Previous Trip: Trans-Mongolian

China 2013

27th September - Beijing

Got into Beijing early afternoon and checked in, showered and changed and headed out to some Beijing Opera. Not my kind of thing but I thought it would be interesting. The 'opera' incorporated martial arts, acrobatics and opera. I enjoyed the first two but the singing sounded like Bjork crossed with a strangled cat. Below was a scene where the performers juggled the sticks throwing them, kicking them and twirling them. The only problem with the show was that it was very short. Only about an hour which I thought was way too short for an evening show.

28th September - Beijing - Great Wall

This morning I woke up sick. The sort of sick which requires a toilet and a sink. But I wasn't going to miss out on today's excursion. (Two of the others did miss out.) Anyway, a little light headed and no where near 100% I soldiered on. The things I put up with so that you all can live vicariously through me :-)

It was about two hours to the Jinshanling section of the Great Wall. The wall stretches over 6500 kilometres (4163 miles) across deserts, grasslands, mountains and plateaus, from east to west. Near Beijing there are a few accessible parts, thankfully we went to one of the quieter ones. Jinshanling has around 23 watchtowers and is much less developed than the more touristy areas. First up was a half an hour or so climb up hundreds of steps to actually reach the wall. The temperature today was perfect, somewhere in the teens, but it was a bit hazy / foggy, smoggy.

But despite the haze the views were stunning and it looked exactly as you would expect to see it. The wall snakes itself across the landscape from watchtower to watchtower. I places it was steep, very steep. Big steps and a little clambering but considering most of it is 600 years old and some older it's in good nick. The wall is imposing, 10 or 12 feet high and the width of a single track road. We would climb up to a watchtower and then down and across and back up to the next tower. Amazing. A bit like Machu Pichu, despite the high expectations it still managed to exceed them.

The stretch of wall was quiet or would have been if there wasn't a marathon being run along the wall. 26 miles up and down and along the wall. Nutters. They all looked knackered and were only half way. It didn't look like an elite race but I think anyone would have been sweating on this terrain.

After about 3 hours of walking we had the option to trek or take a cable car down. I thought I had pushed my luck far enough already so I chose the easy way down. A great day out and it was great crashing into bed when we got back to the hotel.

29th September - Beijing

When in Beijing The Forbidden City is a must, but it is a holiday weekend and I think half of China had the same idea. It was busy, but it is big so as long as you moved off the well-beaten track through the middle you could at least breath; although I'm not sure how clean the air we're breathing is. As you can see from the photos Beijing is sitting in a heavy foggy, smoggy haze.

The Forbidden City is a huge citadel complex which was home to the Emperors of the two dynasties up until the revolution in 1911. Huge gates, huge courtyards, huge temples. The whole place is impressive for its size but otherwise I was a little underwhelmed. Faded red temples, granite, marble, statues and loads of food stalls and gift shops. Maybe it is the fact that there were so many people, maybe the leaden skies, maybe I'm still not 100% but it just didn't do it for me.

Next to The Forbidden City is Tiananmen Square and it is big too. It is bordered by the Forbidden City, National Museum, a Congress Building and Mao's Mausoleum. Despite everything the Communist Party propaganda machine has managed to keep his myth alive. Just how many people does a lefty have to kill before they are thought of as being a little bit dodgy? Anyway, the mausoleum is shown below.

In the evening I walked The Forbidden City to see it all lit up. The walk was worth it, it does look good. In the evening Tiananmen Square was closed off they are preparing it for the National Day celebrations on Tuesday.

On the way back I walked down Wangfujing Snack Street. Loads of stalls down one street selling all sorts of food, BBQ skewers, dumplings, duck rolls and loads of stuff I didn't recognise. In the pictures below there is starfish and sea urchins on a stick, scorpions and something which looked maggoty, buggy things.

I found this sign, the bugs are silk worm chrysalis.

30th September - Beijing Parks and Hutongs

Today I decided to see a greener side of Beijing so I went to the north end of the Forbidden City and through the parks and around the lakes north of there. First stop Jingshan Park to climb the hill to look back across the Forbidden City. The hill was made from the dirt excavated from around the Forbidden City to create the moat. From up there through the haze it looks even bigger, even more buildings than I thought.

