|14th September 2018
I awoke to a wonderful early birthday present - Gill had secretly upgraded us to Business Class on our flight to Shanghai! We'd developed a taste for luxury when we flew to Rome in Business Class in July, but this was a whole extra level.
We breezed through check-in and security at Heathrow like VIPs and went straight to the Business Class lounge for a good couple of hours of complimentary food and drink. And, of course, we boarded the plane in the first wave, keen to see our 'seats'.
We had little individual half-height cubicles with fully reclinable seats, customisable throughout the range from normal to flat-bed. The TV screens were probably the largest we've ever seen on aircraft, and the two meals that we were served during the eleven hour flight were delicious and really large, and we found them, frankly, TOO big. And, of course, complimentary alcohol whenever you wanted it!
For Gill the pinnacle of luxury, after the flat bed, was the duvet that she was given to sleep under. In fact, she slept for most of the flight! On arrival at Shanghai airport we were, of course amongst the first off the plane, which meant that we were amongst the first through Immigration and to collect our luggage. Results all round, so thanks Gill, for my birthday present!!
There are 37 people in our group, and with all of our luggage we filled the coach that was taking us to our hotel. The journey took almost an hour, mainly because of traffic congestion, but check-in was quick and straightforward and we were in our room by 5.30pm (12.30am UK time).
At 7pm we all gathered in the hotel lobby, and were taken by our guides to a nearby restaurant for a very Chinese meal - not a spring roll in sight! Tired though we were there was a pleasant amount of conversation over the dinner tables, and it looks as if we'll be a friendly group.
Every day we'll have a local guide for that location, plus Max, the guide who will be with us for the whole tour. Tomorrow we're having a whistle-stop tour of Shanghai. This might have been a bit frustrating had we not already spent several pleasant days in the city after our Japan cruise a couple of years ago.
We certainly expect to sleep well tonight!
15th September 2018
Shanghai, Day 2
Our guide, Max, arranged for us all to have wake-up calls, which was probably as well because I spent a large chunk of the night awake, even reading for an hour or so and finally nodding off at about 5.30am.
We set off after breakfast, and the same coach and driver were with us all day, continually dropping us off and then picking us up an hour or so later. We spent hardly any time at any point waiting for him to arrive, which was pretty impressive.
Our first stop was the Bund, the waterfront on the Huangpu River, which at the end of the Victorian era formed the 'British Concession'. The architecture was typical of the British style at that time, and is said to be similar to that of Liverpool in places. We saw this area the last time we were here, when we had a private guide to show us around the city. Directly across the river is a 'mini-Manhattan', built on land that until the early 1990s was merely farmland. That's how rapidly Shanghai is developing.
Next we went to 'Chinatown'. This seems an odd title for part of a major Chinese city, but it's meant to describe the traditional architecture that has survived China's economic explosion. Most of our visit was spent in the Yuyuan Garden, a traditional garden that a wealthy businessman started to construct in the 1640s, with sculptures, traditional buildings and extensive carp ponds. Again, we saw this on our previous guided tour, but it was nice to see it again.
Lunch was Chinese-style again, and this time it was more recognisable to a British eye, so I'm not sure why Max told us yesterday that UK Chinese restaurants don't serve food that is recognisable to a Chinese eye. And, just like last night, beer or soft drinks were included, but in tiny glasses of around 150ml. Most people were ordering (and paying extra for) additional beer by the bottle. To be honest, its alcohol content is so low that it's pretty much a soft drink.
The afternoon was something of a trial. The sun was bright and hot, and getting back on to an air-conditioned coach was always a joy. We had two stops, one in an area in the French Concession predominated by bars, cafes and restaurants and the second in an area that Max described as being Shanghai's Bond Street. This was an exaggeration - it was like Oxford Street at best.
We got back to the hotel at 3.45pm, tired and thirsty. Showers and cups of English Breakfast Tea sorted out the thirst problem and a long nap sorted out my exhaustion.
At 6pm we walked back to the same restaurant that we'd visited last night for a meal that we had been told would be from a different menu but was very similar fare to last night's. Still, filling and enjoyable enough. After the meal our coach picked us up and took us to the river where we boarded a three deck leisure ship for a night tour through the city centre.
There must have been well over 500 people on board for the 50 minute cruise, and at the end, as the last passenger disembarked, the first of the next batch started to board. These river trips are very popular with the locals and Chinese tourists and must be hugely profitable.
At night, against the blackness of the sky, the LED light displays on the skyscrapers are incredibly impressive, and the multi-coloured reflections on the water mean that you can get some amazing photos. What we saw was, in my opinion, better than we saw in Hong Kong, although admittedly that was seven or eight years ago.
The coach returned us to our hotel, with Max telling us that we'd be getting 4am alarm calls and that we would leave for the airport at 5am, taking a packed breakfast with us. Gulp!
One thing that Max told us early on is that China keeps a firm grip on the Internet, to the extent that Google, Gmail and Facebook can't be accessed. That's odd, because I managed to view British Facebook sites last night, and several recipients of this update who use Gmail accounts seem to have received yesterday's posting. However, e-mails have 'bounced' twice from two people on this list, and I'm exploring what can be done.
Right, we need to turn in and get some sleep, ready for our flight to the Yangtze tomorrow morning.
16th September 2018
Arrival at the Yangtze
All 37 of us were checked out and on the coach by 5am, clutching bags with our breakfast - cheese sandwich, two boiled eggs, yogurt, a couple of tiny cakes, a roll and a bottle of water. We went back to Shanghai Airport for a bizarre check-in experience, some of which seems to apply to domestic flights only.
Immediately upon entering the terminal all baggage is scanned, then it's off to the check-in desk. Here it becomes a problem if you have a middle name, believe it or not, because the Chinese seem not to know exactly how to deal with that. So, those with middle names have to have them written on to the boarding card by check-in staff, whereupon the passenger has to go to a completely different desk where another person stamps over the top of this manual addition, without even looking at it! Gill was, of course, spared this nonsense ;o)
Also, some of our group had their luggage randomly checked even after check-in and before it was scanned yet again by security. As usual, I was ready to lay out our tablets and Kindle for scanning, but it seems that China want to know if you have plug-in power packs (I have two) so they can scan them too. It's almost as if they make their own rules without reference to the rest of the world.
