Saturday, March 31, 2007

Bonkers in Honkers

I told B that we should go sightseeing during the weekdays so that the sights would not be crowded with locals. It's the weekend and I don't think any local was sightseeing. No, they were out shopping like us. Such crowds!

No sightseeing for us during our last full day in Hong Kong. Instead we did the local thing and hit the streets in search of bargains. After a late breakfast of congee (rice porridge), yiew tiao (deep fried dough stick) and a deliciously smooth milk custard (ty the ginger flavour!) we set out.

Our quest started nearby to the hotel at the Jade Market. Which is real, which is fake? Neither of us like jade jewellry much and the nicer statues are expensive. Next was browsing the "factory outlets" at Sham Shui Po. They are all local brands and not very nice.

Apliu Street, also at Sham Shui Po, is sort of a Hong Kong street market version of Tokyo's Akihabara Electric Town. Stalls and shops selling all sort of electronic goods. The nearby Golden Computer Arcade was completely packed with young shoppers and computer shops. I felt a primal male urge to aquire some of the flashing lights and shiny computer cases for myself, but just couldn't find a need. Besides which, Tokyo awaits.

At the top of Sham Shui Po's Dragon shopping centre was an amusement park with a currently non-operational rollercoaster and ice rink. A local boy band was making an appearance at the shopping centre and lots of young girls were gathered around the vantage points.

Next, Mong Kok yet again. Too many choices for cameras, phones and other electronic goods. The streets were packed with people, the atmosphere overwhelming. Shoes, sports clothes, again too many choices, though not always to our taste. The Esprit Salon provided some relief, while B had her eyebrows done I was treated to a complimentary soft-drink and a seat. That's an innovation I would like to see in Australia!

On our way back to our local area we stopped again at a multilevel shopping centre filled with tiny stores selling anime and gaming paraphenalia. A few shops sold photos and posters of young idols. I regressed to childhood and purchased some Star Wars Lego - very cheap - to display in my work area. Why didn't they have Star Wars lego when I was 8 years old? It would have made choosing birthday presents much easier.

At the Temple Street Market I found a stall selling rip-off Star Wars figurines amongst a wide range of other cartoon and movie characters. One bag held a good selection, except that a figurine inside had a white hand printed on his head. Perhaps a member of Count Dooku's mob?

I do sound like a nerd, don't I.

We ate a dinner of radish cake, pippies and stir-fry at an open air restaurant besides the market, helping some British tourists, here for the Rugby Sevens tournament, to order. [Bugger, just saw John Howard on the TV again. Isn't there any escape???]. The most amazing thing about today was that we only took two photos, and they were just before we returned to the hotel!

We've enjoyed staying in Hong Kong, though it does feel like time for a change. There is lots more to see and next time I would like to walk some of the heritage trails in the New Territories and on the islands.

Next stop Tokyo, Japan!

Friday, March 30, 2007

Hanging by a thread

The thread was more of a fat steel cable and there was more than one of them, but it still looked small in comparison to the height above ground. We were travelling on the Ngong Ping 360 cable car up to the Tian Tan Buddha statue looking over Lantau Island. The entire ride takes about 25 minutes.

When you see the cable car in front of you suddenly accelerate down the cable you think you are in for a rollercoaster ride. The truth is much milder. Even the winds closer to the summit didn't trouble the car greatly.

Suspended high above the ground we were treated to spectacular views of the ocean, airport and scrub below. There is a trail that follows much of the cable's route, but more people were seen running down than up. As we neared the summit tombs were seen built into the mountain, good feng shui according to an older Hong Kong resident in our cabin. However, the most awe inspiring view is of the cable system's route as it soars up the mountains. It's not for people scared of heights.

There was low cloud blowing in arround the Buddha statue, mostly obscuring it from view. Tian Tan is the largest outdoor Buddha statue in the world and requires the climbing of 260 steps in order to reach the base. Closer up, the passing mist lent a mystical air to the Buddha, his kindly face looking down upon us.

After another, slightly less spectacular due to the cloud, ride back down the mountain in the cable car we arrived at the CityGate Outlet Centre. B found a couple of things to purchase in the outlet shop, after which we caught the MTR back to our hotel area and wandered until late through the Temple Street and Ladies Markets, eating dinner in a hawker centre.

I should mention lunch (which was also breakfast due to our laziness). We had a second Yum Cha lunch. Again there were no carts and instead we had to order from a menu. Also again was that the flavours didn't seem as good as in most Sydney yum cha restaurants and we were distinctly disappointed.

Last full day in Hong Kong tomorrow. It's been wonderful to stay in a city that is so easy to traverse by public transport and foot. Not certain what we will do tomorrow, but I'm sure we'll have fun.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

All manner of transport

During our time on this trip we have caught all manner of transport, from a trishaw in Beijing to the Maglev in Shanghai. We've been on a hydrofoil on the Yangtze and a couple of sleeper trains across China. And many flights with more to come.

Today was special for the number of different modes of transport we caught in a single day, the day that we left China proper and returned to Hong Kong.

1. Taxi

The taxi drivers wanted RMB100 for the trip from the hotel to Guilin's airport and refused to use the meter. We knew from experience that this was a blatant rip-off. The concierge haggled down to RMB80 and we took it, with time running out. It's a pity to have to suffer cheating on your final day in a country. We met many honest, decent Chinese people, but also quite a few out to rip us off.

2. Aircraft

A China Southern flight took us from Guilin to Shenzhen. Though pretty smooth, the seat pitch was the narrowest of the Chinese carriers and we were each only given a small bottle of water and face wipe. Perhaps this was due to the shortness of the flight - only 50 minutes. Unfortunately, the skies over Guilin were overcast and smoggy so we missed out on the spectacular views from the incoming flight.

