Monday, 31 August 1998
Lijiang, Yunnan, China
Lijiang is a very relaxing place to spend a few days, the old town has been preserved partially as a tourist centre but if you walk 200m down the road you find yourself in a maze of wooden houses with upturned eaves. It has also been westernised and even has a "Bistro" where you can listen to Portishead while you eat your pizza. Anyway we switched hotels to one housed in a traditional building - based around a courtyard with an excellent balcony where you could sit and read. After this we explored the streets and assembled all of the rumours about the current state of Tiger Leaping Gorge where we were to head the next day.
The evening was occupied by going to see a performance of the Nakhi Orchestra. This must be the oldest orchestra in the world with most of its member over seventy and at least ten octogenarians. The problem with this is that, as the band's director pointed out at length, gradually they will all pass away and with them probably their music. We wondered why they did not have a few youngsters in the band I guess it must be that their repertoire of Han and Tibetan pieces would not be trendy enough for China's fashion conscious youth. The concert was good but suffered from the audience talking, the director twittering on in Chinese with the occasional English phrase - the band all like western food like your jams - and the fact that the orchestra slept through most of the concert.
Tuesday, 1 September 1998
Tiger Leaping Gorge, Yunnan, China
Tiger Leaping Gorge , it appeared was blocked at one end by landslides. So we (Ozzy, Jane, Anna and I) decided to do it in reverse, going from Daju to Walnut Grove and then, if we could not go any further back to Daju. The bus ride to Daju was an adventure, landslides everywhere and at one point the bus got stuck and we had to rock it out. Daju itself was little more than a village in about the only flat area for miles and so we were quickly out into the fields and a ceaseless cold drizzle. About an hour out of town you come up against the first obstacle - the Yangtze River. With a great deal of difficulty we found the ferry terminal, a wooden hut in which three Chinese men were killing time drinking tea. They invited us to sit down but didn't give any indication of when or if they would be leaving. After the allotted time the three guys finally got up and lead us to the ferry which turned out to be a ten foot long leaky wooden affair with a tractor motor mounted high at the rear, complete with seat and steering wheel. The Yangtze, which lower down had flooded half of China, was much higher than usual and very turbulent. Eddies developed without warning and tree trunks, washed down during landslides hurtled along it like torpedoes. The driver drove far up the river then drifted back repeatedly so that he crossed in a zigzag fashion rather than being caught broadsides by the current. The other two guys kept look out, one with a hooked pole which presumably he would have used to deflect any incoming logs (fortunately we were spared this). In about five minutes they got us to the other side and with a smile, presumably because they thought we would not get far and would be coming back soon, set off back to their tea drinking.
On the other side it was a hard slog up to a plateau of sunflowers, maize and courgettes. We then dropped down for our first encounter with the Daju-Qiaotou "road". I place this in inverted commas because firstly there was no bridge to connect it with Daju, hence the ferry. Secondly because roads are meant to provide an easy route from A to B whereas this road was blocked by landslides in at least eight places along its 40km length. Four of these blocks were in the section to Walnut Grove where we were to spend the first night. Three of them were easily crossed being a few days old and so had villager's tracks worn into them. However one of them nearly terminated our trek and Jane into the bargain.
On the corner of one of the bends a great mass of rock and mud had been washed down a stream onto the road totally blocking it. A good percentage of it was easily traversed but when it came to the muddy trough formed by the stream we had to pause to think. Aussie was first to cross, trying to keep high rather than using a four inch wide ledge of soft mud just on the edge of the 200m sheer drop to the river. Half way across we heard the clunk, clunk, clunk of a stone as it made its way down the trough. Ozzy ducked behind a bigger rock just as the squash ball sized stone hurtled past him. A little bit shaken by this near miss Jane was next to give it a go. She started to follow the same route but we heard an almighty crack and Jane retreated just in time to dodge a rock at least the size of a football. I say "at least" because when we heard the crack we all totally crapped our pants and ran for seemingly safe ground. I had in fact to stop Anna because she seemed intent on running all the way back to Lijiang. However we sort of recovered our composure and managed to cross as quickly as we could on the mud ledge with a helping hand from Ozzy.
Not too far beyond this point, as soon as we had escaped the spectre of overhanging rocks we stopped for a rest. The point we chose looked down the river onto a landslide on the opposite side of the bank where tons of grey rock had slipped down into the river and formed a temporary promontory which was being gradually washed away by the river. This was a bit like watching the Ultar ice fall in Pakistan, every so often there would be an almighty crack as a section of the landslide fell away into the river sending a spurt of water twenty feet into the air. It was amazing to watch as in most of Europe the Earth is in a very static state, you never see it in action and never get a sense of how powerful nature is. I hoped that our journey to the Moreno glacier in South America would also yield the same excitement.
Next stop was Sean's guesthouse in Walnut Grove. On arrival I realised that the name had conjured up visions of a forested plateau with a group of tiny cottages and roaring fires to combat the cold and the damp. What we found was spectacular but not quite as welcoming as the too English picture I had created. On one side of the river a very sheer rock face rose something like 1500m out of the Yangtze. It had sparse vegetation, was stained black and looked all the more lofty by a couple of ledges of cloud. Above this face the Yulongxue Shan , or Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, rose up at least another 1500m. 300m up from the other side of the river the road ran through a collection of wooden houses and terraced fields perched on a 30 degree slope. And "Perched" they were, we found out later that over the past two years the village had been slipping towards the river and eve during our night's stay the foundations of a neighbouring barn fell away on to the road and the barn collapsed. Oh, and there were no walnuts....
