The diary of our trip round the world. You can view other diary entries by clicking the highlighted months at the bottom of the page or by clicking on one of the countries visited so far. Click our logo (on the left) to see the most recent news entries. We are adding new entries from Internet Cafés as we travel, so updates may be irregular. Please check back often to see how we are getting along.
|1st - 3rd June||Vietnam|
|Having a few days left on our Vietnamese visas, we decided to make one last excursion from Hanoi before travelling on to China. Cuc Phuong National Park, with its rescue centre for endangered primates, appealed, so we headed to the Park's nearest town, Ninh Binh. The journey was comfortable, as usual in Vietnam, and the bus dropped us off outside the Thuy Anh Hotel, where we talked the management into letting us have a four-bed room for $15 per night. The room we had was lovely, although it had a door built for dwarfs, even by Vietnamese standards!|
We spent that afternoon visiting nearby Tam Coc, where there are rock formations similar to those at Halong Bay, but instead of rising from the sea, there they tower high and majestic among the rice paddies. To get there we hired bikes from the hotel. The 9km ride there and back was great. Esther rode on a make-shift cushion on the back of my bike as we passed through paddy fields filled, of course, with people and water-buffaloes working the land. We also passed through a couple of small villages, where everyone said hello. Many also laughed at us; always a source of great amusement, and especially so on bikes! It was great to get the 'back-street' view that you can only get by cycling, and also to have that bit of extra speed to escape from unwanted attention! On the way back from Tam Coc we stopped on a bridge for a few minutes and were quickly surrounded by smiling children, fascinated by us, but shy as well. Their parents were working nearby and greeted us warmly, and the kids hung around watching us and repeating odd words as we spoke to each other and to them.
Tam Coc is a wetland area, so you have to take a rowing boat to see it. We had two women rowing us along the irrigation canal, through beautiful scenery and three cave-tunnels. It was nice! The best thing was the wildlife. We saw several beautiful kingfishers as well as a tiny brown humming-bird and many brightly coloured dragonflies and butterflies. When we had passed through the third and longest cave it was as if we had passed into a lost world. Surrounded by enormous rocks towering over us all around, the watery cave-tunnel really seemed the only way to get there. It was lovely and really pretty.
We arranged our trip to Cuc Phuong National Park with the hotel. We were driven there in a minibus with our guide, Chi. The route took us through rural areas where there were thousands of peasant farmers working to harvest their straw and rice crops. Water-buffalo were at work, pulling cartloads of straw, piled up like mountains, but sometimes, when we passed these from behind, we were surprised to find that there was a man in the harness instead, pulling the produce home himself. All over the road the straw was laid out to dry, and at times we were driving over it. It was an incredible scene. Everyone seemed to be involved with the harvest; men, women, children and animals.
When we arrived at Cuc Phuong, Chi first took us to see the Endangered Primate Rescue Centre. The centre cares for primates that have been confiscated from illegel traders, who poach them from the wild and sell them for food or medicinal purposes, or as 'pets'. Eventually some of the rescued monkeys are returned to the wild within the national park, but often they are damaged physically or psychologically, and remain in the centre until they die. We really enjoyed seeing the animals play and hearing about the work of the centre.
We went for a short walk up some steps to see the 'Cave of Prehistoric Man'. Archaeologists say that the large cave was inhabited some 20,000 years ago. The cave went a long way back and had smaller chambers behind the main one, and it was easy to imagine an ancient community living there. Nowadays, local people hold an ancestors' festival there, burning incense over the graves where ancient skeletons were found.
We had a light lunch and then set off through the forest: destination, an Ancient Tree. The walk took an hour each way and went through really beautiful natural forest. Cuc Phuong is a rainforest area, and in some ways the forest reminded us of the Amazon, although obviously this was much more accessible. We were treated to an endless display of fantastically beautiful butterflies, for which Cuc Phuong is well known. There were big butterflies, orange or black and blue or patterned. These would glide along the path effortlessly, like flat, graceful birds. There were also literally thousands of tiny blue butterflies which,Chi told us, would have just emerged from their chrysalises at this time of year. As we walked, clouds of them would rise from around our feet and rise, swirling into the air. It was incredible. The forest was noisy with the loudest cicadas we had ever heard. They made a sound which, Nick pointed out, was exactly like an electric wood-planing machine. We found a cicada sitting on a tree trunk making this deafening noise. How amazing that this tiny creature, plain in appearance, like a cockroach with large, lacy wings, can shake the whole forest with his song.