After all of this messing about we arrived at the gate exactly at the boarding time of 7am and got straight on the plane, which duly left bang on time at 7.30am. An hour and a half later we landed at Yichang, a 'small city' of 'only' 3 million inhabitants - calling it small makes sense when you bear in mind that there are well over a billion people in China.
We were due to board the 'Yangtze 2' after 3pm at the port near the Three Gorges Dam, so we had time to kill. A trip to a small museum in Yichang was therefore slipped into the programme, and this proved to be surprisingly interesting. When the dam was finally put into commission the water level upstream rose by 105 metres. Knowing that this would happen, material was rescued from homes about to be inundated as examples of interiors in the area. Mostly this consisted of elaborately carved wooden screens and partitions, but also household implements and clothing, all from the Ching Dynasty, which seems to have coincided with the Victorian era.
We had a charming and confident young guide from the museum who explained about what we were seeing and then Max translated. He seemed to be skipping bits where his English wasn't quite up to the job, and it was clear that the guide spotted this and found it amusing. He got into particular difficulty with the contents of one room and, to general amusement he cut short his translation with, "Well, it's a kitchen". We were then taken to a small supermarket where we stocked up with fresh milk, bottled water and biscuits, all for our very own 'Tea Ceremonies' ;o)
The journey to the river port took much longer than it should have done. With the ship almost in sight we were turned back because the road still hadn't been completed, and this meant a diversion of at about half an hour, with the final stretch being half a mile of very uneven dirt track.
We had our passports scanned again before boarding Yangtze 2, which was the third of five ships moored abreast. We were a little apprehensive as we walked through the first two, slightly tacky ships, but ours proved to be much better. Gill had upgraded us, again secretly, to a 'De Luxe' cabin, which is the largest we've ever had on any ship. The bathroom actually has a bath in it!
Dinner this evening was in the general restaurant, and dishes were placed on the revolving 'Lazy Susan' for guests to serve themselves. From tomorrow our party will be in the superior restaurant higher up the ship and will be buffet-style. That way we won't have to wait as the dishes gradually make their way around the table! ;o)
We've booked an excursion for tomorrow morning that involves an early morning call, an early breakfast and a 7.45am departure. The ship will stay in port until tomorrow afternoon before setting off up-stream.
17th September 2018
Dragon Stream and Three Gorges Dam
Two excellent forays into 'real' China.
It was a bit disappointing when we drew the curtains this morning to see how gloomy and overcast it was. There were enough familiar dishes at breakfast to construct something like a Full English, so that was a good start!
Our guide this morning was called Sunny - well, that's the Western name that she had chosen for herself to get around us having to cope with her (to us) unpronounceable real name. She was dressed in a pink satin trouser suit and had a small wicker basket containing red and yellow flowers on her back. During the 75 minute coach ride to the Dragon Stream she explained about the local culture that her clothing conveyed.
Young girls wear bright colours and the wicker basket with flowers to show that they're available. If the basket is empty that means that she has given the flowers to her intended, and that she's therefore engaged. When she marries she swaps her brightly-coloured clothing for darker colours such as black, blue and green, and when she has her child she gets a bigger basket to carry it in.
The Dragon Stream is a small tributary of the Yangtze, running through a steep, narrow gorge hemmed in by very high cliffs. It's become a major attraction for Chinese tourists, and a lot of effort has been put into entertaining them with displays of a local culture that they wouldn't have encountered before. At the mouth of the river a group of men were re-enacting a small trading ship being pulled into shore with ropes.
We walked up one side of the stream, admiring the lush, green landscape, its vigorous bamboo outcrops and its beautifully clear, clean water. The water appeared to be green because of all of the wonderfully verdant foliage that it was reflecting. Along the way there were little tableaux being acted out by beautifully dressed locals, such as fishermen, washerwoman, young lovers and musicians.
We stopped at the halfway point, deep into gorgeous, water-dominated rocky woodland. Here there was a three-storey wooden building with a stage in front where we were entertained for 15 minutes by a group of teenagers acting out a courtship and marriage ritual. One of the men from our party was picked out to play a part and was whisked away back-stage, re-appearing dressed as the bridegroom surrounded by the bride's family and friends.
It was clear that he'd been selected mainly because he wasn't very tall and could therefore wear the costume for the role. The many Chinese in the audience thought he was hilarious, and, to be fair, he performed his limited role with cheerful enthusiasm. After the 'marriage' he was whisked away 'upstairs', where, through silhouettes cast on a thin curtain, the consummation of the marriage was saucily implied. Finally, the bride's mother appeared, holding a baby doll that squirted water into the audience. A good laugh for Chinese and Europeans alike.
On the way back down, on the other side of the narrow valley, Sunny pointed out two 'hanging coffins' on a ledge hundreds of feet above us. These had been placed there about 2,000 years ago, and it was completely unclear how this had been achieved, since the rocky hillside beneath them was pretty much vertical and seemingly unclimbable.
Back at the mouth of the river we encountered several groups of women visitors who seemed to have come specially dressed for the visit in bright, vibrant colours, such as red, blue and green. For the past 30 minutes or so rain had been falling quite heavily, and so it was time to leave. We dashed back to the ship for lunch and set out again a couple of hours later for the Three Gorges Dam, which was only half an hour away by coach.
Our guides, both yesterday and today, went to some lengths to emphasise that the nearby town didn't exist 25 years ago, but had come into existence because of the dam. This was not only because accommodation was needed for the dam workforce but also to house the huge numbers of people who were being displaced by the Yangtze's rising waters.
At the point where the dam cuts across the river there was an island that was inundated and which provided a foothold for one end of the dam. The name of the lost island was transferred to a suburb of the new town to which the displaced inhabitants were moved. The need to move so many people as part of the project can be understood better when you're told that the new level of the river is 105 metres (!) higher than before and that the reservoir thus created is over 600 kilometres long!
