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China - Southbound

Tuesday July 20th to Wednesday August 18th

Arrival from Mongolia

We shared a compartment with two British guys on our way from Ulaan Baatar to China. The trip was uneventful and in the morning we came to the border. There was the usual long delay as we went through the exit procedures from Mongolia and another long delay entering China. Finally the train was cleared and most of the people got off in Erenhot on the border. The train would be continuing to Hohhot in a few hours. Jackie got off to find a place to wash up, the Brits went in search of a beer and Peter stayed on to watch the changing of the bogies in the shed. The railway guage in Mongolia is 8cm wider than China so, for the train to go on, they have to change all the wheels. It turns out that only two of the carriages go on and it seemed to us a rather silly waste of time to take the train apart, hoist the carriages up, remove one set of wheels and replace them with others. They could just have a Chinese train waiting and ask the few dozen people to move. Anyway it was an interesting procedure. Peter walked back to the station and, after a long (and somewhat panicked search) found Jackie who had torn her trousers and was using her towel as a skirt. Well, as we were telling each other of our adventures, Peter set our camera down. Back on the train, the British guys asked to see the photos of the bogies being changed. OH NO!!! Peter raced back but the camera was gone. How stupid can you be? Fortunately, we had uploaded and copied to CD all of our photos so, other than the few of the bogies, we didn't lose any pictures.

After another 5 hours we arrived in Hohhot. Our plan was to try to immediately get on another overnight train to Yinchuan. When Peter asked for a soft sleeper on a particular train that evening (using a paper that he earlier written out in Chinese characters), the response was simply mei you (don't have). No problem, this time Peter is ready for the unhelpful, non-communicative ticket agent who can't imagine offering an alternative and has "Hard Sleeper" written on a paper -- mei you. OK, how about another train -- mei you. Right Peter is ready for this, he's got the word "tomorrow" written out -- mei you. Peter was beat; he didn't know how to ask "well, when?" All she did was stare at her desk and say mei you, mei you, mei you. But there must be a train SOMEDAY! As usual, when we were stuck, along came a helpful local who found out for us that the next available train wasn't for five days!

It was late so we just headed to the hotel we had stayed in before and decided to figure things out in the morning. The next day we found we could take a bus but we were worried that we might find this problem with the trains everywhere and would end up stuck in some backwater. (Our northbound journey was in June and getting train tickets had not been a problem but now it was July and we were into summer holiday time). The biggest problem with China's train system is that it is impossible to book a ticket from anywhere other than the city you are in. Last time in this town, when we were worried about getting to Mongolia, we had found a very helpful agent at the Air China office so we decided to seek her out. Once again, she proved to be wonderful and got us on a flight that evening to Xi'an. We skipped two cities we had planned to visit but this got us ahead of schedule so now we could handle some delays in getting train tickets.


Xi'an

Air travel is cheating (and expensive) so our first order of business was to get onward train tickets. The next available was a week away but that was OK because there is lots to do in Xi'an and we didn't mind taking a bit of a break. The next thing was to replace the camera. When our first one went into the ocean we replaced it with a similar but better model. This time we decided to abandon the tiny Minolta and opt for one that has a big zoom lens. We decided on a Panasonic Lumix 4mp with a 12x optical zoom and, most importantly, an anti-shake feature. As you can see, the incredible photos speak for themselves. It's certainly not as convenient as the pocket sized Dimage Xt but that zoom lens is incredible

The reason for going to Xi'an was, of course, the world famous Terracotta Warriors. In 1974 local farmers were digging a well and uncovered what is regarded as one of the biggest archaeological discoveries of the 20th century. It was an underground vault of earth and timber that eventually yielded 6000 life size terracotta soldiers and their horses in battle formation. There are infantrymen, archers, horsemen and generals - everything a real army would need. The figures were standing in correct military stance and each has a different face. Many of the figures were holding real weapons, over 10,000 pieces have been found to date. (Unfortunately most of the weapons are in storage and only a few are on display).

In 1976 two more vaults were discovered. The second vault contained about 1000 figures and the third had 68 figures and a war chariot. Archaeologists believe there are even more figures buried around the area but it will take decades to excavate all of it. They are all here to protect the tomb of Qin Shihuang, an emperor of the Qin dynasty 221-207 BCE. We've visited several museums in China that contain objects from tombs and it is not unusual that these funerary object be items that one might need in the afterlife. Things such as tools, weapons, vessels, art, musical instruments and figures of attendants, camels, horses and guardian spirits are common. But this guy took an army with him into the afterlife. Qin Shihuang lived in excess and historical accounts describe Qin's tomb as containing palaces filled with precious stones and ingenious defences against intruders. Our tour also took us to a mockuo of what the tomb should look like if it is ever found. It was very Chinese tourist tacky.

