This is the diary of Jane and Graham who went on a two week tour of China. The tour was organized by Jane with help from another Jane (Spilsbury) at Asian Journeys(now called Audley Travel) . We wanted to visit Beijing and the Great Wall, see the Terra-cotta Army at Xi'an, sail down the Three Gorges, admire the scenery at Guilin. We wanted to be met at all airports and taken to a hotel by an English speaking guide. As it was difficult to book a cruise down the Yangzi until a couple of weeks before we left our itinerary was rejigged once we had got a booking on a cruise.
Both of us had read various books on China, such a Wild Swans, Death in Shanghai, Falling Leaves, Red Dust so we thought we knew what we could expect to experience in China. How wrong could we be?
With us we took the Lonely Planet guide to China, The River at the Centre of the World, A Single Pebble, and Beyond the Wall.
The unit of currency in China is the Yuan, worth about 1/8 dollars or 1/12 pounds. It is also called RMB(Renminbi - People's Money).
Briefly, here's how we spent each day:
(But first beware that all links are to photographs which may take time to load. A link from a day's title is to a full page while a link within a day is to a single photograph. If you have any comments please let us have them by clicking here .)
Our son, Stephen, would have loved the sports facilities - a 16-lane bowling alley, squash court, numerous blue table-tennis tables, saunas, snooker tables and mah-jongg and bridge rooms. Graham was invited to play table tennis which he did and after winning one point gracefully left the table to let the two occupants continue. We were also invited to join the mah-jongg game but declined. The tennis court was on a roof outside.
We ate in the Radience Coffee Bar of the hotel where we dined on a Chinese buffet - clams, oysters, mussels, prawns, abalone, salmon and various meats washed down with beer and water - all very tasty and only 183RMB. The decorations at the front of the hotel make it look like Christmas - lots of red and lights. We retired at 10pm which was only 3pm at home. China has one time zone(GMT+7) and does not mess around with notions of day-light saving.
At Dazu we walked around lots of Buddhist carvings sculpted out of the faces of cliffs. They were carved out more than 1000 years ago and had been spared the ravages of the cultural revolution because of their remoteness. Much of their original colours is still visible. We were asked by some school girls if they could take our photograph. Tall non-black haired white skinned people are a rarity in Dazu. We felt honoured. Everyone was very friendly, many saying 'hello' and smiling.
At noon we walked back to the minibus instead of taking one of the tricycle rickshaws driven by male or female drivers. On our way back to the town of Dazu we stopped and walked along a narrow paved path between paddy fields to a village which consisted of a couple of stone houses surrounding a village square rather like a farmyard. We were invited in to one of the 300 year-old houses but declined. At Dazu we had lunch in a large tourist hotel. We ate bland Chinese food whilst our driver and guide sat at the next table and had frogs legs as well as the dishes we had. Tour guides and drivers are forbidden to eat at the same table as tourists. They are supposed to eat workers meals away from the tourists. We had moon cakes which are only eaten on National Day. They were a bit like an Eccles cake.
We got back into the minibus and returned to Chongqing where we visited an artists village set in the midst of the city close to the Jialing River. 17 artists live in the group of houses. Many of their paintings are in museums but prints were on sale. We were given a talk by one of the artists, 80 year old Mr Liu, who was forced to spend the years of the cultural revolution working on a farm. After Mr Liu's talk we visited his studio.
Next stop was the Hongxing Pavilion set in a park from where one could get a good view of the city and the Yangzi and Jialing rivers although slightly obscured by the fog that continually hangs over the city - too much coal burning. In the park we saw a long mural painted by a single artist that depicted the passage of the Jangzi through the Three Gorges. Wedding photos were being taken in the park nearby where a lady was swinging with a couple of peacocks.
After the park we were taken to the People's Palace (seating capacity of 5000) which one gets to by climbing a large flight of steps from the very large People's Square. Dusk was now approaching and we persuaded Romy and Mr Chung, the driver, to be our guests at a restaurant that served the local speciality - Chongqing Hotpot. We all sat at a round table surrounding a bowl above a burner. The bowl was divided into two - one section had a chilli soup and the other a milder version. We selected our food from another table, some strange vegetables, lots of tripe and other offal, live eels, and noodles but we avoided the chickens feet and heads and other similar items and cooked it in the pot.