The 2.4 kilometre wide dam contains 32 turbines that together generate 5% of all of China's electricity! Nevertheless, we were told that the prime reason for the dam's construction was to curb the Yangtze's periodic and disastrous floods. To permit continued river traffic there are two flights of locks, one up and one down, plus the world's largest 'shift lift', which can raise or lower even quite large ships. As part of the project a mountain was removed by the Chinese Army, taking 20 years.
Given the dramatic scale of the project our visit was slightly disappointing in that you couldn't get far enough away from it, or high enough, to get a good appreciation of it all. The best view came from the model in the Visitor's centre!
Back at the ship we had a couple of hours to get ready for the 'Captain's Welcome Party', which led straight into Dinner. In normal year we have Chinese meals maybe twice or three times. Since arriving here we've exceeded that number in only a couple of days ;o)
18th September 2018
Yangtze excursion by boat
The Yangtze 2 set off at dinner time yesterday and sailed through the night to its next stop, near Badong. We woke to find the ship moored near some unattractive high rise buildings but with a more appealing view across to the opposite bank.
At 8.30am we boarded a much smaller, three deck sightseeing ship that took us on a two hour excursion across the Yangtze and up another tributary, the 'Shennong Stream'. It had echoes of the fjords in Norway and New Zealand, but this was unmistakeably a Chinese landscape, with steep, rocky sides with trees clinging precariously, and a snaking route upstream. You could almost imagine it portrayed in pen and ink on ancient parchment.
We shared the ship with a much larger party of Chinese tourists. What we've noticed already is that they're very noisy (even a simple discussion between them sounds like a major argument), they smoke heavily, and they push and shove to get as quickly as possible to where they want to be, having no regard for anyone else's personal space. After a while you start to get used to it - this is *their* country, after all.
We had our own local guide, as usual; she called herself Nancy. There was also a guide for all of the Chinese party, and she broadcast to them for the entire two hours of the trip, relayed at high volume through speakers throughout the ship. It made it quite difficult for us to understand Nancy, or even hear her, but we picked up bits of informations as we went.
Just as in Zi Gui, where the cruise started, the rising waters of the Yangtze drowned large numbers of settlements along the way, and here at Badong yet another new town was quickly thrown up in the last 20 years to house the displaced citizens.The rising waters also wiped out many 'Hanging Coffins' along the way, but there were still a couple high up along our route today.
One of them was perched on top of two bamboo poles, leading us to wonder how on earth it had survived for 2,000 years. What we would call 'Grave Goods' were packed in with the deceased, leading to further questions about maybe investigating them, quite apart from the huge unanswered question of how on earth they were placed so high on the almost-vertical cliff face. Of course, the river is now 100 metres higher than it was when they were set in place, at that time maybe 2-300 metres above the water.
There are small communities of monkeys living on the precipitous cliffs, and right at the top there are subsistence farmers who live off the vegetables that they grow, spending their days drinking, dancing and playing MahJongg.
Nancy was selling books and CDs about the locality to the English guests, and we didn't see much point in buying them because we knew we'd probably never read/listen to them. But then we found out that in selling them she was raising funds for a local school, so we bought the book. The text is in Chinese characters and English, and the translation seems to have been done by a schoolchild using Google translate. There is some absolutely hilarious text, some of which I might include in a later posting :o)
When we got back to the ship it was pretty much time for lunch. Back in our cabin we found that since our return two more ships had moored alongside ours. It didn't affect us as we're high up on the ship, but guests on the decks below had their view obscured, with fumes from the neighbouring ship making their balcony unusable. However, within a few hours we'd set off and that problem was solved, at least, until the next stop!
We chose not to join the afternoon optional tour, but stayed on board reading. Dinner was the same sort of dishes that we've had for the last couple of days, and we're now getting better at avoiding the ones that have too much chilli or are unboned. The beer is pale and weak, the white wine barely drinkable and the champagne sweet and weak, but Gill says that the red wine isn't all that bad. Still, we're not dreadfully bothered by alcohol - it's English Breakfast Tea with biscuits that we'd really miss, and we've made our own arangements there ;o(
After dinner, there was entertainment from the ship's crew, which was greeted with great enthusiam by the Chinese and politely received by the English. To great Chinese hilarity a large number of our compatriots did 'The Hokey Cokey' for their amusement.
So, we're already half way through the cruise, setting off on Thursday for, I think, Chengdu and the pandas!
19th September 2018
There was an optional tour this morning, but we opted to stay on board and relax with our books.
When we opened the curtains at 7am we were already moored and there was a dense mist across the river, but by mid-morning it had burned away and the sun was scorchingly hot. Lunch wasn't all that good - one of the dishes was Chicken Feet (yes, really!!), and that quite seriously reduced my appetite when I saw it.
This afternoon's included excursion was to the 'Ghost City of 'Mount Mingshan of Fengdu'. Its extensive temple complex claims to be, 'the world capital of souls since the second century AD'. It's all about the threats that are made to the living to live good lives, with promises of eternal bliss for the righteous and hellfire, and worse, for miscreants. You'd have thought that it would have been swept away by Mao in the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, but it seems that one of his senior ministers visited the place, was deeply impressed, and instructed the Red Guards to leave it alone.
We'd heard various, worrying estimates (from 300 to 800) of how many steps there were at this site, which led us to think that maybe we wouldn't make it to the top. On leaving the ship there was almost immediately a steep flight of stone stairs to suffer, but then there were electric buggies to take us to the entrance to the temple complex. Better still, there was a chair lift to take us halfway up for the equivalent of 3 pounds each return.
As we climbed and visited most of the 27 buildings in turn things became a bit 'samey', with a Buddha at the back of the structure and very lifelike, larger than life-size statuary at either side. Our guide talked enthusiastically about each location, but even Gill struggled to get past her accent if she couldn't see her lips. I gave up trying at an early point, because I couldn't pick out most of the words. To be honest, that was more my fault than hers, because I found the struggle too taxing.