On our tour there were a couple of Wegies (Glaswegians -- people from Glasgow, Scotland). Jackie had a great time catching up with the girls about the goings on in Scotland. (They spoke in their incomprehensible "Scotlish"). Some Korean men and their teenage nephew (also on the tour) invited the girls out to dinner and we went along. It was Saturday night so, after a fabulous dinner we all (minus the Korean men) decided to go out clubbing. Right near our hotel was a nightclub with a line of hostesses standing out front. We went in to the sound of thumping modern disco music. A group of waiters and hostesses, probably about twice our number, immediately converged upon us. We were ushered to a "fake" bar. It looked like a bar and had seats like a bar but there were only samples of what you could order there. This swarm of waiters eventually took our orders (after we deciphered the Chinglish drinks menu). Those orders were filled out on little forms that went over to the real bar. We paid against the duplicate form. When the drinks were ready, the waiters (who, by the way, were wearing red lace frilly shirts) took their copies over and picked up the drinks eventually delivering them to us. All this administrivia meant that it took 20 minutes to get a drink! How this place could make any money with a staff that outnumbered the customers and left them dry for 20 minutes between drinks, we don't know. Not only did they have to pay the wait staff, they also had four DJ's and go-go dancers, both female and male (well, sort of male, he was wearing sequined hotpants and a see-through blouse). In case you were wondering, no it was not a gay bar. Anyway, it was an interesting evening watching the goings-on in a Chinese nightclub.


Chengdu

After a 17-hour train ride we arrived in Sichuan province and Chengdu. This is a big city with over 11 million people but our reason for coming was to see the giant pandas. These fantastic animals are found at high altitudes in mountainous regions in the north and northwest of Sichuan. It is estimated that only 1000 or so of them remain in the wild so sightings are rare. To be sure of seeing giant pandas we went to the Chengdu Giant Panda Research and Breeding Base about 10km from town. This facility has been in operation since 1990 and was opened to the public in 1995 and it houses 21 giant pandas and 20 red pandas. The red pandas were a surprise for us, we'd never heard of them before. They are ginger in colour, have long, fluffy, striped tails and are about the size of a raccoon or badger.

The Centre is having some success with breeding giant pandas but it's been tough going (same for other zoos around the world too). Pandas are not great breeders, they're pretty picky about who they mate with. Even using artificial insemination has about a 50% success rate as many of the tiny cubs die in their first few months. Captive populations are being increased but only very slowly. Pandas are so ellusive that no one really knows what is happening to the wild populations. They are sure, however, giant pandas are still in extreme risk of extinction. Their imminent danger and their cute cuddly appearance is what won them the honour of being on the logo for the World Wildlife Fund.

There is a debate as to whether pandas belong to the bear family, the raccoon family or belong in a family of their own. To our eyes, the giant pandas are clearly bears whereas the red pandas are clearly raccoons (but what do we know?). Whatever they are, both types are incredibly cute. We went at feeding time so they were quite active and the young ones were playing and climbing and wrestling, great fun to watch.


Leshan

From Chengdu we took a daytrip to Leshan to see the Grand Buddha. This huge Buddha is carved into a cliff face and overlooks the confluence of two rivers. At 71 metres high, it is the world's largest Buddha. Its ears are 7m long, its insteps 8.5m broad and you could have a picnic on the nail of his big toe. This huge project was begun in 713 CE and engineered by a Buddhist monk called Haitong. It took 90 years to complete.

To get to the Buddha we climbed a stairway with shrines, calligraphy and a full sized white jade tiger along the way. At the top we came face to face with his huge head. It was a long way down to his feet along a very narrow stairway that was carved into the cliff. As we zigzagged our way down we came to appreciate just how big this statue is. Well worth visiting.


Chongqing

Chongqing was only 4-1/2 hours away by bus. A few years ago this city became a 'special municipality' of 37.5 million people making it the largest city in China. It's famous for its searing summertime temperatures that often exceed 40C (104F). This lovely climate has earned the city a place among the country's Three Furnaces (along with Wuhan and Nanjing, all on the Yangtze River).

The reason we came here was because this is the starting point for the famous Three Gorges cruise so the first thing we did was book one. We were offered expensive 5 star foreign boats (at insane prices) but we poor backpackers could only afford a trip on a Chinese boat but more about that later.