Sean turned out to be the nicest guy you could hope to meet in China. A Tibetan native of the village he had run the guesthouse for 17 years and had, 16 months before, married Margo, an Australian tourist who came to see the gorge and never left. The reason we liked him so much was because he was single-handedly trying to rescue the gorge from development and was the first person we met who openly talked about how bad the state was governing the area. He also was the one person who found most of his fellow countrymen as ignorant and rude as we did, if not more so. Most of our conversation with him on that first night centred around the gorge, it appeared that beyond Walnut Grove both the high and low path were blocked by landslides and that the only alternative to turning back would be to hire a guide. It took only minutes to decide, if weather permitted we would go on. After this we drank loads of beers, ate loads of food and played cards half the night.
Wednesday, 2 September 1998
Tiger Leaping Gorge, Yunnan, China
Our two day trek was fated to be a three day expedition. The fact that both routes were blocked meant that we would have to follow the high route to get around two landslides then drop down to the low route to avoid another. This switching of paths would add two hours to a normally ten hour hike which would mean that we would miss the last back to Lijiang and have to spend the night there. Rather than this we decided to split the journey and have a night in the gorge instead.
We set off not too early for a guesthouse about six hours away. Around the corner from Walnut Grove a huge landslide had swallowed up the road and had redirected a very powerful waterfall onto the remainder. There was no way of crossing so we had to climb up to the high path to a bridge further up the river's course. This meant a steep climb through fields stacked with mountain herbs and then a muddy descent through trees which soon gave way to a deadly bamboo grove where broken spears of bamboo awaited anyone who slipped.
The waterfall crossing was one of the easiest we did that day with two fairly sturdy bridges. Then it was back up again to traverse the top of the landslide and into some high meadows with impressive views of the gorge. Here we had more waterfall crossings where, with only stones to assist, we got well and truly soaked. Eventually we reached a pass where Sean cheered me up with the news that it was all downhill from there. This was closely followed by another echo of Pakistan, a channel walk. It turned out that because of mining in the hills above the next village the local rivers were polluted. So the local government had extracted 500 yuan from each family to build a channel from a pure source over a km away, anyone who could not or did not want to pay being forced to work on it. Sadly the channel, although providing an easy path for us, was a bit ill fated. We soon came to a point where the stone channel was replaced by a metal aqueduct which had been crushed by a massive rock falling on it. Further down it became obvious that a lot of work would be needed to put it back into operation, landslides had either filled it or the channel itself had been carried down the mountainside.
We reached a guesthouse known as the halfway house but continued on to lessen the following day's stage. This walk took us over the top of some very bad landslides on the lower road and it was clear, despite the continuous dynamite blasts to fragment the larger rocks, that it would be weeks before the road would be cleared even if there were no more falls. The guesthouse we finally reached was back on the low road. We collapsed on their front veranda, demanded beer and enjoyed a brilliant meal. After dinner Sean revealed a bit more of the story of the gorge. Apparently after the 1996 earthquake Hong Kong donated a lot of aid money to the region. However this money was never used to improve the villagers' lives, instead it was employed to build the Daju-Qiaotou road. Strangely enough toll booths sprung up at either end despite the fact that the road had already been paid for. Unfortunately the construction of the road involved rather a lot of dynamite and this has weakened the structure of the rocks. This, coupled with the fact that the Chinese do not shore up the sides of the road with concrete, has lead to a sudden increase in the number of landslides. The reason for the road is plain, to allow lazy Chinese tourists who do not like to hike to access the gorge by tour buses. However the plan has backfired because for the lot of the season it is closed by landslides caused by its own construction.
Thursday, 3 September 1998
Qiaotou, Yunnan, China
The walk from the guesthouse to Qiaotou was basically a hard slog along 13km of road. The scenery changed dramatically from a deep chasm with a Yangtze literally churning through it to low rolling mountains with a river so slow that it looked still. The strange thing was that we had got used to the thundering river so when we emerged into the quieter stretches it seemed unnaturally quiet. We still had our fair share of landslide and river crossings. One landslide was only a day old and had locals scrambling all over it to find crystals. Sean warned us that this was a very dangerous point, the landslide was not quite over.
Qiaotou itself was not up to much, little more than a backpackers cafe with a notice at the end of its menu saying "we know where to get hold of Mary Jane". We did as well since it was growing everywhere in the fields throughout the gorge. At this point we started to realise that the bus service back to Lijiang was not up to its usual standard. The road at this point runs very close to the river which was 7m higher than normal. We had already seen one point where the river had flooded the road but we were waned that it was much worse further down. Not wanting to be stuck for more than an hour in Qiaotou we decided to take our chances on the first bus. We easily got through the first flood which was under a metre deep but after another half hour we arrived at the end of a queue of lorries. We got out to have a look at the situation an quite incredibly found that the queue was about 2km long and that at the front the officials were only letting vehicles through in one direction, and very slowly since not only was it deeper but the surface of the road had been washed away.
