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1st May, 2014
Finally we are home again. On the last day we went exploring between the hotel and Tiananman Square and found some interesting old buildings with loads of character selling silks, clothes, jewellery and musical instruments. We also came across demolition sites and new grey brick functional shops lacking the character of the old ones. The pollution levels were rising so it was a good time to get out of Beijing. The taxi to the airport cost 140 yuan (about $23). We flew with Dragon Air to Hong Kong but were a little worried as it was an hour late taking off and we only had a 55 minute window to catch our flight to Sydney. It made up for lost time but we were in the second back row which meant we were the last to get off. We and several others were met by an official who raced us through the airport to what seemed like the other end. This wasn’t before our bags were checked twice. Once on the plane we relaxed but it too was late taking off. We hoped there had been time to get our luggage on board. We caught up on some movies – Twelve Years a Slave, Captain Phillips and The Monuments Men. After breakfast we both watched half of Nebraska which we really enjoyed so we will definitely get the video when we get home.
As we feared, the luggage did not turn up in Sydney. We were assured it would be sent to Wollongong by courier as soon as it arrived. At least we were travelling light! One stop to Wolli Creek, a train to North Wollongong and a Uni shuttle bus to the car park and it was a five minute walk to home.
Monday, 28th April, 2014
We were bright and early for breakfast which was just as well as the lifts were chockablock around 8 o’clock. I asked at the desk for Mrs Zhang, the hotel sales manager who only works Monday to Friday and sure enough, just after 8, she appeared carrying my iPad. We couldn’t use it until the afternoon as it had to be charged.
It was a two hour journey by mini bus to Mutianyu, the section of the Great Wall we were visiting, but the scenery was interesting as the countryside grew more mountainous and the massive tree planting campaign organised by the government was evident. Apparently it is designed to stop the sand from the desert blowing across Beijing in spring. There hasn’t been a bad sand storm for five years according to Xing Xing.
Our first glimpse of the wall was quite exciting. Off the bus and onto a chairlift we were soon heading up the mountainside. Once on the wall we were pinching ourselves to think we were actually there. We had roughly two hours to walk on the wall before going back down the chairlift to eat a Subway lunch. There was also a cable car about 45 minutes walk along the wall and it would have made sense to go back down in that but according to Xing Xing we couldn’t do that because it was a different company. The top of the wall is not flat and we had a considerable number of shallow steps leading up or down from one watchtower to the next. Inside the towers it was lovely and cool as it was hot in the sun outside. I was surprised to see graffiti, especially at the top of one of the towers. Graffiti walls had been set up for people to write on and they were full too.
Near the cable car we turned back to retrace our steps. The queue for the toboggans was huge but as they didn’t encourage people over 60 to use them we happily rode the chairlift back down. The two hour trip back was sleep inducing but we were finally back in our room and ready to connect to the outside world. Annoyingly this hotel does not have wi fi in the rooms. We had to take the iPad down to the 1918 coffee house which has free wi fi if you buy a $10 coffee. The surroundings are beautiful and full of antiques while Charlie Chaplin played on a screen and had us in stitches. John downloaded the Herald to find not much was happening while we were away. I sent some emails and downloaded some (keep sending them please). It’s good to hear from people back home. John complained about the smokers on the balcony and demanded to know when smoking was going to be outlawed in this country.
At 6.30 we opted to join the dinner group so ten of us went to a different restaurant and let Xing Xing order for us. It makes us lazy but we can be sure of a balanced and varied meal at a low price. We had asparagus lettuce julienned and seasoned with sesame oil. I later found it on a fruit stall and will try to get some when I get home. I also liked the bamboo shoots ( not from a can) and the lotus root. Very crunchy. There were meatballs, dumplings, a bubbling hot beef soup and a fiery tofu dish.
A few people came up to our room to look at the view as we can see Tian’anmen Square, the Forbidden City, the War Memorial and Mao’s Mausoleum from our window. Below us is the hotel courtyard and each side are some very run down Hutongs.