Next Beihai Park, an imperial garden more than 1000 years old. The park is dominated by a lake and inside that a hill on which sits the White Pagoda. The Pagoda is a Tibetan style Buddhist temple and is surrounded by other temples. The park is a nice haven from Beijing and today there were lots of people out on the lake in electric and pedal boats.

I don't know if it is for the National Holiday or if the parks always look this good. The flower beds are in full bloom and the bushes perfectly sculptured.

Qian Hai and Hou Hai Lakes. The area around the lakes is historically the home of nobles and wealthy merchants. Now it is surrounded by bars, restaurants and souvenior shops and it seems to be very popular with the huge amount of Chinese tourists in town this week. The lakes are lovely, weeping willows, couples in paddle boats, neat white concrete fence. A real escape from the hussle and bussle of the city.

The Hutongs are thousands of little streets that criss-cross Beijing. You could say it is like thousands of little China Towns. Most of the ones that I walked down have been cleaned up and were full of more food outlets and shops. All of this just shows how free enterprise is coming to China, although I do wonder how free it is and how many of the outlets are state run. Prices in general seem pretty level and quite low, not that I'm complaining.

1st October - Train to Xian

Woke up to thunder, lightning and rain so had a quiet morning before heading out to the train. By the time I left the hotel the rain had stopped and the sun had come out just to prove that it does make the odd appearence in Beijing. Anyway I was off on the train. Six hours at up to 298 km/h and quite a few stops and I hit Xi'an.

Arrived late so not much of an update today, but here's The Bell Tower nicely lit up.

2nd October - Xian

After the Terracotta Warriors Xi'an's most famous site is the City Walls. By the way Xi'an seems to be pronounced Shy Ann. It is the world's largest city wall. The Xi'an city wall has been restored and is 12m high, 18m wide is its bottom, 15m wide on the top, 13.7km long.

The present city wall was built in the Ming dynasty (A.D.1368-A.D.1644) on the foundation of the Chang'an Imperial city wall of Tang dynasty (A.D.618-A.D.907). Whoever built it, it is impressive. There were quite a few people around but the sheer scale meant it wasn't crowded. You could hire a bike to cycle around but the sun was out, there was a nice breeze so I decided to walk the whole wall.

As I was about to come down off the walls I saw a ceremony thing going on. Some guys dressed in ancient soldiers costumes doing a sort of changing of the guard thing.

Later I headed down to the Small Wild Goose Pagoda. A tower pagoda thing set in small nice gardens. About 1300 years old, it was 45m high until an earthquake in 1556, it's now only 43m high. Not a lot else to say really, a nice backdrop whilst sitting down and reading a book.

3rd October - Xian (Terracotta Warriors and Horses)

The main reason for coming to Xi'an apart from that it is on the way to Burma was the Terracotta Warriors. Or as I now know, The Terracotta Warriors and Horses. The site is about 2 hours from the centre of Xi'an given the traffic. Once we got there the whole place was packed. This National Holiday Week does make for busy tourist sites. Our guide said this week has been crazy. Today was a long day of crowds, pushing, shoving and trying to get to the front and get good views.

From Wikipedia, "The Terracotta Army or the "Terracotta Warriors and Horses", is a collection of terracotta sculptures depicting the armies of Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China. It is a form of funerary art buried with the emperor in 210–209 BC and whose purpose was to protect the emperor in his afterlife. The figures, dating from around the late third century BC, were discovered in 1974 by local farmers in Lintong District, Xi'an, Shaanxi province. The figures vary in height according to their roles, with the tallest being the generals. The figures include warriors, chariots and horses. Current estimates are that in the three pits containing the Terracotta Army there were over 8,000 soldiers, 130 chariots with 520 horses and 150 cavalry horses, the majority of which are still buried in the pits near by Qin Shi Huang's mausoleum. Other terracotta non-military figures were also found in other pits and they include officials, acrobats, strongmen and musicians."

