China 13: Chengdu and Sichuan Opera

Sunday, April 20, 2014

As we left Shanghai for the airport we all thought we would have liked a few more days to get to know the place better. Flying out of Pudong Airport we saw a different part of town. The maglev ran along beside us but it seems to have been dropped from the tour to the disappointment of some. It was a three hour flight to Chengdu during which we had a passable lunch and a sleep.

Chengdu was quite amazing. Most of the buildings date from the 1980s to the present and look like each architect was trying to outdo all the others. Like all the other cities we have seen the streets are lined with trees, hedges and flowers. It really makes the city appealing. Our hotel, The Garden City Hotel, looked run down from the outside but it is central and the rooms are better than the exterior.

Xing Xing asked anyone who wanted a Sichuan meal to come with her. Those with sensitive stomachs could go to a nearby bakery. We went for the Sichuan and enjoyed the different food. We had dumplings with meat inside, rolls with holes in them which we filled with meat and chilli, tofu, vegetables such as beans and cauliflower liberally seasoned with Sechuan peppers. My tongue was numb but it was very tasty. Six of us opted to go to the Shu Feng Ya Yun Teahouse for a performance of Sichuan opera and traditional folk performances. Along with Xing Xing we caught a local bus for 2 yuan to the Chengdu Culture Park. It is a beautifully restored row of extremely elaborate buildings. Once inside we were seated beside tea and snacks but were also asked to view the actors dressing for the performance. We photographed them putting on makeup and costumes. The performance went for an hour and a half and was a mixture of opera, hand shadow puppets, large stick puppets, slapstick comedy, acrobatics and musical instrument playing. After the show was over Xing Xing found us two taxis to get back to the hotel. It was good to have done something other than just fly from A to B today.

China 12: Shanghai and Zhouzhuang

Friday, 18th April, 2014

This morning we arrived at breakfast rather late and had great difficulty finding a seat. The choice of food was much greater than we have been used to but we miss the peace and quiet of our Yunnan meals. Shanghai (population the same as the whole of Australia) is certainly an interesting place and a very walkable city although we used the metro in the evening to get to the “bottle opener”. This was quite an experience and felt like we were on the set of a sci fi movie. The building is actually the Chinese International Trade Centre and is 100 stories high. When we first arrived we could see Shanghai clearly but later we were enveloped in cloud.

A strange thing happened at the Yu Gardens. A woman said my name and asked if I wanted some tea as it was included on my entry ticket. I was wary of tea scams and little spooked by the fact she knew my name. After I came out of the toilets she said my name again and took us to a room lined with tea and a low table with chairs. I knew I would be forced to buy tea at high prices so opted out. We were approached twice in the street by chatty girls who wanted us to take their photo and then invited us to a tea house. That was one thing I had read about in Trip Advisor to be wary of.

We found a row of little shops with pictures made from paper, leather, tin, embroidery and other materials. Eventually we chose a red paper cut out picture depicting the cycle of life. For the first time in days we had a flat white at McCafe of all places and enjoyed it very much with a muffin. Even more decadent, we had pizza for lunch at PizzaExpress. At the beginning of a huge outdoor mall we saw a Tissot shop and as my watch has been driving me crazy because the hour hand was out of kilter I took it in to see if they could fix it. Half an hour and $10 later it was done by a watchmaker who let us watch through a window as he pulled it apart. It now works beautifully. Kerryn and I had talked about having a drink on the 94th floor of the “bottle opener” but decided to have one in our hotel instead. We bought G&Ts and brought them up to our room where we watched the lights on the city buildings go out at 10 o’clock.

We had some sunshine in Shanghai today so after walking around with our leader Xing Xing in grey and sombre light in the morning we had to walk back to the Bund in the afternoon to take better photos.

Some people visited the French Concession and others went to the Shanghai Museum but we just enjoyed being on our own and navigating the city.

Saturday, 19th April, 2014

It was sprinkling rain when we left for Zhouzhuang Water Town in our bus. One member of the old group stayed behind as she had succumbed to the stomach ailment that has hit all of us except Dwayne. The new group is quite concerned they will catch it too.

