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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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.

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.

Xi’an to Chengdu and the Adorable Pandas

January 17, 2018

After the awesomeness of the Terracotta Warriors we had another few experiences before leaving Xi’an.  Firstly we visited Daxingshan Temple, a huge layout of Buddhist temples.

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Daxingshan Temple, Xi’an

We had a very bubbly, friendly guide here who rattled through the formal history part of the tour and rushed us through into a display of exquisite calligraphy and watercolour paintings – all for sale, of course, at extortionate prices (way beyond my holiday spending budget).

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This photograph shows only a tiny section of the marble and jade plaques completely covering the walls of one room.  I think this was a fairly recent addition and cost a colossal amount of money.  The staff in the ‘tourist tat’ emporium here were particularly pushy.

A quick change of religion for our next visit – to the Great Mosque and Muslim area.  Now, we have had the privilege of visiting a number of important mosques in various countries over the years – the biggest, the oldest, the most ornate, the most expensive etc etc but I was taken aback by the architecture of a Chinese mosque; very different, so …. Chinese.

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Entrance to the Great Mosque, Xi’an

This the largest mosque in China was established in 742, then rebuilt in the Qing dynasty and heavily restored.  The next photograph shows clearly it is a worshipping mosque like any other.

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The grounds and walkways surrounding the buildings were a beautiful calm oasis after the clamour of the sales orientated Buddhists and before the noisy, brash scenes of the surrounding streets lined with food stalls.

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The smells were wonderful and very tempting but we stuck to our self imposed rule of not eating from street vendors – not that either of us has a particularly sensitive digestive system but better to be safe than sorry.

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The next one looks like a singer in a dodgy sixties night club (now how do I know that?). At a quick glance his food looks a wee bit like worms but I think it was some sort of corn or maize snacks, a bit like Twiglets.

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We were saving our appetites because that night we were going to the Shanxi Chinese Opera after a ‘dumpling meal’.  The meal was a bit surreal, being conducted entirely in mandarin, so we had no idea what we were doing.  We sat alone at a very large circular table where we were joined half way through the meal by an Australian couple.  A ‘school dinner lady’ brought us a seemingly never ending stream of baskets of steaming dumplings.  The server would rattle of the names of the dumplings and swiftly depart.  At first we thought we had to eat up all the half dozen or so offerings but after the third or fourth ‘delivery’ we slowed down and became more selective.  Some of the dumplings were delicious, others less appetising.

When the stream of food stopped we were ushered downstairs to the theatre.

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The auditorium was set out with tables and chairs rather than rows of seating.  The place was full of Chinese holidaymakers who had obviously had their meal there rather in the school dining room upstairs.  We were shown to a small table near the back.

The show was very colourful and slick but I would have loved some sort of explanation of what was going on.  I do not apologise for the number of photographs in this section – it was all very picturesque.

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The Chinese people surrounding us in the audience were a bit distracting – chatting amongst themselves, moving about and all holding their mobile phones above their heads to take photographs.  At times they were as interesting as the colourful scenes on stage.

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Altogether our short visit to Xi’an was an absolute kaleidoscope of sights, sounds, colours, tastes and smells.  As well as all the iconic tourist attractions we also managed a few hours of simply strolling about soaking up the atmosphere of ordinary life going on around us.  Then it was only a short plane hop to our next stop at the city of Chengdu.  This post has gone on long enough so I will save the ‘adorable pandas’ for the next one.

Beijing to Xi’an and the Terracotta Army

December 8, 2017

To get to the ancient imperial capital of Xi’an we chose to travel on the incredibly fast bullet train.  It was very slick and efficient and the six hour journey was comfortable.  I had been looking forward to viewing the Chinese countryside but a combination of grey misty weather and the speed of travel reduced that possibility.  Our fellow passengers were intriguing to watch and we did see a number of huge cities as the train slowed through their suburbs.

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Fast train to Xi’an

The strange weather continued for the short time we spent in Xi’an.  It was not too cold but the tops of the huge skyscrapers disappeared in the mist.  I think this was a meteorological condition rather than the pollution we had expected.  My throat and lungs never felt irritated.

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Throughout our stay in China it was obvious that it was compulsory for the guides to take us to large ‘official tourist’ shops.  In Xi’an this resulted in the odd experience of having to traipse through a vast emporium selling replica Terracotta Warriors in all sizes before we had visited the real thing.

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The American tourist’s hat gives the game away that these are not the real thing.

Difficult to pack but would have made a ‘talking point’ garden ornament.  The shop also sold lacquered furniture, silk carpets, calligraphy banners and paintings.  Some of the goods were very beautiful but we did not come to China to shop.  At last we arrived at the site of the Terracotta Army, those iconic and mysterious soldiers who have been guarding the tomb of Qin Shi Huang for nearly 2,500 years.