We visited three 'pits', Pit 2, Pit 3 and then Pit 1. Our took us in that order as she was saving the best for last. Pit 2 was big but underwhelming. Lots of excavation but just broken remains of figures. Pit 3 is much smaller and only houses a few figures but these are nearly or fully complete figures of the senior army members. This whetted the appitite for Pit 1.

Pit 1 is huge and is where the major excavation and restoration is going on. There are row after row of complete figures, genarals, warriors, horses, all standing in line. This is what you think of when you think terracotta warriors. Despite the size of Pit 1 building the walkways were 3 deep all round But with a bit of leaning in and a bit of elbowing I managed to get to the rail and get some great views and photos. It is impressive, massive scale and each statue contains a lot of detail. Impressive.

At the back of the huge shed was the restoration area with partially restored warriors where you could see how painstaking the process is and how good at jigsaws the restorers need to be. All in all the Terracotta Warrior (and Horses) are an amazing achievement and great story, but as a spectacle especially when you queue and jostle for hours the see them was to me OK but no more. Maybe it's my lack of appreciation of ancient history, or my failure to imagine the work that went into it but I think I'm more suited to more contemporary history.

4th October - Free Day in Xi'an and Overnight Train to Chengdu

Xi'an is pretty mad. So busy, so many people and they all seem about 21. I know I'm in the centre around the main shopping centres but everyone does look like university students. Ever shop seems to be really pushing for business especially mobile phone shops. Outside everyone there are stands to attract customers and get them into that particular shop. Some are doing giveaways, some shouting out the deals. Others have shows. Below is a girl doing magic tricks and the cheerleaders need no explanation.

Inside shops, whether electrical, cosmetic, clothes or even a supermarket there are staff everywhere giving free samples, demonstrations or generally trying to help and to sell. Whether all on commission (unlikely) or just all trying to do their best, they all seem to be giving it their all. Such a contrast to the older people you run into, or more likely who run into or barge you. They seem so miserable, so zombie like, either ignoring everyone around them or berating something. Being surrounded by so many people all the time seems to have worn them down.

5th October - Chengdu

Nice, easy overnight train and I'm in Chengdu. Jumped in a taxi to get to the hostel. This helped illustrate the road rules or lack of them in China. Everyone of the roads is angry and my taxi seemed to having an especially bad day. Accelerating, braking, cutting up anyone especially non-taxis. At one point we were either driving down the wrong side of the road straight at a line of motorbikes coming the other way or they were all going the wrong way down a one-way street. All of this is accompanied by constant beeping of the horn. Bikes, motor and push, just seem to go where they like when they like. Cutting across traffic and generally getting in the way. Pedestrians cross here, there and everywhere and when trying to cross they encroach and encroach, narrowing the road more and more. When you do get a green man cars still turn right on you and force themselves through anyone crossing. Everyone thinks they have right of way and no one else matters. All makes for a hair raising ride.

6th October - Chengdu

Chengdu is the capital of Sichuan Province, the home of spicy, spicy food in China. In fact Chengdu is an officially recognised UNESCO City of Gastronomy, whatever that means. Anyway Sichuan food is based on two main ingredients spicy chilies and peppercorns. The peppercorns numb whilst the chillis burn. Hence the crisp flavour below 'numb and spicy' and the huge pile of dried chillis in the supermarket priced at £1.50 a kilo.

So today's entry is food related. First up hole in the wall street food which is everywhere. Many are BBQ shops with stuff on skewers which they either grill or cook in oil. Beef, pork, chicken, octopus, 3 stick for 10 yuan (£1). There are also dumpling shops like one below. I did the Chinese thing and joined a queue assuming the food must be good because it has a queue. The shop was a whole production line. In the back they were making the dough and rolling it out, putting in the filling and closing it up. Hundreds and hundreds of dumplings. In the front a guy stands over bug gas burner and a pan full of oil. He puts in the dumplings and puts on the lid. One of the girls then goes down the queue selling paper bags for 6 yuan (60p). The chef then shuffles the pan around for about 5 minutes. The oil browning the bottom of the dumplings and the lid on meaning the dumplings will steam. When they're done he dishes them out 4 to a bag and the transaction is done. The filling is a tasty herby, porky mixture and eating them with chop-sticks is entertainment in itself.