3. Minibus

Our original intention was to do some shopping around the land border crossing area into Hong Kong, but when presented with the option of going directly to Hong Kong from the airport decided to take that easier option. We were packed into a minibus for the short ride to Shenzhen's ferry terminal.

4. Catamaran

The TurboJET to Hong Kong was a comfortable, modern and fast catamaran that raced us through the placid Pearl Delta to Kowloon. We passed tiny, dingy fishing vessels, small container boats with their own cranes, bigger ships and even a drilling rig. The closer we approached Hong Kong, the more the pollution appeared to subside.

5. Walking

We lugged our two heavy backpacks and one day pack from the ferry terminal to Tsim Sha Tsui. They had definitely increased in weight since the start of our journey. The air in Hong Kong was warm and humid, fresher too compared with mainland China.

6. Mass Transit Railway (MTR)

Tsim Sha Tsui to Yau Ma Tei is only two stations by the underground, but any decrease in walking time was appreciated. The Octopus stored value cards make it so easy.

A quick walk to our hotel, the Dorsett Seaview, same as before, then out again for a lunch of noodles and wonton. Then back to the MTR for a ride to Central on Hong Kong Island.

There we purchased some dried scallops for B's mother and wandered around Hollywood Street, admiring antiques and jade far out of our price range.

7. Escalator

The longest pedestrian escalator in the world is actually a series of smaller escalators with breaks allowing people to join and depart on the ride up to the "Mid-levels". It went on and on and on, but was pretty interesting for the views of the shops and residential towers alongside.

8. Walking again

From the top of the escalator at conduit road we walked East and downhill through part of the botanical and zoological gardens. You could tell that it was a very expensive area, green and pleasant with quite a few expatriates.

9. Cable tram

The cable drawn tram ride to the Peak is quite an adventure, rising very steeply at 27 degrees at some points. How anyone can ride standing I don't know. The evening views from the Peak Lookout Tower looking out over Hong Kong Island's cityscape were spectacular, but cloud was just starting to obscure them from the top. It was as if a smoke machine was blown over the top of the tower, the lower levels were beneath the cloud.

The ride down again was even scarier, with all passengers seated backwards. B felt sick afterwards.

10. MTR again

A quick metro ride between Central and Tsim Sha Tsui got us there in time to watch the city skyline lightshow from the Promenade. Green laser beams and white spotlights shot out from the tops of the buildings many of which had colourful light displays on their structures.

It was quite as spectacular as I had hoped, but still quite beautiful.

11. Walking yet again

We walked back along Nathan Road towards our hotel. We chose to return here for the surrounding night markets and local restaurants. Tonight we decided to have a change from Chinese food and ended up in a restaurant where the food was prepared and served factory style. Edible, but not great.

It is a relief to be back in Hong Kong after spending two weeks in mainland China. Don't get me wrong, there were plenty of wonderful sights we saw and great people we met in China. There were also many negatives. It's a tiring place to travel in and I think we just need some time now to relax in a modern locations where we can catch public transport to the sights and not need to rely on others to drive us around and to speak the language for us. I'm pretty certain that we will return to China again one day, but not for a little while at least.

Tomorrow we may add to our tally of transportation types with a cable car ride up to the Po Lin Monastery on Lantau Island.


We have experienced every type of pollution during our time in China. Air pollution so bad we can barely speak our throats are so irritated. The water we drink is always boiled or bottled. And as for visual pollution, well the list of ugliness is endless here.

Guilin's air has been the cleanest of our time in China, the water is still dodgy, but the city is actually relatively attractive visually, with the karsts, parks and waterways. Our problem has been noise pollution.

Our first night here was disturbed when a group of Cantonese speakers arrived on our floor. They left their doors open and the old women played mahjong, shrieking at maximum volume late into the night. I shut the door on one group and asked them to be quiet, but they just ignored me.

That's the typical Chinese culture for you. It's so competitive that everyone looks after themselves and ignores everyone else's needs. Want a ticket? Ignore the queue and push in while the clerk is serving someone else. Driving a car? It's up to the crossing pedestrians to get out of the way. Or just take up the entire lane in your slow vehicle. And everyone likes your voice, of course they do, because you are the most important person in the world and everyone should listen to what you say.

Unfortunately, I have increasingly viewed this kind of behaviour in Sydney. Especially amongst iPod users on trains.

We went from a room with a fantastic view of the karsts to one with poor views. And no internet access. I am pissed off!

The noise pollution didn't end when we left the hotel this morning for our cruise along the Li River to Yangshuo. Sitting at our table on the boat were older Americans from the Midwest. Of course, they had to constantly verbalise. Talk, talk, talk, talk. They seemed nice enough, but the gorgeous scenery outside lent itself to quiet contemplation, not self-involved conversation. Thankfully it was a bit quieter above deck.

The taxi drivers in Guilin have been quite annoying, demanding set fees and even petrol money at the end over a metered fare. They wanted to charge us RMB100 for the ride to Zhujiang Pier. By the meter it was RMB68.40, a significant saving. The hotel concierge staff can be quite helpful in this regard.

The ride out to the pier was very interesting, passing rice paddies, stone carving villages, buffaloes and a huge pig standing in the road.

A great parade of boats left the docks for the river cruise. The karst scenery was quite otherworldly. I expected to see dinosaurs emerge from the trees at any moment. The karsts are limestone, the remnants of ancient shellfish, arround which the stone has eroded away, dissolved by the carbonic acid in water and due to vegetation. Interestingly, this is one process by which carbon dioxide in naturally removed from the atmosphere.

We passed bamboo rafts, caves high up the side of the mountains and stalactites growing from above the riverbanks where run-off has dripped down. Buffaloes, ducks and geese wallowed in the shallows, the possessions of the riverside village occupants.