|Northward to the border|
|Back in Hanoi, we caught the overnight train to Lau Cai, the border town, intending to cross into China straight away and make the journey to Kunming. However we found that there were a few flaws in our plan, namely that this course of action would get us into Kunming at about 11.00pm. That didn't sound too attractive so we decided, instead, to hold on until the evening, take the night bus, and spend the day visiting the popular hill-town of Sapa.|
Although we didn't manage to do that much in Sapa, we enjoyed the bus ride into the hills, where people from the ancient H'muong hill-tribe farm the hillsides in beautifully constructed agricultural terraces watered continually by channelled mountain streams. Growing rice in this way, when rice requires so much water, is a skill passed down through many generations. I had never seen anything like it. These highly traditional people still wear traditional clothes, colourful and intricately embroidered, even when working barefoot in the fields.
Nervous about our quickly expiring Vietnamese visas, and rumours that the border officials were prone to 'knock off early' when they felt like it, we left Sapa with plenty of time to spare to make the journey back down to Lau Cai. I changed the last of our Vietnamese money in a bank close to the border, It took quite a while to get through the passport and customs checks, but luckily they didn't ask us to open all our bags; only Nick's guitar case was searched. Then we walked into China.
|We found our way to the bus station in Hekou,on the Chinese side of the border, and discovered that our tickets (purchased in Sapa) were for a 'hard-sleeper' bus, instead of the 'soft-sleeper' we had hoped for. Partly because of this and, partly because of the driver, who obviously had a death-wish, the journey to Kunming was very uncomfortable. Hard-sleeper transport does have padded foam matresses to sleep on, but they are much thinner and less comfortable than the 'soft' ones. We had only booked three beds, intending for Esther to share mine, but two of our beds were on the big, five-wide surface at the back of the bus, which meant that I ended up sharing two narrow mats with both the children. On the subject of beds and buses, by the way, we had never seen anything so bizarre! The big old bus was full of narrow steel bunkbeds, three wide, two high and five long. Basically, we spent the night bouncing and lurching from one side to the other in a heap, and waiting for the morning to come.|
When morning came (as, we have found, it always does eventually) we arrived in Kunming. Tired, bruised and dishevelled we descended from the bus and wandered out of the bus station to try to figure out what to do next. This wasn't easy! The area around the bus station was full of big, old, communist-looking buildings, upon which the Chinese lettering offered us no clues as to their purpose. We found what seemed to be a hotel reception where we thought we might find help, but they didn't understand us.
(Incidentally, when I use the phrase 'didn't understand' I am talking about a whole new level of incomprehension that we have not encountered anywhere else. We smile, try Mandarin phrases from the phrasebook in our best attempt at the correct tone, and wave our arms in gestures which we consider to be universal, and they look at us blankly or laugh, speak to us in sing-song Mandarin, and move their arms and heads in gestures alien to us!)
We sat in the reception of another hotel looking at their framed map of the city, which we had taken down from the wall. Someone showed us where we were, which was far from the centre of town. We worked on our pronunciation of a few words, and went to try again with a taxi driver.
Finally in the centre of town we wandered to a few hotels which seemed too expensive. The staff did not speak English so they could not give us any advice. We gave up and went for breakfast. Tired and feeling rather daunted by this new, strange and enormous country, we wondered what on earth to do. The menu at the restaurant was all in Chinese, but we managed to order noodles using the printed characters in our phrasebook. We ate them and watched a peaceful group doing Tai Chi exercises at the edge of the lake, across the road from where we were, and felt a bit better.
As we finished eating, Nick spotted a non-Chinese man walking past. "Excuse me!" he called, and we met our saviour, Jeff, who pointed out the hotel he was staying at, and told us the cost of a room there. Ten minutes later we were checking in to Kunming's government hotel and, feeling slightly dazed, we found our way to our room for a well-deserved rest!
|In the end, Kunming turned out to be quite nice, as Chinese cities go, and, after a rocky start, we enjoyed our stay there, while acclimatising to China. The area we stayed in was laid out around a small lake and park, and the weather there was pleasantly cool compared to Vietnam, although there were many showers. Kunming is built on a high plateau, so the weather there is never as hot as it is elsewhere in China. For this reason it is known as China's 'Spring City'.|
Our time in Kunming was greatly enriched by the people we met there. First we met Carsten and Stephanie, a German couple travelling in China for one month. With them we shared two sociable evening meals and one interesting breakfast excursion and, although we did not know it at the time, we were later to meet up again in two other Chinese cities. After the breakfast trip, we went to the youth hostel with them (we had failed to find that when we were looking for somewhere to stay!) to get some information about possible excursions. There we met Steve. Steve popped up out of nowhere when we were asking about how to get to the Stone Forest at Shilin, and announced, in perfect English, that he was about to go there, and would we like to join him? Steve's Chinese name is Yang Wen. He learned English by listening to the BBC World Service, and subsequently by going to university in Leeds. He had a lovely accent! Steve was on holiday for two months between jobs, exploring an area of China he had never been to before: the beautiful provinces of Yunnan (of which Kunming is capital) and Sichuan. With him the trip to Shilin was easy!