Some of you may be thinking that's good but I see no spice. Don't worry it's coming. In the evening I went to a restaurant across the road from the hostel for some hotpot. Hotpot is consists of a simmering metal pot of stock in the centre of the dining table. While the hot pot is kept boiling, ingredients are placed into the pot and are cooked at the table. The hotpot is hot both in temperature and spice. The waitress through in a pile of chilli and peppers and other spices then filled the pot up with boiling water. The burner underneath kept it boiling away. There is also a non-spicy pot, no idea what that tastes like, I'm no wimp.

Next job is to go over to the cabinets and choose some meat and veg to cook in the pot. Some meat balls, some pork, some beef, some other meaty things that I couldn't identify, some potatoes, some greens and some corn on the cob. I put the stuff in the pot and let to stew. Then the fun part. I have skewers of meat, dripping in boiling hot water and red hot with chilli and I have to pull the meat off the skewer with chop-sticks and maneuver it to my mouth without splattering the liquid all over my shirt. I managed it every time except one, not sure if I'll ever get that chilli filled stain out. Anyway the food. I now understand what the mean by numbing. The peppers really do and coupled with the chilli it is an interesting effect and I like it. In terms of spiciness it's not hotter than decent Thai food. The spiciest thing was the corn on the cob, I guess it soaked up the most liquid. Lovely.

7th October - Chengdu

Another food related post. Went out this evening with some of the staff from the hostel and tried some more 'interesting' food. Always interesting to be led by locals and you definitely end up trying things you'd otherwise never see. First up a small vendor in front of a shop selling a pizza like thing. Warm bread with a chilli beef topping and some veg. Very tasty in a numb peppercorn kind of way. The next stop was not as appertising, pigs trotters. Deep fried, cut up with gardening secateurs, thrown in a bag with chilli and pepper. A lot of fat, barely no meat, the others cleaned them up to the bone but it's not for me.

After some octopus on a stick I spotted something I'd seen on a cooking programme about Chengdu before I left the UK, rabbit head. That's right not the lovely meaty part cooked up in a stew but rabbit head. Cooked up, covered in a lot of spice and sitting in rows on a tin plate. Well I had to have a go. There wasn't a lot of meat on it, half a mouth full on each cheek and a bit around the chin just below its fanged teeth. The main problem was that when biting off the meat the whole lips and mouth got coated in the spices, quite a burn. I was told you're suppose to break the jaw bone and eat the brains, I skipped that bit.

We then sat down at a little locals cafe thing and ordered some food. Well I sat and they ordered the food. More pig's trotters, pig's waist (yes that is the correct spelling), a dish with some very fatty bacon and another which small salty bacon bits. Every dish was very tasty but for the first time in my life I was actually picking out the vegetables and leaving the meat!

Afterwards we walked down around the river which was all lit up and looked great. This is one of the main bar areas in Chegdu although on a Monday night it was quite quiet. Tonight was great, what makes travelling really fun, going out with locals, getting off the tourist track, marvelous.

8th October - Chengdu

Sichuan and Chengdu are famous for two things, food which I think I've covered pretty well already and pandas. Big furry, cuddly, black and white pandas. Chengdu is home to the Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding "The Chengdu Panda Base was founded in 1987, with six giant pandas rescued from the wild. Due to our research and commitment to animal health and welfare, 124 giant panda cubs have been born to our Base in 85 litters, 88 survived and now we have 83. To assist other institutions holding giant pandas we provide technical support and send our experts to assist with care, rearing, and breeding. So that all giant panda researchers can share their knowledge, we host the Giant Panda Annual Technical Meeting, inviting researchers from all over the world to share information to improve captive management for the conservation of giant pandas. The Chengdu Panda Base covers an area of 106 hectares and will be enlarged to 200 hectares during the third phase of our expansion. Red pandas, golden monkeys and other wild and/or endangered species live and breed here."