Tuesday, 29th April, 2014
Today was the last day of our tour as we will all be going home tomorrow. It was another warm day with a bit more haze than previous days but not enough smog to worry us. It took three quarters of an hour by mini bus to get to the Summer Palace. Our first impression was of massive crowds of people surging from all directions but once inside we were able to find a space to listen to Xing Xing tell us about The Dragon Lady. Having just read a book on Empress Dowager Cixi I was ready to defend her but Xing Xing gave a fairly balanced description of her life except to say that she spent all the money reserved for the navy on renovating the Summer Palace and her leadership was very corrupt. OK, everyone makes mistakes, even divine rulers, so I kept quiet. Beside Lake Kunming is the longest covered walkway in the world, the ceiling of which is decorated with paintings depicting famous books in Chinese history. We could hear a group singing Communist songs with great gusto but could not see them. At the end of the walkway was the stone boat which reflects badly on Cixi because it was built with Naval funding. According to Jung Chang she only used the interest on the money to renovate the Summer Palace. I think she lived to regret this error of judgment, just as Barry O’Farrell and numerous others have done.
A brightly decorated boat took us across the lake after which we walked over a concrete bridge and around an island. It was then time to move on to the Olympic Site. It was quite exciting to see the Birds Nest in reality, not far from The Cube and the most amazing “seven star” hotel built in the shape of a dragon.
For lunch we ate at The Pearl Market. John and I had Subways to give us more time to shop for souvenirs but the sellers were very pushy and asking ridiculous prices. We had to bargain them down to about a tenth of what they were asking and then we still felt they had got the better of us.
Back on the mini bus and we went a short distance to The Temple of Heaven. At least the crowds had thinned a little. This was where the Emperor would go twice a year to offer sacrifices to ensure good weather for crops. The buildings were vividly decorated in various shades of blue and looked spectacular in the sunshine. A number of future brides and grooms were having photos taken. It looks hilarious from the back as they have clothes pinned or bulging open. Only the front matters. I think they hire the clothes but am not sure why they do it.
Tonight we are having our Farewell Peking Duck dinner. Garnet, our Canadian representative is going to make the speech and presentation to Xing Xing. John and I are collecting the money.
Saturday, 26th April, 2014
We are sharing a sleeper berth with Helen and Ian from Rhodes as we rattle towards Beijing. It has been an hilarious evening but back to this morning.
One of the things we really wanted to do was ride around the wall at Xian on bikes. We even brought our helmets with us. It was 50 yuan to go on the wall and another 40 to hire a bike (300 deposit). The bikes had no gears but good shock absorbers for the bumpy paving. We were having a great time when without warning John crossed in front of me and I hit his back wheel. Next minute I was sprawled across the pavement but fortunately had only minor injuries. We are still debating whose fault it was but it was interesting to see the same thing happened to another couple.
I have to admit to having a coffee at Starbucks. I ordered double shots and it was quite drinkable. We had a McDonalds lunch of green wraps with pork or beef and salad. Again quite edible.
The afternoon was spent walking around Xian and getting lost. We finally bought a map and found the Muslim Quarter was not where we thought it was. We had checked out at 2 and stored our luggage in the foyer. John bought a shirt and I bought some night cream from a fire sale. It literally was as some of the boxes were burnt black from a fire. I managed to find a clean box and its contents seem OK.
Just before six we stocked up on noodle boxes, red wine (French), bananas, longans, chips and peanut bars before heading off to the train station with our luggage by bus. At 7.30 we boarded and were rather perplexed as to how we could fit four adults and four big suitcases in such a little space. I am in a top bunk and am pretty comfortable. It feels a bit like a school camp with everyone visiting everyone else to see what their cabin is like, card games raging and lots of laughter. We enjoyed our meal and donned our slippers to visit the three sinks to clean our teeth. The toilet is western style to everyone’s relief. In seven and a half hours we will be in Beijing.