The cruise ticket included a buffet lunch, mainly Chinese food, though the Americans were delighted with the french fries and “Twinkies” (whatever they are). We enjoyed the sweet kumquats, miniature citrus fruit, so much we purchased a bag from a streetside vendor later on.

After all the hype Yangshuo was a disappointment. Lots of tourist good shops, lots of the same old shops existing anywhere in China. At least the shopkeepers were less aggressive than elsewhere, probably understanding westerners' aversion to such tactics.

We visited KFC for its toilets (clean, but squat only for men) and ate some yummy peach egg tarts – different to Australia! Many attractive karsts dot the town, but we had had our fill and had no energy to climb (I am still busy sniffling away). So we caught a bus back to Guilin.

The bus ride was slow, bumpy and dusty. The noise pollution continued with the driver's frequent sounding of the horn. Despite this, we still fell asleep for some of the ride.

Dinner was in the hotel restaurant. Unremarkable, except that a couple of musicians were playing the lute and Chinese harp, the guzheng, both beautiful instruments.

Tomorrow we leave for Shenzhen and Hong Kong. I'll be glad to be leaving China proper and indeed I'm looking forward now to Japan, a country of manners and cleanliness. China has been a very interesting experience, but it is wearying and it's time now for a holiday.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

No update

Network doesn't work in our new room so no update tonight. Noisy Cantonese drove us out. Will take revenge tomorrow in HK.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Floating on air

Is 431km/h the fastest we have ever travelled on land? I'm not certain it counts as we were actually floating above the ground. Today we caught the Maglev, the magnetic levitation train, between Shanghai and Pudong Airport.

I think we finally worked out Shanghai metro's ticketing system. You can't reuse your ticket when interchanging between Line 3 and Line 1 at Shanghai station. But you can when interchanging between Lines 3, 4 and 2! It was a roundabout way to get to the airport and, at RMB50 per person for the Maglev ride, perhaps not the cheapest. But it was a fun, if shortlived, pleasure.

The amazing thing about the Maglev is how smooth and unnoticable the acceleration is. I've caught both the Shinkansen and TGV and neither were as smooth as the Maglev. Wish we could travel to work on one!

The flight between Shanghai and Guilin was the best yet of this trip. Shanghai Airlines seemed okay, though sometimes their English announcements were garbled and the coconut cream roll as a bit stale. The KitKat was good, though. I had forgotten how good chocolate tastes.

I thoroughly recommend a daytime flight to Guilin. The approach over the limestone karsts and the shimmering mosaics of the rice paddy fields was spectacular. It was the sunniest weather all trip, though the smog layer was always visible.

Our room at the Guishan Hotel has wonderful views of limestone karsts. The grounds also seem quite pleasant. We walked down to the local shops, purchasing tiny sweet mangos and bananas from the market vendors, ordered meat and tofu skewers with the help of some giggling schoolgirls.

Dinner was delicious guilin rice noodles and fried fish in a sweet and sour style sauce. Guilin seems to be a relaxed (except for the traffic) small city and a pleasant place for an evening walk.

Off on a Li River cruise to Yanghshuo tomorrow.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Route Canal

Canals evoke the image of romantic travel in me. We passed through part of China's extensive canal network during our approach to Shanghai. It looked very much alive, with barges and low boats carrying raw materials and finished products. Old wooden sampans moored beside decaying buildings or under low bridges illustrated the long history of China's canals, dating back a thousand years or more. So I was looking forward to visiting Zhouzhang, one of the area's famous Water Towns and threaded by canals.

The town itself is quite attractive, with narrow pedestrian (and bicycle) only streets of local brick, but the effect was ruined by the aggressive shopkeepers occupying almost every building. They all sold the same thing, silk crafts, wood carvings, paintings, pig trotters. Worse were the restaurant touts, each advertising the same meal, each trying to get you inside.

There were some pleasant spots, the Quanfu temple with its outlook on to the lake, the lute playing at the Ancient Opera Stage (before a performance of Chinese opera drove us off) and, best of al, Zhang's House, a maze of rooms and small garden scenes.

We took a gondola ride through the canals, which was very pleasant, until the driver started singing badly and demanding money for it.

Our pogo-stick bus ride back to Shanghai was interrupted by a detour to a silk shop where we were treated to a fashion show complete with catwalk an coloured spot lights. Hilarious really. None of the foreign tourists bought anything, but I think the Chinese enjoyed it.

Maybe the smallpox button in the hotel room didn't give me that virtually extinct disease, but I have had a very sore throat all day. Not surprising with all the pollution and Chinese habit of sharing phlegm. So I wasn't in the happiest of moods today and the touts didn't help.

I found the canals we passed during the bus ride back to Shanghai far more evocative. I think that Suzhou may have been a better choice to see these, along with the gardens. Next time maybe...

Sunday, March 25, 2007

The Bizarre and the Bazaar

It's much less effort to walk ten kilometres of the Great Wall than to spend an hour standing around clothes shopping. Oh my sore feet! At least the pain in the hip [pocket] was only mild, this being China.

We were both feeling much better about China after a good rest and late morning! The hotel is very clean and the rooms appear fresh, but I do have my concerns. There is a switch on the light control board labelled Smallpox. It turns on the downlights, but what else might it do?

Even if the hotel could be a site for biological terrorism, it is convenient. We booked our flight on the 27th to Guilin in the Shanghai Airlines office in the lobby. The flight was picked to depart from Pudong Airport, giving us an excuse to catch the Maglev.

A branch of the Shanghai Sightseeing Bus group is also just over the road from us, so we booked a day trip to Zhouzhang tomorrow. I also wanted to see the gardens of Suzhou, but combining this (an easy train ride) with a trip to a canal town looks troublesome, so it's on the list for a future visit.

