China - 10th May to 2nd June 2013

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Originally I had intended to do a blow for blow, step through account of our trip to China getting in as much detail and sticking as close to the original timeline as possible. Except, I realised that it would be a long winded account and (probably) tedious reading. So I’m going to try and do it differently and feature on highlights while omitting ‘normal stuff’ like hotel / meal / transfer details. However, this is still a long post.

The air is dusty because it is the dry season and the winds are predominantly from the sandy deserts to the north. Immediate impressions are of the sheer scale of construction, both completed and in progress. There is plenty of evidence of China’s wealth in the Audi, BMW, Mercedes, Jaguar, Ferrari and Rolls Royce cars vying for road space. Our guide introduces us to the delights of the city’s subway (underground railway) which is cheap, simple, efficient and clean. We take in a show, gymnastic and other displays of physical and handling skills, including 9 motorcyclists in a ball of death.

Afterwards we go explore the retail area in the north of the city where we are abandoned by our guide (something we hadn't expected) to find our first meal and get back to the hotel. The meal is a real experience as nobody speaks English and we speak no Chinese – but we eat well. Afterwards we take electric rickshaws back to the hotel which proves to be an ‘interesting’ experience.

Tiananmen Square is massive, made to hold 1 million people. There are memorials, soldiers and street cleaners in abundance. Starting from one side we wend our way across to The Forbidden City and its old world splendour born from a different age. In places we glimpse the original grandeur but in others the lack of maintenance shows (many of the enclosed squares need repaving) and our feet are sore as we complete the 2.4 km walk from where we were dropped off. The Gardens and pavilions of the Summer Palace are another long slow walk through time. Architecture is all in the same/similar vein and we are as much of an attraction to the Chinese as they and their country are to us. The visit to the pearl shop/factory was a commercial education. An evening show rounds of our 2nd night in Beijing.

Day 3 and we pass the stadiums built for the 2008 OLYMPIC games, stopping briefly for the ubiquitous photographs. We can’t get close to the Bird Nest stadium and The Cube (swimming pools) is near but not enticing – both are typical modern architecture and anodyne as a result.

The first night's theatre, plain outside...

Girls on a bike, 13 finally make it onboard.
The Great Wall and other attractions
The sedate ride up in the cable car to the walk along the Great Wall at Mutainyu in the heat of the day is in stark contrast to the minibus drive there and back. Views from The Wall are spectacular if you are looking along the wall itself or inwards into China, but the forested mountain hillsides of Mongolia outside the wall have of little interest for most visitors and explains why the inhabitants of old had to be kept out by the construction of the wall. It is a fitting monument to a troubled past.

The Temple of Heaven was a suitably slow meander through more traditionally styled buildings and gardens displaying the splendour of Chinese architecture from another dynasty while the visit to the jade shop/factory was a commercial education.

Xi’an – the Han Yang tomb of emperor Jingdi was both interesting and educational and a suitable prelude to the following day’s visit to the Terracotta Warriors which we visited on the wettest day of our tour. The visit to the Warriors was preceded by a visit to the Terracotta factory where the ancient warriors are manufactured using ancient techniques in a factory that specialises in lacquered furniture. Unlike the visits to the jade and pearl shops/factories this visit was well presented and interesting with less pressure to buy, buy, buy.

The Warriors are all under cover in large hanger like buildings which was a god send for us both encouraging and allowing us to take our time. It is spectacular and the immensity of the undertaking is not lost on anybody. The prediction is that full excavation of the site will take over 200 years and that there is no rush as they need technological solutions that haven’t been developed yet. Our visit included a lunchtime meal which added to the experience, but the long walk back to the bus saw us getting drenched. The rain continued so we passed up the tour of the city’s Bell and Drum towers and instead went up onto the city wall for another history lesson and a chance to take in the views of the city. The weather cleared and we had an excursion to the city square, impressive with its statues in montages of Chinese history and tall ‘sandstone’ pillars that are technological wonders, putting on a full light display as they change from firework show to ‘lava lamp’ and then ‘techno’ in a combined sights and sounds show. From there we wandered down the main boulevard lined with more statues, water-pools, lawns and manicured gardens, ending up at whay I can only describe as a plaza of water fountains all dancing to the music with accompanying laser light show – very impressive.