It was a two hour trip to the water village in heavy traffic. Being a Saturday I expected it to be very crowded and very touristy and I was right but it certainly had character with four canals providing transport around the town in gondola type boats. We saw two houses which had belonged to wealthy families and tried to imagine the women tottering around the rooms on bound feet. Ugh!

Two cafés boasted that they sold the best coffee in China so we tried one. The milk tasted different and had sugar added but it was OK. We met Xing Xing for lunch but it was a bit of a Fawltey Towers restaurant where the staff had a huge argument with Xing Xing because the numbers had shrunk from 16 to 11. They were so rude we felt like getting up and walking out in protest. The food was OK but not as good as previous meals. We were on our own for dinner tonight so we enjoyed our freedom and went back to PizzaExpress where we had the first red wine in two weeks, a pleasant Argentinian cab sav. Apparently they are opening in Beijing in May. They originated in London in the 60s. We did a bit of window shopping in the mall and considered an iPad mini in the Apple store but then decided we would just have to make do with the iPhone until Beijing.

We’re off to Chengdu tomorrow to see the pandas. It has been good to have three nights in Shanghai, especially with the great view from the window. You could just stay there all day and watch the activity on the river and the city below.

China 11: Lost iPad

I am lying in bed on the 15th floor of the Bund Riverside overlooking the bright city lights and two bridges crossing the river. Unfortunately I am typing this on my iPhone as I stupidly left my iPad in the tray at security in Kunming airport. I discovered it was missing when I went to read the SMH on the plane. We hadn’t taken off so rang Jane who was still in the airport. She discovered it in the Lost and Found and will leave it at the hotel in Beijing for me.

It’s been a long day with a 5 am start and two flights. At six o’clock we met out new leader Xing Xing. We also now have 16 in the group although the last two are arriving tomorrow. One woman is 15 weeks pregnant and is fitting in a trip to China before her third trimester. All I can say is rather her than me.

We tried Shanghai food tonight and although it was tasty it resembled Australian Chinese and lacked the subtlety of the Yunnan food. We have also left the clear blue skies behind as it is cloudy and smoggy. The drive from the airport gave us an idea of just how big this city is. The number of flyovers and freeways is mind boggling and yet the traffic crept along at a snail’s pace. The architecture is amazing and I am looking forward to our walking tour in the morning.

China 10: Dongba Valley

Tuesday, 15th April, 2014

We left Tiger Leaping Gorge at 9.30 following the river in our bus which had driven the three hours from Lijiang to get us. We planned to visit the hospital with Jane so as soon as we arrived at our Naxi style hotel we and another group member who had also been sick for an extended period of time walked through the old town and into the new town for medical help. Lijiang had an earthquake in 1996 which killed 300 people, including many schoolchildren when the roof collapsed in a school. Many of the town’s buildings date from that time. The old town was carefully reconstructed with UNESCO funding and is a maze of cobbled streets and wooden buildings. It is very touristy but more of that later.

The new town was a construction zone with whole streets dug up and new buildings rising around us. The hospital looked modern and was very efficient. We went straight to a counter, paid the equivalent of a little more than a dollar and then went to a waiting room. As we were foreigners we were given priority so John was soon with the doctor with Jane as interpreter. He came out armed with prescriptions, went to another counter where he paid for them ($15) and then to another counter to pick them up. Apart from one local pushing in in front of John, who quickly told him to get to the back of the line, all went smoothly.

Since taking the medicine John has been much better mentally and physically. He is on a diet of rice noodles and steamed rice but if all goes well will progress to something more varied tomorrow.

We had a lunch in a quirky Tibetan cafe decorated with books and paintings. My Tibetan dumplings filled with vegetable curry were delicious. In the afternoon we did a walking tour of the old town with Jane. You can’t get lost because the three rivers that run through it all lead to the water wheel near our hotel.