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The elderly gentleman in the middle above is Yang Zhifa who first came across the multitude of statues in 1974 when he was digging a well on his family farm.  Now retired on a government pension he drops into the Museum shop for photo ops with visitors.

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The Terracotta Warriors

They are such an awesome sight in real life – all lined up in this enormous building which has been built over and around them.  You can’t make out either the visitors or the soldiers at the far end as they are so far away.

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The statues were arranged in great columns, four abreast in deep pits separated by thick, rammed earth walls.  Then ‘roofs’ of logs were laid across on top.  In the picture above you can see the regular indents on the tops of the walls where these were fitted.

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Horses in amongst the warriors.

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The army was set up in battle formation with a vanguard at the front.  All the men are facing the same way except for a line down both flanks where they look outwards.

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The old photograph above was on display in the adjoining museum and shows some of the very early excavation work.  The photograph below is of an area where the 3D jigsaws of shattered statues are being meticulously reassembled.

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A continuing work in progress.

There is a much smaller pit with about 70 statues and it is now thought that this is the ‘command centre’ for the army.

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Charioteers, the one on the left would be holding reins.

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There is still a huge amount of work to be done as can be seen above, in some of the trenches the soldiers are no longer intact or indeed standing upright.  But why are these amazing sculptures here?

It is all down to Qin Shi Huang who has been designated the first Emperor of China.  Qin lived from 259 BC – 210 BC and has left a very mixed legacy.  Setting aside the incredible ‘army’, he had a profound influence on the newly formed ‘country’ of China, causing huge cultural and and intellectual growth and also much destruction.

From my guide book – “In order to consolidate the nascent empire, Qin Shi Huang reformed politics, economy and culture.  In politics, he abolished the hereditary vassal enfeoffment  system and established prefectures and counties, ruled directly by the emperor.  Based on the original rules of the Qin State, the emperor adopted some regulations of other rival states to form a workable law of the Qin Dynasty.  In economy, he claimed that both the agriculture and commerce were very important.  Besides, tax systems began to function and coinage and metrology were all standardised.  In culture, the emperor unified the Chinese characters in writing, which promoted the development of culture.  However, he also surpassed scholars who were not to his liking.”

Another very notable, and very visible ‘artefact’ Qin left was that his early defensive wall building in the north of the country turned out to be the start of the Great Wall of China.

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Kneeling archer

Particularly good examples of individual warriors are displayed in the museum.  Amazingly each of the statues is different.  The bodies and arms are all made from a small set of moulds but each head and the adornment details were added by sculptors.  The detail is amazing – the hairstyles, complete with braiding, the moustaches, and buckles and bows on higher ranks.

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Kneeling archer from behind – note the tread pattern on the sole of his shoe.

The next example is a high ranking officer, one of 7 ‘generals’ found – defined by his double layered robe decorated with many bows, his ornate headgear tied with a bow under his chin and shoes with turned up toes.

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Near to the main pit was found a series of beautiful bronze carriages and horses.  These are half size models of the deluxe sedans used by Emperor Qin when he made inspection tours.  It took decades of painstaking work to re-assemble the shattered remains.

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In his later years Qin became paranoid and feared death.  His doctors and scholars were frantically helping him in his search for the elixir of immortality when, ironically, he died as the result of imbibing mercury in one of their experiments.  At the same time Qin  had been building his immense mausoleum almost since he took control (some think it is ‘city size’).  The site of the mausoleum is known but there is continuing debate as to how this should be explored / opened.  Test probes have revealed that there are abnormally high levels of mercury, possibly as much as 100 times the normal.

The awesome Terracotta Army I had the privilege to view, and, I hope to have described to you, were put in place over 2,000 years ago to guard Emperor Qin from the evil spirits in the afterlife.  He didn’t achieve immortality in the recognised human understanding of that word but he did leave an amazing legacy in historical terms.



Tiananmen Square to the Great Wall

November 21, 2017

At each of the important sites we visited in China we had a local guide.  They were quite different personalities, all spoke excellent English, were knowledgeable and caring, and firmly stuck to the ‘party line’.  This was quite noticeable in our ‘compulsory’ rickshaw ride and visit to the Hutongs in Beijing.

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No one but gullible western tourists would ever ride in a rickshaw in the shiny, polluted mega metropolis that is modern Beijing.  The estimated population is about 22 million but both Shanghai and Chongqing have even more people.

The enjoyable bit about this mode of transport was going down the narrow little alleyways of the Hutong area and catching a glimpse of even narrower passages to the side.