80km from Kunming, the Stone Forest is one of Yunnan province's main attractions for Chinese tourists. The startling rock formations, which we learned are called pinnacle karst, cover 260 square km, but tourists are encouraged to visit a small area of geological wonders near Shilin. The bizarre scene of natural standing stones which stretch as far as the eye can see was far more striking a sight than we had expected to find it. We really enjoyed our day learning, and guessing, about how these incredible structures were formed, some 200,000,000 years ago, under the sea. We got happily lost in the maze of pathways which ran between the stones and still, quiet ponds. After wandering around the jungle of stones for a while, Steve informed us that our ticket entitled us to a free tea tasting. We sat down in a small room and were served tea in a very traditional way by a Sani tribeswoman. First she rinsed all the cups (like eggcups) and the little pot with boiled water, and then she made oolong tea. She did this quickly, not giving the tea more than a few seconds to infuse before pouring it. We had to hold the little cups in a certain way, and not drink the contents in less than three sips. It was delicious, refreshing and beautifully aromatic, but rather expensive, and we politely but firmly refused to buy!
We all went to dinner together that night; all of us, Carsten and Stephanie, and Steve. The food was good, it was great fun, and we all exchanged emails and promised to stay in touch.
Also in Kunming, we visited China's International Horticultural Exhibition, like a huge flower garden and ecological show, and went to the Yunnan Provincial Museum. The museum held fascinating collections of Buddhist art, porcelein (including Ming vases!), ancient bronze drums and Chinese calligraphy.
The morning after our arrival in Kunming, we had made our way to the railway station to book tickets for our onward journey to Chengdu. It was a tricky task! What we assumed to be the ticket office was outside the station building, which was old and crumbling. When I reached the front of the queue I spoke, in my very best Mandarin, of course, to a woman who was sitting on the other side of a thick, cloudy glass screen. By writing the date on which we wanted to travel on a bit of paper, and passing my phrasebook, with the 'soft-sleeper' symbol circled, through the slot, I hoped to communicate the details. The result was four tickets! They were expensive at nearly 75 pounds. We all hoped they were for the right train!
|By some astoundingly good fortune, the train tickets proved to be just what they were supposed to be! Our four-birth soft-sleeper compartment was by far the most luxurious style of travel we have experienced anywhere, with clean and comfortable beds, satin-covered quilts and soft, deep pillows. We settled in and made the most of it!|
On arrival in Chengdu we encountered what seemed to be a whole city full of taxis, whose drivers mysteriously refused to take us to the youth hostel! We got there in the end via a half-hour ride in two motor-rickshaws in rain and heavy traffic. Well, I suppose the comfort on the train was rather too good to last! The youth hostel was an OK place with staff who spoke some English. The beds were hard, though, and the restaurant was funny! They prided themselves on serving "Western foods", which consisted of Indian fried rice, curry, and pasta which looked and tasted suspiciously like noodles!
While in Chengdu we did three outings: A visit to the Chengdu Panda Breeding and Research Centre, a journey to the world's largest seated Buddha at Leshan, and an evening at the Sichuan Opera.
The panda breeding centre aims to breed giant pandas in captivity to research their breeding habits in the hope of being able to increase their numbers in the wild, or at least prevent them from dying out altogether. To me it seems that the giant panda is an animal that has somehow managed to evolve itself to inevitable problems of survival. Not only are they incredibly fussy eaters, choosing, of all things, bamboo as their food (a plant which, every ten years or so, flowers and then dies over vast areas as part of its natural cycle, leaving the pandas to starve for months until a fresh crop springs up) but their abitlity to procreate is also incredibly precarious. Firstly, having sex takes a lot of energy, and pandas already need to consume a huge amount of bamboo just to have the energy to stay alive, so they aren't often in the mood. Secondly, they are very fussy about their partners, pairing for life when they do fall in love. So Bing-Bing cannot just be expected to give herself up to Yu-Yu when it happens to be the right time of the month, unless she has decided already that he's Mr Right. Thirdly, we were told, male pandas, though giant in many respects, have very inadequately proportioned equipment in comparison to that of the female, so, even if every thing does come right on the night, conception is a highly hit-and-miss purpose! At the Chengdu centre, many babies are conceived by artificial insemination, but it makes things look pretty dicey for pandas in the wild. To top things off, mother pandas do not seem to have a particularly well-developed maternal instinct. Many injure or neglect their newborns, leading to a survival rate of about 50% in the first few months of life. I was left thinking that it is a wonder these unlikely creatures exist at all!