After the meal we were taken to the quay where we clambered down many steps to join the boat - the Victoria Dolphin. The cabin is a bit small but has a television, air conditioning, and a bathroom with a shower. We watched a video of the Three Gorges on the TV and then went to sleep.
At 3pm the boat docked at Fengdu. We walked across pontoons lined by the boat's staff and up the slipway at the top of which got on a coach with the other 27 English speaking 'independent' travellers with a guide called Sarah, wearing a red coat and waving a yellow flag. We got dropped at the bottom of a ski lift. We strolled through the 'FIT WAY IN'(Fengdu International Tourists) and got tickets for the lift. It seemed odd getting on a ski lift without planks attached to your boots but we sat in pairs and climbed up to Ghost City as the drizzle dampened our spirits. At the top we joined the thousands of other tourists and were guided around the Buddhist temples and listened to the fairy tale stories. We admired the Monkey guard as Graham as born in the year of the monkey. We did not buy any incense or paper money to burn and send to our relatives in the next world. A third of the lift would be drowned when the dam is completed in 607 days time and Ghost City will become situated atop a mountain island in a lake.
We returned to the boat having purchased 5 bottles of beer at 20RMB saving 85RMB on bar prices - that's how expensive bar drinks were on board. Half an hour later, at 6pm, we had drinks with the Chinese captain. The meal was a good Chinese selection served by our waiter Bill which we washed down with beer as no wine was offered. We were joined at the table by an American couple from Grant's Pass, Oregon. After dinner we attended a concert given by the cruise director's Chinese wife, Jennifer Chen, who played a selection of interesting and enjoyable traditional Chinese tunes on a hammer dulcimer.
We entered Qutang gorge with its steep sides and one way traffic system signalled by an arrow on a pole of a river guard's building. You need a lot of imagination as the river guide, Aaron, points out the limestone features which are meant to look like lions, rhinoceros and dragons. At one point the river is only 60 metres wide but 150 metres deep.
We continued down the river to Wushan and docked. We collected a lunch box and a bottle of water and were led to a motorised sampan. Unfortunately it was full because the Chinese Americans were expected to go on the Chinese speaking sampan. We got on the Chinese speaking sampan together with Aaron, the river guide, who'd translate for us. 40 people sat four abreast in the rear motored flat-bottomed boat with a sliding roof. We were taken up the Lesser Gorges on the Daning River. Its green waters make change from the muddy Yangzi. On the left hand side are the 6-inch square holes cut into the rock face about 60 feet above the water where once ran a plank roadway running for 450 km (sorry about the mixed measurement system but metrics is what we were told and imperial is how we estimate). The boat meanders slowly up the rapids. We see wild monkeys and a hanging coffin. We beached on a length of shale and hurried to hide behind boulders to rid ourselves of body fluids and wandered around admiring the multi-coloured pebbles. It was very sunny and when we re-board it only takes 1.3 hours to travel the 35 km back to the boat.
Once everyone has got back on board, that is, all plastic pass out badges have been handed back, we motored through the 40km long Wu gorge where we see the diminutive Goddess Peak, who was not taking a bath(hidden by cloud). We leave the municipality of Chongqing, once inside the province of Sichuan, and enter Hubei Province. After another hour we dock at Zigui and after dinner we get off the boat and enter a dockside theatre where we watch a colourful hour long display of Chinese dancers interrupted by a Chinese poet who nearly sent us to sleep whilst he writes a poem in Chinese script used a finger instead of a brush. Fortunately we sat in the front row and were not put off by the very noisy and boisterous Japanese contingent behind us. We return to the boat and retire at 10pm.
After the dinner the crew put on a short review for us all including a rendition of the runner up entry in the national TV competition to find the best delivery of a Chinese song given by a foreigner. It was performed by Kevin in a black mandarin style gown accompanied by Jennifer on the hammer dulcimer. We went to bed at 9:30pm at the end of a very long and hot day having seen the prettiest of the gorges.