Now you think that any sensible bus conductor would go around the flooding, find a bus stuck on the other side and swap passengers since there were really only two destinations. Our conductor, who bore a marked resemblance to Bobby Ball, had other ideas. He just swanned around near the front of the queue and looked on the verge of joining in one of the truck drivers' card games before Sean collared him and put forward the proposal. It was at least an hour and half later that the plan was finally implemented and we got on our way. As Sean pointed out the conductor was not the only idiot - with a bit of imagination and some logs or stones the whole blockage could have been sorted out days ago. It is bizarre - in China there seems to be a tacit acceptance of road delays, so much so that no one seems really keen to sort them out. The people who make the most of the situation are the drinks sellers who were swarming around the stranded buses and coaches.
Back in Lijiang we swiftly showered and took Sean, who had business in Lijiang, to the Well Bistro for a slap-up dinner. It was a great dinner (I had pizza to end a long spell of purely Chinese), I am sure Sean only caught a percentage of the conversation but everyone had a laugh.
Friday, 4 September 1998
Lijiang, Yunnan, China
Another rest day although we did quite a lot. We finally picked up a bag of Sichuan wild peppers and got some chops (stone seals) engraved as presents for various people. Another dinner at the Well Bistro rounded off the evening.
Saturday, 5 September 1998
Dali, Yunnan, China
We had intended to make an early start for Dali but oversleeping soon put paid to that. We caught the 12:30 bus as, coincidentally, did Ozzy and Jane. The countryside was nice at first but soon the steep mountains gave way to a smoother terrain and less well sculpted rice paddies. After four hours we saw Lake Er Hai and went through the first village on its coast. I did not say it at the time but the villages were disappointing, I had expected fishing villages as well preserved as Lijiang. Instead we reverted back to the villages we had encountered in Gansu, ugly affairs with houses sporting blue glass windows. The trend continued and had it not been for the fact that we passed the three pagodas I would have had difficulty spotting our arrival in Dali.
They say first impressions are rarely wrong, this was certainly true in Dali. We found the recommended guest house pretty quickly, a so-called traditional Bai building surrounding a courtyard that would not have been out of place in Bali. Our room had bars on the window and felt damp. The whole place was inhabited by backpackers who were more than keen to exploit the availability of ganja, something rare in the rest of China. We tried in vain to find a restaurant which served local fish ("Westerners don't like fish" we were informed) and settled for another steak dinner in an out of the way cafe. Ozzy and Jane fared little better - "It's like being in Amsterdam" was Ozzy's comment the next day. And indeed it was, a town full of nothing but tie-dyed T-shirts, hippy jewellery, pot, western menus and of course neo-hippies. We booked our ticket out that night...
Sunday, 6 September 1998
Dali, Yunnan, China
We had decided to give Dali the best part of a day to redeem itself by catching a sleeper bus to Kunming. Again we got up too late and wasted even more time by having a western breakfast - Grande Breakfast Taco. We then walked out of town towards the lake to see if we could find a nice bit of shore to sit on and read. No such luck, all an hours walk under the hot sun on a straight road through rice paddies yielded was a lacklustre jetty. To the S of the jetty was an unpassable stream and what looked like a marsh, to the north of the jetty was a series of walled fishpens and again a marsh so we had to turn back after ten minutes. The jetty itself was a somewhat flawed experience with people continually approaching us to see if we wanted to hire their boats, a pretty safe assumption since there was little else to do. So we headed back in to town and after a bit of debate decided to do what Dali did best, sit and drink all afternoon until it was time to go.
Monday, 7 September 1998
Kunming, Yunnan, China
The sleeper bus to Kunming was pretty slow and not very eventful. We got to Kunming at 0600 and found a good hotel pretty quickly. We decided to take our first day there slowly and finally emerged at lunch time to try and track down the local speciality - crossing-the-bridge noodles. However Kunming turned out to be one of the many towns in China that was being re-styled and every restaurant recommended in our guide book turned out to be a building site. By the time we were desperate we were in one of the posher areas of town and so we had to accept being ripped off for a bowl of noodles with some greasy chicken swimming around in it. Our next task was to find the PSB office which was not easy with everyone sending us in a different direction. Here we learnt that we could not extend until the week before our visa expired. I tried to explain that at this point we would be in the middle of nowhere but this did not produce any helpful suggestion so we decided to risk it.
The afternoon was spent in Cuihu Park. As this was basically four huge lakes separated by quite narrow pathways it proved an excellent place to sit and relax. We then found a very nice restaurant which played Bob Marley records non-stop and did a pretty mean Sichuan boiled beef. On the way back we stopped off at a "back-packers" cafe only to run into Vivienne and Sabine the two girls who we had jeep ridden from Langmusi to Songpan with. They had since been down to Xichuangbanna having given Lijiang a miss because, unbeknownst to us there had been reports of flooding with 500 people dead...
Tuesday, 8 September 1998
Kunming, Yunnan, China
The Western Hills above Dian Chi were the target for the day's trip. We had gotten hold of a proper town bus map and because of this managed to travel the 15km for 3 yuan. Once there we entered a forest park and started on a long uphill climb. The first stop was the Huating temple which was supposed to a have some impressive statuary. This turned out to be the case, the only problem was our unasked for guide. Someone appeared before us a little way after the entrance and started to tell us all about the temple, how it had been partially burned down and how he, a professor of woodcarving, had been commissioned to replace a set of wooden screens depicting the Journey to the West.