We got there early and the place was pretty empty. We could walk around and get a great view of the pandas. First up the nursery. Lying in a big cot were 5 cubs all between one and two months old. There were just small wriggling balls of fur. The keeper in the room with them would now and again pick them up and rearrange them in a nice photogenic row and straighten their blanket. Amazing to see so many cubs of an animal who are so notoriously difficult to get to breed.

Next up the grown-up bears. The keepers feed them piles of bamboo and they sit and laze around chewing their way through the pile. Not been to many zoos so I'm guessing this is the first time I've ever seen a panda. There are big cuddly bears but their hands are really dexterous and they make short work of sorting through the bamboo. They also seem reasonably agile climbing trees walking around.

Last up was the adulesants. These are the ones that are full of energy and were playing and even teasing each other whilst eating their bamboo. One was a typical kid, only wanted to eat the bamboo that one of the others already had. It was really really good couple of hours wandering around and seeing the pandas who seemed to have a great life. Plenty of room, plenty of food and plenty of time lazing around.

From the Panda Base we went on to Leshan to see the Leshan Buddha. The Buddha is the largest curved stone Buddha in the world, 71m high. It was started 1300 years ago and took 90 years to complete. When the Giant Buddha was carved, a huge thirteen story wooden structure, plated in gold, was built to shelter it from rain and sunshine. This structure was destroyed and sacked by the Mongols during the wars at the end of the Yuan Dynasty. From then on, the stone statue was exposed to the elements. It's an impressive sight standing at the confluence of three rivers and well worth visiting.

9th to 12th October - Chengdu

4 lazy days in Chengdu. Some wandering, some sitting, some reading, some eating. Been really lucky with the weather, autumn in Chengdu is described as cool and wet but I've have 8 days in the low 20s and there's been no rain at all. For the most part it has been fairly clear although it has been getting more hazy / smoggy as the days went by.

The main square is big with fountains and statues, the biggest of which being Mao who looks over the square from one end. Around the edge of the square are columns proclaiming the great things about Chengdu. The Sichuan food, the founding of Taoism, great poets and artists, pandas. Each column has a paragraph in Chinese and English and a picture.

Chengdu has very little remaining of its history. It is wide open streets and high-rise after high-rise. There are a few temples but little else. So like many other Chinese cities it has built some 'new old' areas. These areas, built in an old style are tourist areas full of souvenirs, food stalls, tea houses and bars. They also contain lots of statues of scenes from olden times. The areas are very busy with Chinese tourists but are fun to walk around for an hour or two. It's also a great way to try the exotic foods in a more hygienic form. Another added bonus is that all shops are fixed price (by government order), I hate bargaining.

13th October - Chengdu and Overnight Train to Kunming

20 hours heading south through rolling hills, rice terraces and factories pumping out steam and smoke. Pollution really is a problem in China, whether from factories or from farmers burning the corn and rice straw. Either way a lot of crap is being pumped into the sky. More than will be solved by putting up a few eye-sore wind turbines in the UK.

14th October - Kunming

Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province is known in China as "the city of eternal spring" due to its temperate climate. It's cooler than Chengdu and there seems to be less going on. A few old pagodas not really a lot more to see. I think I'm done with Chinese cities. Looking forward to hitting the road and getting out into the countryside.

15th October - Kunming

Met up tonight with the others on the truck for the trip through Burma. Twenty of us in total and I'm the second youngest. I expected it to be a group of experienced travellers to be on the first ever truck through Burma but this is ridiculous. Anyway the usual mix, English, Aussies, Kiwis and a couple of Yanks. On first impressions everyone seems petty easy going, so hopefully be a good trip.

16th October - Kunming (Stone Forest)

Really had enough of cities so today seven of us organised a car and went out to the Stone Forest of Yunnan. A Unesco protected area (350km2) of limestone columns. It is a really impressive, scenic and peaceful area once you get away from the busy, manicured, almost theme park like area near the entrance.

