had a few ideas for paintings so got the bus back home for lunch. Previous years we lasted all day, now half a day seems to be our limit. The heat and the walking and the standing take their toll. Lilly has had a sea change in her attitude about virtually everything and it makes our stay this time so much more pleasant. I am guessing but I wonder if over the last two years as she has seen our shares go from ordinary to good and then to bad and then very bad and when we can lose thousands in a few hours on the market, she realises saving a few dollars here and there is often counter-productive considering the self-sacrifice and time element.
Still hot and sultry, even after a heavy thunderstorm and rain last night. We go off towards Tiannamen to two shopping centres. The first is down market but the prices are no longer down market and the shop girls are chatty and aggressive. Lilly buys a skirt, handbag, trousers for me (I still wear the literal ones) and covers for the sofa and chairs. There are still a lot of foreigners around which encourages high and unrealistic prices. My Lilly knows what’s what though and gets some realism into negotiations very quickly. Later 3 stations along I score another pair of pants at a more down market place in the up-market shopping centre. We walk and lunch and walk and sit and walk and shop and eventually walk, train, bus and walk home. It is 4pm but feels like 8pm. We are both weary but at least I am wearing the trousers and have a pair in reserve. It augurs well.
Evening we go walking again – it is a bit cooler or rather it is less hot and we buy quite a lot of meat (which is expensive), fish, peaches, water melon and even ice-cream. Lilly notices the fish stinks before we pay for it so we leave that one behind. The fruit, veg, meat and fish retail markets are a sight to behold. They are everywhere and they are often incredibly noisy and smelly. But the produce is cheap and if you are careful it is fresh and tasty. We eat well now that Lilly is back as chef. Jing did OK but there wasn’t much variety.
In the supermarkets when we are looking for something Lilly often stops and asks a shop assistant. They gesture vaguely in one direction or another “over there”. So off we traipse to ask someone over there, where is it. We get the same reaction and often end up back where we started. The three little words “I don’t know” do not feature in Chinese vocabulary; that would be loss of face. One day I am going to get Lilly to ask for something they just clearly couldn’t have. “Excuse me, can you please direct me to the frog’s eyelashes, aisle and row if you don’t mind.” It would be just my luck to find they were selling frog’s eyelashes at Y10 for half a kilo.
Go to see the Grumps again. Granny has had breast cancer and had a breast removed. She has had three sessions of Chemo and doesn’t want anymore. The family want her to continue on. The doctors say minimum six sessions, preferably 12. She shows Lilly the wound. It hasn’t healed up very well. It is a tough time for them. He is 81 and sprightly and she is 77, overweight and not fit. Lilly talks gently to her about continuing for her own peace of mind. Granny chats about it quite calmly but the emotions showed last time we were here when she talked about J. J lived with them until he was 14, the first six years before Lilly went to Australia she also lived with them, so the relationship is understandably very close. She is like a second mother to J. Lilly tells me (without any trace of jealousy) that he loves Granny more than her.
Visiting day, as later we also go to the Rens, similarly equipped with all manner of fresh fruit which we then partake of around the coffee table. Rens are similar ages and both seem well. They ask about Linda and Lilly tells them she is OK and John appears to be looking after her well. When we ask if they would like to see her back in Beijing, there is initial apparent enthusiasm but later they suggest Hainan (down south where they go for the winter) might be a better idea. It is all theoretical because we don’t think Linda wants to come back to China and she won’t be forced. We think they may not have told son Solly about Linda’s problems and think it better he does not see her again. Sad in a way but that’s life sometimes. We will all go out to dinner sometime but Solly, who we have not seen yet this trip, evidently knows of a place where they “hang the ducks differently” so he will organise a Beijing duck meal and there will be inevitably a huge tussle at the end of the meal over who is to pay. They will insist, we will insist, there will be pushing and shoving, a scrum will form, flankers will peel away from the scrum early, there will be several head high tackles, the ref will blow up, threats will be made, fists will fly, local security won’t be able to resolve, the police will be called to no avail, the military will need to step in with tanks and stun grenades. Mercifully always stops just short of the nuclear solution; all to determine who gets the privilege of paying. And after all that excitement I can never remember who paid.
Main air conditioner is on the blink. Probably overdue for a service but I can’t find a manual in English on the Net so we phone somebody who will come today or tomorrow, this year, next year, sometime never. The Net is so slow some days I can have breakfast, lunch and a doze while waiting. Lilly and I talk about the proliferation of our bank accounts in Sydney with one particular bank – it has got messy. Not Lilly’s fault but we get impatient and a bit heated with each other, first time in Beijing. Cool off by lunch time. Jing would like Lilly to “adopt” Fran so she can eventually live and work in Beijing. Lilly is not having a bar of it and I am not enamoured of the idea either. Fran has got 6 years to go at Uni first and by then surely there will be a better solution. We don’t think it can legally be done anyway so we will find sound rationale to decline.
Lilly now has Ma to teach as well. She is already on Lesson 10,167 and going strong. Mostly it is a monologue and Ma absorbs it all calmly. It is all well-intended and designed to improve the quality of Ma’s life but despite that it occasionally becomes a dialogue or rather two simultaneous monologues and there is a bit of feeling there. Lilly likes to prevail though and can usually find ten thousand words for every ten of Ma’s and one of mine. Hope my dearly beloved doesn’t read this in secret after I go to bed at night. Ha ha. Woe is me if she does.
Ironically there is a bit of drama overnight as we argue over such earth-shattering issues as who goes to bed first and who goes second and the consequent disturbance of the sleeper. We are both “possibly” guilty as alleged but plead the first amendment which gives us the right to freedom of speech. Lilly exercises her rights and I exercise mine.
Mainly quiet day at home today. Lilly has been reading about the old Chinese man who is about to die and decides to divvy his estate up first. He gets all the beneficiaries assembled and gives 10,000 to each of his grandsons and 20,000 to each of his sons. No mention of daughters or granddaughters, tough if there were any. Everybody is very happy with his largesse until he takes out a million and hands it to the mayor of the city. The sons and grandsons protest and try to stop it. But the old man is determined and after an almighty row the mayor goes off with his million. The rest of the family except for the old mans wife storm out in a fury vowing never to talk to the old couple again. The old man then takes out half a million for his wife telling her that she can’t expect support from the family but this will more than suffice. When I heard this little tale I thought; how typical, greedy sons and grandsons deserve what they get. But after thinking about it, I wonder whether the old bloke was really so clever. He didn’t need to test his offspring. He knew how they would react. That’s why he kept back half a million for his wife. Why not just give the million to the city mayor privately so that good relations were preserved for his wife in particular? Hope you don’t mind dearest diary if I insert my own opinion occasionally.
Last official day of summer and chalk this up as a really beautiful day. It rained last night quite heavily and today the sky is blue as anywhere, it is warm, but not hot and there is a pleasant breeze. We go by bus to see the parks on either side of front entrance (or main gate) to the Forbidden City. This is not a farmer’s gate that you drag around to keep the sheep in. The “gates” to these places are huge, grand and imposing. It would have taken an army and heavy equipment to get through them.
We firstly walk around Tiannamen Square which is the largest city square in the world. It is bigger than Red Square in Moscow and the people are just everywhere. NZ has 4m, Beijing has 17m. We visit Mao’s mausoleum which occupies the southern end of the square. Security is tight, there is no sound as the long queue files into the inner sanctum. Mao is lying on his back in an enclosed glass case. He died in 1976 so has been lying like this for 32 years. His head is the only part exposed and it seemed real to me. It also looked vaguely like him, Lilly is not sure. Is it a waxwork? There was some suggestion the original preservation technology didn’t work. Whatever, there are huge crowds who file through six days a week. So the myths are preserved for the common people who still worship him and are likely to until the end of Communism in China.
We walk across to the park on the right, looking North, of the entrance to the Forbidden City. It alone occupies a large city block. There is another park on the other side of the entrance. The buildings in this park formed part of the Emperor’s resting palaces and were also used for sacrifices to the gods for better harvests. The main buildings are massive and were built by the Ming Dynasty in 1430. They are only a subsidiary part of the overall palace grounds and look solid enough to be around for another 600 years. The Ming Dynasty was followed by the Qing Dynasty. They both lasted about 270 years so the Forbidden City and the surrounding parks etc housed a succession of emperors over the period of about 540 years ending in 1911.
There are a lot of very old macrocarpa trees dotted all round the park and some beautiful Lebanese Cedars. The macrocarpas have been preserved, partially by pouring what looks like mortar into the exposed and rotting areas of the trunk. Presumably it keeps all the bugs, birds and termites out. Might try a bit of mortar on our avos at home.
Another beautiful day. Every day we go off with cameras and an over shoulder bag (me) with the essentials. Toilet paper because you never know when you may need it (particularly if it is a runny tummy day) and some public toilet facilities don’t provide it, 2 or 3 plastic bags in event of sickness while sitting on a bus (yes it happened to Lilly the other day) and for carrying the inevitable veg and fruit we buy on the way back, two maps (one detailed and one tourist), bus/train cards which give us a 60% discount (what does taking 60% off nothing leave you with?) and a bit of cash for entrance fees, ice-cream and anything else that takes our fancy.