The old town is a Mecca for young people and once it was dark every disco was pounding music and there was dancing the streets. We went to bed hopeful of of a speedy health recovery.

Wednesday, 16th April, 2014

John has been well today and has progressed to more adventurous eating. He was getting rather sick of his self enforced diet so added a few vegetables as apple purée and banana is harder to come by.

Today was a bit of a mix up as it was a free day and the optional activity was to go to Jade Snow Mountain, ride a cable car to 4,500 metres, walk around for a bit and the come down and watch a traditional performance of local ethnic groups. Because of high wind the cable car was cancelled so we instead went to Dongba Valley. This is a sort of theme park set in what was once a beautiful valley with a large sandy lake at the base full of goldfish. I was not particularly impressed although we heard a small Naxi orchestra play and posed for photos with them. We saw a grotto with a Buddha, crossed a swing bridge where the locals delighted in ignoring the sign not to ” cause earthquake” and funniest of all, rode in little cars along a railway that travelled high along the cliffs. Jane had other plans to visit a village and other sights after lunch but we all just wanted to go back to the hotel and pack or sleep. Our two taxis dropped us off and John went off to write the farewell speech to Jane. We all met for dinner at the Tibetan restaurant across the road, John praised Jane’s calm and efficiency in often trying circumstances and handed her an envelope with the combined contributions of our group, “The Yunnan Explorers”. We have each other’s email addresses and are now looking forward to the next part of our holiday. We have to be out the door at 6.00am. Tomorrow night we’ll be in Shanghai.

China 9: Tiger Leaping Gorge

Sunday, 13th April, 2014

The earliest we could have breakfast was 7 am so we left on the three hour trip to Tiger Leaping Gorge at 7.30. This was at times a harrowing experience but we finally arrived at Qiaotou and armed only with backpacks and bamboo walking sticks set off on the trail. John and three others took the bus to Tea Horse Inn as they hadn’t eaten much for days and needed to be near facilities.

The first part of the walk was easy and pleasant as it was not too hot and the track rose gradually. We admired the river below and the snow specked mountains above until we reached the Naxi Family Guest House where we had a long lunch. This was in order to tackle the terrifying 28 bends in cooler conditions but the tactic did not work. I found I was becoming more and more puffed and had to rest frequently. There was no shade and sitting on a hot rock was not very pleasant. All the while the mules tinkled behind us and their owners eyed us anxiously, waiting for a sign of weakness. When I felt dizzy from hyperventilating I decided a mule was the way to go. As if waiting for someone else to crack, three others also paid the 200 yuan ($40) for a mule. The ride was actually quite enjoyable. It was such a relief not to be climbing any more and my mule and I became very good friends. He was very sure footed and I had complete faith that he would not topple off the narrow track. I had visions of riding into Tea Horse Inn on my steed but just short of the highest point of the track I had to dismount and continue on foot for an hour. From then on it was easy walking and we were met on the track by the four who were unable to do the walk. Of the eight who walked today, four did the whole trip under their own steam – the youngest, aged 23 and the oldest aged 77 plus a Canadian about 75 and a Londoner around 35.

Tea Horse Inn was picturesque and the beds were comfortable. The showers were hot and there were pedestal toilets in the bathroom, something we did not have in Shaxi. John and the others had been entertained by watching the instalment of a new kitchen and dining room which we got to experience that evening. With our diet of rice, vegetables, little meat and no alcohol and masses of exercise I feel like I am at a health resort. There is beer but I went off it after Dali.

Monday, 14th April, 2014

Watching the sun move across the peaks of the mountains next morning was spoiled only by the fact that John was unable to do day 2 of the walk. His condition had worsened. Jane arranged for a car to take him to Tina’s Guesthouse for 150 yuan. We found the walk much easier on day 2 and enjoyed the magnificent scenery. We came across a waterfall of cloudy white water beside what looked like a primitive factory and found it was part of a tungsten mine. In fact there is only one unpolluted waterfall in Tiger Leaping Gorge and that is used as the water supply for the area. Plastic and metal pipes follow the track in an unattractive way for much of the walk but we were glad to make use of them at the end. Somehow we forgot to eat lunch today as no one was hungry when we rested at the Half Way Guest House. Here are the famous toilets with the best view in the world. The whole back of the cubicle is open to the sky and the mountains.

