Wednesday, 10 November 2010

China: the whole story! (Part 2)

So - now we were in Chengdu - another major Chinese city. Like the others we'd visited, it was busy, vibrant and modern: frantic traffic (bikes as well as cars etc!), sky-scraper buildings, and - most surprisingly to us - the shops were crowded with people spending their money on expensive consumer goods, especially clothes.

The pic shows a typical scene of cyclists crossing a busy junction!

From Chengdu we had a day-trip to Leshan where we took a boat trip to view the Grand Buddha carved into the river bank. You can see how massive it is, from the relative size of the people in this picture!

But for many of us, the Panda Centre was the highlight of our time in Chengdu. It was wonderful to see the pandas so close-up - and to see how well looked-after they are. The Chengdu Panda Centre is the world centre for panda breeding, and it was amazing to see the tiny, tiny baby pandas being cared for in the nursery - lying in incubators on pink or blue blankets like little premature human babies. We weren't allowed to take photos of those, though, sadly.

From Chengdu, we flew to Guilin, and the next day we had a lovely cruise on the Li River, from Guilin to Yangshuo. The scenery on the Li was spectacular, made even more atmospheric by the weather, which was misty and drizzly. The main feature of the scenery in this area is the strange shaped Karst hills - formed from weathered limestone.

We returned to Guilin by coach the next day, and had the opportunity to see some countryside around the Yangshuo area - rice paddies, water buffalo, and people working in the fields.

That evening at Guilin was spent watching the fishermen on the River Li, fishing with cormorants. You might have seen this in a TV advert! Some people think it's cruel because the cormorants have their necks tied so that they can't swallow the fish they catch - but they are untied afterwards and fed some fish from the catch. And (although I'm vegetarian and detest fish in particular!) I don't suppose it's any less kind to the birds than it is to the fish! The only negative, for us, was that the fishing we saw was just a display for the tourists. I'm sure that when they do it for a living, they choose quieter places on the river, don't have two boatfuls of tourists taking photos, and catch a lot more fish!
Before leaving Guilin the next day, we climbed Brocade Hill for a view over the city and surrounding hills.

Then we took our final internal flight - to Shanghai, and transferred by coach to Suzhou, 'The Garden City'. Here we had a cruise on the canal, seeing the old part of the town, before visiting the two famous gardens, strangely named The Master of the Nets Garden and the Humble Administrator's Garden! The latter was the bigger, and was very beautiful - with all the usual Chinese garden features of bridges, pagodas and lakes, as well as plants and trees including Bonsai trees.

We returned to Shanghai by coach the next day, and spent our final three days there. It was quite a relief to be in one place for three days after all the travelling! And there was so much to see in Shanghai, which was of course even busier and more modern and vibrant than any of the other cities!

As well as visiting the museum and spending time at the famous riverside area (The Bund), we went to the top of the Jinmao Centre Tower to enjoy the views over the city, and also had a ride on the amazing new Maglev train - it runs at incredibly high speed by magnetism! (Sorry, I don't understand the physics - but it was certainly fast!).

We also had an evening cruise on the Huangpu River to admire the night scenery.

The last day of our tour was 1st October - which was the beginning of the Chinese National Holiday - lasting a whole week. This meant the city was even more crowded with tourists than usual, because people from outlying parts of China came to spend their holidays in Shanghai (especially as the Expo exhibition was taking place). Some of these Chinese nationals from more rural areas obviously weren't used to seeing Western tourists, and we got plenty of attention from people staring and laughing at us (good-naturedly, but very openly!) and even taking photos of us. Apparently the Chinese refer to Western people as 'Big Noses' or 'Long Noses' - because of the obvious difference in our facial features! Those of us with fair hair, and those who were particularly tall, got the most attention. I began to wish I'd taken some of my business cards with me to hand out ('Yes, you can take my photo. Did you know I'm an author'?)!
The crowds made it quite difficult to move around: the sea of people in the main shopping areas was quite intimidating, especially as so many of them carry umbrellas - both when it's raining, and when it's sunny. We were glad the timing of our tour had avoided the rest of the National Holiday!

Nevertheless we enjoyed the whole tour and would definitely recommend it - and also the tour company we used (Wendy Wu Tours). Our tour guide Maggie was absolutely fantastic - she was with us for the whole three weeks and as well as giving us so much information, she looked after us like a little mother hen, especially when people were sick (unfortunately, about 90% of our group caught a nasty virus, some being more ill than others). The tour was very good value for money, including three meals every day and the hotels we stayed in were all good.

Would I go back? Probably not, as I feel that I've seen everything I wanted to see, and there are lots of other places in the world I'd still like to see, (given the time, health and money!). If you want to visit China - I'd say go sooner rather than later, as it will only become more crowded, more expensive, and more tourism-driven as they become an even bigger world power.

Sunday, 7 November 2010

China: the whole story! (Part 1)

Some of you asked me to tell you more about our tour of China. I've waited till now, as it took me a long time to go through the hundreds of photos we took ... and having chosen the best ones, I made them into a photobook which has now been delivered. So, with my book open in front of me to remind me of everything we did and saw, I can now take you through the tour and show you some more pics!

We started off in Beijing. It was mid-September and very hot - about 35 degrees - but most of the time it was overcast. This is a feature of the weather there, because of the pollution apparently.
However we did see some sunshine on our first day, visiting the Temple of Heaven

and then the Forbidden City.