This time Ma comes with us by bus to visit the Military Museum. However, we find when we get there that Monday is the only day it is closed. So we decide to take off to the park on the western side of the entrance to the Forbidden City (which is now more commonly known as the Palace Museum. We were on the East side yesterday. We go by train and enter from the Western side of the park. Later we find the main gate is in the South and there are better directions from there. Anyway we wander around, see various flower displays, including a lot of orchids. Macrocarpa trees prevail again and although it is hot there is plenty of shade. We walk to the North of the park where there is a 50 metre wide moat that separates the Forbidden City from the rest of the world. There is a memorial to Sun Yat Sen known in China as the Father of Democracy. Sen was a revolutionary who helped overthrow the Qing Dynasty in 1911 and led the Kuomintang for several years until he died in 1925. The better known of the Kuomintang leaders was Chiang Kai Shek who was eventually beaten by Mao’s communists and exiled to Taiwan. It is a bit ironical that Sun Yat Sen is still revered as a proponent of democracy when Communism is as the opposite end of the spectrum.
We exit the park from the main gate in the south and walk under the road to the north-west corner of Tiannamen Square and from thence, embark in a westerly direction with the sun over our left shoulder. We abandon our compass as we are temporarily awe-struck by this huge glass and steel construction that is shaped like the top half of a tennis ball. As massive as the ancients built their palaces, this is on the same scale as a modern equivalent. It has a 50 metre moat around it with the main entrance down stairs and walking under the moat (which you can see through the glass roof). Neither of us can remember seeing it from previous visits. It is the new arts and cultural centre and carries all the big musicals and opera that come to Beijing. We wander down underground to see what shows are on, prices for good seats are Y880 (about $160) which is about we paid to go to the Birds Nest the other night. We can’t see any shows we want to go to and Ma would have a fit if she thought we would pay Y880 yuan to watch a show. That would pay her electricity bill for about 12 years!
Mainly today spent working on website and researching hotels and tickets for our trip to Xian, China’s ancient capital in the middle of the country. Lilly talks to Wei; he is only going to come through for a day or so mid-month, so we plan to go off to Xian over this weekend probably leaving Thursday and returning Monday. Rather than taking a tour, we will fly, book our own hotel and then probably visit the local sights by bus or train or cab. It will cost a bit extra but we don’t want to spend a night each way on a train. If the train travelled during the day, it may be different because it is a chance to see the countryside.
Apart from a walk with Lilly to get fruit, veg and fish, a quiet day at home. Beijing about 29 and hot but wait till we get to Xian tomorrow for “sightseeing”, the temperature is forecast to be 35. Friday Saturday and Sunday about the same, one of them 36! Highlight of the day today were phone calls with N, M and K, today being a bit of milestone for my siblings. K sounded very pleased to get a call (not to say N & M didn’t) but I evidently faded in and out a lot. Could hear him perfectly. I promised to phone him again when we get back to NZ. He is down to 95kg and sounds as if he is chasing sheep (has 2 or 3000) and getting a bit more physical exercise. He gently suggested I get married but I said I wanted to be sure, as my record wasn’t all that good!
Up at 5:15 for cab at 5:45 to catch the 8am flight to Xian. No drama until the plane started up and we had almost reached the runway and then someone was sick and apparently was allowed to get off the plane. Then they apparently decided to check luggage to see that the person was genuine and so they emptied the first 11 rows of people and their luggage. It took almost an hour before they decided the person was genuinely sick and not deserting the aircraft and leaving a bomb behind. Very strange; never experienced that situation before, but I suppose they had to be sure.
Landed about 11:00 in Xian and caught the airport shuttle for the 45k trip into the city. Warm day but around 30 not 35. First impressions of this city of about 2.7m people are good ones. This is an ancient Chinese capital and probably the most famous, apart from Beijing and possibly Nanking (over China’s long and warring history it has had about 8 capitals and some of those cities have been capital many times). We see the huge and very old wall that surrounds the inner city and then there are modern buildings interspersed occasionally with traditional towers. From the city stop we meander for 7 or 8 mins to find our hotel in a quiet spot very close to the centre of the city. It is a modern hotel run by China Airlines, our room is spacious, air conditioned and has everything we need. It had good comments posted on the Internet and Lilly has made an excellent choice. It is a four star but better than some 5 stars I have experienced in the past. Within 10 minutes we are on the Net and in touch with civilisation.
We walk around and get some lunch, fruit and ice-cream, have a rest and then visit the Bell Tower in the late afternoon. This is right bang in the middle of the city (5 minutes walk for us) with the major roads from north, south, east and west meeting here so there is a circular road immediately around it and underneath there are subways that give pedestrians underground access to the Tower in the middle and to each side of the four roads leading away from. It is incredibly busy traffic-wise upstairs and pedestrian-wise downstairs. The wooden and brick tower is almost 40 metres tall and was built about 625 years ago by the Emperor at the time so that it dominated the surrounding countryside and with the massive bell provided early warning of approaching danger. It was originally built in 1384 about a 1000 metres way and moved, as is, to its present site in 1582. It is huge and solid and once again you have to admire the skill of the artisans and the ingenuity of the Chinese engineers who made it happen so long ago. There are many cultural relics housed on two floors and some paintings by a famous artist who died at 93.
Big day today and we are up at 6:30 for an early breakfast in the sumptuous restaurant. The choice of English, continental, Chinese, or all three breakfasts leaves a huge array of goodies to choose from and we eat well. There are very few people breakfasting as the bill of Y48 (or about $8) to us feels like $48 or more to the Chinese. We catch our tour bus at 8am and take off to the East along with 31 fellow passengers in reasonable comfort which includes air conditioning (vital). Mostly pomegranates grown in the area we travel today.
First stop is half an hour out of Xian. Li shan is a volcanic “mountain” shaped a bit like a horse (it didn’t look like it to me). This mountain is about 1300 metres above sea level. We take the gondola which seats six and about half way up it suddenly stops. Now this was a new phenomenon for Lilly and I and we visualised spending 3 hours with strangers in a fairly enclosed space before we were rescued. But after a while it seemed to inch forward and then regather speed so the little heart in the mouth moment passed quite quickly. After looking around at the top we began walking down. Not just Lilly and me but everyone. All the way down it was very pleasant, cool and under trees. There were little touristy attractions, the main one being a cleft in the rock face where Chiang Kai Shek tried (unsuccessfully) to hide from his Generals following an “incident” on 12 December 1936 where he wanted to continue the armed struggle against the Communists rather than focus on opposition to the Japanese. They found him and were able to persuade him to co-operate with the burgeoning Communist movement. We also left some “love” messages for our families at a special spot where two large trees were entwined together in an eternal embrace.
We then visited an exhibition of cultural relics that go back to the Shang Dynasty about 1500 BC and come forward as far as the Tang Dynasty about 700 AD. All therefore older than 1300 years. The Chinese were incredibly well advanced even 200 to 300 BC. (they recorded history from about 850 BC.)
Next stop was a model of the Qin dynasty capital Xian. The city wall then (about 200BC) was much bigger than it is now. Now it encircles about 12 square kilometres, then it encircled 36. The model’s walls were about a metre high and it showed a lot of details of fortifications, sentries and the inner city. We then went underground to see a model of the tomb of the king of the Chinese State of Qin from 247 BC to 221 BC and then the first emperor of a unified China from 221 BC to 210 BC. He ascended the throne at the age of 13 and spent about a third of all the country’s revenues from then on construction of his tomb. He had about 720,000 conscript labourers busy on the job. It was finished just-in-time in 210 BC for his use. Huge extravagance and although they believe they know approximately where it is (a long way down under a mountain) the Chinese don’t believe they will have the technology for another 100 years to explore it further.
We stopped for lunch and had special wide noodles which tasted OK but not exquisite.
We then went on to the main course, the terra cotta warriors. This is one of the main reasons we came to Xian and we were not disappointed.
The warriors are about 2 metres tall and date from about 200 BC. They were discovered by a farmer in the mid seventies and to date the Chinese have uncovered three pits and work is progressing on putting many pieces back together. It is a huge work-in-progress and will go on for decades. They believe there were over 8,000 soldiers, 130 chariots with 520 horses and 150 cavalry horses, the majority of which are still buried in the pits. The buildings that cover the pits (Pit 1 in pic) are huge and one imagines the work goes on out-of-season.
Home at 8pm after almost a 12 hour day. We are tired – one can only imagine how the guide felt, who talks to us most of the day and has to constantly chase after people who are late back to the bus.
Another long history day. This time by bus from 8am to the West. About 30 of us. We go west about 150ks and then in the evening (arriving back about 8pm) travel all the way back in one go taking about 2 hours. Fortunately I have read a bit of Chinese history and know a little about some of the dynasties which are recorded here again mainly for my own edification:
||Little known about it – slave
||Info from later records + artifacts – slave
||Mainly pre-historic – slave
||(Spring & Autumn – Warring States) – Qin state growing throughout this period – from slavery to feudalism
||Unified China – beginning of Imperial China – began the Great Wall – terracotta army – 1st Emperor was Chin Shi Wah (burned the books etc)
||China became a Confucian state and prospered domestically
||as for Western Han – military prowess – making possible the silk road
||Golden age – progress and stability – Xian the capital –
||During Tang – Empress Wu Zetian – only Chinese empress – former concubine
|5 Dyn + 10 Kingd
Courtesy Wikipedia – a lot of overlapping and some bits missing – the most famous dynasties
Mostly corn and apples grown in the area we travel today. Corn as far as the eye can see and they have just begun to harvest it. Forget machines, it is all done by hand. This is like the American corn belt today and most of it looks healthy, neat rows and vast areas.
