Yes the Snow has Gone and Spring has Arrived

April 28, 2018

In my last post I was describing the beautiful effects of the drifting snow in our front garden.  I now, eight weeks later, can show you that the garden sustained no lasting damage.

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First week in March

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Last week in April

We have had some really nice weather in the last ten days or so.  Depending on whether you are an optimist or a pessimist this means either ‘looking forward to a good summer’ or ‘that is our quota of good weather for the year’.

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‘My View’ from the garden bench.

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Has the Snow Gone?

April 26, 2018

It has been too long since my last post – exhausted by all that writing about China!  Of course life has to return to normal for a while here on Bute before we set off again on our next travels.

All the winter activities of island life have finished now – no more fascinating lectures at the Lit or Natural History Society but lighter evenings to tempt us out walking again – if only it would get a bit warmer.  In our little backwoods one of the major events of the last two months was the snow.  The ‘Beast from the East’ did not bury us as deeply as lots of other places across the UK but we had deeper and longer lasting snow than we have seen before in our nearly ten years of residency here in the Gulf stream and at sea level – and I selfishly loved every minute of it. Apologies to all whose lives were made difficult.

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It is difficult to say how much snow there was.  The wind had been blowing it about all night, creating beautifully sculpted snow drifts whilst leaving the front path clear.

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The lovely powdery snow, so different from our usual West of Scotland wet stuff, had  blown in between the slates in the front garden beds.  It even managed to fill up the insides of the bird feeders.

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Of course the buses and ferries were off and the schools closed – nobody ran out of food.  I believe the farmers had a tough time, having to check all snow drifts along hedges and walls for buried sheep.  The farm roads and the main road on the west of the island had simply filled up with wind blown snow to the height of the hedges, but the farmers tackled this with an assortment of tractors with various digging and shovelling attachments and had the routes open within a few days.  We even had a snowplough clearing a path up the side road beside us.

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The house was lovely and warm and the garden looked very pretty.

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Fortunately we hadn’t planned a G&T on the decking or even a mug of tea for that matter and mostly just gazed in awe from the windows.

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The slate beds as seen from the study window above.  Ten days later and the snow had all gone – but I did enjoy it.

Back to the question of the title – I hope so, as we need to encourage the slowly returning visitors.  There were good numbers of tourists and holidaymakers at Easter time and every weekend brings more.

On Easter Sunday there was no snow up at St Blane’s Chapel for the Sunrise Service but the hills of Arran still had their icing sugar coating.

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In spite of the cold wind there was a good crowd to sing joyfully to the accompaniment of the wonderful old ‘Kist o’ Whistles’.

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The trees were still completely bare then but with the rise in temperature over the last few weeks everything is bursting back into life.  It was good that there were plenty of daffodils available for the beautiful easter cross to hang on the church railings.

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Shanghai, the Last Stop

February 15, 2018

Writing all these blogs about our amazing trip to China has taken a lot longer than the actual journey, but the overwhelming kaleidoscope of colours, sights, smells, tastes and experiences warranted a bit of time and thought.  The rollercoaster eventually came to rest with a final fling in Shanghai.

We had no organised tours booked here so were delighted to find that our hotel had a ‘back door’ directly onto the infamous Bund and our room on the sixteenth floor had a sweeping view of the Pudong area across the Huangpo River.

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Pudong, Shanghai

At night this view became a fairyland of twinkling lights – even the small tourist boats looked as if they had sailed directly out of a fairy grotto.

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View from our hotel room.

We had almost two whole days to explore this vibrant, buzzing city and, of course, started right on our doorstep by strolling the length of the Bund.

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A bit bigger than Rothesay’s Esplanade

This photograph was taken fairly early in the morning but by late afternoon there were tens of thousands of visitors strolling up and down, of course providing me with exquisite people watching opportunities.

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On the street side of the walkway, the vertical wall was planted very tightly with flowering plants.  In all our time in China we had never been aware of what might be called a local police presence – serious military security in Beijing and at airports and stations, but, I suppose, police  might be needed sometimes even in this very controlled society.

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The juxtaposition of very beautiful art deco, early 20th century buildings and the marbled, gilded and glazed more recent skyscrapers worked surprisingly well.  The dreadful history of the origins of the Bund, the British, French and American Concessions and the Opium Wars is easily glossed over.