With hindsight it is easy to look at each of the events that followed and add them up to a whole but taking each of them as you experience them it is easy to let them pass. The first problem was that I had just finished reading Journey to the West and although the panels were brilliant animations of the story I seemed to know more about them than he did. I knew the Buddhist names of a lot of them and when I said them to Anna he paid no attention, but if you said "pig" or "money king" he would leap upon it. Also when asked he would be very frugal with details, "this is the monkey king being eaten by demons" etc. All of this could and was put down to poor English. The second problem was that he tried to claim that he had carved all 200 panels himself in two years. This would have been impossible and it was with great reluctance that he accepted our interpretation - that he had the help of students. Looking back it seemed that we were helping him to make his story sound a little more believable.
After the panels he showed us the main shrine where there really were some amazing carvings including the 500 Arhats. All of them had different characteristics, some with amazing eyebrows, some with arms stretching twenty feet to the roof of the temple and others riding dragons. Whilst looking around the arhats Anna revealed that she was thinking the same thing as me is he going to charge money for this tour. Anyway it was after his tour of the arhats that he told us the thing that he had "forgotten" - he was not the only member of his university on site. They had wanted to set up a shop to sell the work of students and minority artists and failing to attract any attention to one established in Kunming they decided to move to one of the tourist sites, would we like to see some of the pieces?
Now the sales pitch started to come in thick and fast, "I feel honoured that you have taken such an interest in Chinese culture - I would like to carve something for you and send it to you in England". Then two posters of calligraphy appeared, "the director likes you so much that he has done these for you". They were quite nice but a little uncalled for. This was followed up by telling us that the prices on the pictures were only business prices, he would half them and better because he would tell the director that we were students.
The problem was not so much that he was believable, because we realised, with our cynical view on China, that money would be extracted at some point. The problem was that some of the paintings were very nice. We had seen plenty of bad paintings and nothing we would ever consider giving a home. Some of the works on display however here were very nice. So I tried to ignore his bullshit and buy what I wanted at a price not more than I thought they were worth to me. This is where I made my mistake, in China the best thing to do is to listen to the sellers price, half it, then if this is treated with derision walk away and nine times out of ten you get pulled back. Instead I fell into his trap, he actually halved his own price, so I felt a bit lost and then fell back on my Islington antique shop idea of how much such things would cost me. A big mistake because I know absolutely nothing about art. Afterwards I realised, even though we didn't spend a very large amount of money, that he had pressured me a lot and because I knew what he was trying to do I thought I was one up on him. In actual fact his pressure made me less cautious and he could have very easily sold me couple of worthless prints for the same money.
Anyway after exiting the temple we headed up the hill to the dragon gate. Unfortunately, like most sites, the walk to the main attraction was basically a tarmac road lined with 2km of souvenir and restaurant stalls. This was followed by a pathway cut out of the cliffs and the gate itself, basically a balcony on the cliff with a small cave containing a shrine. Sadly the view of the lake at this point was not very good, the usual pollution was augmented by a mist and there was no wind around to clear it. So all we could make out was the nearest shore and the heavily industrialised bay just to the S of Kunming. We did not linger too long and instead continued up the hill. After a while the path ran out and we had to scramble up a rough trail through karst outcrops. Close to the top we saw that the path levelled out and we thought that we would find an isolated peak where we could read in peace. Instead what finally came into view was a pavilion housing a solitary drinks vendor and a stone flagged path leading back down to the dragon gate. Nevertheless it was a pretty relaxing place with few tourists bothering to make the trip. After reading for an hour the mist began to clear and we obtained a much better view of the emerald green waters of the lake - although we were still unable to see its full extent.
Wednesday, 9 September 1998
Kunming, Yunnan, China
I suppose it would be easy to accuse us of knocking each of Kunming's tourist spots off our list at a pretty rapid pace. The trouble is that Kunming itself has little to offer, despite a day of walking and a couple of nights locating restaurants we had failed to find anything approaching an old town or even a single building worth a visit. Anyway no trip to Kunming would be complete without a visit to Shilin - the stone forest. Basically a huge area of karst outcrops dramatically weathered into thousands of pinnacles some of which, if you squint hard enough, look like birds, elephants etc. We got off to a bad start, we had found a minibus to take us there without much trouble however the stone forest was not the only thing on its itinerary. Within three-quarters of an hour it had drawn up outside an out-of-town tourist shopping centre and we were given a card stating that if we spent over 3000 yuan we would get a free gift. Strangely enough we were not the only people to look this gift horse in the mouth, one quite hip looking guy also decided to wait the half hour out in the car park with us. Back in the bus it was only half an hour before this happened again, it became clear that all the minibus companies were receiving money to deposit customers into their enclosed forecourts. The thing that upset us was that the other passengers did not really seem to mind that a two hour trip was being spun out into a three hour mall cruise. They did not buy anything, some of them did not even go in, but far be it for them to complain and ask the bus driver to get a move on. On the third stop, at a restaurant whose forecourt was harder to escape from than Colditz and whose price list would have made the Ritz blush, we finally lost it and made our own way for the remaining kilometre.