This lesson was followed by an informative talk and question and answer session on 'Life in China today' from Kevin aided by an American who works for Motorola and lives in Beijing. As a rule only one child per family is allowed but in some provinces two are permitted. A fine is imposed for having more children. Education has to be paid for as has medical aid and pensions. There is no social security for being out of work. As Kevin says, China has implemented socialism with Chinese characteristics. English is now taught in preference to Russian in schools but politics replaces religious studies. After the talk we asked Kevin how long has he been able to hold such a discussion without the Public Security Bureau being informed. Six years ago he made a joke about Chiang Kaishek which was reported back to his company, Victoria Cruises, and he was asked to be more careful. Now everyone can speak much more freely.
After lunch we disembarked at Wuhan and were met by Flix, a male guide. who allowed our Swiss fellow travellers, Sabine and Andy to join us on our tour through Wuhan to the Hubei Bonsai Tree and Rock Museum. We saw lots of very large and interesting rocks including a 7 ton piece of quartz, ink stone, jade, chrysanthemum stone, dinosaur eggs and many fossilized fishes. We were then taken to the airport where we boarded our flight to Beijing.
On our arrival we were met once again by 22 year old Siân and the driver, Mr Lu (aka Harry), who drove us in the black Audi through Tiananmen Square to the nearby Guangzhou Hotel, where we booked into room 7033. The room was a very good 4-star standard with a television that showed English programs including CNN. After unpacking we ventured out at 8:30 in search of somewhere to eat. We visited some local bargain stores and then decided to chance our luck in an all-Chinese restaurant. We pointed out what we wanted to eat as it was all displayed on a table. After 10 minutes, stir fry vegetables, rice and two fish steaks were brought to accompany the tea and beer we were already drinking. The experience cost 70RMB and they would not even accept a tip. We walked back to the hotel which is a 15 minute walk away from Tiananmen Square and phoned our daughter, Emma, on the mobile which works in China. Mobile phones are everywhere.
Harry met us and drove us to the Lama Temple which has more attractive gates and 4 temples, each of which contain a better Buddha than the previous one. The first temple contained a huge golden Buddha with a huge smile and even larger tummy. He is called the Happy Buddha. The last but one housed the tallest Buddha in the world (according to the notice outside which referred to the Guinness Book of Records, 1990). It is 23m high and made from a single piece of sandalwood - quite amazing.
Harry then drove us to lunch at the Temple of Heaven where we ate in a large tourist restaurant whilst our help ate elsewhere. Jane asked for soy sauce with which she flavoured her rice. We have since learnt that rice is often not served, and if it is, is served last and eaten only as a filler. Only children have soy sauce on their rice to encourage them to eat it all. After lunch we were taken to a tea house where we were introduced to the fascinating Chinese tea ceremony. Much washing of tea and heating of pot and handleless cups. Three sips only to down the tea. One each for health, wealth and happiness. Several different teas were served freely and then Jane bartered for our first souvenirs - 3 mugs that change their pictures with heat.
Next we went on a long drive through Beijing to the Summer Palace, constructed by the dowager Empress, Cixi. We walked around it and along the 730m corridor which is covered on the inside with more than a million hand painted pictures. We had a quick glance at Cixi's jade boat and then we got on a Dragon boat and were carried to the other side of the large lake where we were met by Harry. We'd done a lot of walking and were happy to know we were now on the return journey, during which Harry played a cassette containing numbers by Rod Stewart, Eric Clapton and other examples of 'Western decadence'. We visited a pearl factory shop selling cultured pearls. Jane performed another bartering act, which she claims she does badly, and bought some earrings and we were allowed to keep the oyster shell we'd selected at the start of the tour and four of the small pearls it contained.
We got back to the hotel about 5:30 and Jane went for a swim whilst Graham, who has now got a cold, watched the TV. At 8pm we went to eat in the hotel's Cantonese Restaurant. Jane read the menu and saw items £40 and £90 and was shocked. Were we in the right restaurant? Further on in the menu were many more reasonably priced items so we did not order the shark fins, abalone or birds' nests but had a good and not too expensive meal.
