Memories of China… part two


| July 2, 2015

Read the second half of Mike & Chris Simms’ tailor-made holiday to China here…

Giant pandas

This is the second half of Mike and Chris Simms' holiday to China. If you haven't already, read part 1 here >
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The next morning we rose with eager anticipation for a visit to the Longsheng rice terraces, billed as requiring long walks and a good level of fitness – my favourite form of holiday activity! The 2.5-hour drive from Guilin gave us a chance to see something of rural China before arriving at the spectacular terraces, which climb up the sides of hills up to 1000 metres high. We took the tourist path through a fairly lengthy collection of stalls and, given that the path in its upper reaches was not entirely even, took our time reaching the first lookout point. We were presented with an impressive view of the surrounding, fairly mountainous countryside and the village below. We declined to press on to lookout points two and three on the simple grounds that the view wouldn’t change that much, and we were already quite knackered – or at least I was!

Longshen rice terraces

This trip took place during a national holiday known as tomb-sweeping day, a time when families visit the graves of the departed and clean the tombs. They also bring offerings of food and drink, have a family picnic by the graveside and let off enough firecrackers to wake the departed from their eternal rest. In the countryside, families can bury the dead on their own land.

Up again the next day we went on a boat trip down the Li river, which meanders through a landscape reminiscent of a scroll painting, featuring karst (weathered limestone) peaks, which are basically conical or thimble-shaped hills, mostly forested, but with some bare patches. We found ourselves again in the realm of fanciful names – we passed Writing-Brush Peak, Five Fingers Hill and The Painted Hill of Nine Horses among others, and also saw the scenery depicted on the back of the 20 yuan (£2) note.

Li river

Having disembarked at the town of Yangshuo, we did a brief tour and then rested up before the evening’s entertainment, a very enjoyable show called Impressions of San Jie Liu. This takes place on the river itself with a backdrop of karst peaks, and features music and dance and much poling about of rafts, with a total of 600 local people as performers. It was designed and directed by the creator of the opening ceremony for the Beijing Olympics – and demonstrated his eye for the spectacular.

Ploughing determinedly onwards, our next stop, following an evening meal in a ‘local’ restaurant, was Chengdu. ‘Local’ meaning we were the only two Europeans in the place, compared with about 200 Chinese, and the menu was entirely in Chinese, though with helpful pictures of each dish. Our late evening departure from Guilin was a touch chaotic, involving a change of gate and departure through one still advertising a flight to Beijing – the more nervous travellers among us (I wasn’t the only one) took the precaution of a verbal check before boarding!

Our first outing from Chengdu was to visit the world’s biggest Buddha in the small (by Chinese standards) town of Leshan. It is some 70 metres tall, carved out of a red sandstone cliff, and was started some 1,300 years ago, although its completion took a further 90 years. It is certainly impressive, and best viewed, as we saw it, from the river: we were offered the opportunity to inspect it from close range by climbing up a staircase to the top, but again wisdom prevailed – especially when we were told it would take two hours for the whole climb and descent, and we assumed that was for the relatively young and fit, not the elderly!

giant buddha and Jinli street

Once back in Chengdu we walked along Jinli Street, an area that dates back more than 2,200 years. Nowadays, goods such as paintings, handicrafts, embroidery and lacquer products are sold, as well as services such as ear-picking – the Chinese answer to syringing – in which a practitioner wearing a head-mounted torch excavates the ear canal with a small scoop. It also features many street food stalls, offering delicacies such as chicken gizzards, chicken intestines, rabbit heads and what looked like honey-glazed sparrow on a stick. In other places we came across duck tongue in jelly and stir-fried bullfrog…

The next day we went to Pandaland (otherwise known as the Giant Panda Research Base). I have to admit that there is something sweet and cuddlesome about them (if you ignore the fact that a gentle tap with one paw would despatch the recipient into the middle of next week), and they certainly have an enviable lifestyle – 12 hours sleep and 12 hours awake, during which they spend most of their time eating. The place has about 90 animals, and has successfully bred and released into the wild about a dozen pandas; it’s an impressive and successful facility.

pandas

To make a change from flying, our next transit journey involved a bullet train. For those of us accustomed to stations where access to the actual station is free and you only have to shove your ticket through the ticket scanner to get to the platform, Chinese stations come as a distinct shock. Firstly you are funnelled one by one past a chap who inspects your train ticket, and then you shuffle forward and show your ticket and identification document to a uniformed official, followed by stage three, in which luggage has to go through a scanner. Finally, having shown your ticket to yet another official, you are parked in a holding pen (from which there is no escape) until, with about 15 minutes to departure, the gathered several hundred people are released en masse to head for the train.

bullet train in China

Chinese stations have fully mastered the art of providing lifts and escalators to get passengers from platforms up to the main level – sadly the reverse does not apply, and while they have thoughtfully provided slopes for baggage by the side of the stairs, it rapidly became apparent that 20kg of luggage and a degree of gravitational pull was quite enough in my case to cause a high degree of personal instability – I had therefore to resort to bumping my case down step by step.

A couple of hours later we emerged into the chaos of the main station at Chongqing (a city whose population is roughly half of that of the entire United Kingdom) for a transfer to board our boat for a cruise down the Yangtze. Our vessel – apparently the smallest on the river at only 60-odd cabins – was parked on the far side of the river, so we had to cross a series of pontoons, pursued by a little porter chap with a yoke slung across his shoulders and one of our suitcases dangling off each end.