Dazu

We had a few days before our cruise so we headed out of town to Dazu. Dazu county is famous for its many grottos with ancient (and modern) carvings. There are about 40 sites to see but we just went to the most famous one called Baoding Shan (meaning Treasured Summit Hill). The cliff carvings and statues were carved over a period of 70 years from 1174 to 1249. There's a monastery at the top of the hill but further down is a 125-metre horseshoe shaped cliff that has been sculpted with coloured figures. The centrepiece is a 31 metre long reclining Buddha depicted entering Nirvana. Overall there are more than 10,000 scupltures of Tantric Buddhism. Once again, China has surprised us. We went to Dazu with a bit of an "oh, big deal, more Buddhist scuptures" attitude and came away thoroughly impressed.


Yangtze River Cruise

Back in Chongqing, in the evening we boarded our boat - home for 3 nights. We upgraded from 1st class to the VIP room; one of only two on the boat. Oooo, aren't we special. Actually, it was the same as the 1st class only it had a double bed rather than two twins. That brought the total fare to 2000 or about 135 for the two of us for 3 nights and 2 days -- what a bargain!

The Yangtze River is Chinas longest and, at 6300 km long, the world's third longest (after the Nile and the Amazon). 70% of all of Chinas shipping uses this river. It starts in Tibet and passes through 7 provinces before emptying into the East China Sea near Shanghai. Near the middle lie three great gorges that are regarded as one of the great scenic attractions in China. At the moment theres a big rush to see the gorges before the Three Gorges Dam is completed in 2009 hence there are many boats doing the run. Although we were warned about the rush, our boat was only about 25%-40% full. Perhaps the hype has scared people away. Also, as far as we can figure, the gorges won't actually disappear, they just won't be quite as deep.

We motored overnight but didn't get much sleep. It seems that riverboat captains, like all car, bus, truck and motorbike drivers, like to honk at everyone in view -- and these guys have deafening fog horns! In the morning we arrived at Fengdu where there is a temple that was built in the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE) that has sculptures of demons and devils. It is known as The Abode of Ghosts. Appropriately, the nearby city is now a ghost town because when the water rises it will be flooded. The people have all been moved to a new town across the river. (After a night with little sleep we were too lazy to get up at 6:00am to visit the temple and town, we just saw it from the boat).

On June 1st, 2003 the dam's sluice gates were closed and, in 10 days, the water level rose about 50 metres to 135 msl (metres above sea level). As we passed down the river we saw markings on the hillsides indicating the height to which the water will ultimately rise. There's a 156.2 msl mark that it will be raised to temporarily then, in 2009, to 175 msl, 40 metres above it's current level. This dam has necessitated the relocation of 1.5 million people and the building of many new roads and bridges.

Our next stop was at the Stone Treasure Stockade. A 12 storey, 56-metre high wooden temple built on a huge rock bluff. It was built between 1662 and 1722 during the Qing Dynasty. It was a hot climb but well worth it for the views. This site will become an island when the water rises to 175m and a dyke will protect the base. There's a mark high up on the front entrance doorway that shows the 175m level. Further downstream we stopped at Zhangfei Temple. This temple has been moved from its original site because of the rising water to come. We docked for the night at Fengie and got a good night's sleep which was just as well because we were up at 5:30am to see the entry into the first of the three gorges - Qutang. The three gorges stretch over a distance of about 200km from Fengie to Yichang. They vary from 300 metres at their widest to less than 100 metres.

Qutang is the smallest and shortest gorge at 8km long, although the water flows at its most rapid here. The scenery is very dramatic with steep cliff faces. High up on the northern bank, nine coffins were found. They contained bronze swords, armour and other artefacts, some dating back 2300 years. There was an ancient walkway along the cliff face but that is now submerged.

We stopped in the town of Wushan and took a smaller boat to visit the Lesser Three Gorges. These are much narrower and we think more dramatic than their larger counterparts. As we navigated through Dragon Gate Gorge the huge cliffs dwarfed our little boat. We spotted several snub-nosed monkeys along the banks. The gorge widened out and, on an island, goats wandered around farmland. Then we entered the stunning Emerald Gorge. We twisted and wound passed the huge peaks covered in greenery. After a couple of hours we changed into even smaller boat to motor along the Mini Three Gorges. These have only been made accesible in the last year due to the rise in the water level. They are extremely narrow with plants and trees all around. It was a bit touristy as performers were strategically placed along the small gorges and would sing as we passed by. They even had a little chap posing with some goats on a rocky ledge - tourism Chinese style.