Today our first stop is at Xianyang Museum, originally a Confucian Temple, about 40 minutes from Xian. Xianyang was the capital of the Qin Dynasty. There are some ancient relics from the earlier dynasties and painted terra cotta warriors, jade and pottery.
Next stop is the Maoling Mausoleum. This is not really a mausoleum but from here you can climb a hill and overlook several “man-made” hills, under the largest is supposedly buried this character Liu Che 5th Emperor of the Western Han Dynasty. He spent 53 years preparing for his after-life. When they find his tomb, if it hasn’t already been plundered, they should find an absolute gold mine. He used about a third of state revenues for that period. We see huge stone carvings and it is all pleasantly laid out but what about the sacrifices that had to be made by the ordinary people so that he could have his glorious after-life! Not my cup of tea.
We also stopped at a village that was preserved from the Tang dynasty where we saw mud houses almost down a level which were cool and quite civilised. Walls are of mud and straw are a couple of feet thick, are smooth and feel as hard as concrete. Some of the older people still live there and you can understand how they just became accustomed to it. Corn and chillies hang everywhere, donkeys walk around in an everlasting circle grinding the corn, an old lady makes vinegar, there is a black bear caged up.
Next we stop at the tomb of the grandson of Empress Wu Zetian (she who ruled like a tiger for 15 years during Tang Dynasty). He was just 19 and opposed her autocracy so she sentenced him to death. This is a forbidding looking hole that goes quite steeply down underground for I guess about 70 to 80 metres. At the bottom is this huge stone coffin that has been painted with something that makes it feel really cold. No earthquakes fortunately while we were down there.
Then we have lunch – a specialty of the house, chicken with shallots, quite chilly.
Then we go to the Empress’s resting place. She shared her husband’s tomb the only time that has happened. There are impressive rows of stone animals and various sculptures; much of it in great detail. In one place there is a stone figure standing 5 metres tall and weighing in at a 100 tons. This is all part of the glitz because they don’t know exactly where she and hubby are buried and if they do, it is a state secret. It would keep you in wine women and song for the rest of your days if you found it.
Much of what we saw today was ancient and impressive. Also a bit over-commercialised and a bit too much of the same thing. Go back far enough and probably our ancestors paid great attention to their after life.
Special dinner tonight at a local restaurant. Recommended. Local dish, 1000 years old. Made tonight tho! Boiled or steamed meat with a special sauce and put inside baked bread, a bit like a hamburger. Tasted pretty good washed down with rice wine (not recommended).
We are lazy today and skip breakfast to get to the Shanxii Ancient History Museum a bus ride of about 7 or 8 ks across the city to the south west. We have difficulty getting in initially as I am meant to have a passport which is back in the hotel. (We never carry passports around with us.) But Lilly gets talking to some young ladies and they lend her an ID and she gets tickets for us. They are free but you have to get them. Tickets to all other places and events are not cheap, particularly for the average Chinese.
Alongside the terracotta warriors as a tourist site, this museum ranks high. It is beautifully and logically laid out with three separate pavilions starting with the really old stuff first and progressing eventually to the Tang Dynasty and later. It is incredible what the Chinese have unearthed going back more than 4000 years and how it reflects the gradual development of skills (with primitive cutting tools for example to axe heads of 1500 years ago shaped like ours today), living conditions, culture, art and commerce. The artefacts are terracotta, bronze, iron, jade, gold, silver. Many show intricate and/or practical designs that reflect the early development of the Chinese, probably exceeding anything in the West. Were it not for the isolationism policies of the Ming and Ching dynasties (occupying the period from about 1370 to 1910) China would have had its renaissance and industrial revolution and be as advanced as the West.
Next stop after having breakfast/lunch about a kilometre away is a huge public area in front of the Big Wild Goose Pagoda which we are planning to see today. This park has a water display of hundreds of fountains that occupies an area about 40 metres wide and at least 100 metres long. People are everywhere and we stop and watch the display which is water being pumped upwards through hundreds of holes in time to music. Like everyone we take lots of photos. As we move away Lilly feels a tug on her shoulder and turns around quickly to find a young man picking up her camera off the ground and handing it to her. Camera just fell down he says. Next minute he has disappeared in to the crowd. I know because I watched him for a minute. There were two other guys around us as well and they too vanished quickly. The tough little plaited material joining the camera to the strap had been cut. He realised he had been discovered and that was his way out of it. Anyway first time this has happened to us and we resolve to be wary in future. Mostly we carry cameras and cash etc on a belt hanging in front of us but this time Lilly had temporarily put the camera over her shoulder.
Wild goose chase for a suspected thief is followed by our visit to the Big Wild Goose Pagoda. This pagoda was originally built in 652 during the Tang Dynasty to house Buddhist materials brought from India. It is 65 metres tall and has a slight lean on. It was named according to legend by a group of meat-eating Buddhist monks who had run out of meat and prayed to Buddha for help. Just then a flock (or should it be a gaggle) of geese were flying overhead, the leading goose broke its wings and fell to ground to be consumed by the grateful monks. Very pleasant gardens all around and I stretch out on a park bench in a little private garden for a well-deserved nap while Lilly keeps the wild geese at bay!
Catch a cab back to the hotel and later visit the Drum Tower only 100 metres from the hotel. This is a sister to the Bell Tower just up the road, which we visited on Thursday. Built in 1380 this tower is also an imposing building with a number of huge drums. The drums were used to signal the running of time during the night in particular and were sometimes used as an alarm in emergency situations. The tower was the first Lockwood as no nails were used. Wonder if other Lockwoods will be in such good shape after 630 years.
Dine at another recommended place. Evidently the meat in this huge pot is never completely used up and they just keep throwing in fresh stuff. So we could have been eating meat that is more than a 1000 years old. Just kidding! Tastes alright with hard bread that is mixed in with it and we even go back for another lot for breakfast/lunch the next morning.
Today we go for another walk through the Muslim market area, absolutely fascinating to see the Chinese as retailers and purveyors of all manner of product, from nuts and dates to beautiful silks and hand woven fabrics that we can certainly not afford. We book out of hotel but leave our gear there to pick up later.
Our last visit is the wall that surrounds the inner city. It is about 630 years old and it superseded a much larger wall built initially by the Tang Dynasty about 1300 years ago. It is about 12 metres high and 15 metres wide. It would take a three lane highway along the top for the whole of its 14 km length. We walk along the top from South Gate to the West Gate a distance of about 3.5 kms. You can hire bikes or take a little electric car but we stroll taking photos and stopping frequently to admire the park and moat that surrounds it and get a good view of the inner city on the other side.
We have late lunch in the famous dumplings restaurant, although too early for the recommended fare which only begins at 5:30. Catch 5:30 pm shuttle for the hour trip to the airport and leave on time at 7:45pm.
BEIJING (after Xian)
Also catch shuttle in Beijing, get off on the motorway, go down steps and through a hole in the fence with bags and catch taxi for a short trip home about 10:30. By shuttling we are not losing much time and saving big cab fare money.
We had a fantastic time in Xian – everything worked perfectly, mainly thanks to the sublime organisation of my beloved, a very comfortable hotel and exposure to what must rank as one of the great ancient cities of the world.
Up early to begin catching up on work. Federer has just won his 13th Grand Slam, but is still one behind Sampras. Richie is playing on Saturday so all is right with the world.
Today we bus (645) to the Chinese Ethnic Culture Park just to the south of the Birds Nest. This park contains 56 village gardens and houses and displays of the 56 minority groups in China ranging from Tibetans to Mongolians and Manchu. About 10% of China’s population is made up of minorities, the largest group being the Zhuang with about 20 million. (The vast majority of Chinese are Han.) The entrance fee is Y90 each (about $16) which is like $90 to the well-off Chinese and a lot more for ordinary Chinese. This vast park appears empty and we don’t wonder at it considering the generally unkempt appearance of the place and the high entrance fee. Anyway we wander around for about 5 hours soaking up as much as we can of the culture and folk styles of the different ethnic groups. We see a variety of performances by some of the minorities but it is all low-key and there are very few people watching. The Dai people’s Water-Splashing Festival was quite entertaining with dances followed by young performers, male and female, throwing water over each other from small buckets.
Having invested hugely in the park about 10 years ago, it is a pity the government doesn’t put a bit more into maintaining it. Priorities are obviously elsewhere. We bus home for a quick snooze before dining out with the Rens at the special hanging duck restaurant. A delicious meal, Solly sneaked out early to pay so there was not the usual pushing and shoving to determine who was going to fix the bill. Definitely our turn next time. Home in good time – Lilly and Ma watch their Jap occupation series on TV while I watch a downloaded game from 3 weeks ago when the All Blax hand out a 19-0 hiding to the Boks.
Beautiful days now. Para Olympics are on and Beijing traffic is still on the odd and even system, odds one day evens the next. There is a big debate as to whether to continue it. Construction sites have not yet resumed. The air is relatively clear. The days can still be hot but not oppressive. We don’t need the air conditioning on as we get a gentle flow of air through by opening the windows at the front of the rooms and the large grill panel on the main door. We have a real lazy day, reading and updating. Lilly is on Lesson 14,697 for Ma. Ma listens patiently. Takes the heat off me. Good on ya Ma.