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Two eras shoulder to shoulder.

It is hard to believe that only a twenty minute walk away from the Bund took us through a totally different area of Shanghai – washing hanging to dry on the railings of a park, a ‘postman’ with scores of parcels all tied in festoons around his scooter, even a Pound Shop (All the 10 Yuan) and generally people just going about their daily lives.

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We were heading for Yu Yuan – a classical Chinese garden created in the 16th century by a high ranking official in the Imperial Court in memory of his father.  Just before the entrance to the garden is the Huxin Ting teahouse.

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Huxin Ting Teahouse, Shanghai

This is very picturesque with its zig zag bridge across the little lake in front.  I have deliberately not chosen the photograph which shows a very prominent Starbucks incongruously positioned in this ancient scene.  I was also surprised that the great tubs in the water had plastic plants – perhaps to go with the plastic fisherman in his boat.

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The golden carp were real.

It was very, very crowded both here and in the Yu Yuan garden so we gave the chance of a cup of tea in Huxin Ting a miss because of the enormous queue.

Inside the garden huge crowds of Chinese visitors were squeezing along the narrow walkways.  Each of the six ‘areas’ are meant to be viewed from all angles from a well-placed hall or pavilion.  Tourists resting on the low walls or jostling to take selfies or group photos rather spoiled the effect.  In spite of this I could see it was a very beautiful place, just not easy to photograph.

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This beautiful young woman was having photographs taken in a quieter corner – no idea why.  As you can see she is dressed in some form of Chinese ‘dress’.  Everywhere we visited in China the people out on the streets were all dressed in rather drab western clothes (apart from the chic city girls in Xi’an, Beijing and Chengdu).  Then, of course, there were the amazing, colourful costumes at the Shanxi Chinese Opera.  The older lady in the centre of the next photograph was just spotted as she waited to cross the road.  I have searched on the internet to find where she was from.  No success – it may not even be a Chinese costume, but there are about 56 recognised ethnic groupings in China so she is probably from one of them.

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A smaller tributary river runs into the Huangpo and it was lined with mature trees and more, interesting buildings – both modern and art deco.

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Wusung Creek, Shanghai

It was also here and around the corner on the Bund that we came across the wedding photographs phenomena.  I was entranced to find that a Monday afternoon was very popular for brides to have ‘photo shoot’ type photographs taken – we saw about ten or so.

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I don’t think the slightly obscene view of her knickers or the background of ‘Boris’ bikes really added to the glamour or romanticism of the occasion.  There were no family or friends with any of the couples, only a photographer and his assistant.

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Waibaidu Bridge, Shanghai

There was a lot of activity at this heavy, steel bridge (the first one to be built in China) as the girders created a frame with the iconic Pudong skyscrapers in the background.  This was the only one of the brides we saw smiling.

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Not all of the brides wore white dresses, some were in scarlet red.  I am sorry to go on so much and include so many wedding photographs but it was such a surreal and totally unexpected experience.  In some ways it sums up my response to the entire visit to China – by turns I was awed, puzzled, incredulous, intrigued and delighted.

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The sun rising behind Pudong, Shanghai

I would be very, very happy to visit China again – our journey provided only a very light scrape on the surface of this country.


The Three Gorges on the Yangtse

February 8, 2018

We were up early the next morning to be on deck for our first experience of sailing through the Three Gorges. The first, Qutang Gorge, is only 5 miles long but was awesome in the grey early light of dawn. This was followed by Wu Gorge, the largest, and finally Xiling Gorge.

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The sheer soaring vertical limestone cliffs were amazing and gave a very enclosed feeling at first.  It was quite difficult to get my head around the numbers attached to this whole concept of building a dam downstream and flooding these valleys with the river water to a depth that had never previously occurred, even in flood years.  The next photo has been ‘borrowed’ from the internet to give an example of how the river looked in pre dam days.

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There were occasional markers on the banks indicating how high the water is now in the Gorges.

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175 metres deeper

Where there were slopes these were thickly forested – a glimpse of what would have been the pandas’ natural habitat.

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The sun did come out later in the day.  As well as the natural scenery there were a number of towns and villages dotted along the shore line.  It is a bit mind bending that almost all of the built scenery (towns and bridges etc) have only been constructed in the last 20 years – everything is new, and much more building work is continuing.

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A new town

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The Goddess Peak disappearing in the cloud.