Sunday, 27th April, 2014
The group had varied opinions on the soft sleeper ride. Some didn’t sleep a wink while others found the rocking of the train lulled them off. The train rattled a lot and felt like it had a flat tyre but it was certainly preferable to 11 hours in the air. Although we woke at 5.30, the loud musical wake up call didn’t start until 6.30 and at 7 we pulled into Beijing Station.
What!!!! This could not be Beijing. The sun was shining, the sky was blue with only a haze above the horizon. Where was the choking pollution? We are keeping fingers crossed the clear, sunny weather will continue for the next two days.
As we could not check into our rooms at the Dong Fang Hotel, it being only 8 o’clock in the morning, we left our luggage and looked around the building. Built in 1918, the original hotel was luxurious in its heyday. There is a lovely courtyard at the rear overlooked by rooms with semicircular balconies. A new high rise was added to it more recently which is where our room is situated on the 11th floor.
It was off to Tian’an Men Square for us in a crowded local bus. The masses of people swarming around had to be seen to be believed. Mao’s Mausoleum is on one side but the queues to get in there were horrendous. Finally we entered the Forbidden City. It has been extremely well restored in some parts with others left in more original condition. What amazed us was the fact that the first building in the Forbidden City led to another massive courtyard and another and another and then more. It seemed endless and definitely exceeded expectations. There were whole buildings devoted to choosing concubines or for the Emperor to prepare a speech. Just incredible in scale.
Getting back on a public bus proved tricky. They were all crowded but eventually we found one with enough space for 16 squashed tourists and one guide.
Thankfully we took our room keys, showered and had a late lunch at a nearby restaurant. As usual it was delicious with meat balls, sizzling duck, eggplant stir fry, prawns with shallot. I’m still not sick of Chinese food.
A sleep this afternoon restored our energy. Some who missed lunch had dinner at 5.30. We planned to have it at 8.30 after the Acrobatic Show. It was a short walk to the theatre where we had VIP seats. The acts came one after the other and were all highly skilled. The strength of the men supporting the full weight of another man on an arm or a leg was amazing. Ten women on a bicycle looked impossible and as for five motorbikes roaring around inside a steel sphere we held our breath wondering how they didn’t collide.
We returned to the same restaurant where we had lunch. There were only five of us so we had four plates of food chosen by Xing Xing. Again delicious and cost was about $4.50 each.
Tomorrow we will drive two hours to The Great Wall.
Friday, 25th April, 2014
No mention of Anzac Day here but we certainly had a full day. A bus picked us up after breakfast to take us to the Terracotta Warriors. Would you believe it was 8 degrees here and raining while Beijing is basking in 25 degrees? Anyway we were wearing our warmest clothes and not too worried because we knew the warriors were under cover. What we didn’t know is that there are three pits to visit plus the museum so there was a fair bit of outdoor walking to do. The first pit was the largest and we were keen to get a good view of the infantrymen in their rows. So were hundreds of others so it was the quick and the dead to get a space beside the railing. It was interesting to see the site of the well where three men were digging when they found the first warrior. The first warrior was still in a broken condition because it was decided to leave him that way. Even more exciting was the existence of the very man who found the first pottery fragments in March 1974. He was there, signing books so I had to buy one. The army is 2,200 years old and is 1.5 kilometres from Emperor Qin’s mausoleum. He was worried about dying and was searching for the secret to immortality. Just in case he prepared on a massive scale for the afterlife and all his concubines, wives and workmen went with him when he died at the age of 49. It is thought he was taking Mercury to prolong life but alas it had the opposite effect.
One of our party of 16 did not make it to the rendezvous point so Xing Xing took us to pit 3 and went back to look for her. Pit 3 is the smallest pit, known as the command centre and was discovered in 1976. We then moved on to pit 2 where there were some close up views of various soldiers and officers. By this time Xing Xing had found the lost group member and we headed across to the museum. Again this was very interesting. I especially liked the bronze chariots pulled by four horses, the second of which looked like a 2000 year old caravan.