At 6pm we were met by Siân who took us off to a hotel where we had a meal with Peking Duck followed by the opera. At our request Siân ate with us as it was not part of the 'contract'. It was the first time she'd eaten with foreigners. After the meal we entered the theatre in the hotel and watched some of the artists apply their thick make up. We took our seats at a table at the front of the theatre in the hotel to watch an hour's performance of 3 plays - The Lion Inn, The Jade Bracelet and The Stealing of the Herbs from the Immortal Mountain. The dialogue is in an ancient form of Chinese unintelligible to most of the audience so intermittent words in Chinese and English were displayed on screens at the sides of the proscenium arch. There was a lot of cymbal bashing, screechy string instruments, acrobatics and excellent juggling. An hour was long enough.
As we were too early for lunch, Siân asked if we'd like to see the Ming Tombs. We thought we'd see all the stone statues but no, we went to the Chang Ling tomb. It was another interesting experience and we saw crown flowers and large-leafed oak trees. Some of the Chinglish translations of the signs was hilarious. The Chinese do not use rules when hyphenating so we often read 'the' hyphenated on to two lines with a hyphen after the 't'.
A short drive took us to a Friendship shop and a huge tourist restaurant where we had a good lunch. Jane bargained in the shop and bought a jade 'happiness' ball and a Christmas decoration. An hour or so later we arrived at Beijing main railway station and, after waiting for some time with crowds of others, we passed through the ticket gate and walked to platform 7 where we boarded the T55 Beijing to Xi'an express leaving at 15:22. We bought some water and beer on the platform which was the cheapest we'd found. Siân saw us into our cabin - 2 beds and not much else and the furthest from the loo.
Travelling through the countryside in the pouring rain we see rural areas and notice that the portions of land are larger than those around Chongqing - lots of maize. The train is due to arrive at 6am in Xi'an, a journey lasting 14.5 hours. Jane declares that some people enjoy train journeys and there are many enthusiasts travelling the world to experience different journeys but she is not one of these. At 5pm we spent an hour in the 'restaurant' car where we managed to order and eat a chicken dish with rice and soup plus a bottle of water and a can of beer - all for 53RMB. It started raining again and we stopped at a station. We think there was a change of engines as we started travelling in the opposite direction. We did our best to get some sleep under our duvets.
We returned back to the city to visit the Grand Mosque, which had no dome or minarets but had Chinese gates, halls and courtyards - all very peaceful and beautiful. Next we walked along a market street where Jane bargained for a pair of walnuts embellished with carved Buddhas.
Back into the minibus and on to the North gate. Xi'an is the 'intactest walled city in the world' proclaimed a Chinglish notice. We climbed up the wall to see the city. Next we went and took another visit to a tea ceremony where Linda stayed with us as she was thirsty. It was similar to that in Beijing but different teas were used and we did not buy any mugs as they didn't have any. Instead we surprised Linda and bought a packet of black tea and then went to the airport.
After paying the statutory 50RMB per person for airport construction fees we boarded the plane for a two-hour flight south to Guilin (pronounced 'gwayleen'). We were met by Lily and Mr Gui. Guilin derives its name from Gui (Osmanthus) and Lin(Wood) but Lily gave us a much longer and more romantic description of its naming. We were taken, at our request for food, to the Asian Pacific restaurant where Lily selected our meal with help from us from the all-Chinese menu. We selected our fish and shrimps from tanks which, after they were cooked, we ate with fresh vegetables, pork, and chicken and mushroom soup washed down with Osmanthus wine, which was our first taste of Chinese wine. It was 18% alcohol and slightly sweet. We turned down the opportunity to eat snake and turtles.
After struggling through the meal we were taken to a wharf by the river Li, close to the Liberty bridge, and onto a boat to watch the cormorant fishing. A lone fisherman stands with a long bamboo pole on a 20 x 2 ft bamboo raft with 4 cormorants sitting at its edge and 2 paraffin lamps at the bow. The birds dive off the raft, swim around and catch a fish which they cannot swallow because there is a tie around their necks. They swim back to the raft and clamber aboard. The fisherman extracts the big fish and gives a reward of a smaller fish to the cormorant. The cormorant washes out its mouth and dives back into the water to catch another fish. Apparently one cormorant can catch enough fish to feed five people per day. The cormorant is lucky, along with the water buffalo and Chinese people because they are the only animals the Chinese do not eat. After the fishing we were taken to the Park Hotel where we were glad to get to bed.