Some of the mountains and side valleys had lovely names and intriguing stories attached to them.  At the mouth of Wu Gorge the goddess Yao Ji and her eleven sisters quelled some unruly river dragons and then turned themselves into mountains, thoughtfully positioned to help guide ships downriver.

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We couldn’t see what these fishermen were catching.

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Side valley

As well as the beautiful scenery there was the life of the river to watch too.  Mixed in with the tourist cruise boats were many commercial barges carrying building materials, cars and lorries.

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A load of huge lorries.

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Part way through Wu Gorge is a tributary called Shennong Stream and this is where we had another ‘shore’ trip, although we never set foot on terra firma.  We docked at the ‘relocated’ city of Badong and transferred directly onto a ferry.

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The Sanctuary Yangtse Explorer at Badong

The scenery was very pretty sailing up this ever narrowing tributary of the great Yangtse  – very pleasant on deck in the warm sunshine.  The local guides, very pretty girls in red Chinese dresses, were very friendly and chatty, and very enthusiastic about, of all things, ‘hanging coffins’.  They went to a great deal of trouble to make sure that everyone could see the coffins very high up in clefts in the sheer rock face.

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Hanging Coffin

It is puzzling to know why and how these came to be placed here.  There are many more examples scattered throughout Sichuan and Yunnan provinces.  The oldest coffins can date back 3,000 years and the more recent ones to about 1500 AD.  The one we saw certainly seemed to be in a totally inaccessible spot.

At the end of the Shennong Stream we transferred, a dozen at a time, into small sampans to be rowed and poled up and down.  It wasn’t terribly well explained at the time but from my research I now know that they were trying to replicate how difficult and treacherous it once was to travel in this area before the Gorges were flooded.  Boats had to be hauled and man-handled through shallows and rapids.

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Being ‘pulled’ along from the bank

I found the following photograph on the internet to give you an idea of what it once would have been like.

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I loved our little mini cruise through the Three Gorges, comfortable accommodation, excellent food, friendly and fun companions (if you avoided loud Americans) and it got me to places I couldn’t otherwise have reached.

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On our way to the farewell dinner.

After the wonderful Farewell Dinner we went up on deck to watch the ship entering the first lock for the five step journey to get around the Great Dam.  This was quite awesome and the scale of it all made me feel very small.

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As it takes about three hours to go through the five locks, each a 22 metre drop, we retired to bed.  Again, I add an internet picture to help with the scale.

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We had an early start the next morning to be whisked to the airport for our flight to Shanghai, the last stop on this great China odyssey.  Only one more blog to go.

 

 


Setting Sail on the Yangtse

January 29, 2018

After the adorable pandas of Chengdu it was a fairly short, two hours,  bullet train ride to the sprawling commercial city of Chongqing on the banks of the great Yangtse river.  Not a luxury hotel this time but three nights aboard the very smart Sanctuary Yangtse Explorer as we traversed the Three Gorges.  All the travel and transfer arrangements went very smoothly and I was hugely impressed when, at the dockside, the baggage porter slung our two suitcases at each end of a long pole, hoisted it over his shoulder and trotted off in front of us – only about 40 kilos!

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Chongqing 

Perhaps not the prettiest of waterfronts but it looked much better late in the evening when we set off downriver towards the Great Yangtse Dam.

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The still photograph does not show how the lights were moving in patterns and colours or the laser lightshow on some buildings, notably the ultra modern opera house.

We have never taken a ‘cruise’ as such before because it does not really appeal, and this mini venture confirmed our suspicions – excellent in parts and cringe worthy in others.  This was summed up at dinner on the first night – a delightful English couple on one side (who became good companions for the trip) and on the other a large group of screeching, raucous Americans.

Our first shore excursion was to the ‘re-located’ town of Fengdu where we were herded around the streets in large groups to visit a food market and a children’s nursery.

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The market was very clean and well organised but I still don’t fancy chicken feet.  Nor did I relish the thought of a visit to the dentist.

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Most of the food in the market was recognisable with the exception of some vegetables – it was all very colourful and beautifully displayed.

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Mounds of beansprouts

The narrow streets we wandered through were crowded with people – mainly older people and a few babies and toddlers clearly being minded by grandparents.  It was the middle of the working / school day but the guide did admit that most people had to go away to the cities (sometimes considerable distances) to find work.