It is supposed to be quite easy to get into the stone forest without paying, after all the site is huge and enclosed in places by nothing more that a crotch height sharpened bamboo fence. However the fact that we were already an hour late made the thought of circling the site looking for a way in less attractive. So with deepest regrets we shelled out the 40 yuan each entrance fee and handed our tickets to some attendants dressed in what I could only guess was the dress of the local minority, the Sani. Here I must issue a warning, the area around the entrance looks something like a well tended Florida golf course and is punctuated by obelisks no more than two metres high each encircled by its own privet hedge. This, to my great relief, was not the stone forest but is Kodak's attempt to get you to use up more film than you normally would. Now I am the biggest fan of their film and hardly use anything else but the fact that they had erected signs saying "Have your picture taken in front of this" warrants an extreme credibility loss. No the stone forest is beyond this and is much more the stuff that photography was made for...
The point that everyone makes for is sword peak pool, where the ridges are particularly pointy and several rise out of a murky green pool. Here a windy path makes its way up through the rocks and onto the tops of one of the outcrops overlooking the pool. Despite some vertigo inducing drops whilst you pick your way across the ridges and crevasses it is well worth it. More than anything it gives you a raindrop eye's view of how the rocks are eroded into such weird shapes. The tops of the rocks have metre deep channels eroded into them, the rain water runs down these channels and pours over the edge to create a fluted column effect. In other places the channels flow together to create mini-streams which eventually cuts the rocks into pinnacles.
However once we had explored sword peak pond we sampled the best experience the forest has to offer, getting lost. There are a lot of pathways cut through the forest and away from the crowds at sword peak point you encounter very few people and the path takes so many turns that it is easy to loose track of the direction you are heading. We found one place where the path plunged 30m into an unnerving quiet basin surrounded by towering needles to rise 30m again and continue as if nothing had happened. There were also many places where you had to squeeze between two sheer walls of rock. Looking up in these places invariably gave you a view of the underside of a rock wedged in between directly over our heads. The whole experience was reminiscent of a castle with many hidden passages and chambers - the sort of thing children dream of running around all day in.
Thursday, 10 September 1998
Kunming, Yunnan, China
A day for getting things done. We had got train tickets for the 2000 sleeper to Guiyang the night before and so just had to run around the town doing a few last minute things before we set off into the wilderness of Eastern Guizhou. Or so we thought since after going to the bank, picking up a set of slides and having lunch I had the first opportunity since Chengdu to look at my E-mail. We had wanted to visit Hong Kong at some point to see a friend of my family, Roy, who runs a computer business there. I had been in contact with him all along to let him know how I was doing and the last message I sent contained a predicted date of arrival. Sitting down to read my messages I read that he and his family would be on holiday in Europe on that date. This was definitely a major setback as my parents had posted some Rough Guides to his address - my alternative to carrying them everywhere with us - and I didn't want to trouble him to redirect them. In addition we had since learned that we would loose our single entry visas on entering Hong Kong and would have to reapply. We decided, partially then and there, and partially the next day in Guiyang, to reroute straight to HK from Guiyang. We had not lost anything since Guizhou is the only route out of Yunnan and our visas were going to have to be extended anyway on the 21st so we could offset the cost of the new visa by changing things around.
After I answered all my E-mails we posted a selection of books and presents back to Britain, had an afternoon beer and letter writing session, had a really bad dinner that they attempted to overcharge us for then jumped on our train.
Friday, 11 September 1998
Guiyang, Guizhou, China
I normally don't sleep well on trains, buses and planes and that night was no exception. The train was a slow one which stopped everywhere and the driver had some problem with his brakes which meant shuddering jolts that rolled you out of bed every time the train slowed down. I also had a cold which meant that when we arrived at Guiyang I felt like death warmed up. The final nail was placed in the coffin of our Guizhou expedition when we learnt that we had missed the day bus to Tongren. We decided to postpone it until after our trip to Hong Kong, easily done by reversing the direction of travel. We found a hotel which had really gone up-market since our guide book had been written It seemingly had no interest in the sort of people who would opt for their dormitory having relocated (I suspect to make way for top of the range 288 yuan rooms) the communal showers to an outhouse near the dustbins at the back of the hotel.
The rest of the day was occupied phoning Roy to tell him of our change of plan, booking railway tickets and having a quick look around town. Guiyang itself does not get much of a write up in books because of a distinct lack of interest on the part of tourists. Nevertheless it is no more faceless than the majority of Chinese capitals and its surroundings, there are steep wooded hills in every direction, are pleasant enough. We decided to head for Qiangling Shan park which occupies several of these hills one of which is topped by a Buddhist monastery - one of the few sites in the city. This really provided a cure for my early morning blues, the air was cool and the dense woods screened you effortlessly from the clamour of the city a few hundred metres away. We decided to pass up the opportunity to spend a few more yuan entering yet another temple and followed up by a short walk in the monkey inhabited woods at the back of the temple with a bottomless cup of tea at a leafy teahouse next door.