We returned to the Lesser Three Gorges and after our 5 hour trip we got back to our cruise ship and headed to the second gorge - Wu. This is about 40km in length and the cliffs on either side rise to over 900m. There are many sharp, jaggy peaks. It was a sunny day but often it's misty and these peaks shrouded in mist were often the inspiration for many Chinese traditional paintings. Later we reached the third gorge - Xiling. At 80km, this is the longest of the three gorges. Again, it was stunning with dramatic peaks all around.

Because the water level has risen we were warned not to expect too much from our Three Gorges trip. However, it is beautiful and far exceeded our expectations.

We reached the top of the Three Gorges Dam. It was evening now and therefore we visited the dam in the dark. However, it was all lit up and we were allowed next to the construction area where we were close to the "huge wall of concrete". It was incredible - it's huge. Electricity is already being produced. The force and power of the water coming through the turbines was phenomenal. To our left the construction site, for the remaining turbines, was also lit up. These guys are working round the clock. We then headed across the river to see the incredible 5 stage lock system. Ships go up or down 100m and take two and a half hours to pass through. Our huge ship looked tiny in the lock.

The dam is China's biggest engineering project since the construction of the Great Wall. When it is finished in 2009 it will back up the Yangtze River for 550km and flood an area the size of Singapore. It will be the world's largest dam (although when we visited Itaipu Dam in Brazil they said that they would remain the largest (in output per year) even after the Three Gorges Dam was finished). Some of the quotes we read: "the power produced could light up half of China" and "it's the equivalent of 18 nuclear power plants".

However, all along there's been controversy over the building of the dam. From corruption (one official was executed in 2000) to the loss of archaeological sites to the ecological consequences. There is concern that the flow of the river will slow too much and potentially it could silt up. Also that the untreated waste from 40 towns and factories, as well as the toxic materials and pollutants from industrial sites could end up creating a 480km septic tank. Thus becoming the world's biggest toilet!


Wuhan

Back on board our boat we headed throught the night to the town of Yichang. In the morning we disembarked and headed by bus to Wuhan. We spent a few days here and visited the excellent Hubei Provincial Museum. On display are artefacts from the Zenghoyi Tomb, which was unearthed in 1978. The tomb dates from 433 BCE, where the internee (Yi) was buried with 7000 artefacts. These included bronze ritual vessels (including huge wine coolers and food storage jars), weapons, horse & chariot equipment, bamboo instruments, utensils and gold and jade objects. There was also a huge set of 64 bronze bells. Many of these things have exquisite carvings. Yi's inner and outer wood & lacquer coffins were also on display, as well as the 13 sacrificial coffins also buried with him. Everything is in incredible condition. We also saw a musical performance using reproductions of the musical instruments found in the tomb.

In Wuhan we also visited the Yellow Crane Tower. This was a former military observation post and was built during the Warring States Period (453-221 BCE). The 51m high tower has great views from the top. Inside are silk paintings, calligraphy etc. Surrounding it are gardens, little pagodas and a lama stupa.


Guilin and Yangshuo

Next we headed to Guilin on an overnight train. This was quite a nice city with limestone peaks dotted around town, the Li River for cruises and some good restaurants. We saw Solitary Peak and Elephant Trunk Hill but had read that for even better karst scenery we should head to the village (only 300,000 people) of Yangshuo. Many people take a daytrip on a boat from Guilin but we decided on a couple of days, so we took the bus to Yangshuo. We had read that it was a bit of a backpacker hangout and sure enough there were more western style cafes, bars and foreigners than we had seen in the whole of China. Not only did we enjoy the food over the next couple of days but we cycled around the countryside passing rice paddies and limestone peaks. We also took a bamboo raft down the stunning Yulong River. We were poled along for over two hours, occasionally negotiating the little weirs. Despite there being many toursits on the river (mostly Chinese), it was quiet and peaceful; no noisy engines. Later we took a bus to Xingping where we boarded a small boat (there was six of us) to motor along the Li River. It was beautiful - dramatic peaks and lush greenery. We saw water buffalo cooling themselves down in the river and dozens of large boats heading back up river to Guilin having dropped off their passangers in Yangshuo. The scenery around Yangshuo is the best we saw in China.

Back in Guilin we took a bus to Nanning. There's not much to do here; it was just a stopping off point on our way to Vietnam. We took the train down to Pingxiang near the border, then a tuk-tuk to the Friendship Pass. Once through the exit procedures we walked a couple of hundred metres across the border into Vietnam.