Xing Xing offered us lunch at Subway or a warm meal in a farmhouse. 8 opted for the former especially when they were told they could eat it in the farmhouse. John and I opted for the hot meal which was home cooked style and very tasty and fresh. Mr Yung lived on a farm which became part of the Warriors Museum Complex so his old house was knocked down and he was was given a new one. Fortunately it wasn’t in an apartment block. He now finds cooking meals more lucrative than farming. It cost us $8 a head.
We had a rest in our room after the hour long trip back to Xian. Our hotel has seen better days but the rooms are big, beds comfy and showers hot. We had a minor problem of no cold water for an hour this morning but otherwise it’s fine. Almost every hotel has had free internet, unlike Sydney.
At 5.15 we met for a walk to the bell tower, the drum tower and the Muslim Quarter. The last of these was fascinating with a huge variety of food bring cooked on the footpaths outside the shops. We tried a date filled persimmon cake. Delicious!
Next we hopped on a local bus to take us two stops to the Shaanxi Grand Opera House. Because we had had quite a big lunch John and I opted to share the 16 courses of dumplings on offer before the show. They were delicious and accompanied by rice wine, beer and tea. The only problem was Ian in our group caught his finger on a chair and sliced the top off it. His wife had her first aid kit but he was in pain and will have to watch out for infection. You just don’t need that to happen on a holiday.
Xing Xing had only been able to get us C grade seats but they were fine. The show was entertaining although obviously geared to the Western Tourist market. There was a mixture of orchestra and dancing supposedly from the Tang Dynasty but there were a few modern instruments thrown in, probably for the better as many of the Chinese instruments are strident and hard on the ears. The percussion was great but the dance of the masked warriors designed to expel epidemics and ghosts was my favourite.
Two bus stops and we were home. We’ll need a good sleep tonight as tomorrow night we will be
spending 12 hours in a sleeper train with two other (as yet unknown) people on the way to Beijing.
Monday, April 21st, 2014
We are sitting at Chengdu Railway Station waiting for our fast train which will take us to Chingqing and ultimately the river boat called the Blue Whale. We have been told the bus picking us up at the other end will stop at a supermarket so we can get snacks for the boat.
This morning we drove for about 40 minutes to the Panda Research Station. The first sighting amongst the trees caused great excitement but eventually we saw big ones, mothers, babies and adolescents. They are very cute but not very good at breeding so need a lot of help. The arrow bamboo they eat is very specialised so much of the bamboo in the park was for decoration and keeping it cool. They have air conditioned living quarters for vey hot days. Before we left we saw a film on the life cycle of the panda. There were some Wendy Wu tour groups there as well so I thought of all our WW friends.
The train is now travelling at 156 kph (was doing 196). Little settlements growing rice in terraces are flashing by. Now and again 20 or 30 high rise buildings just appear and then we go back to small farms.
I’m now in the cabin of the Blue Whale. The bed is firm but I think it will be OK. I haven’t come across a bed I couldn’t sleep on in China. Our outlook is across the jetty which is not very attractive but we will be moving away later in the evening. It has been wet and grey so we were pleased when Xing Xing told us the luggage would be carried aboard by porters. There were a considerable number of steps to negotiate and we kept looking at each boat to see if it was ours. We were joking that some of the dreadful looking boats were ours but we seem to be on a reasonably new one. We had to book dinner for tonight as it is not included. We have chosen sweet and sour pork for eight o’clock as we have a meeting at 7.30.
At our seven thirty meeting we had a masseur and a Chinese doctor giving us each a massage. The doctor told me I had a problem with my neck affecting my leg and he suggested massage and acupuncture. Hmmmmm. I think I agree with him but will wait until I get home.
Dinner was ordinary. I can do much better sweet and sour pork myself. Let’s hope the food improves tomorrow. We watched the amazing city lights of Chongqing as the boat pulled away from the jetty.