Saturday, 12 September 1998
Hengyang, Guangxi, China
Since this was the first complete day we spent on a Chinese train (surprisingly since everyone else seems to book themselves on 30hr journeys from Beijing to Chengdu at the drop of a hat) let me write something about train travel in China. There are four classes on Chinese trains:
Yingzuo (Hard Seat): Is the lowest of the low where the seats are little more than benches with hard flat backs and there is something akin to a rugby scrum every time you enter a railway station since you cannot reserve a seat unless you get on at the point of origination. Basically it is even more uncomfortable than a coach for anything more than four hours travel and any Chinese that can afford to pay for Yingwo, i.e. the middle classes, will and you are left with the dregs of humanity. Well maybe I am being a bit snobbish but it is very easy to get annoyed by your fellow travellers in Yingzuo. For example books and any other form of self-amusement having been relegated to the realm of the subversive by years of communism. Staring at foreigners continuously for five hours seemed to be the only form of entertainment available to the locals.
Ruanzuo (Soft Seat): We never experienced this and it is a class omitted from most trains. Basically the place you go if its a short journey and cattle class is more than you can bear.
Yingwo (Hard Berth): This is both the travellers' and the Chinese favourite. More expensive than a seat but cheap by European standards (Guiyang to Guangzhou is about 1500km and cost us about £15) everything is pre-booked so you don't see any squabbling. Also the price difference means that the people you end up travelling with keep themselves to themselves and you have at least a small chance of being able to have a chat to someone. Take this trip as an example, we had a lengthy chat to a travelling Hong Kong property developer who imparted to us the knowledge that all of China's property boom was being done on the never never. Apparently Beijing dishes out money to build on the basis of the city's predicted ability to pay it back in the future. Other highlights of hard sleeper include an endless supply of boiling water and a lot more space.
Ruanwo (Soft Berth): We only took this once and it was probably because of our ignorance of the Chinese booking system. You get four beds to a compartment instead of six, they are actually compartments with doors and you are closer to the restaurant car. On the other hand you pay a lot and, judging from our experience, its not worth it since its hardly up to Orient Express standards and its a bit too clinical.
The other notable thing about train travel in China is the catering of such expeditions. Everywhere in China you see the clear Natgene containers that people use as flasks for their tea. However on the train everyone has one and it is not unusual for your table to be totally covered inn a forest of tea flasks each containing the owner's particular brand and topped up at regular intervals from the samovar. Also of note is the fact that, along with student halls of residence in England, China must be the last bastion of the Pot Noodle. With endless supplies of boiling water it is easy to prepare yourself an instant hot meal and avoid the buffet car. In fact the Chinese have taken them so much to heart that their version is actually three times the size of the real thing!
Sunday, 13 September 1998
Guangzhou, Guangdong, China
We were in quite a good mood on the first day of the trip but things change. On the first day we had blue skies and excellent scenery which, judging by the photos, rivals Guilin. On the second day we had rain and for the majority of the day flat scenery which rivaled Northern Gansu in terms of boredom. More importantly I had had a bad night. For whatever reason the train guards wanted us to close the windows, we were told it was because of bandits but I think they cared more about fare dodgers. We insisted that it be left open because the fan in our compartment was broken but as with all Chinese authority figures they were not to be argued with. So we had a constant battle where we would open it a couple of centimetres then they would come along and close it. This went on for a couple of rounds and then I gave up, resigned to a night of constant sweating.
Now, remembering the fact that we had not had a proper shower in Guiyang and that Chinese cities are usually pretty polluted, we were already pretty grimy. Add to this a none too clean train and the fact that we were two coaches down from the engine so got a dusting of exhaust fumes every time we went through one of the many tunnels and you get the picture. So with a night of constant sweating the dirt on my body had been washed away in the rivers of sweat and deposited on the sheets. To say that my sheet looked a bit like the Turin shroud in the morning would be a bit of an exaggeration, but not too much. In addition not all of it had been dislodged by this impromptu bath and I had black tide marks in various places, most notably my arms. So having little more than a hand basin and a trickle of water it was clear that I was going to have to spend the next few hours as scummy as hell.
To make matters worse (like the dirt, the weather and the scenery were not bad enough) we did not know where we were or how long the trip would take. Our guide book had said 30hrs, and on the whole has been pretty accurate, the station staff said 35hrs, and on the whole they have been woefully inaccurate and whenever we asked a passenger the question we always got a "how the f*** should I know" look. So with none of the train stations marked in our guide we were basically flying blind. I ran out of reading matter that morning having finished "The God of Small Things" (excellent, but unnecessarily disjointed so that you already know too much well before the end and you loose that page turning impetus - it was kind of like the literary equivalent of a Columbo movie). In the end, feeling so grimy, I was not in the mood to do anything so basically spent the whole day in a kind of dirt-enduced trance... not my best day and I cannot help thinking what would have happened if we had taken the Trans-Siberian express!!
When we finally arrived in Guangzhou it was 2230, we had beaten all estimates and arrived 37 hrs after departure - our longest train trip and after the Kashgar-Urumqi ordeal our second longest journey. Guangzhou was all right except for the fact that their were armies of hotel agents outside the station who plagued us for the first 300m. Having found that the prices at one "budget" hotel were now astronomic we walked out only to find another agent. However this girl was a little quieter than the rest and on her advice we went to a place where we eventually got a room. It all seemed a bit underhand but she got us a price for a superb double that was nearly half the posted rate so I did not begrudge her whatever commission she made.