Another great day, bit warmer at about 31. We walk and bus to China Travel Service and book a four day tour to Guilin (south China) starting next Friday. On the way back we load up with veg, grocs beer etc and struggle home under a load. This is a physical workout. You need eyes all around the top of the head when you venture on to the road. Forget pedestrian crossings, they are not sacrosanct, neither are the little green pedestrian lights. Buses rule the roost, closely followed by cabs, black limousines, ordinary cars, motor bikes, scooters, 3 wheeler bikes (with trailers), the ubiquitous ordinary bikes, followed by pedestrians. But amidst the chaos and the honking everything seems to work. Rarely do you see accidents. People mainly seem to be aware of their location in the universe and able to compute quite precisely their route through the pandemonium.
The key thing to remember when crossing the road is to first look left, not right.
Visit the Grumps (J’s grandparents) briefly tonight to give them the traditional Moon Cakes which is part of the Moon Festival this weekend. Granny is midway through a chemo session and has been released for 2 or 3 days to enjoy the holiday. She seems a bit better. Gramps looks fit and bronzed. He is 80, walks and exercises a lot and looks 70. He says the air in Beijing is the best it’s been for 10 years.
Wei and wife arrive late morning and after lunch we take off to show them the Bird’s Nest/Water Cube. We wait and wait for a bus that never arrives so we change plans and take them to the Performing Arts building, then to Tiannamen Square, then to the Woufajing shopping area for a wander around and photos. Late afternoon we go by cab to The Den a pub on the east side of the city. It is absolutely full to the rafters as are many of the noisy expatriates. Wei and wife and Lilly are about the only Chinese in the place apart from the staff. It is a real experience for them. We manage to find seats and settle in to watch (but not to listen to) the All Blax v Wallabies. What a game and what a result, which was in doubt right until the last seconds. Almighty noise when the Aussies scored as they outnumbered the Kiwis about 10 to 1. We tried to redress the imbalance particularly as the game progressed and we (adopted Wei and me) were fortified by some All Blacks tries and with a few Qingdao lagers. Later at home we have another couple of beers and are relatively well behaved in our view, but not necessarily in the view of the relatives.
Moon Festival day and Wei and wife go off early on a Great Wall tour. We spend the day relaxing, reading, watching TV and lazing around. Later we go off to the Rens to deliver a new dress for her and milk for them. Then shopping, including moon cakes and a live fish which leaps out of the shallow pool and has to be ruthlessly subdued before it is turned into a fit state for cooking. Wei and wife are late home for dinner and for our sins of yesterday, Wei and I are allowed only one beer each with dinner, pretty sad actually. Three women gang up on us and we are out-voted.
Mainly working and reading today as Wei and wife went off to see the ruins of the Old Summer Palace which we have seen previously.
Today we all go off (including Ma) to Behai Park, catching bus 118 at our door and being dropped off at the North Gate of the park. According to the glossies:
“Beihai (North Lake) Park, named in conjunction with Middle Lake and South Lake, is situated to the west of the Palace Museum and Jingshan Park in Beijing. It covers a total area of over 68 hectares. More than half of it is taken up by the lake. The Park, broad in scale and elegantly arranged, is a beautiful imperial garden in Beijing as well as a masterpiece of ancient Chinese gardens still standing.”
Now that’s pretty accurate; a huge beautiful park right in the heart of the city. Anything associated with the dynasties is usually massive and grand. This is where the emperors and their consorts and ministers and regents and concubines and eunuchs and other miscellaneous hangers on, dallied during the hot summer months while the peasants toiled to support their decadent lifestyle. Not all of them were bad but those that were, were very, very bad.
We hire a battery powered boat that seats six and spend an hour circumnavigating the lake. It is peaceful for much of the time until towards the end when everyone has a turn at singing, much to the amusement of some on the walkways around the lake. Wei is a singer. Ma does some opera. Lilly and I do the NZ National Anthem together as Lilly also knows the Maori version. No emperor had such a good time.
We then walk around most of the park stopping at one point for beef noodles. Ma can stride out if necessary but most of the time we amble. There is a casual group of middle aged Chinese men and women singing with Gusto (I didn’t get the surname) in one of the many covered walkways at lakeside. We stop and listen for a while. A young Westerner is sitting on a park bench with a Chinese chess set in front of him. I ask him how he is going, he says he always loses. Me too, I say but he is Russian or Eastern European and not talkative. Lilly and I have our faces sketched by an artist for Y5 each (about a $) while quite a crowd gather round to watch. I suggest to Lilly that she pass the hat around and collect a Y1 from everyone to pay the artist. Everybody is amused but nobody parts with any cash. The artist is not great and the likeness is not good but we will keep the sketches for the family album. Ma tries her hand at calligraphy with a long paint brush using water and the pavement. To my untrained eye she looks like an expert.
Door to door bus back and we eat out tonight at a local restaurant. The food is ok, the cold beer is great.
The local stockmarket (called the Shanghai Composite) has fallen from 5600 to 1950 and should be presenting opportunities for some buying. We don’t have much cash here but Lilly and I (and Wei) go into the securities firm downstairs in our building to investigate setting up an account and how we would invest if we decide to do so. There is apparently no tax on (apart from a standard one tenth of one percent) on profits, and losses are not claimable. Otherwise quiet day at home. Wei and Qin go to Tiannamen in the early evening, we watch the closing ceremony of the Para Olympics.
Lilly and I see Wei and Qin off mid-afternoon and then wander around looking for somewhere we can type and send a fax to transfer money. Another bad day for international stock markets with Macquarie and BNB hit particularly hard. We are concerned about some exposures we have and eventually find a little place we can type and print a letter and a big place (China Post) that will fax it. Calm is restored.
Lilly and I are up with the sparrows to catch a cab then shuttle so as to be at Terminal 1 by 7:20am for our trip to Guilin, way down in the south of China. Eventually leave at 9:25 arriving midday. It is 35 in the shade and the high humidity makes it feel 4 or 5 degrees higher. We meet our guide at the airport and on our way in to the city are stopped by the military – we think it is a road block but no about 50 trucks carrying troops and some with big guns behind have entered the motorway on a one way road and whoops have decided they shouldn’t be there. So instead of going to the next exit and coming back again, they block all traffic and one by one do a u turn on the motorway and go the wrong way back down the entry road. Although I surreptitiously took a photo, the military are a law unto themselves so I won’t be writing to the local paper about it.
Guilin is a very interesting city (pop 700,000, small by Chinese standards and sister city to Hastings, NZ). It is the third city of the province of Guangxhi province (see map above) and the people are small and wiry. Vietnam is across the border and the inhabitants here remind me more of Vietnamese than Chinese. There is so much water in the air, it is hazy but not so hazy that you cannot see the little “mountains” that dot the landscape everywhere. The sea covered this whole area 300 million years ago and the little mountains are very steep sided. They range in height from 50 metres to perhaps as high as Mount Maunganui which from memory is 340 metres.
We book into our hotel (to find the room is without broadband) and are eventually moved to another room after prolonged 3 way negotiation involving Lilly, the tour guide and the hotel desk manager. We have the Guide to ourselves this afternoon and she (her name is Bin Bin) takes us by cab to two sites within Guilin itself.
The first goes by the name of Seven Star Parks and is named after seven local peaks that together resemble the Big Dipper. We probably only see a small bit of this huge park but after an hour or so in the heat it is enough. There are two supposedly live pandas that are sound asleep in separate cages. She is with panda but they are now divorced so the baby will be illegitimate presumably.
Bill Clinton was here in 1998 on an environmental campaign. Bin Bin talks non stop and Lilly can’t get a word in edgewise to translate.
Next stop is one of the local mountain situated in the northeast of the city of Guilin right by the Li River. Everybody north of the equator is climbing it today or wants to. It is one of the most popular attractions and is known by its name because of its rock formations, piled up layer upon layer on each other. It is quite a climb up this very steep little mountain (about two thirds as high as Mount Maunganui) but the view from the top is incredible. There is a concrete platform on the whole of the top and you get a 360 degree uninterrupted view. It is a hazy day otherwise the view would be even better with the quite large Li River winding by. Ice-creams are available as are many photo opportunities. Lilly has snapped me 4000 times so I will have some editing to do later.
Later our Guide takes us into the centre of the city where we wander around for an hour or so in the markets (how can there be so many retailers and people who say hello and want to be friends?) and looking for a place to have dinner. At last we find the right place and we are treated to a good dinner at very reasonable prices and a band of 4 young Chinese ladies who entertain the big crowd with some Chinese melodies. Cab home and slumber.
We breakfast at 6:10 pack all our gear and leave with luggage at 7am. We travel for a while to a wharf on the Li River. This is a ferry wharf handling about 3 million tourists a year. We board a flat bottomed ferry for a four and a half hour trip down the Li River from Guilin to Yangshuo. This must be one of the most incredible ferry trips in the world. Remember dear diary that this whole area is dotted with small mountains that rise up out of the plain or river as they please. It looks like a giant chess set after about 20 moves. The Chinese give many of these peaks a name that tests the imagination like the nine horse mountain with supposedly 9 peaks. Tour guides tell you stories that Bill Clinton could only see 3 horses in this mountain complex and therefore lost his presidency (which is a wonderfully mystical but inaccurate story) whereas a former Prime Minister of China (Chou-en-lai) picked out nine within three seconds and was worshipped. There are many other fairy and love stories.