Having said all that, though, we did enjoy our trip very much, although the weather was miserable. The pandas were gorgeous and looked incredibly cuddly - especially the babies - and the enclosures were lovely. We got to see them feeding happily in pairs, and playing together too.
Nick wanted to see the giant Buddha. It is very old, dating from as early as 713AD. It was a two-hour bus-ride from Chengdu; quite a long way for a day-trip, but everything is flung far and wide in China, so we went for it anyway. The bus dropped us by the river in Leshan, and from there we took a boat for the short distance down river to the site. At 71m of height, the giant Buddha, carved into a deep carved niche in the cliff face, overlooking the point where two rivers converge, was impressive. He gazes out across the water with a look of peaceful wisdom, but he must have given a shock to some invading Mongolians in the 13th Century.
Despite the weather (still dreary) we were accompanied at the site by a swarming crowd of enthusiastic Chinese tourists. The resident photographers were doing a roaring trade, and were shouting about it too, in competition with one another. All the noise and chaos clashed a bit with the divine and peaceful look of the Buddha which had drawn the crowds. There was a twisting, turning stairway, by which you could go down one side of the Buddha and back up the other. The Chinese seemed to be thoroughly enjoying jostling for space on the steps and fighting through crowds to take photos at various viewpoints along the way. We descended to the first viewing platform, and then decided that the stress of all the pushing and noise was not really worth enduring, and climbed back up.
In the end, observing the Chinese tourists from a distance was one of the highlights of the day! And, in return, they took photos and videos of us, sometimes openly and sometimes when they thought we were not looking!
Sichuan Traditional Performance
We bought tickets for the Sichuan Opera at the youth hostel. The performance was not what we had been expecting. Although we had read that Sichuan traditional shows were full of colour with acrobatics and stunts, such as fire-breathing, but we had expected the show to contain some, well... singing! But the evening performance, which was in the gardens of the Wu temple, near the hostel, was more of a variety show than an opera. We all enjoyed it, especially the children. There were colourful tumbling acrobats, fire-breathers, a shadow-puppet display, a comedy which we all laughed at without understanding a word, about a man in trouble with his wife for gambling. There was a lovely recital of music played by a woman on a traditional single-stringed instrument, and then a bizarre show which told the story of a fairy and a prince who fell in love, with extra characters being a man with two heads and a humpty-dumpty. And the experiance was more than just the show. The setting was beautiful, in the peaceful garden of the temple, and we were served jasmine tea, which was kept topped up by waiters with copper kettles, as we sat in bamboo chairs in front of the stage. Even when it rained and we had to move under the shelter of the temple eves, it did not spoil the very pleasant evening's entertainment.
|13th - 16th June||China|
|Chongqing - Yichang: Yangtze River cruise|
|We travelled by bus to Chongqing, a four hour journey. On arrival, the weather was more miserable than ever, and the sprawling grey concrete city was no more a pleasant sight than Chengdu had been a few days before. Keen to find a boat straight away, if possible, we took a taxi to the river’s edge, and the driver took us directly to a cruise booking office. Of course, there were many offices, and, no doubt, many deals available, but the awful weather and the difficulty of communication led us to go for the easier option on this occasion, and just book the deal they offered us! It turned out to be not too bad. We had a 4-berth cabin for the 55 hour journey, on a not-particularly-luxurious cruise ship which catered mainly to Chinese passengers.|
At eight o clock that night, in the pouring rain and a chaotic crowd, we got into the funicular carriage to descend the river bank to the jetty, and, along with hundreds of other passengers, went aboard the big river cruiser to make the journey to Yichang.