On arrival at the the docking place at Yangshou we were met by Yuan, a 28 year old lady and her nephew. We walked for about 10 minutes carrying all our luggage and arrived at our hotel, the Paradise Resort. It was very hot but the room was pretty good and as it had air-conditioning we were happy.
After a short rest we had a shower and went for a walk around the streets of Yangshou. We walked though the street market looking at sugar cane, fish, snakes, frogs, all for sale together with lovely fresh green vegetable and fruit. Jane bought an umbrella for 15RMB (after bargaining) on the assumption that it might rain again before we left China. It didn't.
We finally returned to the hotel and watched the sunset and drank the free welcome drink beer at the bar. A wedding was taking place in the main restaurant. As the guest arrived they were given a cigarette by the groom and lit by the bride. Why does the bride in China always stand on the right? Because the women is always right. The guests give fire-crackers and money. The fire-crackers are fixed together and are set off before the start of the meal.
We wandered around and found another eating room so we went in. There seemed to be a little problem but we did not understand. Finally someone came who could speak English. They said there was to be a show of traditional Chinese dancing and if we wanted to stay it would cost us 120MB in cash. We are not on here for a rehearsal so we stayed having been told it would be better than Peking Opera. We had the set menu - soup, stuffed snails, prawns, fish cooked in beer, vegetables and Guilin noodles all washed down by beer and lit by candles that kept blowing out because of the strong air-conditioning. It was great and only cost 67RMB for the two of us. During the meal the dancing took place on the small dance floor at the front of the room, one table away from us. It consisted of dancing, juggling, unicycling and a young Chinese acrobat who could double up and fit completely inside a 1ft x 3ft cylinder. Towards the end of the meal all the other diners sang Happy Birthday in Chinese followed by a rendition in English. A man blew out the many candles and the cake was cut. We were the first to be given two large pieces. After the cake distribution the Karaoke began as did a small amount of dancing. As no English songs were chosen we left and retired to bed as we have to get up at 6am again.
We docked close to a floating bridge at Puli. We unloaded the bikes and set off through Puli. At the edge of the town Jane and Yuan wanted the loo so Yuan took Jane off into a primary school whilst Graham stood like a lemon guarding the bikes. The pupils were all having a lecture in the school yard. The loos out the back were in a brick building which provided cover over a pit divided into 3 stalls. As the queue of small girls was quite long and the loos were a bit smelly the two cyclists relieved themselves behind a tree. We then spent a couple of hours cycling 15km, much on a dirt track, through amazing countryside - rice paddies, osmanthus trees, views of limestone pinnacles. We saw the Moon Hill, a very large hole through a pinnacle but we did not climb it. Shortly after we arrived at Yuan's house and sat down for about an hour while she cooked us lunch with her mother. Graham tried to amuse Yuan's nephew. A Chinese couple arrived led by Yuan's sister and they dined outside. Yuan lives with 7 of her relatives in a building in front of which they have built a 3 storey building containing 12 ensuite double bedrooms and a ground floor where we ate. The building was started in February this year and is not quite finished. When complete it will be another guest house in the small village. The lunch was worth waiting for - chicken with Chinese asparagus, green vegetables, rice and about 20 tiny omelettes stuffed with some pork mixture.
The sun was now out and the temperature was rising. A women took her water buffalo and calf for a stroll. The view from the top of the extension was magnificent. It was quite hot cycling the 8km back to Yangshou passed a Buddhist monastery. On returning to the hotel we had a large beer before going to our room for a well earned rest. We had a repeat of the set menu in the Chinese restaurant at the hotel where we were astonished to see and hear a group of Chinese all speaking English. They were from New Zealand and could not speak Chinese.
It was sad to say goodbye to Lily who asked to call us her brother and sister and invited us to stay with her and her husband the next time we visit Guilin. The flight to Shanghai took 2 hours and we had a reasonable lunch. On arrival we were met by Lilly (2 Ls in her name) but had to wait 10 minutes for the minibus as it was stuck in traffic. The APEC meeting is here next week so everywhere is very busy.