After the booking we engaged in that most exciting of activities, crossing a Shanghai street. Still alive, we bought tickets on the light rail back to People's Square. We just don't get how the single trip tickets work. We ask to go to People's Square, but have to exits to change to the subway at Shanghai Station. At that point the tickets are eaten by the gate. We then need to queue and buy more tickets for the subway. I'm certain that we are doing something wrong, but what?

Watching the locals board the empty subway carriages at Shanghai Station's subway is hilarious. They prime themselves when the train pulls up, then sprint (well, they would sprint if they had room to do so) and push inside as soon as the doors open, in order to grab the precious plastic seats. Anything to "win" against other people I suspect.

From People's Square we walked south, then east, our objective being the Shanghai Old Street and Yuyuan Gardens. We turned off into one narrow, busy street with a number of "Islamic restaurants". A beggar dragging a monkey tied by the wrist asked for money. The poor monkey looked unhealthy with raw red patches. It was an awful sight.

On impulse we had lunch at the Xin Jiang Yi Li Can Ting Islamic restaurant and asked the waitress to recommend some dishes. We thought we had ordered too much, but ended up just eating too much. Delicious roast mutton melting off the bone, served with red onion and carrot. Chicken in a red stew, like a curry, strongly flavoured. A rice pilaf with carrots and stewed in mutton broth, so full of flavour. The second best meal in China after the Leshan river fish.

Shanghai Old Street is a tourist trap lined with souvenier stalls, but we couldn't resist purchasing some momentoes, prices haggled far down. Noisy, busy, but still quite fun.

Depsite the many tour groups the Yuyuan Gardens provided a respite from the noise outside. I love the way there are so many hidden paths to follow in a Chinese garden, the framed views, the water, stone and bamboo. It was wonderful to sit down and relax.

Outside the Yuyuan Gardens we braved the crowds once more, but there was no way we would fit on the famous zigzag bridge to the teahouse - it was packed. Instead we walked onwards to the Bund and then down into the sightseeing tunnel.

The tunnel underneath the Huangpu River is super tacky, but fun. A cable car on rails takes you through a light show complete with lasers and those inflatable figures that flap around outside of car yards.

We emerged near the Oriental Pearl Tower, the symbol of modern Shanghai. B was wondering when she would get a chance to go shopping. I told her that we would catch a subway under the river to Huaihai Lu, so we walked in the direction of the station. Then, opposite the Pearl Tower entrance she saw a magical sign: Sephora. Then Zara. Her two most favouritest shops in all of Europe.

My feet were ready to collapse by the time we had dinner. I didn't really enjoy the food at the Yunnan restaurant, but the lime juice and B's apple pearl drink were delicious. The shops were shutting by the time we finished, so it was back to the hotel, past the amazingly tall architecture of Pudong.

Canals await tomorrow!

Saturday, March 24, 2007


Something just snapped in me yesterday as we travelled through the yellow rapeseed fields from Yichang to Nanjing. Maybe it was the smoking, spitting, shouting, shoving migrant workers at Yichang railway stations. Or the polluted air, the disturbing sameness to the cities and the farms. Or frustration at my inability to speak the language or to freely travel around without relying on others. Even the food. Or all of the above. Suddenly my tolerance of China disappeared. I found myself wishing I were somewhere else.

I certainly did not want to be on that train. As we walked up the steep steps to Yichang railway station we were surrounded by peasant workers, belongings wrapped in makeshift bags of sheets. The Chinese push in whenever possible, don't give way. I've learned just to barge in and not care if my backpack takes bystanders out.

Not knowing where to go we passed our bags through the x-ray machine and entered the general waiting room. It was a scary experience, surrounded by crowds of people whose appearance was that of those shouting, shrieking drug addicts you sometimes see on the streets of Sydney. But I guess that this is often a new experience for them too and most are probably very nice people.

Backing out, the security guard pointed us in the direction of the "soft class" waiting room. A helpful local had to point out ts entrance behind locked doors. The soft class attendants ushered us straight to the train, not even bothering to check our luggage.

The soft sleeper cabin was a lot less comfortable than the cabin we travelled in from Hong Kong to Bejing. Four narrow, hard beds arranged in two bunks. Dodgy looking linen. The carriage toilet a dirty squat.

The old couple we shared the compartment we very nice and kept offering pomelos, apples and sunflower seeds. Thankfully they didn't like smoking either, for the overcrowded train contained plenty of smokers in the corridor in defiance of the no smoking sign. However the lady insisted of leaving the door open most of the time. This may have been a good thing as she kept coughing through the night (and no hand to cover the mouth, of course). Probably going to get tuberculosis, SARS or fish flu from her now.

The train stunk of urine and cigarette smoke. It was NOT comfortable whatever the Lonely Planet might say. We couldn't face another night of this, were already worn out from many late nights and early mornings, feeling a bit unwell.

We decided that we were willing to sacrifice some sights for more "stop" time to rest and recuperate. So I rang the wonderful Zhou Yan at CITS on the mobile and cancelled our itinerary post Nanjing, moving forward some nights in Shanghai.Thanks to the wonders of modern mobile technology (2.5G here) I was even able to email the instructions and receive a reply to my mobile phone.

Arriving in Nanjing at about 9:30am we quickly booked an onwards midday ticket to Shanghai (easy!), then spent the next hour in McDonalds near the huge train station. We did try a dumpling place first but it was full and we couldn't order.

The young lady who served us might have spoken English, but their toilet belied the McDonald's legend. It was a squat and it was dirty, with an overflowing rubbish bin of shit covered toilet paper. From the tray cover I'm also concerned about the source of their beef. The cow looks mad and on hormones.

The extensive canal system was visible after Nanjing, which barges chugging up the waters or decrepit boats just sitting there doing nothing. I would love to take a cruise up the Great Canal, just to observe life on either side.

It is good to be in Shanghai. This three star hotel might be a bit far away from the centre of town, but it's got a light rail stop, plenty of shops and a park nearby. Catching a proper modern metro again was also a good feeling, despite the number of interchanges.