We made one main stop on each of the two full days we were with the boat. The first was for one hour at a pagoda. The pagoda was built precariously high on the steep bank of the river, around a huge rock. It was pretty, but the one hour stop would have been scarcely enough time to climb up and see it. We chose, instead, to take pictures from the boat, and then to walk around the market at the bottom of the hill. The second day’s stop, at Wushan, was longer, to allow people to take small-boat trips to see the “Little Three Gorges”. The small boat tours were expensive and, assuming that we would be able to see the actual sized Three Gorges later in the day, and free of charge, we opted out again! We went for breakfast at a café near the port, and then Nick and the children got back onto the boat, while I went for a walk. Wushan town, or at least the part of it that is near the river, is a sorry place. I am not sure exactly how high the water will rise in 2009 when the Three Gorges Dam is completed, but at Wushan it is easy to see evidence of the preparations that are being made. Just behind the tourist stands, where souvenirs and snacks are sold, there is an area like a shanty town. The houses and other buildings there have been knocked down, and the hillside is gradually being paved with concrete slabs, ready to become the floor of a huge reservoir. But the people are still there. While there is a living still to be made from trading with people from the boats, whether tourists or the crew from cargo ships, there will be people there scraping a living. Now they live in makeshift houses, their homes having been bulldozed and turned to mud. Further up the hillside, half-destroyed blocks of flats still have people living in the remaining rooms. There is mud everywhere. It was one of the saddest places I have seen anywhere in the world.
During that day we sailed through the famous Three Gorges. The first, Qutang Gorge, we passed through early in the morning, when the air was misty and still. The gorge was deep with sheer cliffs on each side, and it was exciting to wake up and realise we were in such a special place. The second gorge, Wu Gorge, is the biggest of the three. The scenery there was beautiful, and by the time we arrived there the cloud had lifted a bit to give us a better view. We relaxed in our cabin and watched that, and the last of the great gorges, slide by our window. It was not until later that we really understood how much of the scenery is already under water.
At about 6pm, as we were eating our dinner (Ok food, from the ship’s kitchen) we saw the dam. The Three Gorges Dam is, or will be when it is completed in 2009, the biggest dam in the world. It is enormous! Over 2km wide, it stretches across an expanse of water already widened last year, when the ‘second stage’ of construction was completed, and the water level upstream of the dam - back as far as Chongquing – rose by 137m. Until we got there, 137m was just a figure to us, but going through the huge locks really made us realise how enormous the project is. Until we reached the dam, we had not given that much thought to how we would actually reach the other side! The locks were really impressive. We sat on deck, sipping beer, while the ship went through a series of four locks, each big enough to fit a couple of football pitches inside. Six huge ships, including ours, chugged slowly into the first pound, and then the gates began to close. Each gate was the size of a block of flats, and they closed mechanically and very, very slowly. Once closed these huge gates towered above all the ships. It was like being inside some kind of huge, watery dungeon! Then we began to sink! As the water ran through the sluice gates at the other end of the lock, the ships descended through about twenty metres in each pound, leaving a black oily line where the water level had been. Then, engines were started and fog-horns sounded. A bell rang from the end of the lock and the gates in front of us began slowly to open, allowing us all to move into the next of the four lock pounds. Destructive as the Three Gorges Dam project may be to the Yangtze river gorges and the communities upstream of the dam (over 1 million people are being forcibly re-located), the technology there was quite awesome.
We moored at Yichang; a town caught between two series of locks. Yichang was our destination, but we stayed on the boat until morning.
|We left the boat at 6am and found a friendly taxi driver who spoke English; the first we had heard since leaving Chengdu. He took us to the railway station, as we wanted to buy tickets to Xi’an. Unfortunately though, the train was full, except for top bunks, which might have meant that we would have been dotted about throughout the train, so we decided to have a rethink. In the end we caught a bus to Wuhan, further along the river, where we hoped to be able to get a train onward to Xi’an, or perhaps another bus. Things didn’t go to plan. The four-hour bus journey to Wuhan seemed to drag, perhaps because we were not particularly looking forward to reaching our destination, or perhaps just because the roads were so poor and the landscape flat and drab. Once in Wuhan, we found the train station easily, but did not have enough cash to buy tickets. So we took a taxi to the bank. The taxi driver was a friendly, middle-aged man whose son, who he ‘phoned on his mobile, spoke English. We drove all over Wuhan, a sprawling, busy metropolis, but could not find an ATM that would accept my card. In the end I managed to change some travellers cheques, but we were too far away from the station by that time to get back in time to catch the train.|
Tired, hungry and frustrated, we stood outside the station and wondered what to do. I had only changed enough money for the tickets and could not afford a night’s accommodation as well. We were stumped! The taxi driver, who had been with us for hours by that time, bought the kids an ice cream and ‘phoned his son again. He told us that he would like to invite us to stay at his home, but that they didn’t really have space. It was a kind thought. He told us of a hotel he knew which was not too expensive, and told his father to take us there.