We were immensely relieved when, having visited the 'Torture Chamber', with its graphic depictions of sinners being done to death in various gruesome ways, we were told that it was time to leave and go back down. The weather had been intensely hot, and most members of our party had extensive sweat stains spreading through their clothes and headwear.
We returned to the ship much more quickly than one might have expected and got back at 6pm, leaving us only an hour to shower, change and relax before dinner. Four tables have been set aside for our group of 37, and we sit wherever there's a free space when we arrive. This means that, since we arrived in China, we've been in mealtime conversation with most of our fellow travellers. They're a pretty good bunch, and, unusually, it seems that I'm possibly the third oldest - cue cries of 'Old man, old man!'
After dinner, Max set out the disembarkation plans for tomorrow. We leave the ship at 8.30am in Chongquing and board a coach that will take us to Chengdu, taking five hours - gulp! We've been assured that there will be two 'comfort breaks. Chongquing, believe it or not, is the biggest town in China, with a population of over 30 million! This exceeds Shanghai (26m) and even Beijing (21m).
20th September 2018
Chongquing to Chengdu
The Yangtze 2 arrived at Chongquing shortly after 7am, and the Chinese passengers left first, 'for safety reasons' ;o)
We disembarked at 8am in light rain and boarded our coach. While we were waiting for it to be loaded there were several street traders trying to interest us in their wares. Max said that we should wait until the luggage was nearly all on board because then the prices being asked would drop. And so it proved! With Max's help I picked up some items for our grandchildren, and when I came back on board and said what I'd paid several other people nipped off and did the same. Good last minute business for everyone involved, it seemed!
The drive to Chengdu took five hours, covering 300 kilometres. Most people caught up on their sleep until we had a lunch stop at midday, with a packed lunch that was waiting for us earlier on the coach as we boarded. We arrived at our hotel in Chengdu at 2.30pm and took a breather for an hour before setting out again.
When booking the holiday Gill had specified a double bed, as she always does, and yet both in Shanghai and on the ship we'd been given singles. To get round this on Yangtze 2 we heaved the beds together, but last night I mentioned the problem to Max, who checked his records, apologised and said we should leave it to him. When he was handing out our room cards at the Tibet Hotel this afternoon he kept ours until last, looking a bit mysterious. It turned out that everyone in our party had been upgraded to de luxe, but we'd quietly been given a double upgrade, to an Executive Suite! And very nice the room is too!
At 3.30pm a coach picked us up to take us to a nearby park, which didn't seem very interesting a prospect. However, it turned out to be an amazing place because of the locals themselves. We were obviously a matter of great curiosity, with locals smiling and staring at us, many of them venturing a 'Hello' and us attempting 'Ni hao' in return. For a Thursday afternoon the park was surprisingly full of people, meeting friends, playing 'Go' and 'Mahjongg', eating and drinking, and even using a matchmaking service!
Parents hoping to marry off their children draw up a sort of CV about them, going into details of things like age, height and salary. The matchmaker hangs these 'adverts' on a fence in a quiet corner of the park, and then other parents browse them. If appropriate, the matchmaker will arrange a blind date.
But the best bit was the impromptu music-making that we saw in several places, mainly provided, very enthusiastically, by retired people. The musicians weren't terribly good but were clearly enjoying themselves enormously, and the singers and dancers performed with gusto to appreciative audiences. In one case, a huge Chinese flag was being waved by a performer, which made you wonder if Communist-era songs were being performed.
We then re-boarded the coach and were taken to the city's equivalent of Covent Garden, an area with what they call 'alleys'. These were previously run-down and gradually being demolished, but two of them were saved and turned into a trendy shopping district. We browsed for well over an hour, amongst crowds of Chinese who clearly have the money nowadays to treat themselves to nice things, nearly all of them made locally, it seemed. It was a lovely place!
One more coach trip took us to a restaurant specialising in the cuisine of the region - Sichuan. From previous experience we know that this leans heavily on Chilli, so we were apprehensive, choosing cautiously from the dishes that arrived. However, with one exception (that we avoided) the food on offer was very pleasantly low in Chilli heat!
Back in our Executive Suite Gill made use of the steam iron and ironing board, making good the ravages of our travel so far, and we both relaxed with glorious cups of English Breakfast tea :o)
21st September 2018
Leshan Buddha and Cultural Show
We've spent a lot of time on the road today, admittedly in a very nice, air-conditioned coach.
We set off at 8am for Leshan to see the largest stone Buddha in the world. This had beeen carved into riverside red sandstone cliffs over 1,000 years ago, taking 100 years. It had been only the second largest until the Taliban, in an act of cultural vandalism, blew up the one in Afghanistan. But even before this the Chinese had joked that their seated Buddha was the largest - 'Just think how tall he'd be if he stood up!"
The coach journey took three hours, including a 20 minute comfort and refreshment break at the Chinese equivalent of a motorway service station. There was hot food on sale from official vendors, as well as a large convenience store.
At Leshan we boarded a river boat and all went straight to the open top deck. The area marks the confluence of three rivers, and the strength of the current is remarkable. The Buddha is hardly any distance away, on the opposite bank. Before we knew it, it suddenly came into sight as our ship passed it quite quickly on the current. The vessel was then turned around, and, with its engines fighting the river, it crept back to the statue and then held position.
The statue is 71 metres tall, and, frankly, even though it's a World Heritage Site, it needs a bit of cleaning and restoration. It's quite crudely carved, which is something of a disappointment, given the three hour journey to see it. However, it's best seen from the river rather than standing on the platform at its base. In spite of this there were hordes of Chinese tourists climbing the precipitous and narrow steps on one side of it for a view from above, and then slowly making their way back down on the other side. I'm sure that seeing it up close wouldn't have been an improvement on the view that we had from further back.
The ship held position for about 15 minutes while smaller ships manoeuvred between us and the cliff, taking turns to be closest for the benefit of their passengers - being on a larger ship we could see over them all.