The only steep part of the track caused problems for a Canadian trekker in our group who fainted and fell, cutting her head. The guide and her husband helped her down and fortunately she made a good recovery that evening. It was very stressful for Jane as she was keeping an eye on us in front and also the injured member behind. The descent to Tina’s was gravelly and one slip could be disastrous. John met me on the track and wanted to show me the Tiger Leaping Stone in the river below while I wanted a shower and a lie down. The thought of walking down the steep track to the river to look at a stone and worse still walking back up again was horrifying. We had a walk across the bridge, looked below at some ant like people on the rock and returned to sit in the dining room eating freshly roasted peanuts and drinking coke.

China 8: Shibaishan Mountain

Saturday, 12th April, 2014

Today was the test before the big one tomorrow. “Shibaishan Mountain” was our aim. To get there from Shaxi, we walked 1.5km north, turned left at the sign (pointing to Shadeng Qing) and walked another 1km to the foot of the mountain. The path up the mountain consisted of hundreds, maybe thousands of stone steps. Along the way were several temples, grottoes and stone carvings. At the first temple we thought we had reached our destination but onward and upward we continued. Three had stayed behind owing to illness and some of the group were either coming down with or recovering from bouts of diarrhoea. It was sunny and hot and we needed frequent rests. As I had recovered I really enjoyed the fresh air and the surrounding hills covered with cypress forest and the view of paddy fields way below. John was pleased that he was able to reach the top despite his state of health. We had stopped at a bakery to buy provisions for the picnic lunch but everything was sweet. Our lunch consisted of sweet bread twists and peanut slice. Fortunately our guide (Jane’s friend) had carried a small watermelon up the mountain and we devoured it greedily. The walk to Stone Bell Temple was another 2 km return and included more steps. Stone Bell Temple ( Shizhong Si), includes some of the best Bai stone carvings in southern China and offers insights into life at the Nanzhao court of the 9th century. (And some graphic sculptures of female genitalia as people wishing to reproduce would visit the statues). The monks were moved to another temple during the Cultural Revolution and the buildings were restored as a museum. I asked Jane if people still go to the temple if they want to have babies and she answered, “No, they go to the hospital”.

Jane asked if we wanted to walk back another way or call the bus to come and pick us up. The only one who considered walking back was Dwayne, the youngest in the group but he decided to go with the majority. That’s what happens when you travel with a bunch of oldies.

At six o’clock Jane instructed interested people on the rules of Marhjong. Three of us played Jane and two watched on. Of course Jane won but the rest of us really enjoyed it as a knowledge of gin rummy helped comprehend the rules. I might buy a set when I get back to Australia and play it with interested members of my family.

The seven o’clock dinner at Jane’s “friend’s” eating establishment was yummy as usual. Tonight we had a delicious meat and mushroom dish, fried potatoes, stir fried cabbage, corn with herbs and garlic and the ever popular tomato omelette, all for $6 each. Jane’s friend owns a guest house but it is undergoing renovations so we could not stay there. He wears a black suit, white shirt and white gloves, even when hiking to the top of the mountain. Our hotel, the Shaxi Hotel, looks quite attractive and has comfortable beds but our hot water “blew up” so we are showering in Jane’s room at six o’clock tomorrow morning. Above us people are walking around in clumpy shoes. Why can’t they put slippers on? The Chinese guests are very noisy even though Jane asked the proprietor to tell them no noise after 10.00 pm.

We are all apprehensive about TLG tomorrow. When I next write in my blog it will be Tuesday night and we will be in Lijiang.