Some of the 9 riders and bikes that rode in the ball of death.

Urban truck drive, China style, though most are electric.
Buddhas & Pandas
Chengdu – starts with an afternoon river trip to Leshan to view the ‘Dafo’ (Giant Buddha) which is one of the largest Buddha statues in the world. Carved from the river cliff it is accessible either on foot (a slow walk on a narrow and very steep footpath down, past and back up) or the river boat option that we decided to take. The river is fast flowing which is more than can be said of the stream of tourists wending their way down, along and back up the footpath.

Next morning is another early start for our excursion to the Panda Research Base where a large number of pandas are kept in semi-naturalistic surroundings, well fed and encouraged to breed – to date some 84 pandas have been born at the centre. This really was the highlight of our tour. Our guide is a sometime volunteer worker at the centre so she knew when to be where so that we got the most out of the trip. The young pandas stole the show while the older pandas simply posed and pandered to the tourists (us). Photogenic or what? And they are a fabulous sight. The early start was well rewarded as we watched them tear their way through the piles of bamboo that is their staple diet. Later we found out that many of the other tours to see ‘Giant Pandas’ simply went to the local Chengdu Zoo where there are a few (3) pandas, seen in the heat of the day when they are least active. We definitely had the better deal and thank China Direct for arranging it and our tour guide for her local knowledge.

The bullet train from Chengdu to Chongqing has to be mentioned. Train station was more like an airport. The train is a tribute to modern design and engineering. Travelling at 194kph for 2 hours, leaving and arriving on time, we sat there in eerie silence, chatting at normal voice levels watching the countryside speeding by. No clatter of rail tracks beneath the wheels. No engine or wind sounds. Everybody facing the direction of travel in aircraft style seats, no tables taking up precious seating area, with plentiful overhead locker storage and designated baggage. This is modern travel as it should be.

Chongqing – China’s 4th largest city and unknown to most Europeans and Americans. They have their version of the Sydney Opera House, a modern interpretation shaped more like a modern cruise liner than an old sail ship. Building is on a vast scale with multiple high rise apartment blocks under construction. Chongqing province is the size of Austria while it has a population greater than Australia (23.6m people). The landing / boarding stage for the cruise boat is unimpressive and an uncomfortable walk over irregular and ill maintained surfaces down some 120 odd steps. Fortunately there are porters there hungry to carry our luggage for a few quid (GBP). I think I paid 20 yen but whatever it was it was worth it, those porters are mostly old men who should be retired but need an income.

Yangtze River cruise
The boat was billed as a 5 star cruise boat. Not sure what it did to deserve that category classification but I’d award it 3 stars at best. But it was comfortable, rooms were clean but carpet on the stairs and in the corridors was well past its best. Staff were ever helpful and meals were acceptable to good but a bit more variety would have been welcome but that said we ate well enough. An evening departure meant we had time to unpack and grab a meal (extra cost as not included, the rest were though) before we got our first sight of the river. That first sight was of heavy commercial exploitation in the Chongqing city region and going down stream until we entered the gorges stretch later the next day.

Stops for excursions over the next 3 days (some included, some extra cost) kept our interest fired up and allowed times to relax. We arrived at the 3 Gorges Dam at 22:00 on the 3rd day of the trip which meant we entered the locks during darkness, and commenced our entry into and descent through the shipping locks just ahead of midnight when we retired to bed, awaking the next morning moored up a short distance down river. A coach trip took us back to the Dam location for a locally guided tour. We were lucky, the weather held up and the day was clear so we got to see the whole site, which is in an area where they get rain 256 days a year and visibility is often down to 20 feet or so. The previous week our tour guide had taken a group round and they had seen nothing of the locks or the shipping lift (still under construction) and had spent most of their time in the visitor centre.