The river is mainly slow flowing, it passes through beautiful countryside. There is never a dull moment for me. Lilly and I are up on the top deck with an unimpeded view for most of the trip. The scenery is beautiful. Water buffalo and their calves graze in fields on the side of the river or swim in the river eating the weed that grows, bamboo lines the river, bamboo rafts are everywhere, ferries pass going up river, fishermen cast their nets, peasants tend their rice or veg, the river passes under cliffs, the captain has to take care here and elsewhere the river is slow and lazy. The water is surprisingly clean and it being a hot day there are many swimmers (mainly kids) that keep out (just) of the ferry lanes.
There are ferries in front of us every 50-100 metres as far as the eye can see and ditto behind us. At one point I could see 18 and they each carry probably a couple of hundred living, breathing, eating tourists; on our ferry about 97% Asian but a couple of ferries back, primarily Western tourists. Lilly and I are travelling in a group of about 18, all Chinese apart from me. Only well-off Chinese can afford to travel as a tourist and our group are mainly young husband and wife, professionals or business people. Mostly they are graduates and many have a smattering of English, to the extent they can understand me if I speak slowly. This is typical of all tour groups Lilly and I have travelled with.
We had a simple but tasty lunch on the ferry which had been cooked at the rear of the ferry as we travelled. Occasionally a bamboo raft pulled alongside and hooked onto the travelling ferry and offered local produce – I saw the chefs at the rear of the vessel buy veg and fish, crabs and prawns. At about 2 in the afternoon we reached Yangshou downstream. After disembarking we then walked for almost half an hour along a row of tourist retailers selling all sorts of local arts and crafts. This ferry trip was an unforgettable experience and I must apologise Diary for failure to convey that adequately.
Next stop was a stretch of the river about half an hour away. Here we walked 15 mins to the river for a trip by bamboo raft on a peaceful section of the river. Each raft carried two seated people (with umbrella) and was propelled along by a man who stood behind us. Our little man looked about 70 but assured us he was 50. Whatever, he was incredibly fit and strong. For 30 minutes he sweated at propelling us upstream along with hundreds going upstream and dodging an equal number coming downstream.
Everywhere people have bought water guns and are squirting water at all and sundry but particularly at their friends, acquaintances and fellow tour group members. Mostly these are the young and restless and dodgy. It is very hot and cool water is a relief but becoming saturated is another matter. Lilly and I try and avoid eye contact although many people say “hello”. Hello can be a dangerous word. If you say hello soberly and remotely you are safe but if you say hello with any sort of sincerity or in a friendly manner (as one is naturally want to do) you can get squirted. Some people get wet to the skin but my presence probably saves us as most seem reluctant to squirt a Westerner although 1 or 2 do.
On the way back downstream we go over a weir which involves a sudden orchestrated drop of about a metre, legs in the air to avoid the rush of water as we hit and a photo opportunity. We immediately moor mid-river to pick up a photo that is computer generated (I kid you not). Two guys are operating computers on tables with the latest software and printers and they have captured a couple of shots of Lilly and I coming over the weir and are selling the pics! We buy as do most because everyone moors temporarily at this rickety platform in the middle of the river.
We then visit a huge limestone cave which appeared ordinary at the beginning but was extensive and with some massive caverns and limestone formations. In one there was water all round the foot of these formations and the only way we could see the top was via the reflection in the water below. Probably spend at least an hour walking through the cave, well worth it.
After dinner we attend a show (the tickets were expensive) along with thousands of others in this huge natural amphitheatre alongside a section of the river that must be among the most magical scenic areas anywhere. There are 4 or 5 of the little mountains as background and the river is used as the setting for the performance. Much of the dancing is on piers that suddenly appear from nowhere or by using bamboo rafts with fishing nets strung out over an area about 100 metres square. The productions were put together by the same director responsible for the Olympics opening and closing ceremonies and it shows. There must be a cast of several hundred, maybe a thousand. Each of the 10 different segments is just stunning. Given the opportunity we would go again.
The Guide drops our party off at the hotel in Yangshuo at 9:30. That’s a twelve and a half hour day for her and us. We are tired but what a fantastic day.
Not such a full day today as there are really only two activities planned. The first is a waterfall about an hour away. Now what is a fairly ordinary waterfall by our standards, the Chinese have made into almost an endurance test. They take you by horse and buggy to the stream where you actually climb up this waterfall after equipping yourself with helmet and straw shoes. It is not for the faint hearted because water is rushing at you all the time and you have to hold onto this chain and pull yourself up. There are people in front of you and people behind and there is also a second route up. After ascending what seemed like almost vertical (with toeholds in the rock) about 10 metres it could be nasty if you lost your grip on the chain. Lilly got the technique better than I did but we both made it up OK only to find that we were then committed to trekking up this stream maybe a kilometre with at least one other tough waterfall. The straw shoes were very effective as they really gripped and we ended up having a great time. Both of us were saturated but it was so hot and strenuous, that the cool water was welcome. I didn’t see anyone older than 40 doing this bit – with the middle aged and oldies walking up the track. The downhill track had all sorts of tests including a rocking swing bridge that scared Lilly stiff, a cable swing etc. At the foot of the waterfall we were rowed back slowly and gently to the base on a 10 seater bamboo raft. There was a pretty girl on an island who serenaded us with song and a shoal of big fish met us as we neared port. Young guys on our boat sung to the girl who responded in song with stuff like “your melody doesn’t count if you cannot sing in unison”.
We stopped off for lunch nearby (now about 10 of us in the group) but the guys weren’t happy with the quality or volume of the dinner and when a rather chubby woman approached holding two live chooks they haggled and negotiated and agreed to buy what the woman described as organic meat. They also bought some little fish. Over the next half an hour the fish dish arrived first and the fish about the size of sardines were very tasty. First time I have eaten whole fish (except whitebait), eyes, lungs, gall bladder and all. The chicken was tough but with plenty of rice was quite filling. Don’t know how they got it from live to reasonably edible in 30 minutes. A little dog roamed around the restaurant and people stood on it a couple of times when it yelped in pain.
After lunch we journey back to Guilin about 2 hours and then went to see one of the local sights called Elephant Trunk Hill. The shape of the hill looks like a big elephant drinking water from the river with its trunk. There is a large hole in the rock hollowed out by the sea when it covered this area 300 million years ago. I think in NZ we have a number of these formations.
The tour day is over by about 4:30 so we rest/update for a while and about 6 walk into the centre of the city for a bit of sightseeing. On the way, as we are looking down from a bridge over the river, a young local girl with a group of friends walks up behind me and measures from the top of her head to the middle of my back and then walks off crying her eyes out. All her mates are laughing their heads off and Lilly tells me she is pretending to be distressed because she will never be tall enough to marry a Westerner. We have dinner at the same restaurant as Friday night, where one of the pretty young dancers presents me with a little gift at the end of the routine and we have a good laugh again as my, 10 times as beautiful, beloved feigns jealousy. The local beer is cold and quite good and I have my first beer or five since Wei left.
A taxi is to take us to the airport at 11 so we wake late and have a leisurely breakfast in the second breakfast room of this massive hotel. After breakfast we decide to walk locally to find a particular fruit (shaped like a gourd, about the size of a medium pumpkin and tasting between an orange and a grapefruit). It is very hot. Lilly tells me it is the humility, but I think we are just as humble in the cool weather. We can’t find fruit but simultaneously we both get a sudden urge for a toilet so there is a lengthy race back to the hotel to see who gets the hot seat first. Particular parts of China have that impact on particular parts of you.
Our guide arranges a cab and we are at the airport by about 11 for our 1:15 flight. We get our gourd shaped fruit for Ma and after an uneventful flight home, finally arrive about 6.
Updating website (me) and catching up with chores (Lilly). After talking to Jing we decide we are going off to his place on Thursday, so early afternoon we catch a bus to get the bus tickets. The bus depot is in a shabby area in the mid south of the city only just outside the second ring road. We eventually find the place. Could we have booked tickets without having to journey half way across Beijing? Well yes, you could, but you have to be here to pay for them 6 hours before the journey starts. That makes it 3 in the morning for a 9am start!! Can you pay using a credit card? No, not yet. Anyway we have our tickets and we then visit a local park which is a beautiful spot with a large lake as its centrepiece, so the trip is all worthwhile. We sit for half an hour in a pavilion on the edge of the lake and listen to a group of older Chinese men and women singing. Other oldies are playing cards, chess, mah jong, table tennis, flying kites or practising dance or tai chi routines. If you are retired and live locally, this park, like so many of them, is a great place for exercise or relaxation or virtually anything your heart desires. There is even an area where people congregate to find a prospective partner. Neither Lilly nor I are drawn to that section so that augurs well for both of us.
A famous Englishman (so famous his name escapes me) once said that there is no such thing as a Western expert on China, only various degrees of ignorance. How very true; the constant little mysteries of the Orient and the inscrutability of the Chinese combine to make this such an intriguing place. Westerners say ignorance is bliss or a little knowledge is dangerous and I need to constantly remind myself of both. The traffic is back to normal today and an outward bus trip of an hour takes us two hours to return during the rush period. We get home at 7 for a delicious, delectable, dumplings dinner.
Quiet day at home catching up with website stuff, responding to emails, reviewing photos etc. It is cool today and raining some of the time. Lilly is in organisational mode, cleaning, sweeping, tidying, unpacking, packing, commanding, directing and expecting (not a baby but instant obedience). As always, I am helpful, co-operative, amenable, supportive and obliging.