Then it was back to shore for lunch. As usual this was at tables for nine or ten people, with the revolving 'Lazy Susan' in the centre. The sticky rice arrives first, followed over the next ten minutes by eight to ten dishes that seem to vary in every restaurant. We've become quite adept at spotting those with excessive chilli and side-stepping them.
There's no wine on offer. Often there's a little cup of jasmine tea waiting for you when you sit down, almost as a greeting - it's never replenished. After that, it's one drink each; beer, water or Sprite. If you want more beer you have to buy your own bottle.
Then it was the return journey to Chengdu, re-tracing our steps and making another mid-point stop. We didn't go straight to the hotel but were taken to a nearby Buddhist temple that didn't hold our attention for long. The road outside was a bit like the alleys we saw yesterday, with interesting little 'crafty' shops. We returned to the hotel at 5.30pm, with only an hour to shower and relax before setting out again, on foot, for dinner. And at 7.30pm the coach took us to a theatre for a 'cultural show'.
This was billed as a 'Tour de Force of Face Changing' by the 'Sichuan Opera'. The 70 minute show reminded me a little of the equivalent that we'd seen in Moscow, with a large array of national costumes. The Face Changing came right at the end of the show, and is one of the most startlingly innovative acts that we've ever seen. Eight to ten performers, all wearing masks and elaborate costumes, weave around the stage, each in turn pausing briefly centre stage. Then, with a flick of the head, the mask changes completely, to huge applause from the locals and astonishment from foreign tourists like us.
Towards the end one of the performers signalled that he was about to make several consecutive changes, whereupon, with sharp flicks of his head we saw four different masks; one, two, three, four in as many seconds. Two performers ran up and down the aisle where we were sitting, and we therefore saw the mask changes from only a few feet away. Amazing! We were told that how this is done is a long-standing family secret, and that David Copperfield saw the show and came away none the wiser.
Tomorrow morning we check out at 8am (1am UK time) and go to see the Pandas! Gill is *very* excited and wishing that Mali was here with us! We'll take lots of photos :o)
22nd September 2018
We checked out of the hotel at 8am and headed straight for 'Panda Base', hugely excited! It was quite a short journey by coach, and by 9am we were already photographing pandas.
It's clear that they like to have a hearty breakfast of bamboo, then play a bit, then have a long nap when the sun gets warmer. We had therefore arrived at the ideal time to see active animals, and when we left the enclosures area at 11.30am, with visitors still pouring in, they'd all flaked out.
It was a joy to see so very many pandas all in one place. In fact, in one enclosure there were five of them making short work of piles of prepared bamboo. It had been cut into 'sticks' of about 50cm in length that they grasped in one paw and then gnawed really quite quickly, carelessly discarding any debris down their fronts while seizing the next piece.
We were told that a panda eats about 45kg of bamboo a day! There are 200 types of bamboo, of which pandas can tolerate 60. Of these they really like 20. In the wild there's a major problem every 30 years when the local variety flowers and dies out. This leaves the area's pandas to die of starvation.
Pandas don't seem that bothered about procreation, especially those raised in the comfort and security of Panda Base. To show them what to do and how to go about it they are shown film of other pandas 'in action'; what our guide called, 'Panda Porn' ;o) Other than this, reproduction is achieved by artificial insemination, and this has has become important, since four males have fathered 60% of all captive pandas in the world. To avoid the risks of in-breeding a DNA database has been set up as well as a sperm bank, in order to maintain genetic diversity.
Pandas in the wild only rarely have more than one cub at a time, but it's a more common phenomenon in captivity. The mother will feed only the stronger cub, leaving the other to die, so at Panda Base the discarded cub is taken care of by staff. Since mother's milk is by far the best for a cub, the keepers trick the mother into suckling *both* cubs. They do this by giving the mother, while she's feeding cub 1, a huge bowl of milk to distract her, simultaneously removing the cub and replacing it with cub 2. They then switch the cubs a few times and top up with formula if required. They do this up to eight times a day.
Cubs are fed on milk until they're 12 months old until moving on to bamboo. They achieve sexual maturity at six years old, and it takes two years before the cub leaves home. In her lifetime a female will probably have no more than three cubs, especially in the wild, where they tend to live no more than fifteen to eighteen years.
So, given that pandas aren't that keen on reproduction and also have such a ridiculously non-nutritious diet, it's amazing that they didn't go extinct long ago, so it's just as well that China sees sense in supporting their survival.
We had lunch on-site, and then set off for the station where, at 2pm precisely, the new Bullet Train set off for Xi'an (pronounced See Ann) with us aboard. It took about 3.5 hours to cover the 750 kilometres, reaching speeds at times of 250 kph. It was one of the smoothest journeys I've ever experienced.
On arrival, our guide, Max, was joined by a new local guide - Emma. She led us to our coach and we then crawled through Xi'an's rush hour traffic to a restaurant, where we had possibly the nicest meal that we've yet had. We checked into our hotel after 9pm, exhausted by a long day.
Tomorrow, it's the Terracotta Army!!
23rd September 2018
Two days, two visits to sites of international fame! Bucket list quite short now ;o)
As we drove to the Terracotta Museum Max talked about the Chinese language. He said that when asked by British people about learning Chinese his answer is, 'Don't, it's too hard". To illustrate this he gave an example, which was the Chinese word 'Ma'. This has four completely different meanings depending on how it's pronounced. It's mainly used to mean 'Mother', but can also mean, 'Horse'. There are doubtless many disastrous traps like that awaiting English speakers!
Our local guide, Emma, took over for the rest of the journey to talk about what we were about to see today, but first talked about the importance of parks to Chinese people. Everywhere we've been so far in China we've seen huge tower blocks clustered so tightly together that some apartments probably never get natural sunlight. Residents therefore seek out the local park for their exercises, dancing and singing. Max had told us in Shanghai that some people even take their cage birds with them for fresh air!
Returning to the Necropolis of which the Terracotta Army is a part, it covers 38 square miles and was discovered as recently as 29th March 1974 by a farmer who was digging a well. The whole complex was built on the instructions of the first Chinese Emperor, Qin (pronounced Chin), with work starting in 246 BC. The project is said to have involved 700,000 workers, which was 10% of the population at the time.