The following morning, well fed and rested (and having skipped the optional 7am tai chi class) we went ashore to the village of Fengdu. Our first stop was the local primary school, where we watched a class of six-year-olds doing a music and movement class in the courtyard: it would probably be fair to say that it lacked an element of military precision, but we found it nevertheless quite endearing, particularly when attempting communication with the children.

Chinese kids and locals

On the way out I passed through the boys’ classroom, exchanging high fives (or more accurately low fives) with many of them – except for one little bruiser, who had earlier been observed as a disruptive influence, who decided to take matters further and punched the palm of my hand as hard as he could. I sort of dared him to do it again, which he did, against a fairly rigid hand – sadly on his third attempt he hurt his hand, so I wandered off triumphantly! (This is not bullying, since I only put up passive resistance, and hopefully he learnt a useful lesson for later life – other than to hate westerners!)

The next day featured the scenic highlights of the three gorges: these are indeed spectacular, as the river meanders between cliffs and peaks rising up to some 1,200 metres. Some of them have names like Goddess Peak, and legends attached to them. Having passed through the Qutang and Wu gorges, we paused to take a trip in a longboat propelled by human power. We were honoured by being in a boat captained by the oldest person still working on this stretch of the river at 84 years old, but sadly his crew appeared to be of similar vintage. Although we set off in fifth place, we were overtaken by every other boat, reaching the turning point an impressive last and not improving our position on the way back. We subsequently met the captain’s son, a mere stripling of 67…

Three gorges

In the afternoon we passed through the third and final gorge (Xiling), before emerging to the sight of the Three Gorges Dam itself: over a mile wide, it generates enough electricity every day to power half the UK, and its creation involved the relocation from their family homes of some 1.3m people – that’s progress for you! We then passed through the ship lock, a five stage descent where each stage is some 20 metres. As our boat neared the bottom of each one it was enveloped in a sort of stygian gloom, with very little daylight coming in from above. After just under a couple of hours we emerged below the dam and parked up for the night. The following morning we visited the museum devoted to the construction of the dam and to inspect it from below – it still looked pretty impressive!

At this point we planned a bit of R&R before our final stop, and went to stay just outside Hangzhou for a couple of nights in China’s first wetland reserve. We spent the day wandering about, resting and getting massages before setting off again the following morning for a boat trip on West Lake, set in an area that resembles a traditional Chinese garden but on a grand scale. We walked round quite a lot of the area: the highlight for me was being approached by a giggle of teenage schoolgirls seeking photographs. While I would like to delude myself that it was my manly pheromones that were responsible, I think it more likely that it was the rarity value of an elderly white-haired European.

Our final transfer within China was another bullet train journey to Shanghai, during which we hit the magic figure of 300km/h. Our train was called Harmony (makes a change from ‘the 6.19 from St Pancras’) and featured scrupulous cleanliness – cleaners passed through about every half-hour, as indeed did train security. It goes without saying that this was markedly different to the experience of the UK rail network…

Shanghai city

Shanghai is the old commercial centre, which used to house many of the world’s leading banks in pre-war days, most of them along the riverside area known as the Bund. The days when gangsters battled for control of the area and there were nightclubs full of sultry women and dubious men are long gone, and it is now more of a tourist attraction. After dark the whole area is brightly lit with advertising and lighting displays on practically every building, and sponsored tourist boats plying their dinner and tourist trade on the river. Our visits included the Jade Buddha Temple, housing two jade buddhas brought from Burma in the 19th century, and the Yu Yuan Gardens, a compact 16th-century garden housing pavilions, small hills, ponds full of fish, bridges trees and shrubs.

Yu Yuan gardens

So ended our trip.

China is a fascinating country with a long and varied history – and we are well aware that we barely scratched the surface. While it is difficult to avoid setting off with misconceptions, we were pleased to note that many were unfounded: the security situation was less oppressive than I had feared (with exceptions such as Tiananmen Square and the railway stations), and the people were remarkably friendly.

Our guides were around the age of 30, and while I am sure they had all been vetted and approved for their ability to resist the blandishments of imperialist running dogs such as ourselves, they all seemed pretty open-minded and happy to discuss many subjects quite freely: many of them made a point of the efforts being made to control pollution, such as the use of electric bikes and buses in the cities, and the banning of 20% of vehicles each day. We all, however, ignored the pachyderm stomping about the room destroying the furniture, namely that the major problem is the industrial pollution produced on a 24/7 basis.

The state control of the media is also apparent to us as outsiders, though hotel TVs gave us access to both the BBC and CNN. The English language newspaper was prone to printing the president’s speeches verbatim, and you can get a smartphone app allowing access to all his previous hits. The one guide with whom our discussions wandered into artistic realms had never heard of Ai Wei Wei. We were also struck by the amount of building work taking place in every city we visited (usually 20+ storey blocks of accommodation), which we presume is in anticipation of a continuing influx of people from the countryside to the city. This is either remarkably prescient, or there is a great property crash on its way. I suspect the former.

And this leads me neatly on to a joke, which I include at the request of one of my fellow travellers: what is the most common bird in China? The crane, because they can be seen in the sky above every city… don’t blame me!

Mike and Chris Simm travelled on a tailor-made holiday to China. If you would like to do the same, please contact us, or have a look at our website for holiday ideas >

Images by Christine Simm and Shutterstock.

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