We took a three bed room on the top floor and arranged tickets to Xi’an at the hotel reception, which was a relief, even if we did have to pay their booking fee. I changed more money at a huge bank across the road. This was a interesting experience as the staff there seemed to think it quite a novelty to change American dollars! They even had to ask me what the rate was! I told them the correct rate, of course, but I could have said anything at all!
The following day we hung around in Wuhan until it was time to go to the station to catch our overnight train to Xi’an. Wuhan had been a minor hiccup in terms of our overall plans, but we were finally on our way again.
|On the train ride to Xi’an we had the new experience of using a ‘hard-sleeper’ dorm style carriage. It was less plush than ‘soft-sleeper’, but was much cheaper and, all-in-all, better value for money. On that train we met a group of young Chinese English teachers. William (whose Chinese name was Wei Wei) was really friendly. He came and chatted to us in the evening, and then Tom went off to play cards with him and his friends. He offered to help us find our way around when we got to Xi’an, and became a great friend during our stay in that city.|
We found Xi’an to be a much more characterful city than the other cities we had visited in China. Our stay there was particularly enriched by the time we spent with William and his family. On our first day there he took us to meet his grandmother, his auntie and his 6-year-old cousin at his auntie’s flat. Esther and Cynthia (William’s cousin) had a lovely afternoon playing while we sat and chatted in ‘Grandma’s’ front room. Then we all went out for dinner together. We thought it was amazing. They were all so incredibly friendly and welcoming, as if we were old friends, when really we were just a family William had met on the train. That evening we ate Hotpot. We were wary of this, as we had had a bad experience of Hotpot in Chengdu. However, this one was delicious! A pot of bubbling stock is placed in a hole in the centre of a specially built table, with a gas stove fitted to keep the soup boiling. Then waitresses bring plates of thinly sliced raw mutton and vegetables. You place the food into the stock with your chopsticks and, when it is cooked, lift it back out and eat it, dipping it into a herby, nutty, sesame sauce. It was a fantastic sociable meal and although we expected to “come to an arrangement” about the bill, and even offered to pay, our companions would not hear of it.
Tom went back to William’s apartment with him that evening. It was quite a big decision to let him go off with a relative stranger in a strange city for a whole night, but William wanted Tom to be able to go with him to see a class he was teaching in the morning, and Tom was keen to go. The class turned out to be a small group of pupils in a private tuition lesson. They played games in which the Chinese children had to ask Tom questions about himself and score points according to whether he answered ‘yes’ or ‘no’. I think Tom quite enjoyed it.
The main trip we did out of Xi’an was to see the famous Terracotta Warriors. This army of soldiers, modelled from clay at about the time of the birth of Christ (during the Qin dynasty in China), was discovered in 1974 by peasants digging a well. Every one of the 6000 soldiers is different and unique, made by fine craftsmen in ancient times and positioned to face the East, from where the Qin emperor of the time expected invaders to come. The ranks of warriors, armed with bow and arrows or spears, guard the tomb of their emperor and, like his remains, were enterred for some 1970 years. Legend has it that, in order to preserve the secrecy of the site, the artisans involved with the creation of the terracotta army were executed and buried alongside their work, that they might never speak of it to anyone. Scary stuff! We made the day-trip there by local bus, with Diana, a friend of William’s. She spoke quite a bit of English. It was a really hot day and we had to walk a fair distance from the bus stop to the hangars, where the warriors are now sheltered.
We were invited to join William’s family once again, to celebrate Cynthia’s sixth birthday. Feeling very honoured, we hastily wrapped up a pen torch we had bought on the train. It was Tom’s, but he generously handed it over for the occasion. William’s American ‘Grandma’ (Chinese people love to think of close friends as a member of the family – perhaps the single child policy’s effect of limiting the number of family members available is partly responsible. It occurred to us that the current generation of Chinese young people are missing not only siblings, but also aunts, uncles, and cousins as a result of this method of population control.) was joining us for dinner. She was interesting to talk to, having lived in China for a year, teaching English. Of course, Esther was delighted at the chance to play with Cynthia again. That evening’s restaurant was a Muslim one, and another highly sociable style of eating. They brought us a kind of flat, doughy bread, which we had to break into little pieces in our bowls, which were then topped up with delicious beef or mutton soup. The children ate next to nothing, except a little birthday cake, as they were all too busy playing with Cynthia’s new toys. We split the bill with William (having discussed this in advance, this time).