Our first three weeks in China were mostly through busy, noisy cities. We found communication very difficult, the weather wasn't great and the perpetual white hazy sky was depressing. Frankly, we were not enamoured with China. Other than a bit of a rough start, our southbound journey was much more enjoyable. We visited more interesting sites, met lots of nice people, went to some smaller cities, saw some fantastic scenery, and, occasionally, even a bit of blue in the sky. China has really grown on us; we're glad we came.

Cheerio China. Thanks for all the dumplings,

Peter & Jackie


Observations of China

Of course, everyone knows about the incredible number of people in China. Most provincial capital cities have more people in them than all of Scotland does. This, obviously, leads to congestion. With cars, buses, motorbikes, scooters, bicycles, pedicabs, sidewalk vendors, deliverymen and millions of people, even walking can be difficult. (And, yes, we were including cars and buses on the sidewalks, they'll drive anywhere they can. Crossing streets is another whole issue again). In the larger cities they do seem to be changing the roads to reduce the confusion. Separate lanes for cars and bicycles each with their own stoplights do help. At some intersections, crossing guards are in place, not to control the cars, but to stop the people from crossing against the light and interfering with traffic. These measures help but we wonder what it will be like when the growing middle class all trade in their bicycles for cars!

Many of the government workers sitting behind ticket windows have zero patience for foreigners who don't speak Chinese. One actually rolled her eyes when Peter approached. They are often unhelpful, don't even try to communicate and will ignore us or start to serve the person behind who sticks some money through the window (Peter finally got to the point he would push the usurpers away). However, for every unhelpful bureaucrat there was always a passerby who spoke a few words of high school English and would go out of their way to help us with communication difficulties or walk with us to show us to place we were trying to find. (Not all ticket agents were unhelpful; some were great.)

As our Lonely Planet guidebook says, "It takes 15 years of school to learn Chinese and a one week crash course to learn Chinglish". Chinglish is everywhere. It is, sometimes obscure, English words, that have probably been translated from Chinese using a dictionary that result in humourous or incomprehensible sentences. There are some examples of signs in our photos but we also saw:

Warning in a hotel: "Follow no strangers to fun places"
Another warning: "Keep your air tickets and passports in a proper way"
Message on the wall of a restaurant: "Bring along period life swim"
The name of a restaurant: "Carry Forward Diet Civilization"
Dishes advertised in a restaurant: "Blast of Banger", "Frost Mung Bean" and "Almond of Bean Curd"
When I was writing this section I wanted another example. I had only to look around the hotel room to find this: "In order to the objects are convenience used in the guest room, we will keep them good, if in the course of using objects for you, or carelessly damage them or would like to souvenir when you leave the hotel, please notify Guest Room Service Center, you can enjoy compensation or transfer below cost price. Please thank for you cooperation." It went on with a list with the price of every object in the room including the TV, bed, minibar and carpet.

Like everywhere else in the world, mobile phones are all the rage. All the kids have them and wear them as fashion statements. There are over 300 million mobile phone subscribers in China; that's more than the entire population of the United States. It appeared to us that every downtown street had several mobile phone retailers - there are probably more stores selling mobile phones than there are mobile phones in Canada. And, like everywhere else, the ring tones are getting more and more elaborate. On one bus journey we heard Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer, Waltzing Matilda and Auld Lang Syne.

China is a very polluted country, especially the air. All of China seems to have a haze hanging over it. This is due largely to their dependency on coal for energy. Also, the people are litterbugs but there are lots of sweepers continually cleaning up after them. However, like any poor country that is becoming richer, they now have the money to afford the luxury of cleanliness and the government does seem to be doing something about the mess. The Three Gorges Dam and the nuclear power plants that are being built will provide huge amounts of clean power. They are also doing a lot of work to beautify the country. This is especially noticeable along the highways where row upon row of trees and bushes are being planted. And were not just talking about one tree every 20 metres; there are thick forests of trees four or five rows deep and beautifully landscaped areas with bushes and scrubs. It will take time but, if they keep it up, China will one day be a gorgeous country.

The most noticeable feature of China is the incredible amount of building going on. Everywhere you see tall apartment blocks and big shopping centres under construction. In 1993, China's leader, Deng Xiaoping said "To get rich is glorious" and, suddenly, the people were free (well, freer) to make money and not be ashamed of it. The country is experiencing unprecedented growth. We can only hope that the new, richer, middle class, years after their 1949 "liberation" will eventually demand the same levels of freedom in politics so the people will truly have liberated themselves.

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