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In Early October 2006 we set out on a world tour flying first to Beijing in China. We had so enjoyed the South African tour with Belgian tour group Best Tours that we had decide to do another one around China. We joined our Belgian tour party on arrival and were immediately immersed into the Chinese lifestyle with a cycle ride through the old city and a walk through the crowded streets. We had picked China's national holiday to arrive and Beijing was buzzing with literally millions of people all intent on having a good time!
We cycled to a large park with an equally large lake on which half of Beijing was sailing round in a variety of pedaloes. Eventually we found ourselves at one of the old city gates in which were housed large drums used to warn the local populace of impending doom! We were treated to a rendition on these large drums before finally returning to our bikes and eventually our hotel. Sue and I ventured into the night to find a famous Peking Duck restaurant where we eat heartily for a couple of quid!
The next morning we were up bright and early for a walk around Tianamen Square and the Forbidden City. As previously mentioned it was Chinas national holiday and there were millions of people queuing twice around the square to visit Mao's mausoleum. The Chinese say he got only 70% right but he is still nothing less than a God to the masses.
Around the square there were large model replicas of well known places in the various Chinese provinces including the Potola palace in Tibet which impressed. We had a group photo taken in front of the forbidden palace then walked through from one side to the other. At the far end is coal hill which we puffed our way up and which was created from the spoil that came from digging the moat around the forbidden city.
We headed out of the city by bus to the summer palace. Here was a huge lake and a similarly huge hill on which stood the palace. The last empress built this place then the Brits and the French knocked it down so the Empress rebuilt it.
The huge lake was dug by hand and the huge hill is the spoil from the dig! Money and human life were of little concern to this lot and they expended both to the full. Large dragon boats cruised the lake and there was even a solid marble boat built in the lake as if it was floating. We went out to a Chinese banquet organised by the tour guide that night and ate Peking duck again at about three times the price we had paid before!
We travelled north the next day about 300km to Chengde to yet another summer palace but this was more impressive as the emperor had built a replica full scale palace for each of his provincial governors,seven in all including the Potola palace.
The meal we were given in the hotel here was one of the best of the whole trip. Food generally was of excellent quality and came in prodigious quantities, usually about 20 different dishes.
There was a strange rock on top of one of the surrounding hills which nobody was able to tell me about but I assume was a volcanic plug, the remains of a volcano which had eroded away leaving the plug standing.
Back south again now to the Great Wall. The camera really can't do it justice. It is about 5000km long and was built to keep the Mongol hoards at bay. It is now covered with rampant female peasants desperate to sell you something. We travelled to the top of a hill by cable car and then walked back down the wall pursued by the rampant peasant women.
We visited the wall at a place called Simatai which is not as busy as the place tourists are usually taken closer to Beijing. It is recommended as a spectacular part of route and the cable car makes access easy. We met some hardy ex pat Brits who were walking that section of the wall and staying in local hostels along the way each night.
Back in Beijing we had one more place to visit before catching our train to Xi an that night. As we walked through the gardens towards the Temple of Heaven we came across a few thousand people singing their hearts out. They sounded really good and we were told that the songs were revolutionary ones from the great march in the civil war between Mao's and Chiangs armies. We also came across many groups singing and playing strange instruments. They were probably used to entertaining foreign devils but when they discovered we were a Belgian tour party they serenaded us with Frere Jacque and we all joined in!
The temple of heaven is circular. The Chinese believed the earth was square and the heavens were round for some strange reason.
All of Beijing is being prepared for the Olympic games in 2008 and there were flower displays depicting the various symbols of the games. They are building brand new metros and two new motorways especially to transport visitors and athletes, in fact everywhere in China you see massive civil engineering works and tower cranes sometimes dominate the landscape. The new Olympic stadium is well advance and is a giant birds nest of steel girders.
And so to the main railway station in Beijing which is a tourist attraction in itself. A huge central concourse with waiting lounges off to the side. You find the lounge from where your train will depart then at the appointed time you are allowed to proceed through the ticket barrier to your appointed platform. Unfortunately whoever designed this impressive edifice forgot that people travelled with heavy suitcases and we had to struggle down many steps to the platform. First Class sleeper means sharing with two others but our tour group had booked the whole carriage so at least we knew our fellow travellers. At breakfast time, after a sleepless night, we arrived at Xi'an. The city is surrounded by a wall 9km long which we cycled around for a fair distance, then off to the spice market and the famous terracotta warriors.