Our first meal, everything we ordered without a common language.

Again, our group from the other end of the table.

Suzie & I posing in front of a light display in the square.
Is home to 25m people. Awesome. Mind blowing. The Xintiandi district is an area of shops, bars and restaurants that has been sympathetically restored in the ‘old China’ style and where we spent a couple of hours wandering around but could have spent a day or more. An excursion to Suzhou saw us wandering around the Humble Administrator’s Garden, an amazing place with traditional buildings and lavish gardens., followed by some local street shopping. The trip was about a visit to the Silk Factory and on arrival we sat down to a lunchtime meal which was the low point of the whole trip being more canteen than restaurant, quantity not quality and bland beyond belief. The Silk Factory and shop was another commercial education, but this time there were 2 extremes. High pressure sales techniques to buy silk bed covers costing more than we had taken with us as spending money for the whole trip, and then clothing, all racked up and priced up like a European department store where you were free to wander and try on as you wished, with assistance if required. End result, we bought no bed lined but I bought Suzie a dress and jacket.
Then the was our trips to The Bund. One by day with a walk along the promenade in glorious sunshine. One by night and a river trip in foggy/misty conditions (which cleared, thankfully) to see the lights on the buildings on the south side of the river. A wander round the French / European Quarter, similarly the Yu Yuan Bazaar and a boat trip on the ancient canal system were all excellent and highlighted the diversity of this very modern city. As did the final ‘window shopping’ trip through the central retail area full of big name brands, most of them familiar to us and most Europeans.

China is amazing. The scenery is Awesome. The scale of construction is mind blowing. The people are friendly and not once did we feel threatened. There is little litter and there are litter pickers and cleaners everywhere. The food is mostly of exceptional quality although the order in which it is delivered to the table often bemuses (soup often gets delivered last, which takes some getting used to). Drinks are readily available but alcohol is expensive at up to £6 for a beer and wine starting at £25 for a bottle of Jacobs Creek.

Our trip was an adventure and not the usual relaxing holiday. We were on the go all the time what with excursions and transfers. Moving as we did from one local guide to the next meant that we had someone with excellent local knowledge with us at all times. Internal transfers (3 flights, one ‘bullet train’ enabled us to see sights that were big distances apart. Toilet facilities are ‘interesting’ but never proved a problem and western style facilities are becoming the norm. You need to be physically mobile and able bodied to get the best from a trip like this and sore feet at bedtime quickly becomes part of the routine. Comfortable footwear is a must.

China – in a word… Fabulous!

Our first view of Tiananmen Square made to hold 1 million people.

Tiananmen Square statues to the front, cranes to the rear.
We took over 1000 photos so this is just a small selection to tempt you.....

A view within the Grand Palace.
China is an adventure, not a holiday!

Suzie resting or posing - you decide.

Looking grand fron a distance.

Superb craftsmanship viewed up close.

Our guide Sucre watches Suzie's picture taking.

Entrance to the Summer Gardens.

Suzie and Carole.

Suzie and Carole.

The ladies in the tour group, Carole, Joanne, Sue & Suzie.


This is as close as you can get to the Bird's Nest stadium.

Suzie on the Great Wall of China.

Carole, Sue & Suzie on the Great Wall of China.

Shared Bill Clinton's cable car at the Great Wall of China.

Centre of Xi'an - I loved it and could happily live there.

These columns in Xi'an are a techno marvel at night.

More of the centre of Xi'an.

For a land of grey, Xi'an is so colourful.

The ceiling in a Xi'an shopping mall.

Playing out different scenes.

The Terracotta Army is too massive to capture in one shot.

All set for our evening meal before going to another show.

The dancers in one scene in the show in Xi'an.

All very colourful, with no shortage of pretty girls.

Suzie & I with young pandas near Chengdu.

Sue & Norm with the young pandas near Chengdu.

Carole & Giuseppe with the young pandas near Chengdu.

Suzie & I with the Choi Carp near Chengdu pandas.

I will add more photos on additional pages when I find time...

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