We stopped at Renmin Square and walked along Nanjing Road East until we hit the Bund. From the riverside you can see ultramodern Pudong with its famout Pearl Tower and another, much lower, skyscraper showing video on the side of its walls.

I don't want to give the impression that the Chinese are an awful people or that China is a boring place. It's not and we have met many wonderful Chinese who have brought a smile to our faces with their friendliness and helpfulness.

I think we just need some time to rest and get used to the cultural differences again. I'm certainly exhausted after that train ride and I'm certain tomorrow will find us enjoying China once more.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Three Gorges

"I haven't had enough sleep!" screamed my body as the alarm clock rang. No choice! We were meeting our guide Shirley down at the hotel lobby at 6am for our tour of the Three Gorges after only 3 hours sleep.

It was misty, or smoggy, as usual as we drove out in our van on the hour long trip to the docks. Faint silhouettes of mountains suggested beautiful scenery, although our eyes kept shutting, stealing more sleep.

A steep staircase flanked by two huge funiculars greeted us at the docks. We had to clamber over docked river cruisers in order to reach our sleek hydrofoil. We found three seats near the front as the boat filled up with workers in transit between the river towns. This was a working transport boat, not a tourist cruiser.

Through Xiling Gorge we passed hills yellow with rapeseed flowers or boxy new concrete homes clinging to the steep edges of the valley. The hydrofoil sped past flat, narrow ships transporting all manner of goods, from phosophorus to trucks, along the river.

Long Wu Gorge was the most spectacular with steep geologically folded cliffs and tall forested peaks, each with a name.

The last of the Three Gorges was Qutang. While the scenery adjacent to the river was not as impressive as Wu Gorge, the dramatic mountain range surrounding it loomed large behind the smoggy air.

Throughout the journey we could see a pale strip a few metres high running along the waterline. The water level in the dam has actually dropped from summer, as the water supply is locked up as ice in the mountains over winter. The water colour is a clean blue green now, but once the ice melts it will turn muddy brown again. Signs show that ultimately the water will rise about 15 metres higher than the current level, submerging more of the scenery.

After some negotiation between Shirley and the boat crew we were dropped off at the base of Fengjie. A yet uncompleted bridge loomed tall over the small fishing docks. Shrimps covered the roofs of the small fishing vessels, drying in the sun. We ate carp straight from the boat and noodles under a tarpaulin, the fishermen noisily playing mahjong at another table.

More steep stairs led us up the hill to Fengjie, White Emporer Temple. A noble had a vision of white mist rising from a well in the form of a dragon. As a dragon is the symbol of an emperor he went about making himself king of the region, with the help of a brilliant strategist.

The temple is a quiet place suited for contemplation, with ponds, pavilions, blossoming trees and some beautiful views over Qutang Gorge. The complex is surrounded by peeling red walls and fading but colourful reliefs and contains black steles of poetry inspired by the beauty of the gorges.

After walking back down to the fishing docks we discovered that the boat would not arrive for a while. It was an opportunity to chat with Shirley about life in China. We came away thankful for living in a first world country, how it gives us some many more opportunities. There are so many restrictions on realising your full potential in China, so much competition for resources, the familial duties which bind your choices. Even the disparity of wages means that it is difficult for young Chinese to travel overseas, something which they would benefit a lot from, giving them an opportunity to discover alternatives.

We were forced to find seats in the dirty rear of the boat for the ride home. Smoke from the engines frequently entered the cabin and the windows were cracked and patched. There was not much opportunity to view the scenery and all of us slept for a while, exhausted by the early start.

On our ride back from the docks to Yichang we passed the giant dam locks, were told of an even bigger "ship elevator" to life tourist ships all the way from the base of the dam to the top in one movement.

The expressway back to Yichang took us past some magnificent scenery, looking down to the Yangtze River with a backdrop of mountains. This was where Mao had swum across the river, proclaiming that the dam should be built, though the process started long after he died. From one view the mountain tops appear like his facing looking upwards, so this area is considered auspicious for the dam.

Shirley pointed out to us that our hotel was just across from the public square, recommending that we go to the top floor of the only department store for a food court. We followed her instructions and indeed had a delicious dinner. We had very pleasant wander back to the hotel past groups of people dancing, or just walking around relaxing in the colourfully lit square. A "magic fountain" reflected the many lights at its base as alternate sections sprayed water into the air.

Prior to Yichang we were doubtful about using the services of a local guide, thinking that we would just get a prepackaged spiel and run between the sights. But we greatly enjoyed talking to Shirley and she really went out of her way to make our stay here very pleasant. Thank you!

This will probably be the last post here until we reach Shanghai. In a few hours we will be on the overnight train to Nanjing for a day, then another overnight train to Huangshan. A night up the summit of Huangshan, then an overnight train to Shanghai. It promises to be very tiring!

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

The effects of globalisation on the Chinese culinary experience

We have been naughty. Very, very naughty. In our defence I can state that we were only following the instructions given to us by my colleague P2. But really, there is no excuse for our behaviour in a province with such reputation for its cuisine. For today we ate at McDonalds.

We made a mistake staying two nights and three days in Chengdu. We could easily have seen the sights we wanted to see in two days and spent more time in Shanghai or Hong Kong, but that's what you get for rushed planning in a travel agent's office.

The hotel finally kicked us out of our room after midday. We wandered through the centre of the city aimlessly, through posh department stalls to markets in narrow laneways. At Tianfu Square a big statue of Mao stood, right hand raised, in front of the Sichuan Museum of Science and Technology.

We were tired of walking and had no small change for lunch at the street stalls. So, heads hung in shame, we climbed the stairs up to the McDonalds overlooking Tianfu Square and the Mao Statue. There's a message there somewhere, though I'm not certain if I know what it is.

