China - Part 1
Trip Start Apr 05, 2004
2Trip End May 02, 2004
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I arrived in Beijing safe and sound and had a very pleasant few days there. One other guy was picked up at the same time as me, so I met someone straight away which was nice. We went out for dinner on the first night and then the next day went to see the Drum and Bell Towers. We walked through some of the Hutongs which are the old sections of Beijing. Only pockets of them remain because they are gradually being eroded by the sky rises as the modern city invades. We found a local market and had a wander around there. Then we sat in a square for a while, opposite a rickshaw rank, to watch the world go by. I find it a very interesting way to get a look at local culture. Families were just going about their day to day business with the children playing and the mums and dads looking on.
Children really seem treasured here. Not surprising I guess when they still have a one couple, one child policy. It is strictly enforced in urban areas with a minimum 10,000 Yuan fine (over 8,000 USD) if you have a second. In rural areas where children are needed to support farming families the rules seem to be less strictly enforced. Children are carried everywhere, you never see prams and all adult members of the family, Mums, Dads, Aunts, Uncles and Grandparents seem to take part in the parenting. There are certainly not as many children as I have seen in the South East Asian countries so one can only guess that their policies are working.
One little thing that tickled me is that because nappies are scare, expensive and not environmentally sound all the babies and toddlers wear little trousers with slits in them so when they need a tinkle they just squat (wherever they are) and do the business. It sounds terrible but you don't notice any trace of it, you just get a bit of a surprise when you see a toddler in action for the first time!
After our little rest in the square, we walked through a lovely park, past the Forbidden City and then past Tiananmen Square all the way back to the hotel which was about 40-50 mins from the square. It is really nice to be able to wander around without feeling like bits of your body are about to freeze and fall off! Last time I came to Beijing the temperatures were way below freezing, now it is Spring and far more pleasant from a temperature point of view. A fleece is still required but there is a nice Spring feel to the air.
On the second day, we went to the Summer Place. Unfortunately, it was raining when we set out and for most of the time we were there but it brightened up eventually and it was still just lovely. Last time I visited the lake there was completely frozen over so it was really interesting to see it in it's liquid state. Because there was no ice this time we were able to climb to the top of the hill to see the Fragrant Buddha Pagoda. The spring blossoms are all out so it is just lovely. Spring blossom has been a continuous theme throughout this trip and I never tire of how beautiful it is.
The one downside to Spring that I can see is the number of tourists around, Winter was far quieter, not surprising I guess given the bitter cold. Most of the tourism is Chinese, they really do seem to travel within their own country. I guess it comes as a direct result of the fact that it is often still difficult for the Chinese to travel overseas. It means that there are hoards of people where ever you go. However, I have to say that while you sometimes feel you are swimming in a sea of people it is quite charming to see them all. They love to travel in groups and all tend to wear the same caps so that they can always tell where the rest of their group is. It looks funny but I have come to the conclusion that it is eminently sensible as it is easy to get separated with that many people around.
We have been using the subway to get around in Beijing it is incredibly easy to use and really cheap, clean and efficient. It gets you to lots of the most important sites. It also goes straight to the Silk Market a great place to shop but I am on shopping avoidance tactics again, well at least until later in the trip!
On the third day we hiked 10kms of the Great Wall. Not the same section as I walked last time which was nice, but just as hard (and rewarding). I didn't feel too bad afterwards which came as a bit of a surprise, must have been all of the stretching that I did at the end! The weather was sunny but not too hot, just perfect and I rounded off the day with a "Flying Fox" ride over the lake. You strap yourself into a harness and slide down a wire to where the climb to the wall starts. A very nice way to finish the day. It took me 5 mins to get down rather than 30!
The food has yet again been fantastic and we indulged in a traditional Peking Duck dinner and a visit to the Chinese acrobats. When in Beijing...
From Beijing we travelled to Xian, I have visited before but it is the home of the Terracotta Army which is just stunning so I was happy to visit again. Only this time we got a 14 hour overnight train ride and went straight off to see the Warriors so I was feeling a little more jaded. It didn't make them any less impressive though. It just meant that we were all flagging towards the end! I didn't do much else in Xian but wander through the Muslim quarter which I really enjoyed strolling through on my last visit. In the evening we had a Muslim BBQ meal in one of the little street side restaurants. They cook on the street so you have to run the gauntlet of the smoke to get through but it was worth it.
The Yangtze cruise was good, the Three Gorges are relatively flooded now (it has risen by 135 meters out of a total of 175) and a lot of history has been lost but they seem to have a lot to gain so I guess that is modernisation for you. The Three Gorges are still very impressive but it is hard to imagine how much more impressive they would have been if the water was still at the level that it was before, they must have been truly spectacular.