China 7: Finding the “Real China” in Shaxi

Friday, 11th April, 2014

Recovering in the grounds

Recovering in the grounds

Dali transport

Street scene in Dali

The day before yesterday we were tossing up between a bike ride around Lake Er Hai or a day trip to local villages and watching cormorant fishing. Fate decided and I spent the day in bed feeling violently ill. Fortunately the hotel was lovely and John stayed to look after me. We had to move rooms in the afternoon because the hot water stopped working but I only went for a walk around the hotel complex which is immense. John joined me in our self enforced diet so that we did not go out for dinner. This morning I woke up feeling a lot better but it was John’s turn to feel ill. I joined the group walk around the Old Town which is 4 square kilometres. We walked up on to the North Gate and I could see the Three Pagodas and the lake in the distance. We passed souvenir shops, tea houses and masseurs. Had we been eating we would have visited Foreigners Street full of cafés serving pizzas and cappuccinos.

Two others in our group starting feeling queasy. We decided it must be a combination of altitude (2052 m) although altitude sickness should not really kick in until 2500 m and strange food, water, jet lag, tiredness etc. Our guide Jane wants us to eat like the locals and serve ourselves with our own chopsticks but we rebelled and said that it would be too easy to spread germs so she relented and we now use serving spoons although continue to eat with chopsticks. Fortunately our bus to Shaxi from Dali was a comfortable 31 seater but John sat in the front seat should he need to make a quick dash for the door. The scenery was different today with high mountains, fertile valleys cultivated to the last square inch, many labourers in the fields, pigs, goats and small villages. There were vast areas of pine trees and also eucalyptus lining the roads. The road was an excellent freeway with long tunnels under the mountains but after the turn off to Shaxi it became narrow and quite hair raising sitting in the front seat as we were. The road workers were not willing to move their bitumen furnace off the road so I was sure we were going over the edge.

“Shaxi was a crucial node on one of the old Tea-Horse Roads that stretched from Yunnan to India. Only three caravan oases remain, Shaxi being the best preserved and the only one with a surviving market (held on Fridays).
The village’s wooden houses, courtyards and narrow, winding streets make it a popular location for period Chinese movies and TV shows,”

Excerpt From: Planet, Lonely. “Lonely Planet China.” Lonely Planet.

Shaxi

Shaxi Town Square

shaxi2

Our hotel in Shaxi

shaxi3

Shaxi Cafe

Shaxi was having its Friday market and was quite a contrast to Dali. While Dali was immaculate, with colourful buildings, streams and ponds beautifying the streets and shops selling the things Chinese tourists like to buy, Shaxi is in much more of its original state. While well maintained and clean, the shops are selling to the locals and are open fronted, in contrast to the glass plated windows in Dali. The mess from the markets was cleaned up by this evening. The market was different in that it did not try to cater for tourists although there are a few backpackers staying in the town. We saw cafés that sold hamburgers, sandwiches and cappuccinos. On our afternoon walk to the bridge we saw a large number of students sketching the local architecture and they were very good too.

Accident on the bridge

Accident on the bridge

On the six hundred year old bridge another of our group succumbed and passed out. He is around 35 and comes from London ( Serbia originally). We held him up so he didn’t fall off the bridge into the doubtful water below and wiped his forehead with wet tissues until he came around. He was very pale but made it to dinner tonight. John was persuaded to come to the meal as I told him a bowl of rice would be good for his stomach. DaliD1There were two tables, one normal sized for the invalids and one low one for the fit and healthy. The food was delicious but alas we left a lot at “the grownups table”. DaliD2potatoWe asked Jane to assure the chef it was not because the food was bad, we were just sick. There was a delicious dish made from grated potato as well as omelette and tomato, peas in the pod, sliced marrow, pork and onion sprouts, pork sausage/bacon and a spicy green dish. Jane asked the chef to tone down the chilli in deference to our tender stomachs. The food so far has been sensational. Even though some only ate a bowl of rice at $6 a head no one begrudged paying for the food.meat DaliD5

Tomorrow we have a five hour hike to a temple as a warm up for Tiger Leaping Gorge. Here’s hoping all the invalids have the strength to make it.