Monday, 14 September 1998
Hong Kong, China
Its a bit difficult to make a judgement on Guangzhou having spent only one night there and probably not likely to revisit it. But one thing we did realise was that things were increasingly more like the west. Outside the station we had seen hundreds of homeless people sleeping in the square the night before. There was a real edge to the place at night, much more so than any other town we had visited, and I felt that a lot of the staring, even in the day, was a lot more malevolent than the simple curiosity we had encountered elsewhere. The feeling was not unlike certain areas of London where being white you can find yourself very much in the minority. However even this is well short of the mark since at least in London you have that feeling of being on your own turf. Maybe its an illusion but you always feel that you would find your way out of a situation, or you could find someone to help.
Entering Hong Kong is a total shock to the system after two months of the west coast of China. We took an air conditioned coach from Guangzhou to Shenzhen which was a notch above the normal but they still managed to book us two seats separate from each other, a pretty normal occurrence in our experience. We went through a checkpoint and they spent hours examining everyone's ID cards and documents - apart from us who they ignored - they were more concerned about illegal immigrants than us. At Shenzen we went through customs and emerged into the KCR station on the other side. It was like being on the underground in London, the signs were all in English as well as Cantonese. But the thing that amazed us were the announcements "For the comfort of other passengers do not eat, drink or smoke on the train. Offenders will be prosecuted."
Not only was no-one spitting, eating etc. they were also well dressed, for the first time we felt a bit shabby in our travel worn clothes. As the journey progressed it felt more and more like an ascent into a European styled heaven. When we emerged from the station and saw the sea, albeit only the channel between Kowloon and Hong Kong, for the first time in two months and felt the cool sea breeze and the sun on our faces the feeling was indescribable. It was like all those times I used to visit the seaside as a child - the expectation, the first glimpse of the sea and finally getting out of the car and sniffing the ozone.
We took the ferry from Kowloon to Hong Kong Island , mainly because we were very, very tired of trains, but also for the views you get of the skyscrapers and the hills behind. The approach was pretty spectacular and we reached the island within a few minutes. Over the other side we decided to walk through the system of elevated walkways towards Causeway Bay, where Roy lives, and have a bit of a look around. Once there we had an hour and a half to kill so went into a pub for a couple of beers. Here we got the shock of a lifetime, every beer was imported and every beer cost around 40 Hong Kong dollars, ten times the going rate in China. We were after to find out that this was due to the very high rents on the Island but it was a jolt nevertheless. On the plus side we found out that we had arrived during happy hour so it was two bottles for the price of one. When we also considered that we were also drinking Erdinger Weiss beer, rather than the 3.5% Chinese stuff they sold in Yunnan, things did not see so bad after all and we soon mellowed out.
Roy used to live next door to my father when they were both young. He used to be an organ builder but moved into computers in 1965 and also moved to Hong Kong. In Hong Kong he spends nearly every hour god sends running a small computer consultancy doing work for various companies and government agencies. He is married to a Cantonese girl, Sara, who works for First Pacific and works the same long hours. Anyway it should be clear from even this short biography that they both know a lot about Hong Kong and from every aspect rather than just the restricted view that many ex-pats who work in the financial sector have. Over dinner that night we chatted about our trip so far and their many experiences of travelling in China. When we finally started growing tired it was one in the morning so, it being too late for us to find a hotel, they kindly let us sleep on their floor.
Tuesday, 15 September 1998
Hong Kong, China
Shopping in Hong Kong is a bit like a three dimensional version of shopping in London. A lot of the same shops are there but you will find them in the bases of skyscrapers spread out over three levels and interconnected by not only the pavement but elevated walkways. First we dealt with the pressing business of applying for another Chinese Visa to replace the one we had relinquished entering HK (all a bit strange seeing as its the same country but they operate a "two systems, one nation" policy which means that the border basically stayed the same post-1997), then we started to explore. There are some interesting pieces of architecture in Hong Kong notably I.M.Pei's rather satanic looking Bank of China building, Norman Foster's Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank building and last, but not least, Jardine House - apparently known as the "house of a thousand arseholes" because of the porthole windows that stud its surface. Even though we know nothing about Feng Shui we had to side with the critics, the Bank of China was definitely menacing and nowhere near as nice as HSBC. One of the stipulations of the Feng Shui consultants working with Norman Foster was that you should be able to walk in a straight line between the Governor's house and the Star Ferry terminal. Because of this you can walk straight underneath it and from this vantage point you can look up through its bulging glass belly into the central atrium and so see everything that goes on inside.
After some lunch we went back over the water to Kowloon to see the shops there. Although Sara was finding us accommodation in one of the places she knew in Causeway Bay we thought it wise to check out the budget travellers scene in Kowloon just in case. We passed on the infamous Chungking Mansions to explore the innards of the neighbouring Mirador Mansions. What we found is hard to describe because I have never seen anything remotely like it. It was like a crumbling vertical village. A twenty storey block with a central atrium housing every single service imaginable. You had restaurants, shops, warehouses, bars, tailors, guesthouses and flats all under one roof. Next door to the first guesthouse we visited was a travel agent on one side and a fabric salesman on the other - and we were already on the third floor. And at the first guesthouse we visited the room we were shown was the living embodiment of all we had heard about Kowloon accommodation, a room the size of a double bed, plus a couple of inches so you could tuck the sheets in, and a bathroom the size of a toilet with the shower mounted above presumably to offer you the luxury of a seated shower!! In the end we did find something clean, cheap and relatively roomy on the 16th floor but it proved unnecessary as Sara came up with the goods on the Island so we spent the night there.