He seems to have been something of a megalomaniac, because he became obsessed with achieving eternal life, and asked his physicians how to achieve it. They recommended that he drink mercury, which, as we know today, is highly toxic. So much for 'traditional Chinese remedies' ;o) Of course, he died. The heir to his throne was his eldest son, but his senior general, fearing to lose influence, engineered his removal and the enthroning of the second son, who was seemed to be more likely to bend to the general's will.
The second emperor was a disaster, and eventually the people revolted against his rule. Presumably knowing that the terracotta soldiers were armed with real weapons, the populace ransacked the place, seized the weapons and set fire to it. The roof of the vast chamber was supported by wooden pillars that burned, leading to its collapse, destroying many of the terracotta figures. Many of the Warriors that we see today have been repaired/reconstructed.
The purpose of the Army was to guard the Emperor in the afterlife, and one of Qin's early ideas was to entomb living soldiers with him, but he seems to have been talked out of this. His tomb is located 1.5 kilometres to the west of his Army and its precise location is known. So far, no attempt has been made to excavate it, for a number of reasons.
Firstly, having been buried in air-less conditions for so long, the Warriors, as they were uncovered, lost the bright paint that had been used on them in only an hour or so afterwards. Archaeologists are therefore awaiting more sophisticated techniques before proceeding.
Secondly, the tomb is said to be booby-trapped to foil grave-robbers. Whilst this is unlikely to be a real danger, it does highlight the need to proceed cautiously.
Thirdly, we're back to toxic mercury again. Qin is said to have been buried in a bronze coffin, floating on mercury. High levels of this have been found in the soil of the tomb mound, so, again, caution is required.
Intriguingly, about 1,200 Warriors have been uncovered, but contemporary accounts indicate that there are many more yet to be found, eventually totalling 8,000. They are life-sized and were made more or less on a production line. There are soldiers from the lowest rank up to generals, plus archers, horses and charioteers. Every figure is unique, with great variation in facial features and uniforms
During his presidency, Bill Clinton visited with his family, and the government wanted him to meet the simple farmer who discovered the site. The farmer spoke no English, of course, so he was coached to say, "How are you?", await the normally expected reply, and then say, Me too". On the day, he was so frightened that he blurted out, "WHO are you?", and, unfortunately for him, Clinton improvised. "I'm the husband of the First Lady and the father of this beautiful girl". The quaking farmer stuck to the script and said, "Me too'.
So this is what we were told on the bus When we entered the enormous aircraft hanger (Pit 1) that protects the site we could see that the soldiers weren't lined up as neatly as we'd been led to expect, and in places there were gaps with fragments on the floor. The size of Pit 1 is staggering, and it gives a good impression of the huge scale of the work that Qin commanded. We could see that chunks of the floor still haven't been excavated, so the archaeologists are obviously proceeding carefully.
There were huge numbers of Chinese tourists, and they don't worry about pushing past you as if you don't count. However, I'm taller than most of them, and I had my phone on an extendable selfie-stick, so I got some really good photos regardless :o)
Pits 2 and 3 were something of a disappointment, in that there wasn't a great deal to see, but Pit 1 on its own justified the visit. There's also a building displaying a chariot drawn by four bronze horses. This was built to half size, but was still incredibly detailed.
We had lunch on site. Max apologised in advance that the food wasn't of the highest quality, but had correctly anticipated that we'd prefer to spend more time amongst the Terracotta Army. We set off by coach after about four hours and went back to Xi'an, firstly to see the city walls and walk along them. They are very impressive indeed, 40 feet high and running continuously around the city, enclosing an area of 5.4 square miles.
Then it was off the the city's Moslem market. This specialises in street food, and the Moslem connection is only visible when you notice some of the women wearing headscarves. We spent over an hour strolling up one side and down the other, boggling at items on sale that we simply couldn't identify. There were strange-looking, 'leggy', fried creatures on sticks that we eventually worked out were octopus that had been hammered flat before cooking in a light batter.
What really caught our eye were 'ice cream rolls'. We saw a girl putting the customer's choice of fruit or chocolate on an icy surface together with fresh cream, then spreading it around as it froze, finally smearing it as flat as possible. Then she scraped it off in strips that curled up, allowing her customer to pack them into a pot together with more fresh fruit. It looked delicious, and if we'd had more time we'd have tried it, in spite of Max's advice not to eat street food!
Finally, at 7pm, we went to a theatre where you have dinner before a one hour show of local history in the form of music and dance. The food was good, and everyone enjoyed the show. We got back to our hotel after twelve solid hours on the go!
Tomorrow we fly to Beijing!
24th September 2018
Xi'an to Beijing
We had a more leisurely morning, checking out off the Titan Hotel at 9.30am and driving for only half an hour to the 'Small Wild Goose Pagoda'.
This was a royal pagoda, and even since the downfall of the Chinese monarchy it has retained a special importance in calligraphy. Pagodas weren't simply centres for Buddhism but also had an educational role, which this pagoda has retained, especially in art and calligraphy.
We were here to have a go at Chinese writing - you know, with big brushes, coal-black ink and rice paper. We sat at desks in a classroom, and our instructor first explained about Chinese characters. She drew the character for 'water' on the blackboard and then showed how it forms the first half of other water-related characters, such as pond, lake, river, sea. English has, as we know, 26 characters. In comparison, Chinese has 201 'radicals', i.e. character components, each of which alone form pronounceable words, unlike English.
She then showed us how to handle the brush, i.e. vertically, with thumb on top, index and middle fingers to one side and the other two fingers underneath. We then had to fold a piece of paper twice and open it so that it was divided into four quarters, and the fold lines became guides for the two simple characters that she then showed us how to write, step by step. Together they spelled 'Happiness'. Gill and I were quite pleased with our results, and we later had them officially stamped by the pagoda's calligrapher.