Up early to get a cab at 8 for our trip to JingPings, leaving the bus depot at 9:30. For almost 6 hours we travel across land that is absolutely flat, going past Tianjin (about 12 million folk) which is a major city on the coast about a 100 kms from Beijing. The villages fronting on the road are poor. Life in these parts is a struggle and it remains so for probably as many as a billion Chinese. This is the real China, hand to mouth existence still, but better than it was 10 years ago and hugely more so than 30 years ago. We cross into Shandong Province about midday. For much of the time today we travel across the Hwanghe delta (this is China’s second major river often called the Yellow River). This delta which essentially comprises silt built up over millions of years by this huge river covers an area greater than the North Island of NZ. Steel ducks or what are probably known as oil derricks dot the landscape. JingPing used to work for the oil company and he organised a job for his son there. When they first installed these derricks in the seventies, some of them used to pump 100 tons of oil a day, now many are doing as little as a ton a day. Oil is stolen and sometimes parts of the derricks are stolen – JingPing’s son is part of a team that seeks to prevent that. We also travel through an area where there are huge wind turbines right by the roadside, generating power. Today our driver is another bus cowboy. Overtaking is his speciality. Double yellow lines, approaching traffic, bends, huge lorries all over the road, it matters not. Many times we rock and sway and almost brush up against oncoming oil trucks and buses. Forty years ago it would have been fun. Today it is scary and I try to concentrate on the topography out of the side windows.
We survive to arrive mid afternoon and be picked up by JingPing in his new late model comfortable car or is it a van. Don’t ask me the variety. JingPing is his usual jovial self. We go to his new flat (2 years ago he bought and renovated it and at the same time gave his old place to the son and his wife). He is on the top floor – five floors up. This is a new flat, four big bedrooms, on two levels, two bathrooms, conservatory upstairs, facing South (which is ideal) sunny and bright. Cost him about NZ$40,000 all up and worth double that today. Up to 5 floors and you don’t need a lift but more than 5 and the law says you have to have lifts. It is good exercise for everyone, Ma included. A compulsory five flights of stairs, 2 or 3 times a day is not enough for the JingPings – they always walk after dinner at night and also use the outside exercise equipment in the complex; which we do, after dinner tonight (mainly crab and cockles) including a brief game of table tennis in one of the buildings. It is a very social life in this big complex – safe to wander around at nights and plenty of activities like dancing, tai chi, mah jong, cards, chess etc. An ideal environment for the semi-retired/retired. I am on broadband easily and it is quite quick so website and emails are done smartly. We watch the Chinese spacecraft lift off on the tele and go to bed early.
For breakfast we can choose from a vast array; hot milk, corn soup, beef pastry rolls and condiments including sesame seed, sesame sauce, dried shrimp paste (a delicacy for the Chinese which is allowed to go off first and tastes horrible, but I am warned), and dried tree leaves from a special scented tree. There is also conventional tomato and egg and plenty of fruit. I have to watch I don’t eat too much but Lilly continues on long after everyone else is finished. Don’t know where she puts it. We go off to see an Oil Co exec friend of Jings who has scanned a document we have been trying to fax to Oz, call in on the stock exchange, have my face looked at by a doctor to see what outcrops can be successfully removed (he grudgingly agrees I can keep the ears and nose and eventually the rest also stay) and pick up fruit and veg at the local market, a sight to behold, but very cheap. Visiting dentist after lunch at 2pm.
Dentist gives me a temporary filling and after examining the landscape says the handiwork of his Australian contemporaries leaves a lot to be desired. When I ask if my gums are OK for a 42 year old there is a lot of giggling behind the mask which I am unsure how to take. When I modestly suggest that at least my mind is still ok, he obviously then begins to wonder what he has here. Later we go to see JingPing’s other flat, about 5 minutes walk away, which is where the son and daughter-in-law now live. JingPing and family used to live there and we stayed there previously. JingPing has had it refurbished and it is also very salubrious with 3 bedrooms. We walk around a park talking to gardeners – a foreigner in these parts attracts attention and a crowd quickly gathers. I don’t say much but Lilly tells everyone about Australia and New Zealand and they hang on every word. They like the fact that she originally comes from Shandong and they like to know whether she is just my translator or if there is something more between us. I think she teases them a bit with some of their prying questions. Everyone has a laugh.
Lunch and dinner are occasions. All the family assembles (the young ones come over) and there are lots of different dishes. JingPing is no longer drinking because of kidney problems so I have a gentle beer or 2 only in the evening. Walking after dinner at night is the tradition.
We (JingPing, Lilly, Ma and me, JingPing’s wife has to work) are off fairly early for the distant harbour. We drive for about an hour across the dead flat terrain. This is all Yellow River delta and a lot of the area has been reclaimed from the sea, particularly over the last 30 years. The Yellow River is sometimes described as being the “Cradle of Chinese Civilisation” but in 1931 it flooded for several months. Wikipedia says “Estimates of the number of people killed in the flood range generally range from 1 to 2 million. Figures have shown about 1 million people died of drowning. Some listed the Yellow River death toll alone to be as high as 4 million. The river completely inundated 87,000 km2. It partially inundated 20,000 km2 (a combined area about the size of the North Island), and left 80 million people homeless.” I think it is generally accepted that this was the greatest natural disaster ever in the history of mankind. Flood prevention has been a priority since, but in 1938 the Chinese deliberately blew up a dam on the river to halt an advance of Japanese troops. They wanted to take the Japanese by surprise so they didn’t warn the population and the flood waters took between 500,000 and 900,000 lives. The river has also appropriately been described as “China’s Sorrow”.
Enough history, this is now an oil area, with oil derricks everywhere. We stop off to see 2 friends briefly on the way. One of them won Y3m on Lotto, lost Y2m on some project, spent Y0.5m on quite nice standalone home by a river and is steadily blowing the rest on lottery tickets. Easy come, easy go. The other friend is JingPing’s son’s godfather, a Christian I am told later. As we leave there, a new bride and groom arrive at the bride’s home, to crackers going off and general pandemonium. We get some photos. JingPing gets me to drive for a few kilometres but I am not all that comfortable with driving on the right hand side of the road, nor with the road rules which are on paper only. We eventually reach the sea which is brown from the rivers that pour into this massive bay. JingPing has arranged a pass and we are able to travel out on to a pier that stretches 10 kms (yes that’s ten kilometres) out into the bay. The first 3 kms are a bit rough and about 70 metres wide. The next 7 kms (JingPing’s pass is evidently not valid for this bit but he says I am a foreign dignitary and bluffs his way through) are a 4 lane motorway and smooth as a millpond. By the time we are 10 kms from the beach the water is 18 metres deep and can take the big ships. The harbour is still under construction but three massive steel cranes are already in place. Construction goes on everywhere. We all get out and take plenty of photos. We are the only “tourists” but there is also a television crew doing a feature on it. This is a 50 year visionary project. They may eventually go further out into the bay if need be.
We drive back along a very smooth modern motorway for lunch at home, a doze and later in the afternoon we watch the Chinese take their first spacewalk. Big event beamed live and everyone is beaming. JingPing supplements the commentary with a non-stop flow of his own. He is well-read, smart and knowledgeable, pity I can’t understand a word of it apart from his English “sit down please John”. I occasionally say to him in Chinese “you are clever, I am handsome” which he loves, because he probably thinks he is more handsome than me as well, entirely debateable!
Sleep in a bit and mid-morning wander off to get Ma some spectacles and to get us veg and meat for lunch, as Jing and family are going to a wedding. The days are cooler now and we are wearing jumpers, sometimes jackets. Bit of drama over the specs between Lilly and JingPing, as he thinks she is taking over. On the other hand I am pressing Lilly because I see Ma reading and writing all hunched over because she can’t see properly. Over the years failing eyesight and poor light have taken their toll and nobody has done anything about it. Ma doesn’t press, because money is involved. I have complained about it several times, but this time dig in my toes and start insisting. Indeed Ma gave me Y1000 (about $180) a while ago as a gift and I accepted it but privately agreed with Lilly that it should go towards specs. So when the testing is done they say she has almost lost the sight in one eye and JingPing says the specs are too expensive anyway. Apparently an operation is necessary for the bad eye but to sort out fact from fiction from excuses is beyond me. I have to rely on Lilly giving me the good oil and she is the meat in the sandwich so to speak. The bottom line is that we all walk out of the opticians with the matter unresolved. JingPing goes off to his wedding and we go and buy meat and groceries at the local market.
I feel like a prize exhibit in this place. It is a small place (only 60,000) and fairly isolated and I doubt that they see many Westerners. Lilly and I see Chinese going past on bikes with jaws dropping or getting past, then stopping suddenly to watch us. Many people mistake Lilly for a foreigner (probably because she is tall and with me) and compliment her on how good her Mandarin is. JingPing and I talk solar energy which is still very expensive for the average householder to buy and install. Finish my usual weekend website routines and after an otherwise lazy afternoon Lilly and I get to play half an hours table tennis in the evening in the complex’s social centre.