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The name Hutong is thought to come from an ancient Mongol term for a passageway and in modern Beijing, as most have been bulldozed to make way for apartment blocks and shopping malls, they are desirable areas to live in for aspirational yuppies.  Where we visited there was a brand new Chinese flag (still with the folds visible) flying beside every doorway – possibly for the imminent, and hugely important, 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China.

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I would have loved to see behind these austere grey walls, but our ‘Gok Wan look alike’ guide hustled us on to our compulsory ‘home visit’.  This turned out to be a demonstration of painting inside snuff bottles in a very strange ‘house’.  The work of the woman artist was very, very beautiful but the setting was no more a normal house than the high tech, luxury hotel we were staying in.  I didn’t take any photographs because I always feel very uncomfortable in situations like this – intrusive and voyeuristic, although it was an opportunity for the painter  to sell her work.

Equally intriguing was the time we spent on our own visiting Tiananmen Square.

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The vastness of Tiananmen Square

Colin was very keen to get here as he last visited it nearly twenty years ago when in Beijing on business.  ‘Gok’ wasn’t very happy and tried to put us off with predictions of the hours long queue to get through security but we went on our own anyway.  Security was particularly strict as it was only a few days before the big Party Congress.  We thought we were going to be thwarted as we realised that, as well as bags being scanned and pat downs, everyone’s ID was being checked and we didn’t have our passports on us.  Eventually, after a lot of smiling,  our UK photo Driving Licences were accepted as suitable ID.  The wait was only about 15 minutes and provided an up close people watching opportunity.  It is definitely not true that all Chinese look alike.

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Monument to the People’s Heroes

This huge granite monument, with carvings of key patriotic and revolutionary events, is plonked right in the middle of the square but is quite dwarfed by the vast empty space all around.  Everything was so big I find it difficult to estimate how many other people were there – 99% of them Chinese tourists.

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Tiananmen Square

If you are going to have a vase of flowers why not have a big one – no idea what this was about.

The gate of Heavenly Peace (Tiananmen) was once the main entrance to the Forbidden City but is now known world wide as the place where the iconic enormous portrait of Mao Zedong hangs. If you are as old as me you will know him as Mao Tse-Tung.

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From this angle you can’t see the six lane highway, lined with barriers, between the people and the Tiananmen Gate.  For me the next photograph sums up my confused picture of China and her people today ….

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… a vast open space, controlling barriers, ancient 15th century building, portrait of a still revered despot and a young man riding the equivalent of a ‘Boris’ bike whilst taking a ‘selfie’.

The last day of our time in Beijing was spent visiting the Great Wall of China – just as awesome but in a different way.  My reaction was as so often previously when I have had the privilege to visit very famous places  (eg Moai Statues on Easter Island) – no amount of prior knowledge, photos and articles studied, documentaries watched, etc could prepare me for the ‘standing on the spot’ experience.

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The Great Wall of China at Mutianyu, near Beijing

The section we visited was at Mutianyu, a 3.5 mile long restored section which is about 90 minutes drive from central Beijing.  There is a very slick system of organising the huge numbers of tourists who visit here every day of the year – multi storey car park, pleasant walk through area of new tourist restaurants and souvenir  shops, managed queuing for the shuttle bus, efficient ticketing and then an exhilarating 6 minute chair lift to get up onto the ridge where the wall is built.  My heart sank when I saw the scale of the infrastructure but up on the Wall it never felt crowded.

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From my guide book : “The Wall wasn’t built in one go.  Rather, there are four distinct Walls.  Work on the ‘original’ began during the Qin dynasty (221-207 BC), when hundreds of thousands of workers laboured for ten years to construct it.  Work continued during the Han dynasty (206 BC – AD 220) but it took the impending threat of Genghis Khan to spur further construction in the Jin dynasty (1115-1234).  The Wall’s final incarnation, the one we see today, came during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), when it was re-inforced  with stone, brick and battlements over a period of 100 years.”

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At Mutianyu the Wall switchbacks along a spectacular ridge making some very steep steps in places but also affording beautiful views over the woodland below and to the far distant soaring peaks.

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The enormous Chinese characters marked on the distant hillside say ‘loyalty to Chairman Mao’.  I loved walking on this tiny section of the 8851 kilometre long  Wan Li Changcheng – the Great Wall.  In spite of this awesome length it is a myth that the structure can be seen from outer space.

Again from my guide book : “Despite being home to around one million soldiers, the great irony of the Wall is that it rarely stopped China’s enemies from invading.  It was never one continuous structure; there were inevitable gaps and it was through those that Genghis Khan rode in to take Beijing in 1215.  Nor could the Wall stop the Manchus sweeping down from what is now northeasters China and overthrowing the Ming dynasty in 1644.”  Nowadays the Walls infamy encourages a new invading horde – tourists.

In the next episode – a bullet train to the ancient capital, Xi’an, and the Tarracotta Warriors.