We were all allowed to pick a silk-backed piece of paper and choose the text that the expert would add to it for us. We went for our first names, our wedding date and the character for, yes, Happiness. All in all we had a lovely time, and a very nice browse in the shop as well.
The pagoda itself is ancient, built between 707-709, and it stands 43 metres high. Before going back to he coach we had half an hour to wander around the pleasant, wooded grounds. Then it was an early lunch, in a theatre/restaurant like the one we visited last night, but this time without the theatre part.
In the coach this morning Max had announced that two members of our party had birthdays today, and that both were called David, whereupon he got everyone to sing Happy Birthday, in both English and Chinese. In the restaurant he called both of us together and the restaurant revealed a large birthday cake with candles that the two of us blew out. We then had to cut the cake with an enormous weapon more suited to the mediaeval battlefield!
After lunch we were taken to the airport for our two hour flight to Beijing. Max really shines at times like this because he's constantly shepherding us and making sure that none of the 37 of us, some of whom have mobility problems, gets left behind.
Half an hour in the coach brought us to the Landmark Hotel, where Gill was delighted to discover an ironing board and iron in our room. It's probably the smallest room we've had, including on the Yangtze 2, but it's modern and comfortable. As usual, we settled in with cups of English Breakfast! :o)
25th September 2018
Beijing and the Summer Palace
The Beijing Summer Palace is yet another World Heritage Site in this enormous country.
Building on the site commenced in 1153, and in the mid-18th century the Emperor of the day decided to build a palace to celebrate the 60th birthday of his mother to pray for her long life. An enormous lake was dug, and the resultant spoil was used to build 'Longevity Hill' close by. In the end his determination to ensure her long life paid off, because she lived to 89 ;o)
In the mid 19th century a subsequent Empress, Ci'xi (pronounced ' Su Shi), the widow of the previous Emperor, imprisoned his successor for life at the Summer Palace, eventually having him poisoned and raising his son to the throne.
In the Opium Wars the Palace was damaged by British and French forces, and in the 1880s Ci'xi decided to renovate it. Lacking the funds to do so she raised taxes on the pretext of building a Chinese Navy, but then effectively stole the money for 'her' palace.
He wanted the best for herself in everything, and so chose a Mercedes car. The decision lives on today in Chinese preference for that brand.
We had 90 minutes walking around the lake, enjoying the beautiful surroundings. Part of the time we used the elaborately-decorated covered walkway, which at over 700 metres long, features in the Guinness Book of Records as 'the longest corridor in the world'. To my mind, a corridor has both walls and ceiling, and so this one doesn't qualify :o)
As we left the site, Max stopped by a hire bicycle to show how it works. Scanning a QR code on the bike with his mobile he disabled the lock and one of our party rode on it to our coach. He then concluded the hire, again with his mobile, and it locked itself. In the evening a lorry goes around gathering up bikes wherever they've been left, having !ocated them on GPS. They are then returned to points around the city ready for the morning rush hour. This is a far better scheme than London's 'Boris Bikes', which can only be de-hired by locking them into a special stand. What if there are no spaces?
As we travelled towards our next stop, Max pointed out two odd things - parked cars with boards resting against their wheels, and old bicycles discarded by the roadside. The reasons? Firstly, to stop dogs weeing on the hub caps, and secondly, to reserve a parking space. It seems that residents with expensive cars carry an old bike with them!
And there's a thing - you never see an old car on the roads, or a small one, for that matter. Together with seemingly universal mobile phone ownership your average Chinese city dweller is really quite well off. No wonder there's little pressure for political change, because the bad old days from the 40s to the 80s are still in people's minds.
Because of the increasing affordability of car ownership, usage and traffic congestion has grown almost beyond control. London has the M25, but Beijing is currently building it's SEVENTH orbital motorway. Max said that atmospheric pollution is bad only in winter, when coal-fired power generation has to supplement other, cleaner sources. They import a lot of gas from Russia, but it's very expensive. China is clearly booming and in transition to a very powerful state that could well dominate the world economy far into the future.
After the palace we went to a 'Hutong', i.e. an old, traditional neighbourhood. This consisted of small, single storey dwellings clustered around central courtyards shared by up to five families. These proved to be socially invaluable in terms of poor people supporting one another for childcare and even in sharing scarce food resources. One severe deficit was in sanitation, with communal open toilets in the street. Max said that he dreaded using these because of their stench and lack of hygiene.
After a long period of demolishing hutongs they are now being preserved, and we visited one today. The Wong family has owned their property for six generations, and we were their guests. Under Mao it was confiscated to the state, and they had to share it with homeless families. After Mao died, Deng Xiaoping's liberalisation measures opened opened China to the global economy and once again permitted private ownership of property. The Wongs took their old title deeds to the local government and their property was restored to them. Their home was very simple, but one of our group pointed out later that it was equipped with fibre optic cabling - but still no indoor toilet!
On our way to the Wongs' home we all had a rickshaw ride. The poor old chap who ended up with the two of us was puffing a bit at times! How on earth they make a living is unimaginable, with extensive car ownership and excellent (and cheap) public transport.
We were back at our hotel by 4pm, where we had our usual cuppas. We'd also found presentation boxes in our room containing 'Moon Cakes', a local delicacy rather like a fairy cake but with a very sweet filling. These are traditionally made to celebrate the Autumn Equinox, which this year fell on my birthday!
As usual, we were taken to a nearby restaurant for dinner. Interestingly, four of our group didn't join us; we suspect that, after so many Chinese meals, they were lured away by an Italian restaurant near to our hotel :o)
26th September 2018
What a Great Wall !!
As we've travelled around, Max has taken the microphone and talked to us in the coach about the next place we'll be seeing. Where time permits he also talks more generally about his country, its history and its culture. Today he spoke about healthcare and pensions in China, but I kept missing bits through nodding off as he spoke! So, this will be all about today's adventures.
The Great Wall is a little over an hour's drive north of Beijing. The traffic was heavy as we left the city, but I've noticed that at least it keeps moving.