Wednesday, 16 September 1998
Hong Kong, China
Having not seen the sea for several months we were quite keen to hit the beach. So on Wednesday we headed for Shek O , a small beach on the SE coast of the island. It was just what the doctor ordered. We spent nearly an hour in the sea, and quite a long time sunbathing and both got badly sunburnt. The waves were high so I managed to do a bit of body surfing although I had to refresh my memory on the technique by watching another Brit who, much to the amusement of his wife and children, kept pulling his trunks down to moon at them. After we finally realised that we were getting burnt we ambled up to a Thai seafood restaurant where we gorged ourselves on mussels and green curry.
That night we went to the cinema. Again it was the first time we done this for months and we knew nothing about any of the current films. In the end we plumped for John Carpenter's Vampires which was a mistake because although it could well have been his "Best Film for Years", with only "Escape from New York II" as competition this would not have been hard. The acting was wooden (bring back Kurt Russell!!) and the plot almost invisible, plus the gore was not up to standard. However I have always sympathised with people who peak early (I am a big fan of "The Thing") and then have all their subsequent output judged against it. Anyway there's always hope, look at John Travolta...
Thursday, 17 September 1998
Hong Kong, China
Well it sounds a bit sad to say that we went to Hong Kong and spent two days shopping and one day on the beach but that's about the size of it. With our sunburn I could not face the prospect of walking on Lammu (plan A) and we had been spending money like crazy so an expensive ferry trip to Macau (plan B) was also out. Besides which we had seen a lot of the countryside so an Island walk was not top on our wish list - and with Macau being dominated by tourism, gambling and a recent series of gangland killings we were less than keen. So we decided that we would spend a day stocking up on western consumer goods - Imperial Leather soap being No 1 "must have" item - then leave while we still had some money left.
We also had a lunch date with Sara at a popular Dim Sum restaurant at 12:30 which combined with a great desire to sleep in meant that our schedule was pretty full. Lunch was interesting, the restaurant had no reservations and curiously no queuing. you had to basically hover next to a single table until its occupants left. Doing this Anna ran into difficulties because she jumped to get some seats and another guy got their first. Anna said that she had been waiting for ten minutes to which the response was "But you were not next to the table". So Anna asked him, quite reasonably, what the system was to which he replied "if you do not know the system you shouldn't be here". Of course this upset Anna and her response to the guy was met with a "Well then leave Hong Kong". When she told me this I was upset, it usually takes a lot more than one idiot to do this but it was something that you just would not expect in Hong Kong. After all the in the hey day when the prevailing wind from the main land was xenophobic and its separation from China Communism Hong Kong's cosmopolitan nature enabled it to prosper. I felt like going over to the guy and saying he should treat foreign guests with a bit more respect.
This aside lunch was superb. Basically octogenarian waitresses with trolleys piled with bamboo steamers patrolled around the restaurant and you would call one over and make your requests. The atmosphere was electric, the restaurant was packed to the rafters and everyone was chatting away non-stop. We had five or six very tasty dishes and copious amounts of tea then left.
The rest of the day was taken up with a fruitless search for a sleeveless top for Anna. This was complex because whilst she didn't want to pay the prices of the western shops none of the eight yuan tops available in the markets came in any size larger than "miniscule". I opted for some Tommy Hilfiger shorts because, quite apart from the fact that they would not turn my legs blue like Anna's last purchase, at £15 thy were a lot cheaper than they would be back in London. The day was finished off with a trip on the peak tram to get a birds eye view of Hong Kong by night. The Peak Tram is a little kitsch but worth the effort to get an idea of just how steep the island is. The view from the top was good - although we did not get a full 360 view and we found a MacDonalds with an outside balcony so were able to eat cheaply with a view out to the very sparsely populated south of the island.
Friday, 18 September 1998
Shaoguan, Guangdong, China
The return to China was just as alarming as leaving Hong Kong. As soon as we got to Shenzen the problems started - without even consulting his computer the ticket seller in Shenzen train station decided that there were no hard seats and we would have to take a sleeper for the four hour journey to Shaoguan. So we took the bus to Guangzhou and were promptly deposited at a bus station which did not appear to be any of the four we had marked on our map. We then tried talking to a few people to find out where the station was and totally failed to elicit any response apart from the usual dumb stares. We found it in the end and managed to secure a hard seat ticket for a train which got us to Shaoguan at a much more reasonable time and price. We did have one surprise in store though - the hard seat was not exactly the benches we had come to know and love. It was actually a train that would not look out of place in Europe with fabric seats and reasonable spacing. And everyone was a little more relaxed than the normal hard seat crowd. I began to realise that it was true - there is a big difference in the standard of living in the West and the East of China.
Shaoguan had not much to it, a couple of cheapish hotels near the railway station, two rivers whose junction formed the peninsula on which the main part of town was located, and several bridges to join it up. We walked through most of it trying to find the bus station and then went back to the hotel and bed.