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Next we made a slightly odd visit to a children’s nursery.  The 15 western tourists in our group (there were 120 on the cruise) were marched into a narrow classroom of  about thirty of the cutest wee Chinese you could imagine.  These were ‘tourist wise’ kids – they stayed in their seats but bounced about, smiling, laughing, high fives, waves, and the ubiquitous Instagram posing of two wide fingers on each side of their faces.

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The children and staff all seemed very happy but I was slightly uncomfortable that we were ‘viewing’ these kids.

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I have often taken photographs in back streets in various countries showing a more ‘relaxed’ attitude to health and safety, particularly obvious with macrame style tangles of electricity cables dangling from overladen telegraph poles.  The photograph above raised my horror to new heights when we realised that these are not electricity or telephone cables but are in fact gas pipes.

Normally we always ask permission if we want to take photographs of people but this next shot was a ‘snatch’ as the ladies gambling at mahjong were not overjoyed at the prospect.

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After a short coach ride we were next taken to a home visit with a ‘happy farmer relocated to the new perfect town of Fengdu’.  Another surreal experience.  What I was seeing with my eyes and my pre China research into the story of the building of the Great Dam, the flooding of the Gorges, and the relocation of 1.4 million people just didn’t tie up with the ‘facts’ being spouted by the guides.

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The above photograph is a corner of the shop where we visited the owner.  The stock looked very ancient and dusty, there were no customers about, indeed there was no-one to be seen in the surrounding streets.  All fifteen of us in the group sat upstairs in this 65 year old ‘ex-farmer’s’ sitting room to ask him questions.  There were discrepancies between the guide’s and the farmer’s stories even although the former was translating – he was a farmer but had travelled widely over China in the building trade, he lived there with his wife and two sons but one son was very wealthy from running a restaurant in the city, when asked what he missed from his life as a farmer he, predictably, said he ‘missed nothing, everything here was far, far superior’.

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The only people we saw nearby.

In a quieter setting later we challenged the guide about all the protests, riots and forcible evictions we had read about in the western press and she totally denied these stories – all relocated people were deliriously happy.

It had been a slightly confusing although totally fascinating few hours ashore.  Over all I found the constant diktat of our various Chinese guides to be quite disturbing – they skated over any references to the recent past, leaving a void in the story.  They were happy to talk of the history up to the end of the Imperial Dynasties (c 1920) and then nothing until the CCP beat Chang Kai Shek in the 1970s, with only grudging references to Mao Tse Tung.  Earlier, the guide here referred to the severe bombing some places got from the Japanese in WWII and the fact that Chongqin’s underground is presently being built by joining up the bomb shelters excavated during the war.

Our little ship with its charming and ever helpful staff could not be a bigger contrast.  The food on board was delicious – mostly Chinese with a slightly Western slant at times.

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The Sanctuary Yangtse Explorer

As you can see above the weather was often quite grey but fortunately not too cold.  We spent time every day outside on deck just watching the scenery go by and particularly the myriad of other river users.  I have chosen just four examples from the hundred or so boats we photographed.

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Most of the commercial shipping was these low, wide barges transporting building materials.  They all had accommodation at the back – washing hanging out to dry and a few vegetables growing.

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The river was clearly polluted, with a noticeable scum of plastic and polystyrene floating on the surface.  The boat above was fighting a losing battle in scooping this up.

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Designed by Heath Robinson – no idea what it was meant to do.

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A Chinese Tourist boat.

The pretty scenery was to follow over the next two days when we entered the Three Gorges.


The Gulf Stream Doesn’t Always Protect Us

January 22, 2018

We don’t often get snow here on Bute and the child in me has been a bit envious of all the   recent news footage of everyone else very prettily blanketed – apologies, of course, to all folks who have been ‘disrupted’ by the stormy weather.

It snowed for a few hours on Sunday morning and I couldn’t resist taking my camera to church with me.

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Hardy worshippers arrive at the United Church of Bute.

This carving was removed from St John’s church before it was demolished – I think it represents the baptism of John the Baptist.

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The ancient monumental stones in the surrounding graveyard look bleak and pretty at the same time.

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The wee birds in the garden were appreciative of the food we always put out for them but the daffodils will have to take their chance against the weather.

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Of course, all the snow was gone again within a few hours!