Work most of the day on the website. We walk in the morning to the Botanical gardens and Lilly and I walk again in the late afternoon around the city. This place is quite different from Beijing. Some streets are OK but it is generally untidy and unkempt. The huge park has many paths and borders water, little lakes and canals but it is just too big to be maintained properly. The people are obviously poorer and more of farming stock. There are not too many professional people about as there are in the bigger cities. Lilly and I talk about mothers mainly; mothers plural not mothers possessive. One mother has ideal circumstances, the other less than satisfactory but we feel helpless to redress the situation because of the elder brother control mentality. This is a cultural problem that has to be solved if Ma’s lot is to be improved. It is a real concern to Lilly.
Today we get up early for an 8am start to go to the sea end of the Yellow River delta. This is not like going to the mouth of any ordinary river. This is a mystical experience partly because I have no idea where we are going, most of the roads are not signposted, the distances are so great and the sun cannot be found. Also the main river has changed its course many times over the years for the simple reason that it brings silt and sand from the Loess Plateau upstream and as it slows and widens, it deposits it. After a while the deposits raise the level of the river above the surrounding land so that it floods and changes course. Now this has all been documented over the past 100 or so years, maybe even earlier, but it has probably been going on for millions of years; hence this huge delta about the size of the North Island of NZ. Dear Diary, please alert me if I repeat myself.
There are 3 carloads of us that go off in a convoy and travel for an hour or so. JingPing’s best mate has wives and daughters etc (including a prospective son in law who spent 3 years in Scotland and speaks quite good English) and he also has a mate who has the key to the ecological kingdom of the lower Yellow River. We visit a giant birdcage that has all sorts of species of birds that have been captured and are fed. We walk down to the main river at one point. It is about 200 metres wide, yellow and flowing; evidently quite shallow. Photo opportunities abound. Later we split up – one car goes back for lunch and two go on. We travel a long way towards the mouth of the river. We go through various roadblocks but JingPing’s mate has a quiet word and we are waved through. Eventually we apparently get near the mouth of the river. We then (along with about 20 others) board a boat for the trip downstream to the mouth. The further we go the wider the river gets until we can barely see the sides and is this river or sea? Out in the middle of nowhere we suddenly turn back. There is no explanation but later I am reliably informed that we had reached a sandbank where it is too shallow to go on. (If that is the case I estimate the river is not far off changing course again. It has been on its present course since 1996.) Land is constantly being reclaimed so that oil derricks can be established on land rather than expensive oil rigs out at sea.
We travel somewhere else where we go out on this concrete roadway/pier that stretches out into the sea for miles and miles. It goes on forever. Our driver is waved through several roadblocks. Eventually we stop at a junction on the pier where half a dozen fishing boats are tied up. We chat to the crew (usually husband and wife) and go on board one or two. What a hard life. The wives are all busy mending nets. Everything is untidy and dirty and unkempt but some how I suppose they survive. We buy fish and crabs.
Later we stop for lunch at the most dilapidated filthy place imaginable. If asked I can produce the photographic evidence. The proprietors are friendly, as are their dogs, chooks, ducks and geese and the mainly fish and crab lunch is pretty good. I am a bit choosy but probably need not have been as there is no present evidence of tummy bugs. Home about 4 for a doze and a long evening on the website. There is a huge amount of blood on the floor from the stock market of the last day or so. I may have to get a job as a deckhand on a Yellow River trawler.
This whole week is a national holiday in China. The stock market is closed but everything else seems to function normally. People are travelling everywhere as all the migrant workers (who flock into the cities for jobs) return to their villages. Fog embraces us this morning, we can barely see the next building which is only about 40 metres away. It turns out to be a brilliant clear warm and sunny day. We walk into the city in the morning and get Ma some cheap specs as an interim measure. We walk back laden with fruit, veg, meat fish etc. In the afternoon we walk for at least two hours along the nearby river bank skirting on a botanical garden, then walking through it, then visiting a big block of flats. The developer’s girl shows us the top two on the 11th floor that are selling for about $60,000, refurbishment would cost another $30,000. Yes they are cheap for us as they are quite large; relatively expensive for locals. But here’s the rub: very poor design.
JingPing takes us for a drive showing us the bed of the old route of the Yellow River (about 15 years ago). We also visit another block of flats – a bit cheaper and better designed. In the afternoon Lilly and I take another long walk through an area by old canals and through the botanical gardens. We walk beside still waters (there are no green pastures to lie in) and quietly walk around the grounds of a large hotel, which is virtually deserted. This would have been built 20 years ago (JingPing says later by the oil company) and is just too grandiose for reality. Beautiful spot for it. Later close to home we meet locals who are growing veges outside the wall of our block of flats. They are carrying buckets of water from the canal to keep their veges going. Some really healthy veges mainly and a lady, who originally comes from the same village as Lilly kindly gives us some of her radishes.
Ma has put an additional quilt on our bed so hopefully we will sleep better tonight. The beds are hard without mattresses to the extent that it becomes painful after a while, lying on one side. The Chinese are used to it but Lilly is complaining, not me so she has been softened by comfortable Western living. One thing that I don’t get used to is the constant smell emanating from the bathroom which is caused by the diversion of water from the sink into buckets for use by manually flushing the toilet. I don’t do it but the others do and there is always water lying around on the floor and an unpleasant odour. It all stems from the shortage of water and I must be accommodating. On the positive side there has been a conspicuous absence of arguments this trip between Lilly and me, which has made all the difference.
Jing takes us for local drive showing us the old bed of the Yellow River to the west and 4 huge and abandoned reservoirs on the east. At one reservoir, JingPing tries to catch big crabs just as a Park Ranger comes by and warns us off. We are not meant to be here. Unfortunately the granddaughter is throwing pebbles into the water and at the same time throws an expensive jade bangle in. JingPing strips to his undies but the water is cold and he goes no further than ankle deep. (He goes back later by himself with a rubber suit and stick and casts around but can’t find it. The water is very murky.) We go to the market and buy big live crabs and veg. Buying fruit and veg is almost a daily routine. Crabs are a luxury. Seven big ones are Y90, about $15 which is expensive. Lilly is a spendthrift by JingPing’s standards and he is, by Ma’s standards. It’s all relative. I get a case of the good beer with Lilly’s permission! – 12 big bottles for $7 (would cost $30 in NZ) and I am a squanderer.
Later Lilly and I walk and push the boundaries further west past the botanical gardens. We find a semi-abandoned and run-down rest home. There are ponds and some beautiful features. Twenty years ago the government spent a huge amount of money here but it was ahead of its time, nobody came and eventually the place was left to go to rack and ruin. Probably one or two caretakers are still on the payroll and they have become squatters. A faded sign shows the library hours, so it was probably very well organised initially. This place would be a real goer on the outskirts of Beijing but there are just not enough well-off people here to sustain it. We walk back through the botanicals which are well tended. I work in the evening, the others watch TV. I have caught up a lot this last week so feel better about being on holiday at this rate.
We get up early to attend a wedding that we were invited to yesterday. There is this huge temporary and fancy façade to a doorway in a block along from ours. As we photograph it last night, tomorrow’s bridegroom suddenly emerges on his bike and takes off. He is a handsome young man and he stops when he sees us. I ask him if this is his last night of freedom and if he knows what he is doing. Not too late to change his mind. We all have a laugh and he asks us to attend, but we miss the occasion when he takes off in the morning. However, when he arrives back and carries his bride over the threshold, we are there snapping away. Fireworks are going off and there is general bedlam; big party to follow. We don’t go in but instead wander off for a game of table tennis.
In the late afternoon we first book to go back to Beijing by bus on Tuesday. It is then walking again – this time up one side of the main street and back down the other. It is all fascinating for me to see how people live (survive is a better word) and work and eat and sleep. It is all there. The wide pavement on both sides of the street, houses many businesses. Here there are a number of guys assembling steel frames with oxy acetylene welding, then there is a restaurant with five skinned sheep hanging outside (minus heads in this case), then there is a hardware business with 75% of its wares on the pavement. Then a posh restaurant followed by a karaoke bar. A tent outside another place has one or two tables that people are eating at. The food is possibly just as tasty as the posh restaurant, only about a tenth of the price. Even the posh restaurant is very cheap by our standards. We walk through the market where people are packing up (it is now dark) and in this area all their products have to be packed up and carted home or wherever. Life is hard. I would like to give them all at least a Y10 note (about $2) but Lilly has limited my allowance knowing I am a bit stupid. I don’t blame her as some of them would probably be insulted. We get talking to a husband and wife team selling grapes, veg and other fruit. They have a good position at the front of the market and are also about to pack up. Goodness knows how far they have to cart their stuff and then cart it back at sparrows. I ask about their turnover and profits. They ask how much I reckon. I say Y1000 turnover a day and profits Y200. They say no, no, no. They tells us Y500 a day turnover but they only make about Y50 ($10) a day. That’s two people. The Y50 goes about as far as $50 in the West but it is really just subsistence. And they have a prime location. Then again maybe I looked like the local tax inspector and they didn’t want to give any secrets away.
It is cold today and raining. Mid-morning we go off to the complex centre and play table tennis for an hour. Lilly falls quite heavily when I am ahead in the deciding game and hurts her hip but gets up and reels off four points in a row to take it. Bugger. Tomorrow I may try that.