Using the picture card at the counter for language loosers like us, we ordered a medium spicy chicken sandwich (chicken breast roll) meal, a pineapple sundae and a sweet taro pie. The chicken was real chicken, the french fries not so good, the Coke Coke. But the pineapple sundae was really nice, must be the synthetic pineapple flavour. The taro pie, like an McDonalds apple pie on the outside, had purple and white chunks of taro, a root vegetable, on the inside. Very good!

So we went back and ordered chicken nuggets and a pineapple pie... It was good.

We wandered back to the hotel, past the GiGi bakery where a pastry chef was doodling around with the cream, making what looked to be an animal. She smiled at us, not having any idea what she was making either. We sat around in the hotel lobby for a while, bored.

Later we walked to a nearby Sichuan fast food restaurant and order a meat (or was it tripe?) bun and local style fried rice. Most of it remained on the table uneaten. It was too hot, but also the flavour was not to either of our liking. The only really good Sichuan food we ate was at the Fishermen Village at Leshan. Sadly, the McDonalds and the Pizza Hut meals were enjoyed far more than the local fare.

We would have left Chengdu with disappointing memories for the day, but as we sat there in the lobby a couple of musicians began playing a Chinese flute and lute (pipa?). The male flautist provided strong melodies while the female lute player's finger literally danced over the strings. It was both beautiful to listen to and to watch.

For RMB10 each we caught a bus from next to the hotel to Chengdu airport. I was amusing to watch the taxi touts chase us as the bellboy wheeled our luggage out the bus. The looks on their faces as we caught the bus said it all.

Chengdu airport is pretty nice. We bought a few lo quats from the fruit stall prior to security. The helpful staff even let us try the fruit first. Sweet, a little like an apricot.

We were bused to the Sichuan Airlines ERJ-145 sitting far out on the tarmac. It was a small jet, three abreast and the service was basic, with water, peanuts (The Lingdom of Foods) and sour dates. But the flight was pretty smooth and there were good views of Chengdu as we took off.

Yichang airport shut down straight after we exited the airport. Ignoring the taxi touts we caught a minibus to the city for RMB20 each. The driver said he could take us to our hotel, the Xixzhou (and how do you pronounce that?). After a long and bumpy ride past industrial wastelands and into a city preparing for sleep we were told by another passenger, a young lady, that we should get off and catch a taxi for a short ride to the hotel.

The taxis were trailing right behind us, so it was easy to catch one, the cost was, just as the lady said, RMB5. The hotel staff don't seem to speak English, but we were met in the lobby by "Shirley", our very chirpy young CITS tour guide for tomorrow. I have to say that I'm highly impressed by the CITS service we've received thus far, despite the impression given by some travel references. Should be a fun day cruising up the Yangtze tomorrow.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Panda Slam!

In one corner is Panda 1, The Bamboo Muncher. In the other is Panda 2, Backwards Walker. The battle begins with Walker waddling backwards into Muncher. They tussle in the bamboo, Walker on top, no Muncher, no Walker, Muncher. They chase around the enclosure. One climbs a tree, the other pulls him down. Back on the bamboo, the fights nears the moat. In one big movement Muncher throws Walker down tumbling into the moat. Muncher is triumphant, rolling his arms around and doing the Panda Dance!

Our first destination today was the Panda Research Centre outside of Chengdu. We got out of the room late, just in time for breakfast in the hotel. The western buffet was not great, but the local food, including noodles, rice, porridge and dumplings was delicious. Nice to have some fresh fruit too. We are both looking forward to trying more tomorrow.

We walked outside of the hotel in search of a taxi to take us to the Panda Centre. A tout tried hard to get us in his taxi. "No meter. Too far! What do you want to pay?" he asks. "$30" I reply. "Costs more" he responds.

Giving up, we return to the hotel to ask what a good price is. They say $50, but will call in a taxi prepared to use the meter.

The driver takes us through run down suburbs in the process of demolition and reconstruction. Here is real Chengdu street life and it is fascinating. When we reach the Panda Centre the meter reads RMB31. So there, you damn touts!

The Panda Research and Breeding Centre is the most professionally operated of the tourist sights we have yet seen in China. The grounds are green with a wide variety of trees and plants, wide paths and excellent signs.

We thought that, at 10:40am, we were too late to see the Pandas feeding and that they would all be asleep. Not so! At the Panda Adult Enclosure Number 14 we see a few pandas chewing on bamboo or pacing around. Then we walk up to the Red Panda Enclosure Number 2 the small racoon-like red pandas are walking around, or grooming themselves. Quite vain, the red panda.

We were given the opportunity to be photographed holding a red panda for RMB50 each. Why not? So we donned the disposable gloves and sat down on the bamboo chair, a red panda placed on our lap. The attendants fed the panda slices of apple in order to attract their attention.

The red panda's tail is long and very bushy. I noticed that, unlike a dog, the nails were transparent and the pink cuticle clearly visible inside. At less than A$10 a pop it was worth it to get up and close with the animals.

No pandas were visible in the Panda nursery, it was probably the wrong time of year. However, the panda kindergarten was buzzing. An attendant was playing with the pandas in their enclosure. While most slept up in the wooden climbing platforms one panda was especially active. He even bit the attendant's leg when he wasn't looking.

Unfortunately, the RMB1000 "donation" to be photographed with a young panda (or RMB400 with a "teenager" panda) was too much for us this time, though at least the money is probably going towards a good cause.

The next enclosure, for teenage pandas, before they become solitary, was where we saw the panda wrestling match. Their antics, like those of the kindergarten pandas, had us entranced for ages. Whatever their real nature, the pandas really are cute to watch.