We arrived at the 11 storey Peace Hotel on the Bund and were allocated a very nice room as there were no standard rooms left. We got the hotel to buy 2 train tickets to Suzhou for us tomorrow and for this privilege we paid 80RMB, double the cost of the tickets. We unpacked and then went for a walk down the Nanking Road, the famous shopping street and dodged all the cyclists. We bought a mahjongg set in the Hue Lai department store but could not find the other things we wanted. We walked to the People's Square and then returned on the subway almost back to the hotel. The subway is slightly more modern than that in Beijing. They use recyclable plastic credit card size tickets and mechanical ticket checkers. We wandered around the back streets and bought some beer and water. Up till now a bottle of water had cost between 3 and 6 RMB. Now it cost 1.80RMB - just shows how inflated the tourist area prices are. The beer was also the cheapest at 4.75RMB for a 640ml bottle of Tsing Tao beer.
We had dinner in the Dragon and Phoenix restaurant of the hotel overlooking the Huangpu River with all the tall buildings bedecked with colourful neon lights. The meal was very tasty if not a little pricey. We had duck with ginger, chilli chicken, mixed veg and fried rice. We also had our first bottle of red wine. The bottle of Dynasty Red cost 110RMB, about 1/3 of a factory cleaner's monthly wage. We then went out and walked the length of the Bund. It was very pretty and packed with people but did help walk off some of the food. On returning to the hotel we had a couple of very expensive beers in the Jazz bar where the Old Peace Hotel Jazz Band play every night. We'd seen on a TV program that some of the players are in their 80's. Most of them have been playing together for more than 40 years and they still play very well.
At 9:39 promptly the train pulled into Suzhou station, 50 miles west of Shanghai. We made our way outside and looked around for our guide for the day. We spotted our placard-less guide wandering in our direction. We recognized him even though he wore shades. 'Welcome to Suzhou' said John Morton, a friend who lives close to us in Swanmore and who is currently residing in Suzhou where he has set up a factory in the boom city inhabited by more than 6 million people.
It seems we walked miles as we visited the Silk Museum, Suzhou Museum (once the home of Taiping leader, Li Xicheng), and the Humble Administrators Garden (a world heritage site and well worth a visit). We then made our way to lunch in a restaurant where what you eat you select from a row of counters and the price is put, using a chop, onto a card. We ate a delicious meal of snails (probably cultivated and a bit like big winkles), beans, a spicy diced beef dish, and very large prawns all washed down with beer. We then took a taxi to a blind massage place where Jane and Graham spent a wonderfully relaxing (so Jane says) 45 minutes having our backs, feet and neck massage by a blind man. The experience cost us each 30RMB. We then visited the Sheraton hotel to go to the loo and then proceeded, via a pagoda, to the Pan Men gate where we saw some Chinese gymnasts and another double-jointed young girl performing mind-boggling contortions. Nearby we clambered up the steep arch of the Wumen Qiao humpbacked bridge which crosses one of the many canals that has earned Suzhou the title of 'The Venice of China'. We then went around a enclosed market where we saw a lot of interested sites - stalls of just eggs, oyster mushrooms, and others.
We took a bus and a taxi to visit John's apartment where we revitalized ourselves on G and T - not a tipple that Graham normally drinks but it went down well. We got in a taxi to a foot reflexology clinic where John is trying to rid himself of asthma and learn some new Chinese words. We were impressed with John's command of the local tongue. The three of us were the only patients. We sat in a row of 3 armchairs and dipped our feet in very hot disinfectant for 15 minutes whilst the reflexologists smoothed out the callouses on their knuckles. After a further 30 minutes of foot torture they declared Jane to be fit but Graham had a bowel or colon problem. A notice declared that 'Your health is under your feet but your life is in your hands'. By this time it was 7:15 so we bid the lovely Chinese torturers goodbye and took a taxi to the station. John had got his secretary to buy tickets for our return to Shanghai. We said a sad farewell to John and thanked him for a wonderful, if not too short, day and caught the stopping train back to Shanghai. Only a single level for passengers so we couldn't sit in the wrong seats.
On returning to the hotel we found that a security check, similar to those at the airports, had been installed - maybe an important APEC member is staying. We ate at 9:30 in the same hotel restaurant and had almost the same food. We tried to use the Bund tourist tunnel to get to the other side of the Huangpu River but it was closed. It's only open between 10am and 10pm. We walked back to the hotel to pack and watch CNN.
During our time in China its population had grown by 600000, about 3 times the population of Southampton.