We walked around for four hours, I don't don't know how many steps we walked up and down but my knees are saying it was a lot. All the paths were really well looked after, solid concrete steps and like everywhere else in China so clean. The columns and cliff faces were amazing and I loved the way that nature was taking it over, with trees growing in amongst all the rocks.

We split into two groups once we got the the park and in our four was a women of 74. What a trooper, stayed with us through out up and down, clambering through the tight gorges and crevices. She is travelling on her own on the truck with us all the way through Burma to Bangkok. Mum surely if she can do that you can fly to Bangkok on your own to be met at airport and shown around? :-)

17th October - To Dali

First day on the truck. A morning drive from Kunming to the small lakeside town of Dali (appox 320kms). Twenty of us means a pretty full truck but it didn't feel to crowded, we managed to get all the bags in the luggage locker too.

18th October - Dali

Dali is a laid back backpacker town or at least the old town area is. On the way in it looked like the new part of the town was expanding rapidly. We're staying in a hotel run by an Aussie and it just means everything is better than previous hotels. Better internet, softer beds, cleaner rooms. The old town of Dali lies within the old city walls and is part original and part rebuilt. It is full of craft shops, clothes shops, restaurants and bars. All the menus have English on them the food using good cuts of meat rather than fat and bone. Nice break after three weeks struggling to get palatable food in the rest of China.

The weather is a bit cooler and there always look like there is a chance of rain, but we walked a couple of miles down to the lake. Road passed out of the Old Town and then through some paddy fields where women were cutting the stalks and staking them up. The lake is big and has ferries running up and down. It appears to be surrounded by hills but they were mostly covered in cloud. It looked a nice spot and in better weather it would have been nice to have taken a trip around the lake.

19th October - Tengchong

This morning we drove towards Yunnan's Baoshan county, famous for its hotsprings and the many volcanoes that surround the area. The drive was about 340km and took most of the day. We drove through some stunning scenery. The drive was along valleys and over some big hills (this is the end of the Himalayas). The area is very fertile and all the way along were rice paddies, both flat and stepped up the hills, huge covered market gardens and a lot of corn. The corn was growing where they couldn't plant rice, on really steep slopes and in rough nooks and crannies. The corn cobs were hanging from the houses, I guess this was to dry them so the could be ground down? The other main feature is the road itself and the engineering that went into it. It winds its way across the terrain, all of it dual carriageway and a lot of it on bridges and elevated sections hanging on to the sides of valleys. It seems no obstacle is too big.

At about 5pm we hit Tengchong. We then drove out the otherside and started to look for somewhere to camp for the night. Neither Dragoman or any other truck has been here or anywhere else on our coming route before so it was pot luck what we would find. But we soon came across a spot amongst some trees that was just a bit off the road and by 5:30 we were pitching tent aand unpacking the kitchen ready to cook dinner. Hope we find bush camps this good as quickly on the rest of the trip.

20th October - Ruili, Tengchong

Up early, pack up the tents, have breakfast, load the truck and off. First of all to an extinct volcano. We got there before the local tourists and set off for the top. 650ish steps and we hit the rim. But to be honest it wasn't much to see. We walked around the rim but it is now all grown over by trees. There is still an obvious crater and it was a great walk to blow away the cobwebs, but I want to see molten lava.

Next on to a hot spings area, it has been turned into a spa resort but the was a good walked through the park and lots more steps to climb. Lots of steam, lots of sulpher smells. A very pleasant couple of hours walking around.

After a very good lunch in a local restaurant where the little old women was overjoyed to get our custom (they don't get many Westerners around here) we set off for the border town of Ruili. About 220km but it took about 6 hours. About an hour in the dual carriageway ended abruptly and from then on it was the old road winding through the hills. Lots of long stops for roadworks where the new road is being built. But it was a scenic ride.

After these last two days I now feel properly on holiday. Seeing the countryside, seeing the people working in the fields, rough camping, toilet stops on the side of the road, this is more like it. Hope it continues to get better on the next page in Burma (if we manage to get in tomorrow.)

Next Trip: Burma 2013