Also cute were the hordes of young schoolchildren on excursion to the centre. They seemed very curious about me, shouting out "hello" and giggling away. Later, in the onsite Panda Museum, a few wanted to shake my hand or even attack me. Why do kids see me as a punching bag? :)

From the Panda Centre we caught a van to the Wenshu Temple area. The area has been kept in Ye Olde Chinese style with beautiful courtyards filled with craft shops, food stalls and tea houses. But before we entered the courtyard area proper we were tempted outwards by a wonderful smell. The kind of nice smell you usually don't get in China. It was familiar, but what could it be?

A sweet bakery, the counter crowded with waiting customers. We pointed and ordered, not knowing what it was we were getting. Turned out that we had bought incredibly delicious lemon cream puffs, a sweet pastry, cooling minty Chinese dough roles, golden syrup cake and a bag of moreish ginerbread biscuits, also with a mint-cooling aftertaste. We even returned for more at the end of the day, the food was that good.

From a little store we ordered "traditional Sichuan buckwheat noodles", squeezed out from the dough right in front of our eyes. I enjoyed the soba-like noodles, while B drank the soup they were cooked in. Besides the noodle stall was an american drawing and selling caricatures. An amusing juxtaposition from Sydney, where it's usually Chinese artists in the market stalls doing the same thing.

The Wenshu Temple and Monastery cost RMB5 each to enter. There was a garden, turtle pond and series of ornate temple buildings. We watched the yellow monks walk into the temple for evening prayers, listed to the drums and chanting as we walked around.

On the way out we stopped by a small shop selling what appeared to thick noodles. Not certain what it really was, except that it was soft, cold in temperature, but extremely hot in spiciness. We could barely eat a couple of spoonfuls before giving up.

Giving up on taxis for the day, we walked back towards the hotel, stopping off at a department store from which the big Mao statue was visible in the distance. As we walked up the lane towards our hotel we passed a dingy but lively area with small shops and restaurants. Thinking that we really should try some more Sichuan cuisine we entered one busy eating house and were directed upstairs. With the help of the phrasebook we ordered a fish (with reduced chilli).

One full table next to us was populated by what looked to be members of the "peasant" class. A couple kept staring at me whenever I wasn't looking their way. It was probably just simple curiosity in this case but I think that some locals have been looking down on B for being seen with a waiguoren (foreigner). Don't blame us if your male preferential policies mean there aren't enough local women!

Our fish and fish head soup came out eventually, much the same as what we ate at Leshan, only much bonier and far less tasty. After the peasants departed we saw a big rat scuttle out for some scraps. It was that kind of place. Hopefully our stomachs will forgive us.

We have one day ahead of us and Chengdu doesn't seem to have many sights within the city proper. Not certain I want to risk a long trip out of town either, they are getting expensive. At least the only thing we need to get up early for tomorrow is breakfast!

Monday, March 19, 2007

In the presence of a giant

As I write this a tradesman is in our bathroom attempting to get a decent water flow in the shower. I was expecting this in China, but the Minshan Hotel is rated four stars according to CITS. I'm not really complaining, for we have had a fantastic day, up there with our walk along the Great Wall.

We (okay, I) woke before 5am in order to get ready for our trip to the airport. Both of us felt nervous as our taxi drove us along darkened back roads on the industrial outskirts of Xian. We could have been dumped there and nobody would see it happen.

But we survived unscathed and reached Xian's domestic terminal unscathed. The airport is quite functional, if unexciting. The toilets, however, stunk of excrement and urine, despite appearing clean. I think that they were of the type where toilet paper is placed in a bin adjacent to the toilet rather than down the drain.

I can't recommend the hot chocolate at the Denise cafe either, but what can you expect?

This time we were flying a China Eastern Airlines Airbus A320. The plane could do with a good wash, but what can you expect from flying above the land of the long grey smog cloud? As we ascended above the cloud layer snow capped mountains poked their summits into the heavens.

It was another rough flight. I wish I was like B and could sleep through the bumpiness. Little LCD screens popped down above the seats to show some promotional piece, sometimes in colour, but mostly in black and white, about Xian, though we were flying in the opposite direction. The hot Chinese meat bun was much appreciated though.

Chengdu airport looks very impressive, their speed at getting the baggage on the belt even more so. We were met by our driver for the day, a much quieter man than Mr Zhou. As we drove out directly towards Leshan, 150 kilometres away from Chengdu, B and I both fell asleep, tired from the early departure and from the late nights and too early mornings before it.

B declared that she no longer liked China due to the amount of spitting. The Chinese don't just let their phlegm drip to the ground. Neither is it a quick hrckt pfft. For them, it is a process of bringing up and flinging out every last drop of mucus inside their bodies, at least for a minute of so. A hhhrrrrrrrrcccccckkkkk, pppppfffffffffttttttt from deep inside their chests. The government is supposed to be cracking down upon it, but spitting seems, by the enthusiasm with which they do it, to be a source of great pleasure for many Chinese.

As we approached Leshan two previously unseen sights emerged: our first Chinese rain and motorcyclists wearing helmets.

But forget rain, spitting, pollution and anything disgusting or bad about China. A walk around the Big Buddha at Leshan was absolutely beautiful. After we stepped past the gate and started up the trail past the Buddhist grottoes, the dragon and the tiger statues, up into rainforest, bamboo and palm, we were in another world, a magical place.

The Liguyan Buddhist temple was guarded by colourful bodhisavattas, more like Hindu gods or demons. Then we were in a serene environment of monks, candles and incense, soothing music in the background.

Dafo, the big Buddha statue is 71 metres high, carved out of the red sandstone face of Liguyan Hill to provide protection for travellers along the Min River. The statue of the monk Haitong, the driving force behind Dafo's construction, sits nearby. The story goes he gouged his own eyes out to demonstrate his devotion to the project after a corrupt official threatened to blind him if he didn't get a cut of the funds.