On our last day on the river we visited Fengdu, a city which is being demolished, building by building. They have identified seven cities and countless villages that will disappear under the new water level. They are taking them down brick by brick and re-using the building materials where they can, it really is a sight to see. It is incredible to think the city we went to see will soon be under water and the temple complex we visited will be an island. You used to be able to walk long the Three Gorges but the footpath is now mainly at water level (as opposed to 135 meters above the river) and partially submerged so you would need your scuba gear to do the whole thing these days!
The boat we travelled on was fine, positive luxury for me with nice light cabins and the best hot shower that I have seen in 6 weeks, how funny that it should be on a boat! As is the case for cruises the World over there was far too much to eat with three full meals a day. The weather wasn't fantastic with rain the last day but at least it was the most uninteresting day so we resorted to Scrabble on the lower deck instead!
Unfortunately we lost two people at this stage of the trip. One chap fell ill and had to go to hospital with what was later diagnosed as bacterial menangitis. Sad for him and his partner but fortunately none one else in the group was affected. For a while we had visions of having to be quarantined in China.
We finished our cruise in Chongqing, a large industrial town. It was pouring with rain when we arrived so we didn't see much of it! There was also a mix up of tour groups. Two groups ended up squeezing on the same little bus (and it was a squeeze!) due to a lack of communication at some point. Once we were all on we couldn't be bothered to get off so we were all taken off to the airport accompanied by Oliver (many Chinese chose an English name as well as having their own Chinese name). He turned out to be a real comedian, he was really clued up about British and American culture and politics and had the quaintest Oxford English accent. He kept saying "never mind, never mind" even though we were on the wrong bus and half of us didn't have our airline tickets! He obviously watches a lot of Mr Bean because he gave us a run down of all of his favourite Mr Bean routines, very amusing!
He also filled us in on the grading of toilets in China. Yes it is true, toilets at the tourist sites are all given a star rating. I'm not sure on what basis though because frankly the majority of toilets that you go in here are pretty awful. You can usually smell them a long while before you can see them. But never-the-less they are graded. The lowest I have seen is a 2 Star and the highest a 5 Star.
But I digress, Oliver saw us safely to the airport, we were reunited with our airline tickets and then... we spent 6 hours in the airport thanks to the fog. I was very impressed with the airport though as soon as they knew that there was going to be a delay they handed out free meal tickets. There is also free hot water available at all airports, on all trains and at the stations so that you can make yourself a coffee or a pot noodle, very organised.
After out time in the airport, my first real delay in 6 weeks (which isn't bad) we finally got ourselves to Yangshuo which is a quaint little town about an hour and a half from Guilin. The area is famous for it's Karst Mountains which are just amazing, exactly like you see in all the Chinese paintings.
We hired bikes for a day and our tour guide asked a Chinese friend of his (Jane) to accompany us. We took lovely ride through the countryside and ended up in Fuli, a very quaint little town where we wandered around the market, I found the local pharmacy particularly interesting...
... and ate lunch at the local market. All in all we had a fantastic day.
Enjoying the Fuli "food court"!
Unfortunately we did not have the best weather but even in the haze the Karst mountains are breathtaking. Yangshou is a very laid back town and has proved another of my favourites on the tour. We celebrated a birthday whilst there and had a couple of good nights out on the town.
From Yangshuo we flew to Kunming, no fog this time! Kunming is a large town with some pretty spots but it is very much like any other city. For our free day, a group of us chose to go to the Stone Forest at Shilin. It is hard to describe but it is like nature's play ground. There are thousands of stone formations that you can climb through and explore. Once again it is a big destination for local tourism so the peaked caps and Marlboro Stetsons were everywhere! We had a lovely day exploring the forest, it is really nicely done with paths and steps throughout. We managed to find a couple of really great viewpoints when you could get out above the stones and look down. It had a very Lord of the Rings feel to it all that was missing were the Hobbits and the Orks!
Where are the Hobbits?
One final thing before I go. As a Western tourist in China you find you end up being something of a tourist attraction yourself. It is not uncommon to find you are forming the back or even foreground of pictures taken by Chinese tourists. Whilst having our picnic in Shilin one man practically clambered over our laps to get in the background of a picture his friend was taking. Another couple stood in front of us for their picture so we duly smiled and waved. Our tour guide told us that the Chinese actually travel to places like Yangshuo specifically to see the foreign tourists that flock to the region to visit the Karst mountains.
That's all for now, I have moved on since Kunming but have a 5:00am start tomorrow so am going to get myself off to bed and deal with the rest of my trip in China - Part 2!