Everywhere was very crowded. Tourism in China has become very popular during the last few years - not just with overseas visitors but also Chinese people, now they are becoming more affluent, wanting to see the sights for themselves.
One exception was Tiananmen Square, which is so huge it didn't seem crowded! There's very heavy security in the square, police very conspicuous, and our guide told us that no discussion of (as they refer to it) the 'incident' in 1989 is allowed.

One of the most striking things, was the cleanliness everywhere: not a scrap of litter, no graffiti anywhere. (Our tour guide was bemused when we asked about graffiti - she couldn't understand what it was). I'm sure there would be very heavy penalties for litter dropping!

On the second day in Beijing we visited the Great Wall of China. There are apparently several places where the Wall can be accessed from the Beijing area, so I don't know how they compare in terms of difficulty etc. We started out early, with the aim of beating the crowds - and I certainly wouldn't have liked to be there later in the day! - as in places where the steps were narrow, there was quite a bit of pushing and shoving through the crowds. This is another feature of life in China which surprised us, by the way: the people are so very polite in so many ways, and yet we were shocked by the way they push and shove! - not caring who is elbowed out of the way, old or young, man or woman. I guess it comes from living in such crowded cities but I was nearly knocked over on several occasions, finding it hard to stand my ground and push back!

The average age of our tour group was probably 60+, and our guide warned us to take the climb steadily and not go further than we could manage. The steps up the Wall were uneven and many were steep. I'm normally reasonably fit but had a bit of a bad back at the time, so didn't climb right to the top.
Himself went on ... only to turn back soon, saying the view wasn't much better from the top because of the cloud/mist.

Nevertheless it was an impressive sight and an experience I wouldn't have wanted to miss.

Later that day we were taken to the old area of Beijing (the Hutong), where we were driven around on a rickshaw. I just felt sorry for the guys pedalling the bikes. We're not particularly massive people but bigger than most Chinese! - and pulling the weight of two of us must have been really hard work. Of course, this was all laid on specifically for the tourists, including a visit to a 'typical' home. I felt a little uncomfortable as we all crowded into this lady's tiny house and nosed around ... but I suppose she is being well paid for opening her home to the likes of us.

The third day in Beijing, we visited the Summer Palace. It's situated in lovely gardens on a lake, which made a nice contrast from the crowded city streets. Later we were taken to see the Olympic Village - and in the evening, saw a very impressive acrobatic show. There were several shows during the course of our trip - some included in the schedule, others 'optional extras', and all were different and definitely worth seeing.

From Beijing, we flew to Xian, famous for the Terracotta Warriors. This was definitely a highlight. I'd seen photos, of course, and had naively believed that when the warriors were first discovered, they'd looked exactly the way they do now - but no, they were lying in pieces and have been painstakingly put together ... a process that's still ongoing. The ranks of completed warriors in the pits is an absolutely amazing sight. Every one's face is different! The hairstyles and various features indicate their rank. I particularly liked the cavalry men, and the kneeling archers which are preserved under glass in the museum.

We had a hot sunny afternoon for our stroll on Xian city walls, which are decorated with all manner of flamboyant animal and flower illuminations: I'd like to have seen it at night. We also visited the Muslim quarter of Xian, including the Great Mosque which was a peaceful oasis in the city.

On the last morning in Xian -which happened to be our Ruby anniversary! - we visited the Little Wild Goose pagoda - again, set in beautiful gardens. The Chinese love their parks and public gardens by the way - because most of them live in apartment blocks in the cities and don't have any open space of their own. We were astonished by the crowds of people in all the parks, often doing tai-chi or impromptu line-dancing or keep-fit in big groups! They also sit in the parks to play mah-jong or cards, to chat together, knit or play music together. Our guide explained that the retirement age is 55 and retired people enjoy their social lives in the parks, which benefits their physical and mental health.

That afternoon, we took our next flight, to Wuhan, and from there we had a long coach journey to the beginning of our Yangtse River cruise.
We boarded our boat in the evening. Himself and I had decided to splash out on an upgraded cabin - as it was a special occasion - and the facilities and comfort on the boat were very good. We spent three days on the Yangtse; each morning there was a shore excursion, and the afternoons were spent resting on the boat, watching the scenery, which was quite a pleasant break in an otherwise hectic schedule!

The first morning, we visited the Three Gorges Dam, which was an impressive sight, probably far more interesting to those with technical minds (!).

But the next day's trip was more up my street - a cruise to the Shennong stream (a tributary of the Yangtse), where we were 'loaded' onto 'pea-pod' boats and rowed along the stream by a team of very strong guys (again, I felt sorry for them!). The scenery was lovely and we enjoyed such things as the music of a pipe being played by a goat-herd on the bank of the stream ... until we were told that he was actually a government employee who was there purely as a tourist attraction! There was quite a lot of this kind of thing!

The final trip on the Yangtse cruise was to the riverside town of Fengdu, known as the City of Ghosts, where the many shrines and statues depict judgement day and the tortures of hell. Actually a lot nicer than it sounds!! This was a drizzly day, and as the ghost city was at the top of a mountain we went up there by cable car rather than walking up in the rain. That afternoon, it rained properly for the first time, putting an end to our afternoons of sunbathing on the boat! The weather became much more unsettled after this, with less heat and some showery days.
We ended the cruise at Chongqing, another huge Chinese city and major port, from where we were driven to Chengdu for the next part of our tour. Which seems a good place to pause ...

To be continued!