Standing besides Dafo you feel like you are in the presence of a giant. He is a truly incredible creation. We climbed down the steep steps besides the statue, taking in every facet. The more you stare, the more alive he becomes, as if he is about to stand up and walk.

We took the walk around and through the cliffs, taking in the views of the Min River and the valley and stopping off at the pagoda lookouts. We saw the narrow fishing boats and fishermen encampments near the river bank. At the recreated fishermen's village we were accosted by old ladies trying to show us menus. We kept walking.

The old style, partly covered Haoshang Bridge provided a great view of the fisherfolk amongst the yellow rapeseed flowers. We crossed, then returned to the Mahao Cave Tombs, hollowed out rectangular caves into which families were buried upon their deaths, with various pottery items enclosed with them, not entirely unlike the Banpo neolithic peoples.

We walked back up to the fishing village, and finally agreed to eat a fish from the buckets. The old lady demonstrated that the prices were by weight, not fixed, took a fish and slammed it into the ground, before taking it inside to prepare it.

We ate an incredibly delicious meal of sichuan fish, fish head soup and rice, sipping hot tea. It was the best meal so far in China and good value at RMB50 for two. Only the bones were left once we were finished.

Trying to backtrack to the Linguyan Temple, we didn't realise that the tickets work in one direction only. But the ticket ladies were kind enough to issue us with new tickets for no charge. We took a different route back, up past the waterfall and wall of calligraphy, a beautiful, peaceful place.

It was time to return to the car, despite the many other sights left unseen. Again we slept for much of the drive back, arriving at the Minshan Hotel in Chengdu. It is a decent hotel, though we have now been shifted to a new room where the shower works. Free internet access too.

We were naughty tonight. After walking into the centre of Chengdu and trying delicious spiced skewered beef we ate dinner at Pizza Hut. Neither of us regretted having a change of diet, with salads and smoothies. Tomorrow, is pandas and proper sichuan food again!

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Ancient smurfs, terracotta warriors

We felt like really little package tourists today, from eating a hot buffet breakfast to following a flag toting guide. Up early to eat bacon and eggs and to meet our guide for the day, a young lady in pink with the English name of Ruby.

Our minibus stopped at two other hotels, further from the local CITS but much more convenient for the guests, to pick up another ten tourists, including an old Finnish gay man and his younger Thai partner and a couple of Swiss and Italians. On the way our coach driver got into a verbal argument with some men from a wedding party over who had the right to block the hotel driveway. We then drove off to the nearest of the day's destinations, the Big Wild Goose Pagoda.

The pagoda was built to house the precious Buddhist artifacts and scrolls brought back from India by the monk Xuanzang. Xuanzang's pilgrimage formed the basis of the story Journey into the West, better known by the Japanese television series Monkey!

While the central 64 metre pagoda is impressive (we were too lazy to climb it), also worth seeing is the colourful jade wall representation of Sakyamuni's (Buddha's) life. The story has obviously undergone some modifications over the years, with Sakyamuni now depicted as having special powers as a baby and a halo through his life - very much like the story of Christ.

The wooden depictions of Xuanzang's journey are also worth a look, though I could not see any monkeys flying around on clouds.

The following destination was the obligatory shopping stop, ostensibly to learn how the warriors were constructed (head and hands moulded separately from the body, which was made on a pottery wheel). Really, it was just a shallow attempt to get us to buy various sized repoductions and furniture.

Next stop was the Banpo Ancient Village. This is the site of excavations of a neolithic village from 6000 years ago. The Banpo society was apparently matriarchal and according to our guide there was no central management structure and everyone worked for the common good of the village - conveniently communist methinks.

From the shape of the ground indentations the Banpo people were neolithic smurfs. Not certain about their skin colour being blue, but they did live in mushrooms. Or so their wood and adobe houses appeared.

Excavations show the skeletons of adults, sometimes buried together in communual cemetary grounds. The babies were placed in clay pots kept in the houses of the mothers, who would continue to "look after" their offspring. Descendants were also known to chop off a couple of their digits to be buried with their parents. Don't remember ever seeing the smurfs doing that.

The lunch was also vary much a tourist trap location, though at least B got to eat some rice (short grain - the Cantonese seem to use long grain). The food was okay and at least we didn't go through our normal practice of searching the whole city for food.

Each time the coach set off we napped. After late nights and early mornings we were both exhausted. A couple of good things about the tour was that we were driven around and could relax from planning and thinking.

Finally, we made it to the Terracotta Warriors, braving the hawkers as we made our way up from the carpark to the excavation site. There was a lot of redevelopment going on, with men jackhammering away and women using picks. Posters lined the sides of the path, one stating:

Qin Wind, Qin Smelody, Qin Culture

Maybe they also ate cabbages for lunch.

The warriors were as impressive as the hype suggested. There are three excavations. The first pit is in the aircraft hanger like building. This contains the reconstructed warriors in formation, plus others in a partly reconstructed state. Much of the location remains unexcavated in order to retain the colouration on the buried warriors.

The seconds pit houses the general staff and a chariot. Most of the third and final pit is unexcavated, but a few figures have been reconstructed, including a couple of archers, a general and a lower ranking officer. These you can see up close and the level of detail is incredible, down to the tread of their shoes.

The tour gave us enough time at the warriors to see all we wanted to, then it was back to our hotels. We were tempted to request to be dropped off in the centre of Xian and explore it further, but both of us, me especially, were tired and want to call it an early night. So we found a dumpling restaurant recommended by the Lonely Planet and located across from the hotel. The difficult bit was in crossing the road, dodging the cars. Scary.

I would like to have seen more of Xian, walked the city walls and explored the Muslim Quarter. It seems a fascinating place, though sometimes the streetscapes reminded me of Beijing. Tomorrow we are off very early to Chengdu and Leshan. Time to get an early night.