The museum where you view the soldiers covers a vast area and photography is forbidden although it is easy enough to cheat. I contented myself by buying a glossy book full of photographs with English text and signed by the very peasant farmer who discovered the warriors a few years ago which put a few bob into the pocket of a man who was probably a richer man than me! I did get a shot of Tom, our Best Tours guide, amongst some fake warriors in a local shop. One of the statues was painted which would have been how they looked orginally.
Our flight to Kunming was on time as was usual throughout our trip but it was a little cold and raining on our arrival. Kunming is situated high on a plateau and is renowned for its equitable climate which was a little unkind to us on this occasion. We sat in a traffic jam for all of an hour and the guide explained to us that Kunming was a city of, I think, 7 million people and 300 new cars came on the road every day. It had become, he said, a giant parking lot!
We first visited a Taoist temple in the hills outside the city. Taoist seem to like the wild vertical places and this one was built up a vertical cliff face with a path cut into the cliff from place to place.
You looked vertically down to a lake perhaps 500 metres below. The next day after a visit to a spectacular Hindu temple (we were beginning to get templed out!) we were bussed out to the stone forest.
If you have ever been to Malham Cove in Yorkshire and driven up onto the fell above the cove you will have seen a limestone pavement that the locals call clints, 'appen. Here is the same phenomenon but magnified at least tenfold. You walk through t'clints and at times are walking almost underground through solutional passages and lakes. The Chinese have desecrated it in the past with revolutionary slogans but that has now been stopped. In any case it goes for miles and is one of the wonders of nature that can only be seen in China.
After marvelling at these massive limestone formations we flew to Guilin and on to Yangshuo for an even bigger treat. The limestone monoliths here have to be seen to be believed. They seem to grow unaturally upwards from a lush flat plain watered by gently flowing rivers. The plain is very fertile supporting rice and all manner of vegetables whilst Yangshuo itself is a thriving tourist town full of international restaurants and souvenir shops. It was good to be able to eat something different to Chinese food at last!
We cycled through the surrounding countryside, visited a local farm and watched them harvesting rice using water buffalo. All around the scenery was spectacular and one mountain had a large hole right through it they called Moon Mountain. The highlight of the day was rafting down the Yulong river. At intervals there were floating bars where you collected a cold beer as you floated past between the excitement of shooting the rapids over the various dams across the river. The locals use these bamboo rafts to fish from.
They fish at night using lanterns and trained cormorants who seize the fish as they swim towards the light.
From Yangshuo we travelled about 80km up into the mountains to Ping An and the paddy fields of Longshen. We were entertained at the village by ladies from the ethnic Yao people. This was obviously invented just for tourist and seemed to be a Chinese version of Morris dancing! The ladies were trained in aggressive selling techniques and we were continually pestered to purchase all manner of souvenirs.
We changed to some mini buses which took us further up the mountain until the road ended and you could either walk or be carried about 2km to the village of Ping An where we were ensconced in a delightful hotel constructed entirely of wood.
Here you felt was a little of the real China, the food seemed to be home cooking and we were amongst a real community.
The rice paddies were spectacular and the next morning we walked further up the mountain pursued by the Yao ladies who now wanted money to let their hair down! They did not cut their hair and it fell down to the ground when not pinned up.
On the way back, the local school were in the playground doing their exercises, all except, that is, one little girl who simply stood there and refused to move a muscle!
We could have stayed here a few more days given the choice but after one night we trekked back down the mountain to the buses, back to Guilin and a flight to Shanghai.
Rather a sudden change of environment from a ramshackle wooden hotel to the 20th floor of a modern city hotel. Shanghai was the end of our organised tour but we had a further two days here before our Quantas flight left for Sydney and Auckland.
Shanghai is a cosmopolitan city where Chinese wealth is on display. The old waterfront they call the Bund is still intact and is the place where everyone promenades at night. All the major buildings are floodlit and the tourists boats decorated in a myriad of styles.There was even a boat with a huge television screen displaying adverts cruising up and down. The opposite bank of the river to the Bund was swampland 20 years ago but is now more like Manhattan with the highest communications tower and office blocks in Asia. A pedestrianised shopping street stretches for 2km where you can buy just about everything you could ever need and it is full of people into the early hours. Some town and some country! Our journey continued to New Zealand.
Below I have collected together the best of the photographs of our China trip and displayed them in a slide show. I have set it so the photos display rather quickly but you can stop the slide show by positioning your cursor over any image. By moving the cursor from the image the slide show will restart.