After Cynthia’s party we took a walk through Xi’an’s colourful Muslim market and then took a taxi to the Big Wild Goose Pagoda. In the plaza outside this pagoda, there is a sound, light and fountain show every night at eight o clock; the kind of thing we would not have known about if we had not had a good friend in the city with us. It was really good fun. Three huge square plazas full of fountain jets danced to music played over a PA system, while people ran up and down and across the plazas trying (not?) to get wet! Our kids got a bit wet, but were quite careful to stay out of strong jets of spray. William, who happened to stand in the wrong place at the wrong time, got drenched! Back at the hostel the children went to bed, and the rest of us stayed up late, drinking local rice wine at the bar. William ended up staying in our room, being in no fit state to go home.
The following morning, after breakfast at the hostel, we thought we would cure the hangovers by climbing Xi’an’s city wall, in the hot sun! The wall, which surrounds the old part of Xi’an, and which our youth hostel was just inside, was first built in the 15th century. Now restored it gives the city much of its character, missing from most Chinese urban sprawls.
That evening we left by train for Beijing. William came with us to the station and saw us onto the train. It was sad to say goodbye, and we hope we might meet again some day.
|The overnight to Beijing was OK. We ate our noodles, had a minor crisis when we discovered that one of our tickets was not valid for the whole journey, entertained the carriage by drawing pictures for everyone there (well, Esther did!), and slept, or rested, reasonably well.|
At Beijing’s Gongti Youth Hostel we met up once again with our German friends Carsten and Stephanie. It was fun to see them again and we shared a good meal in a restaurant that was to become our favourite haunt, before they flew back home. We spent much time making enquiries and seeking information on Russian and Mongolian visas, and on the Trans-Siberian railway. Tom, Esther and I went on a shopping trip to organise something for Nick’s birthday (the 26th). We had success with all these endeavours, apart from the Russian visas. These are no longer available in Beijing, and we found that our only option was to continue to Mongolia in the hope of obtaining them in Ulaan Baatar.
Beijing is huge! We were amazed to learn that the city, home to over 12 million people is, in area, approximately the size of Wales! Finding our way around central Beijing, though, was not too much of a problem, as the city has an efficient and easy-to-use subway system. On our list of ‘must do’s’ were the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square and a day trip to the Great Wall of China.
|The Forbidden City|
|Now called the Palace Museum, the Forbidden City is the most ancient part of Beijing, built within its wall and moat in Medieval times. Now no-one lives there, but the entire district is preserved as a museum. Tom led the way, guided by an audio tour headset, taking us through the many gates of China’s former imperial majesty. We wandered through the ancient Ming dynasty streets, buildings, halls and courtyards, sheltering from the hot sun under umbrellas, and peering through windows at thrones, furnishings and real Ming vases, in their proper setting! It was a hot and tiring day, but interesting and impressive.|
Outside the gates of the museum, under the glorious portrait of Mao Tse-Tung, we looked across Tianenmen Square, where kites were flying in the hazy heat of the late afternoon. We thought we might walk across the historic square towards the communist icon’s mausoleum, but the heat convinced us otherwise, and we retreated to the subway and went home instead!
|We were in Beijing for Nick’s fortieth birthday; a day that had been talked about and anticipated for a long time!|
Tom, Esther and I took him out for breakfast at a posh café which we had found on our present buying trip, where they served good coffee. Good coffee is one of the things Nick finds hardest to get while travelling, and he misses it a lot! The coffee was good, and so were the western-style sandwiches they served. I had ordered a birthday cake from a bakery nearby, and we finished our celebration breakfast with that, candles and all!
While we ate the cake, Nick opened his presents. Esther gave him some shower gel and shaving foam, Tom gave him a carabiner torch, and I gave him the pocket watch I had managed to purchase after a long and agonising search! He was very pleased with all his presents and said, obligingly, I thought, that it was much more than he had been expecting.
We spent the day exploring an interactive science centre which was in the same building. Then we returned to the hostel for a rest before heading out to eat. For dinner we ate, what else? Roast Beijing Duck, the city’s world renowned speciality, at a fairly ordinary restaurant nearby. The duck was delicious and the chef came to our table to carve it for us.