When we arrived at the foot of the mountains we had to disembark. The local farmers who lost their land when the parking and other facilities were built had to be compensated. So, the deal was that all coach arrivals have to walk the gauntlet of the souvenir and fast food stalls that the displaced farmers now run, before re-boarding their coaches just around the corner and driving on to the final parking area.
It's a steep walk from there to the next point. It's possible to climb on foot all the way up to the Great Wall high above on the mountain ridge, but you'd have to be a masochist to even contemplate that, in my opinion. Instead, there's an excellent cable car that took us the majority of the way, leaving us some manageable steps until, at last, we were standing on the Wall itself.
To our left, the Wall fell away steeply. So we turned right to the first watchtower, and from there, in both directions, we could see it snaking up and down, following the mountain crests seemingly into infinity. Well, it *is* over 5,000 miles long! All along it there are battlements to shoulder height with arrow slits and the surface ranges from paving to steep steps, depending on the terrain below.
Seeing that the Wall beyond the second watchtower fell away sharply, and fearing that returning would be difficult, Gill decided to stay where she was. On the basis that we would never be here again, I soldiered on to the next watchtower, where the spectacular views made the effort well worth while.
All the time we were there two helicopters were buzzing backwards and forwards, giving couples with £500 to spend a bird's eye view, but, in all honesty, the view we had was remarkable enough.
Returning to Gill was hard work. On her side of the watchtower the steps that I now had to climb were almost knee-high, so I had to scramble using my hands. As I returned several of our party asked me if it was worth the effort to go down, and, after thinking about it, I said that I thought it was. I think this hesitation persuaded them not to try it, unfortunately.
We returned to the point where we had joined the Wall and carried on downwards for a bit to the next watchtower, where we enjoyed the view, took more photos, and both agreed that we'd done enough.
We enormously admired the efforts of two of our party who made it up to the top; one was a lady in her 70s who will be having a hip replacement four days after she gets home, and the other was a man who seems to have contracted polio in childhood, leaving him with a withered right leg for which he wears a metal support up to his knee.
We felt we'd now done enough, so we returned to the cable car level, where we enjoyed White Chocolate Magnums. We then went back down in the cable car to a restaurant where we had lunch, before returning to Beijing and our hotel.
We had a gloriously restful two hours relaxing in our room before setting off by coach again at 5pm for 'The Circus World of Beijing Chao Yang Theatre'. In a one hour show we saw some of the most startlingly impressive Circus acts that we are ever likely to witness. The acrobats were impressive enough, but there were two acts that left us slack-jawed in amazement.
One involved a troupe of girls, from teenagers down to 8-ish, holding sticks in both hands with four plates spinning on each. They climbed on one another's shoulders with plates still spinning and did forward rolls as well. In fact, just when we were starting to wonder if the plates were glued on one small girl dropped the four plates on one stick. We realised that this meant that we'd been witnessing truly amazing, genuine skills!
The final act centred on a large steel mesh sphere about thirty feet high. The house lights were dimmed and a motorcyclist roared on to the stage, his black leathers twinkling with white LEDs as he saluted the audience. A door was opened low down and he zoomed into the sphere, then doing a futuristic Wall of Death act, racing over all areas.
Then a second motorcyclist screeched to the front of the stage and was admitted to the sphere to join the first. Now they wove in and out of one another, their LEDs and headlights making patterns in the half light. Then a third, fourth and fifth motorcyclist joined in, which you'd say was impressive enough, with barely enough room in the sphere.
Wrong! THREE more arrived in a group on-stage, to general amazement and disbelief. The five already inside moved higher in the sphere, and the final three occupied the lower level. I have video evidence! That ended the show, and the audience was noisily appreciative!
Then it was back to our hotel. Tomorrow is our last full day in China!
27th September 2018
Farewell to China
Our last full day in China, with many people, us included, looking forward to going home.
This isn't because we haven't enjoyed ourselves - far from it! The universal feeling in our group is that we've had a wonderful time and seen some amazing things - Three Gorges Dam, Pandas, Terracotta Army, Great Wall. We've also had a superb guide in Max, as well as the local guides in each location who supported him. In short, the buzzing around the country in only 14 days has been very tiring, and everyone agreed that a 25 day tour would be simply too much.
Today we were entirely in central Beijing. The coach dropped us at the edge of Tiananmen Square and we were immediately amongst scenery familiar to us from the democracy protests of 1989. The square contains The Monument to the People's Heroes, The Great Hall of the People, the National Museum of China and the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong (or Tse Tung to us older folks!) At 440,000 square metres it's the largest city square in the world. For comparison, the sales areas of Sainsbury's SavaCentre hypermarkets were something like 7,000 square metres.
Max had organised with one of the many photographers working the square to take a group photo with the Gate of Heavenly Peace (complete with an enormous image of Mao) as backdrop. Later in the morning the photographer scurried up to us on his moped with the photo as part of a beautiful album. Cost, 100 Yuan, or about £11. Bargain!
The buildings on the square lie on a North/South axis called The Meridian, and as you walk north through the afore-mentioned gate you enter the Forbidden City, so-called because it was exclusively for The Emperor, his family and his high officials, and not for plebs like us. It was constructed from 1406 to 1420 and covers an enormous180 acres. It's yet another UNESCO World Heritage Site.
We walked northwards right through the City and its gardens, and out the other side, re-joining our coach that took us for lunch. In the afternoon we went to a pagoda used by the Imperial family. Max told us proudly that no nails had been used in its construction, only wooden pegs.
The last stop was at a market where everyone topped up with souvenirs. It was huge, and it looked more like a department store. Gill was up for some serious bargaining, and prices collapsed as she got going, but what a waste of time for all concerned when all the seller wants to do is sell and the buyer just wants to buy.
Then it was time for our final meal in China, a Duck Supper. We were back at our hotel at 7pm to pack and get to bed, ready for a 4am alarm call and 5am departure for the airport. We fly to Shanghai, then have a four hour wait for our Business Class flight home, landing at Heathrow at about 7pm. At least we can while away the time in the Business Lounge! :o)
So, that's it - the end of another huge adventure. We hope you've enjoyed sharing it with us!