Tuesday, 22nd April, 2014
We travelled for seven hours to Fengdu overnight. If we had gone by train it would have taken an hour and a half but that is not the point. Our local guide lived in the new city of Fengdu across the river but we could hardly see it for mist and rain. To get to the shore we walked through another boat and up and down lots of ramps. Then there were steps (legs are out of practice) and into a long golf buggy. Finally we arrived at Ming Shan and the City of Ghosts. As it is on a mountain it didn’t get drowned by the rising water. The temples have been restored and are now a tourist Mecca. It is all about the afterworld ruled by Tianzi. One waxworks display depicted all the tortures one can expect to face if one doesn’t lead a good life. There were a number of tests we had to do such as walking over a bridge hand in hand. This ensures that John and I will be together in the afterlife and for 20 yuan we have a photograph to prove it. One final test was to balance on one foot on a round stone but we avoided the photographer that time.
Wednesday 23rd April, 2014
Life on board the Blue Whale is comfortable. I spent the morning eating breakfast (all we are having is cereal, fruit and toast although the choice is immense). There are 20 Western tourists on the boat and 190 Chinese. We were advised to get to brekkie early as the food just disappears as if a swarm of locusts has arrived. We then saw a video of the Three Gorges and the dam although it was made before the dam was finished in 2009. We can see the high water mark where the winter level is. I also finished one book and started another from the boat library.
Around 11.00 am we entered the QuTang Gorge which the newsletter described as the most Splendid. We stood on the roof deck of the boat and got blown to bits. After lunch we entered Wu Gorge, the most Elegant. I was happy to view this from my cabin. The Goddess Stream Boat Excursion took us in little yellow roofed boats up a steep sided valley with a coffin secured in a cave high on the cliff. To out surprise we saw a boat cleaning up the rubbish floating in the water. Later we saw it dumping the rubbish below the high water level so come next winter it will all wash back into the river. The local guide shrugged and said there was nowhere else to put it. When we could no longer go any further we stepped onto a floating pontoon. A man dressed in a blue costume was playing a trumpet like instrument which sounded like the bagpipes only worse. Next thing all the Chinese tourists were in a circle dancing. I felt I was watching modern Chinese culture. A few women my age were having fun throwing rocks and sweets at a lizard. Xing Xing said they were educated in a time where science was more important than morality. Maybe Mao didn’t care for lizards?
Tonight was the farewell banquet but the food on board has been very ordinary. Kerryn made it to dinner so we sang happy birthday one day late. She is only eating rice. A glass of sherry was beside each plate but John wouldn’t drink his. He has taken a strong dislike to Dynasty and Great Wall wines. We have been drinking a French red in our room which is quite nice.
The Blue Whale Talent Show took place at 8.15pm. We recognised our table waitress as one of the dancers and were impressed by the voice of the head of the dining room. It was a lot of fun, ending in a chicken dance we were forced to join, followed by a Congo line. The macerina was starting as we made our escape.
Thursday 24th April, 2014
We are waiting at Yichang Railway Station for our fast train to Wuhan. Today we will have been travelling by boat, bus, train and plane. At 12.08 am we were woken by the sound of the first lock. Looking out from our balcony we saw a coal barge next to us. Together we dropped as the water drained away. I saw the gates open and then went to bed but was woken many times by strange noises. In the morning we were up at a quarter to six. I had to return my library book unfinished so I’ll never know what happened.
Fortunately our tipping kitty started in Shanghai paid off the various staff members on the boat. We were soon on a bus to view the Three Gorges Dam, the locks and the not yet completed small boat transporter. Our guide, Sean, was very entertaining, starting with a rap sending up the cruise boat. In two weeks he will be leaving his job with the Dam Authority and taking rich Chinese tourists to Europe for shopping trips. All the guides work very hard and try to work their way up the ladder to more travel and better pay. They mainly seem to be university educated and speak quite good English.
Later: the train trip of two hours passed quickly with typical Chinese scenery of paddy fields and small villages. Our plane was delayed by 45 minutes and after landing it was an hour’s drive to our hotel near the city wall in Xian. Just as well we had a large lunch as the only dinner was a chicken burger on the plane which was pretty awful. It is now after 11.00 pm so I’ll try to send this and go to bed.