Pandas Really Are Very Cute

January 18, 2018

It was only an eighty minute, very bumpy plane ride to get from Xi’an to Chengdu and the home of the Giant Panda Breeding Research Base.  This part of the trip was not specifically requested by us but we agreed to include it as it seemed churlish not to visit these iconic animals.  I have never been particularly fond of them mainly on the basis of the colossal amounts of money being spent to preserve creatures which under normal circumstances would be extinct – mainly coloured by the ongoing fiasco at Edinburgh Zoo.  … BUT …  much to our surprise we both fell hook, line and sinker for the adorable pandas.

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Regular readers will know that I strongly disapprove of zoos in general.  This research station in China is quite open about the need to encourage as many visitors as possible who through their entrance fees and purchases fund the work, and have consequently set up a very slick, tourist friendly operation.  From the minute I saw the first group of  pandas I was walking about with a big grin on my face.

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From my guide book – “Two animals share the name panda: the giant panda, black-eyed symbol of endangered species worldwide; and the unrelated, raccoon-like red panda, to which the Nepalese name “panda” was originally applied in the West.  The Chinese call the giant panda da xiongmao, meaning “big bear-cat”. …. They are decidedly odd creatures, bearlike, endowed with a carnivore’s teeth and a digestive tract poorly adapted to their largely vegetarian diet.  Though once widespread in southwestern China, they’ve probably never been very common, and today their endangered status is a result of human encroachment combined with the vagaries of their preferred food – fountain bamboo – which periodically flowers and dies off over huge areas, leaving the animals to make do with lesser shrubs and carrion, or starve.”

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The young pandas were very entertaining to watch as they played on the giant climbing frames provided for them.  Just like human toddlers they were tumbling about in a clumsy and uncoordinated way, sometimes trying a manoeuvre which was just a stretch too far and comically getting stuck for a while.  The park is beautifully laid out and landscaped and with plenty of places to get a good view of the great fluffy balls sleeping, eating or playing – they appeared totally oblivious of the watching crowds.

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The babies looked very relaxed.  We didn’t watch them for long as they sleep for over 23 hours per day.

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We were close enough to confirm that they were not soft cuddly toys scattered about decoratively!  The animals all seemed very relaxed and had only recently been fed with chopped up bamboo shoots.

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Some of my favourites were the adults who had the ability to fall asleep just wherever they happened to be.  Oh to have the ability to be so completely relaxed.

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Just stuffing my face as fast as I can.

The panda above was in the ‘hospital’ area hence the concrete surrounds.  At the Chengdu Research Centre we saw not only the adorable black and white pandas but the equally beautiful red pandas.  They were not kept in enclosures but were free to wander about.

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They are so different from their namesakes, a beautiful deep russet colour, and equally adorable.  They shared another characteristic – the ability to drape themselves over a branch and just go to sleep.

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I now understand a bit more what all the fuss is about the giant pandas and their endangered status – they were adorable and even thinking about them makes me smile now.

All the hotels we stayed in in China were modern and luxurious but the Ritz Carlton Hotel  in Chengdu had another wow factor for me.  Our bedroom was on the 41st floor and the ‘entrance’ lobby was on the 25th!

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Not a very big city – only about 18 million people!

Fortunately I am not bothered by heights.  The best amusement was to be had by trying to beat one of the numerous smartly uniformed flunkeys to the buttons in the lift and get to press it for yourself – I think I always failed and they were so friendly and charming.

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Looking down from the 41st floor.

We had some good ‘wandering’ time in Chengdu and as always took to exploring on foot. There are huge numbers of bicycles in China.  Nowadays few are personally owned but instead are for hire from various companies, denoted by the different colours, and accessed using a mobile phone.

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They look very benign in the photo above but en masse on the roads is another game altogether.  Crossing large junctions was terrifying, as when the cars were stopped, bikes, scooters and pedestrians threw themselves into a multi directional melee on what I thought were pedestrian crossings.  We never did fully work out the rules and tried to look inconspicuous when we had a whistle blown at us or a wee red flag waved in our direction.  Colin copied the phrases of air stewards when they give the safety briefing – “please remember annihilation may arrive from behind you” (instead of the position of emergency exits).

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This is a relatively quiet junction.

We loved our short stay in Chengdu and I will never say a cross  word against pandas again.  Next episode – cruising on the Yangtse through the Three Gorges.