Later in the day we go back for another game but the doors are locked so we walk instead. On the way we run into JingPing, then one of his friends who we met briefly in Sydney about 8 years ago. He invites us out to dinner tomorrow night but I can see JingPing is reluctant. I don’t know what is arranged, if anything. Lilly and I walk off and get into a discussion (shorthand for an Lilly monologue) about eating out, which we have not done once in more than a week we have been here, nor did we in Beijing when JingPing spent about 10 days with us. Is it the money or is there some other reason? Eating out is incredibly cheap here and the food is usually very tasty. I have not been sick once in our four visits to China, touchwood. Wei and wife eat out all the time but JingPing is frugality personified. Lilly says she prefers to eat at home because the food is tastier and fresher. I privately think Lilly also prefers to have the money in the bank but daren’t say that. Instead I mildly suggest that a change is welcome occasionally and I would like to eat out once a week wherever we are. That leads to another 10,000 words; cultural differences, my heart isn’t in the right place etc, etc, etc. For goodness sake, it’s not all that vital one way or the other. I end up walking hard by myself for at least an hour to get the cobwebs out and make sure my heart is where it has always been. Work again tonight in anticipation of being able to eat out once a week, hopefully by the time I get to 80.
It is our last day in Gua Do and with JingPing and Ma for at least another 12 months. In the morning we catch another wedding in our block (fireworks, photos and the bedlam) and then JingPing drives us quite a way (south I think) to the Yellow River. On the way we pass through vast areas of cotton. The seeds are planted in early Spring in a nursery, then planted out, and by Autumn the plants are about a metre high. We are now right in the middle of the picking season. We also see two quite large flocks of mangy sheep with tails. We get off at a temporary/permanent floating bridge over the Yellow River and take photos; then join some young women who are picking cotton nearby. It is back-breaking seasonal work but these women are as hard as nails and drag a sack tied around their waste as they pick. Reminds me of Kev and I picking beans and raspberries. The cotton does not come off the plant easily but they seem to have no trouble. They make about Y70 – 80 ($12-$13) a day which is pretty good money by Chinese standards. But it is a long hard day. The local cotton farmer approaches us and asks if we would like to invest in a cotton plantation. He is doing OK evidently, so I ask myself, why does he want money? Lilly says he wants to get bigger. Fair enough but I am not moved by bottomless pit appeals. We get home to find the Australian stock-market down another 3% so we have a bottomless pit of our own, thank you.
The whole family (except me) makes dumplings for lunch which is a real treat. Lilly is already thinking about what she is going to eat on the 6 hour bus trip home tomorrow.
In the afternoon we play our last game of table tennis and in the evening we do go out for dinner with JingPing’s business friend. The circumstances are so Chinese. This is the local oil company. It is government and they have big offices and a lavish in-house restaurant area where executives have their dinners. We are in one upstairs room of what appears to be about 20. There are 7 of us (3 oil company execs, JingPing and one of his friends and Lilly and I) sitting around a circular table. There are a huge number of different dishes all served with quiet efficiency. The beer glasses are topped up constantly and there are many toasts. The conversation is about China and its acceptance by the world community. Opinions differ strongly, which would not have been the case 30 years ago. Lilly does a great job tonight both in translating and in putting a Western perspective; nonetheless most of the conversation goes by with me as an unwitting spectator. Wish it were otherwise because this is really what interests me.
Uneventful bus trip back home leaving at 8am and getting back at home about 3pm. Book to return to Australia on 15/16 October. We sleep well.
It is a beautiful sunny day, warm with a cool breeze. We have a quiet day at home mainly catching up on website and watching our shares plunge away to nothing. Where is the bottom? In the afternoon we walk to buy a quilt and get CDs, veg, fruit etc. Debating whether to go to Dezhou for a day or so to see solar developments.
We are in wind-down holiday, wind-up business mode. Spending more time on website, walking in the afternoon. Watching the market which has gone bananas; who would have thought we would see the All Ords around 4400. We eat out tonight at the spicy place along the road.
The world in meltdown. The Dow is down another 7% overnight and has lost 20% over the past week. People the world over have seen their life savings cut in half over the past 12 months. The All Ords falls 8.2% today, closes at about 3940!!!! Unbelievable. I am busy researching and picking out some lower risk stocks. Watching the market and we buy cautiously in to good companies throughout the day, only to see most of them fall even further. Is there a bottom? It is a risky business but we don’t want to miss the boat. Black Friday on world markets.
Lilly goes to dentist early and has to wait a long time but eventually gets a filling and a polish. Work most of the day on my usual weekend task which brings in a little money, money that goes in a flash on the market. We are still pre-occupied with our shares and are we doing the right thing by adding to our holdings at this point. Should we back off and wait to see things firm up a bit. If the markets start recovering will they do so quickly and will we miss the upswing; an age-old question.
The days are beautiful. Sunny, sky quite clear, gentle breeze, warm in the sun. Nights are cool and we are now wearing jumpers when we go out. We are really happy with our little place here. Talk about moving the furniture in the study into the main living area so that we can make the study into the third bedroom it is meant to be. The desk and chair will go easily into the eastern end of the sunny area at the front, we will have a heavy curtain at one end to minimise the sun as needed and the bookcase and existing cabinet will be swapped with the cabinet going to the end of the TV table. Buy a small wall divider by the desk. Agreed and to be done when next here. All extremely heavy furniture and we will need people to help. We walk to the big wholesale market looking for stuff we could experiment with on TradeMe.
Work in the morning on share market research and lunch with the Rens at this “old style” Beijing restaurant. Solly picks us up in his new black VW Passat. First dish we have is cow’s intestine which looks and tastes like rubber. I humbly ask which intestine, they say the first one. Yuk. Second dish is bright green fennel (that’s a guess) and beans and looks exactly like the contents of a cow’s second intestine, shades of grass and clover after going thru a wringer. Tastes like it too (as if I know). Third dish is thinly sliced lotus root which looks as if it has ringworm. Fourth dish looks exactly like the results of a cow’s fourth intestine. The cow pattie turns out to be tofu leftovers and doesn’t taste too bad soaked in sesame oil. There is pork Hot Pot which is largely huge lumps of fat that the Chinese love, there goes cholesterol levels. Then mushroom soup, fish, cabbage and mustard, sea cucumber, fried flower petals, cabbage and something else. I am not all that keen on any of it. Everybody tucks in with relish, maybe I missed the relish. I pick away to disguise my lack of enthusiasm. Mr Ren has lost a lot of weight. Lilly believes he has cancer and thinks nobody is telling Mrs Ren who is very bent over and struggles to walk. Lilly and Solly talk stock market. He pulled out of the Chinese market (which is hyper both ways) in good time – says he studies the history of stock markets. Afterwards we visit his new flat, about half way to being refurbished. Good area and will be great when complete. Wonder if the old folk will still be around to enjoy it. He plans to have them with him and then refurbish their place as well. Doesn’t sound as if they are going south to Hainan for the winter this year, as they usually do. He says he will come to Aust/NZ next year, we suspect he wants to see his sister.
Later we walk to the shopping area where Lilly looks at hats and other stuff to take back. The Aust government is to guarantee all bank deposits for three years – that will help to restore Australian confidence but our market is so dependent on the US, when they sneeze we catch a cold, when they catch a cold we get pneumonia.
We shower early as hot water is off this week because of the transition to the water heaters for the winter. This happens every year at the beginning of winter for a few days while they changeover. Don’t know why it takes days. Soon the central heating will be on. By the time of our plane trip on Wednesday/Thursday we will just have to warn passengers in the vicinity to hold their noses. Stock market is up 5% immediately then wanes a bit. Is this a dead cat bounce? We basically resolve to hold off to see if any pattern is going to emerge.
We wake to the news that the Dow was up 11% last night. Huge, but it was down 20% last week so we will wait to see if a pattern is established – with all the shoring up being done by various countries it is about time there was a reaction.
Brendan phones – he is just in his office after travelling all night from Los Angeles. We talk currency – he says the forced unwinding of carry trade (temporary investing in higher yielding currencies by low interest countries like Japan) positions has been largely responsible for the huge decline in the Australian dollar. I agree also the 1 point interest rate cut and the flow of bank deposits from a non-guaranteed country to guaranteed countries has not helped. Aust government has now guaranteed bank deposits and that will cease. We both agree AUD is undervalued and will strengthen. He went to mass on Sunday in LA where Americans were praying for a recovery and lo and behold the market is up 11% the next day!!! Notwithstanding that he thinks the US economy is stuffed and the US dollar will fall. On the share market – fundamentals of Aust market are fine and it is oversold – shares we bought the other day are good ones – companies with overseas earnings are going to benefit from the currency’s weakness – albeit temporarily. Financial crisis is not over for US despite Dow recovering overnight by 900 odd points. His belief, it is a dead cat bounce; does not augur well if he is right because the US will pull everyone down.
All Ords finishes at about 4200 only 3.6% up. We have a quiet day at home, or at least I do. I am working on new website matters and Lilly is tidying, cleaning, buying more hats, etc and generally organising, cooking, arranging, categorising what we are to take back to Sydney, and commanding all and sundry.
About our last rite is to move a bit of leftover cash on to deposit; takes an hour at the bank, including half an hour waiting. Tomorrow we will pack and leave for the airport about midday for our 4pm flight, stopover about midnight in Singapore for a couple of hours and get into Sydney 11am Thursday. This has been our best trip to China, possibly because of the Olympics and having the family here, possibly because we have all the creature comforts at our base in Beijing and the air has been cleaner, possibly because we are both a bit more accommodating of each other, maybe all of the above – our 3 trips away to Xian, Guilin and Gua Do were fantastic.