Later, back at the hostel, we sat downstairs drinking beer and socialising with other travellers. Together with our new friends, Texans Bill and Sarah, we drained the hostel’s entire supply of beer, and stayed up until 4am. It was really good fun, and did Nick’s ‘big day’ the justice it deserved. “Life begin-sh at fort-shie”, declared Nick, from his top bunk, just before I turned out the light!
|The Great Wall of China|
|We went a catch a bus to the Great Wall. Most tourists see the Wall at Badaling, where the Wall itself has been restored and there is a museum etc. But we were determined to avoid the crowds and get a more authentic experience by catching the bus to Huanghua. Haggling with the driver of a minibus, we managed to convince him to take us there and bring us back for what we considered to be a reasonable fee. The drive took about one and a half hours. We travelled out through the sprawl of |
Beijing, and into the countryside, where donkey carts transport goods along the road between villages. Our driver took us to the place where the road and the Wall cross each other and dropped us off.
We were not the only tourists there, but there were only a few people and we Walked the Wild Wall for the most part in peace and quiet. The Great Wall of China is one of those places you see many pictures of, and so we were not, of course, surprised by its appearance; a high, wide wall interspersed with watch towers at regular intervals and stretching across the hills into the cloudy distance. What surprised us more was the steepness of the hills upon which the wall is built. It was incredible! We walked along the top of the Wall, visiting four of the great watch towers, and at some parts, the way was so steep that it was really hard to get up at all, especially in the sticky, muggy heat of the middle of the day. At each watch tower a woman was lurking, waiting to pounce on us and demand two yuan for the privilege of visiting that particular stretch of wall. At first this seemed reasonable, as the path was maintained to some extent. Later it became annoying, and then rather comical! During our walk we met Bill and Sarah, our friends from the hostel, and Kirsten, from America but living in Russia, who offered to let us stay in her flat in Irkutsk. Isn’t it amazing where you can meet new friends?
The Great Wall was impressive because of its awesome size and its mountainous location. Stretching 7200km, most of the Wall’s structure dates from the Ming dynasty, 14th century, and is built of millions upon millions of precisely formed kiln-fired clay bricks. The terrain that the Wall is built on is so steep and unrelenting that it seems no wonder that some million people died during its construction.
|Journey to Mongolia|
|We boarded the Trans-Mongolian train to Ulaan Baatar at around 7am. The journey from Beijing takes 30 hours. On this and other Trans-Siberian trains, second-class ‘hard-sleeper’ compartments have 4 berths, which allowed us to have a whole compartment to ourselves, and a little extra space and privacy. This was a good thing, as Nick was suffering from an injured eye, caused by a thorn from a tree in Beijing. |
Late in the morning we had our last glimpses of the Great Wall, as we passed through it and into Inner Mongolia, the part of Mongolia which is currently governed by China. The children spent most of the day playing happily with the children from the next compartment. An excellent piece of luck placed us next door to the Mongolian ambassador for Canada, and his wife and three children, aged 15, 9 and 6. They spoke excellent English and were returning to Ulaan Baatar for a holiday.
Tom, Esther and I went to eat lunch in the dining car, but Nick did not feel up to moving, so I brought him a plate of food down the train, through seven lurching carriages, to our compartment. We had never eaten in a train restaurant before, preferring to eat before and after long journeys, and survive on the train with instant noodles, so eating at a table while the landscape of northern China, green and rolling, slipped by the window, was something of a novelty.
Nick’s eye was feeling a bit better by the evening, which was a relief as he would have been really upset not to have seen the bogey-changing that took place on the China-Mongolia border. Mongolia and Russia use a wider gauge track than China and most of the rest of the world, so, at the border, the train rolls into a huge building, where the bogeys and wheels are literally changed. The process took a couple of hours. Lifting apparatus was attached to the four corners of the underside of our carriage. Then the old bogeys were detached and we rose into the air until the carriage, with us in it, was about 2 metres from the ground. Then they slid out the old set and brought in the new bogeys underneath us along the track. Incredible! All this happened between nine and eleven pm, and during the operation, the children went to bed. We still had over three hours to go before we were through the passport and customs checks for both border posts. Our passports were collected and examined repeatedly and a lot of paperwork had to be filled in. For this we were glad of the help of our friends next door. At 2am we finally closed the compartment door, and soon after that the train started moving again.
All night we were crossing the Gobi Desert. We awoke at about 8.00, and I pulled the curtain aside to look at the landscape. The vast Mongolian steppe was spread out as far as the eye could see. Pale dusty green-brown land met clear blue sky on the horizon. While Nick still tried to persuade his poor sore eye to adjust to the light, the children and I were delighted to see that the wandering animals in the middle distance were camels! Then there were wild horses, roaming and grazing free, and herds of cattle, usually watched by a solitary cowherd. Sometimes his ger home was visible nearby. A distant rain shower caused a brilliant rainbow to appear ahead of us on the plain, and we knew we were going to enjoy being in Mongolia.
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